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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 June 2022
In recent decades, the use of metaphor in ecclesiology has been broadly critiqued on the ground that metaphors are too abstract and idealized to advance our understanding of the concrete church in history; consequently, ecclesiology has embraced an “empirical turn,” incorporating fields like ethnography and social sciences. In this article, the author argues for a positive function of metaphor in ecclesiology drawing from the work of Janet Martin Soskice. Metaphors link various associative networks of meaning and in doing so open up new imaginative horizons. This theory allows ecclesial metaphors to be examined for their adequacy in light of other empirical or nontheological fields of knowledge. In turn, this invites the theologian to explore other associative networks of meaning such that a metaphor leads to new insights into the nature and mission of the church. The metaphor of the church as the body of Christ serves as a test case.
1 Pope Francis, “A Big Heart Open to God,” interview by Antonio Spadaro, SJ, National Catholic Reporter, September 30, 2013, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2013/09/30/big-heart-open-god-interview-pope-francis.
2 Pope Francis, Chrism Mass Homily, March 28, 2013, http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130328_messa-crismale.html.
3 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, November 24, 2013, §4, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html.
4 For example, as the title of the collection of Francis’ addresses in With the Smell of the Sheep: The Pope Speaks to Priests, Bishops, and Other Shepherds, ed. Giuseppe Merola (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017).
5 Welby, Archbishop Justin, “Sheep,” in A Pope Francis Lexicon, ed. McElwee, Joshua J. and Wooden, Cindy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), 178–80Google Scholar.
6 Blase J. Cupich, “Cardinal Cupich: Pope Francis’ ‘Field Hospital’ Calls Us to Radically Rethink Church Life,” January 8, 2018, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/12/29/cardinal-cupich-pope-francis-field-hospital-calls-us-radically-rethink-church-life. A slightly expanded version of that essay is published as “Field Hospital” in A Pope Francis Lexicon, 72–74.
7 Cavanaugh, William T., Field Hospital: The Church's Engagement with a Wounded World (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2016), 3Google Scholar.
8 National Catholic Reporter feature series, “The Field Hospital,” https://www.ncronline.org/feature-series/the-field-hospital/stories.
9 Christopher White, “Experts Say Pope's Metaphor of a ‘Field Hospital’ Has Special Punch for Africa,” December 8, 2019, https://cruxnow.com/church-in-africa/2019/12/experts-say-popes-metaphor-of-a-field-hospital-has-special-punch-for-africa/.
10 As seen above, William Cavanaugh uses the metaphor as the title for his most recent book. As other examples, Richard Gaillardetz sees the image of the field hospital as an example of Francis’ commitment to a missionary church, in An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis, and the Renewal of Catholicism (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015), 118. Annie Selak values the field hospital image for reframing the church's holiness through being involved in the world rather than being set apart from it, while also arguing that the church must attend to and heal its own wounds, specifically racism and sexism, in “Toward an Ecclesial Vision in the Shadow of Wounds” (PhD diss., Boston College, 2020).
11 The Central Park field hospital was run by the nonprofit Samaritan's Purse in coordination with Mount Sinai Hospital and treated more than three hundred patients. The Javits Convention Center in midtown Manhattan was also turned into a field hospital and treated more than one thousand patients. See Sheri Fink, “Treating Coronavirus in a Central Park ‘Hot Zone,’” New York Times, April 15, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/nyregion/coronavirus-central-park-hospital-tent.html.
13 Minear, Paul S., Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960)Google Scholar.
14 Soskice, Janet Martin, Metaphor and Religious Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar.
15 My focus in this article is on the use of metaphor in ecclesiology in particular. For an argument in defense of the role of metaphor in theology in general (which also uses Soskice), see Ligita Ryliškyte˙, SJE, “Metaphor and Analogy in Theology: A Choice between Lions and Witches, and Wardrobes?,” Theological Studies 78, no. 3 (2017): 696–717.
16 Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, expanded ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 15.
17 Dulles, Models of the Church, 17, 18.
18 Dulles, Models of the Church, 187.
19 Dulles, Models of the Church, 198.
21 Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life, 38.
22 Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life, 37.
