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A Theological Term Made Real

Paul Moses contributed a moving reflection in Friday's Wall Street Journal (unfortunately, access only to subscribers). The title they gave it is "A Liberal Catholic and Staying Put." Followed by the subtitle: "Why I won't heed calls from the left and right to leave the church."

But the heart of the piece is Paul's moving reflection on the death of his father last year, and the support and sustenance he received from members of the church, priests and people, who were present and bearers of grace in his time of grieving.

He sums it up by writing:

I saw a theological term made real – that God's people make up the body of Christ, a mystical concept of church that encompasses the living and the dead, the visible and invisible, my deceased father and me.

I have been pondering the past few days the recent Commonweal editorial – "dialoguing" with the "Mission Statement" published by America's new editor, Matt Malone.

Last Spring Boston College's "Church in the Twenty-First Century Initiative" sponsored a panel on the Catholic Press, featuring the editors of America, Commonweal, and U.S. Catholic. It was a fine afternoon (followed, I confess, by an even more mellow dinner). For myself personally it was exhilirating to witness the respectful discussion among three editors clearly committed to "the Catholic thing."

The only "lack" (in my view) was that there was not too much exploration of what constitutes the Catholic thing. It seemed something bred in the bones, taken for granted, rather than theologically probed (at least on this occasion).

In light of Paul Moses' reflection, I'd love to participate in a further discussion among the same trinity of editors regarding what implications for editorial mission, choice of contributors, even use of language ("liberal"/"conservative") the realization of the church as "the body of Christ" makes. Does it remain only a notional term? or has it been made "real?" And with what practical consequences?

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



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"... what implications for editorial mission, choice of contributors, even use of language ..."

I agree that the "journalism of American Catholicism" or the "journalism of the body of Christ" would be a fascinating discussion, if I'm correct in assuming that's what you're proposing.

The religious press is often excluded from discussions of "serious journalism" in J-schools; it's often viewed more as public relations or advocacy journalism, and its gatekeeping methods suspect (i.e., mustn't print anything the Church wouldn't like). Some questions that might be interesting:

1. How does the Catholic press operate within broader journalistic conventions (such as news values or fairness and completeness)?

2. How well do codes of ethics such as those promulgated by the SPJ serve the Catholic press?

3. How well do stylebooks such as the APA's, which issues frequent updates to try to ensure fairness in language, serve the Catholic press? 

If you ever round up such a group, could the discussion be made available on line or a report be offered in print for those of us who don't travel?


"...a theological term made real"--a great phrase, if only it didn't suggest that this is something rare or unusual.  The gap between experienced reality and theological notions is unfortunately still so wide. Still people tend to think that those lofty theological ideas have nothing to do with their experience, and too many theologians think it's enough to explore those lofty notions simply in terms of biblical, patristic, or medieval archeologies of ideas, without asking to what experienced realities they refer.

It's not that from mere experience we could ever conclude that the Church is the Body of Christ, but that the Church as the Body of Christ is an experienced reality.  


my last sentences, of course, invoked Newman: "Does it remain only a notional term?or has it been made real?"

It seems to me that the passage from the notional to the real is the key pastoral and spiritual challenge as Newman saw it.. Certainly theologians and preachers have their part to play – and I think Rahner and Ratzinger are two for whom that task was central to their labors. But no serious Christian is exempt from the effort.

I was struck that a number of comments on your post regarding the Mass thought that the sine qua non of fruitful participation was prior preparation.

Does it remain only a notional term? or has it been made "real?" And with what practical consequences? - See more at:


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