VIVIAN BOLAND, a Dominican friar and theologian, currently professor aggregatus of theology at the Angelicum University in Rome, has provided a thorough, lucid, and engaging primer on the nature of the Church and the Catholic faith. Like all the best introductory books, it is not only suitable for those seeking to familiarise themselves with Catholic teaching about subjects such as the nature of the Church, Mary, and the eucharist, but will also give new a wealth of new insights to more experienced theologians.
Particularly welcome to Anglicans will be the breadth and depth of Boland’s attention to the Bible. Scriptural references and analysis of biblical themes and motifs saturate the book. St Thomas Aquinas — naturally a crucial source for Boland — often provides the hermeneutical lens, but so, too, at key points does the Protestant biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.
Boland quotes with approval Chesterton’s aphorism that St Francis of Assisi “saved us from Spirituality”, and central to this work is the perception that the Church is not simply spiritual, nor is it an abstract form (he dislikes “church” without the definite article), but an embodied community with a robustly physical sacramental life. The core definition is that of St Cyprian of Carthage, who described it as “a people brought into unity from the unity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”.
“The Catholic instinct”, Boland writes, “is, above all, to maintain unity, to go on living in the communion that is the purpose of the Church’s existence.” Here, he draws a contrast with Protestant theology, which more single-mindedly emphasises the exclusivity of, for example, faith in Christ or the authority of scripture alone. In contrast, Catholicism tends to harmonise, and to avoid stark polarities.
An example is the quest for a co-ordination between faith and reason, described by Pope John Paul II as “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”. Another is Boland’s subtle depiction of the relationship between the Church and the world. Since the Church is the sacrament of the unity of the human race, it both gives to and receives from its social surroundings, and so cannot simply be a separatist counterculture. Yet, none the less retain it must its prophetic edge, and not “follow or accept just anything, nor . . . pretend to be in sympathy where it is not”.
Perhaps the central part of the book is an extended reflection on Christ’s threefold office as king, prophet, and priest: a theme prominent in, among other places, the writing of Newman and the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium. Christ’s three offices are reflected in an institutional-historical (kingly) life of the Church, symbolised by St Peter; its intellectual-doctrinal (prophetic) aspect, whose guiding figure is St Paul, and its mystical-active (priestly) element, which primarily looks to St John. The corruption and fragmentation of the Christian body — tragedies of which Boland is very well aware — tend in his view to come about when these are not kept in balance, since “each of these aspects has the potential to become ill or to go mad.”
This highly illuminating threefold typology is occasionally pushed perhaps a little too far, but that should put nobody off this fine and, perhaps, in itself prophetic book.
The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings and Priest-in-Charge of St John’s, Crowborough, in the diocese of Chichester.
The Spirit of Catholicism
Vivian Boland OP
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