23 These critiques fail to observe that not all metaphors or models are necessarily idealized accounts of the church that cannot account for sin. Take, for example, the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. Although at first glance this may suggest an idealized account of the church's perfect unity or identity with Christ, patristic authors often used the metaphor of the body to describe the effect of sin on the church. Augustine, for example, describes the church as “a person who limps, who sets one foot firmly in place but drags the other.” For Chrysostom, the body is “full of sores.” Others describe sinners as bodily members who are “sickly and weak,” “injured and ailing,” “decaying,” “tainted,” “diseased,” “deformed and shameful,” and “must be cut out.” See Tromp, Sebastian, Corpus Christ, Quod Est Ecclesia, trans. Condit, Ann (New York: Vantage Press, 1960), 148–49Google Scholar. This is also the case with the supposed idealized metaphor of the church as the bride of Christ. Within this metaphor, the sinful church is spoken of as an unfaithful spouse, a harlot, or a whore. It is a mistake to assume that an ecclesial metaphor refers only to the church's eschatological, atemporal, or spiritual reality, and not its concrete historical reality.
24 Ormerod, Neil, “The Structure of a Systematic Ecclesiology,” Theological Studies 63 (2002): 3–30, at 5CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Chapter one of his Re-Visioning the Church: An Experiment in Systematic-Historical Ecclesiology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014) is a slightly revised and expanded version of the article cited here.
25 Dulles, Models of the Church, 20 and 181–84.
26 Flanagan, “The Limits of Ecclesial Metaphors in Systematic Ecclesiology,” 52; see also 33.
27 Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life, 36. Recall from my definition of terms above that a model is simply an application of a metaphor, which is a grammatical form.
28 Rikhof, Herwi, The Concept of Church: A Methodological Inquiry into the Use of Metaphors in Ecclesiology (Shepherdstown, WV: Patmos Press, 1981), 148Google Scholar.
29 Ross, Susan, “The Bride of Christ and the Body Politic: Body and Gender in Pre-Vatican II Marriage Theology,” Journal of Religion 71, no. 3 (1991): 345–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ross, Susan, “The Bridegroom and the Bride: The Theological Anthropology of John Paul II and Its Relation to the Bible and Homosexuality,” in Sexual Diversity and Catholicism: Toward the Development of Moral Theology, ed. Jung, Patricia Beattie and Coray, Joseph Andrew (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 39–59Google Scholar; Ross, Susan, Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology (New York: Continuum, 1998)Google Scholar.
30 Flanagan, “The Limits of Ecclesial Metaphors in Systematic Ecclesiology,” 48. See also Ormerod, Re-Visioning the Church, 17, for his agreement on this point.
31 Rikhof, The Concept of Church, 141.
32 Flanagan, “The Limits of Ecclesial Metaphors in Systematic Ecclesiology,” 43–47.
33 Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life, 31–35.
34 Joseph A. Komonchak, “History and Social Theory in Ecclesiology,” Foundations in Ecclesiology, ed. Fred Lawrence, suppl. issue, Lonergan Workshop, no. 11 (1995): 3–46, at 12. Decades earlier, Mannes Koster also judged “mystical body” language for the church to be “pre-theological”; Mannes Koster, Ekklesiologie Im Werden (Paderborn: Bonifacius-Druckerei, 1940).
35 Flanagan, “The Limits of Ecclesial Metaphors in Systematic Ecclesiology,” 49.
36 Flanagan, “The Limits of Ecclesial Metaphors in Systematic Ecclesiology,” 49.
37 Flanagan, “The Limits of Ecclesial Metaphors in Systematic Ecclesiology,” 33 and 53.
38 To be sure, this is not a universally held position among theologians or ecclesiologists. See Lennan, Richard, “The Church as a Sacrament of Hope,” Theological Studies 71 (2011): 247–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Lennan, for one, views the diversity of metaphors in Scripture, tradition, and theology as a benefit to ecclesiology—the plurality and imprecision of metaphors are precisely their strengths, pointing to the excess and mystery of God and thus the church in relation to God.
39 Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life, 24.
42 See the works by Komonchak and Ormerod cited previously. Brian P. Flanagan, “Communion, Diversity and Salvation: The Contribution of Jean-Marie Tillard, O.P., to Systematic Ecclesiology” (PhD diss., Boston College, 2007), 34–41, provides a helpful review of the methodologies of Komonchak, Healy, and Ormerod.
44 Fulkerson, Mary McClintock, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For other examples, see the essays in Scharen, Christian, ed., Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012)Google Scholar, and Scharen, Christian and Vigen, Aana Marie, eds., Ethnography as Christian Theology and Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2011)Google Scholar. This is likely to be a growing trend; the Catholic Theological Society of America is hosting a three-year interest group “Fieldwork in Theology” running 2021–2023, indicating a critical mass of interest in this subject.
45 Ormerod, “The Structure of a Systematic Ecclesiology,” 7, emphasis mine.
46 Ormerod “The Structure of a Systematic Ecclesiology,” 8-14.
47 Ormerod “The Structure of a Systematic Ecclesiology,” 9.
48 Ormerod “The Structure of a Systematic Ecclesiology,” 10. Note the use of metaphor (that of illness) here.
49 Flanagan, Brian P., Stumbling in Holiness: Sin and Sanctity in the Church (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018), 6, 7Google Scholar, and passim.
50 Flanagan, Stumbling in Holiness, 42. See 72–81 for his basic definition of the church as the assembly of the faithful as part of his systematic effort to understand the church as both holy and sinful.
51 Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life, 36. In this regard, Healy is not far from Dulles’ own position that ecclesial models can provide an exploratory function within ecclesiology.
52 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 24.
53 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 31.
54 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 26, citing Monroe Beardsley's summary of the emotive theory, in Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1958), 134–35.
55 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 48.
56 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 26. Any theological metaphor—that is, any attempt to speak about the divine in human terms—is a speech act that suggests similarities across the ultimate dissimilars. It is precisely the presupposition of difference that makes a metaphor, an assertion of similarities, cognitively and affectively evocative.
57 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 15. For the sake of brevity, she uses “metaphor” when it should be clearly understood that she means “metaphorical utterances.” I will do the same.
58 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, chap. 1. Her position here is distinct from that of Paul Ricoeur and Herwi Rikhof, who hold that a metaphor occurs at the level of a sentence, not a single word or phrase; Soskice adds that a metaphor may extend beyond a single sentence to include several sentences or an entire idea (such as in a poem).
59 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 90.
60 As Rikhof shows, the years following the promulgation of Lumen Gentium were marked by a flurry of debate over the linguistic status of “people of God” and “body of Christ.” These phrases have been called metaphor, image, concept, image-concept, more-than-an-image, analogy, graphic description, essence-description, and definition—as if a decision about linguistic status would determine theological and ontological status, in The Concept of the Church, chap. 1.
61 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 61-62. An example of catachresis is the “stem” of a wine glass, or “leg” of a table.
62 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 85.
63 Richards, I. A., The Philosophy of Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936)Google Scholar. Soskice's use of the term “ideas” here is significant, in that she rejects theories that suggest that metaphors have two “terms” or “subjects.” This is first of all because a metaphor has only one true subject, and second, it may not have two “terms” explicitly present within the linguistic utterance though it still unites two ideas.
64 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 39.
65 Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi: On the Mystical Body of Christ, June 29, 1943, https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_29061943_mystici-corporis-christi.html, §18.
66 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 50.
67 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 50.
68 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 49. This is where Soskice's theory is most distinct from other theories that suggest that metaphor is a comparison of two things in the mind, or a transfer or substitution of meaning from one term to another.
69 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 48
70 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 57–58. In the example of penance, we can see how a model leads to further metaphorical speech. The underlying model of healing leads to the metaphorical description of God as a doctor.
71 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 89.
72 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 41.
73 Schneiders, Sandra M., The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1991), 29–33Google Scholar. I am suggesting that metaphors might also die through changes in associative networks of meaning. For example, the metaphorical statement “Jesus is the Lamb of God” may be less resonant for those unfamiliar with ancient Jewish ritual sacrifice and the significance of lambs therein; images of flocks and shepherds may hold less meaning for those living in sprawling urban contexts.
74 Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language, 41, emphasis mine.
75 Saint Augustine, Sermons 227, 267, 268, and 272, in The Works of Saint Augustine, 4th release, electronic edition, ed. John Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill, OP (Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corp), 2014.
76 See Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages, trans. Gemma Simmonds with Richard Price and Christopher Stephens (London: SCM Press, 2006).
77 Bluett, Joseph, “The Mystical Body of Christ: 1890–1940,” Theological Studies 3, no. 2 (1942): 261–89Google Scholar.
78 Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis §13.
79 The rise and fall of the mystical body movement between the 1920s and 1960s has been widely documented. See Hahnenberg, Edward P., “The Mystical Body of Christ and Communion Ecclesiology: Historical Parallels,” Irish Theological Quarterly 70 (2005): 3–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gabrielli, Timothy R., One in Christ: Virgil Michel, Louis-Marie Chauvet, and Mystical Body Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2017)Google Scholar. Susan Wood sees this as “continuity and development” rather than a decline, in “Continuity and Development in Roman Catholic Ecclesiology,” Ecclesiology 7 (2011): 147–72.
80 Scholars are not in agreement over the influences on Paul's use of the body metaphor. Some find that Paul is evoking Menenius Agrippa's fable about the state as analogous to the human body, with each part contributing to the whole. Others argue that he is drawing from Stoic philosophy, which holds that the human body is a microcosm of the universe, which is itself a body, or Seneca's use of the body metaphor to identify Nero as the soul, head, and mind of the state, which is his body. Still others argue that Paul is primarily influenced by Jewish notions of corporate personality, rabbinic notions of the cosmic body of Adam, or his own encounter on the road to Damascus in which Jesus identifies himself with those whom he is persecuting. For a review of these scholarly debates, see Yorke, Gosnell L. O. R., The Church as the Body of Christ in the Pauline Corpus: A Re-Examination (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), 2–8Google Scholar, and Lee, Michelle V., Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, introduction.
81 Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam, in Ogg, Frederic Austin, A Source Book of Mediæval History: Documents Illustrative of European Life and Institutions from the German Invasion to the Renaissance (New York: American Book Co., 1907), 386Google Scholar.
83 Möhler, Johann Adam, Symbolism: Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants as Evidenced by Their Symbolical Writings, trans. Robertson, James Burton (New York: Crossroad Pub, 1997), 258–59Google Scholar, §36.
84 Romano Guardini, The Church of the Lord: On the Nature and Mission of the Church, trans. Stella Lange (Chicago, IL: Henry Regnery, 1967), 5. See also Adam, Karl, The Spirit of Catholicism (New York: Macmillan, 1924)Google Scholar; Romano Guardini, The Church and the Catholic, trans. Ada Lane (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1953); and Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. Ada Lane (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1953).
85 Émile Mersch, The Whole Christ: The Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Mystical Body in Scripture and Tradition, trans. John R. Kelly, SJ (London: Denis Dobson, 1962); Émile Mersch, The Theology of the Mystical Body, trans. Cyril Vollert, SJ (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1952). Congar discusses the mystical body of Christ in several texts, but his foundational early essays on the subject are found in Yves Congar, The Mystery of the Church, 1st ed. (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1960). See also Yves Congar, Divided Christendom: A Catholic Study of the Problem of Reunion, trans. M. A. Bousfield (London: Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1939).
86 Tromp, Corpus Christ, Quod Est Ecclesia, 90–91.
87 Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis §§14–18.
88 In Mersch's words, “If the Church is thus the ‘body’ whose soul is Christ,… it must be necessary with the necessity of Christ, of God, and of God's universal will to save. Therefore we must insist that salvation is not to be found outside the Church, and that submission to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for the salvation of every human creature”; Mersch, The Theology of the Mystical Body, 507. Congar writes in Divided Christendom that because the social body of the church is the visible expression of the mystical body, “there can be no salvation except in her” (59). The question of persons who are united to Christ and members of the mystical body, but are not members of the visible Catholic Church, is for Congar a question of the various ways in which one can belong to a body (i.e., “effective, plenary and visible” belonging versus “imperfect, invisible, and moral” belonging by desire). Anyone who belongs to the soul must somehow belong to the body; it is that manner of belonging to the body that needs to be explained. See Congar, Divided Christendom, 224–25.
89 In other words, biblical theology can serve as a norm for our method of interpreting the metaphor rather than as norming the content of that interpretation, precisely because philosophical understandings of the body (the associative networks) have shifted dramatically between the time of Saint Paul and our own, and because it is both impossible and undesirable to pin down a single normative, ahistorical meaning of “the body.”
90 “Body studies” incorporates a wide range of disciplines such as philosophy, sociology, history, anthropology, and medicine, to name a few insofar as they take the body as a locus of concern. For an overview of the field, see Turner, Bryan S., ed., Routledge Handbook of Body Studies (New York: Routledge, 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and DeMello, Margo, Body Studies: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2014)Google Scholar.
91 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Smith, Colin (London: Routledge & Kegan & Paul, 1962)Google Scholar; Merleau-Ponty, , The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Lefort, Claude, trans. Lingis, Alphonso (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968)Google Scholar. Merleau-Ponty's work is rooted in empirical study within the fields of psychology and neuroscience.
92 Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 165.
93 Compare to Lumen Gentium §15, other baptized Christians are joined or linked to the church (coniunctum esse); Lumen Gentium §16, those who have not yet accepted the gospel are “related (ordinantur) in various ways to the people of God.” Pope Paul VI, Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, November 21, 1964, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.
94 Pope Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word, December 7, 1965, https://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html, §44, and Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
95 Anthony Godzieba, “Bodies and Persons, Resurrected and Postmodern: Towards a Relational Eschatology,” in Theology and Conversation: Towards a Relational Theology, ed. Jacques Haers and Peter de Mey (Leuven: Peeters, 2003), 211–25; Anthony Godzieba, “Knowing Differently: Incarnation, Imagination, and the Body,” Louvain Studies 32 (2007): 361–82. Quotations here from Godzieba, “Knowing Differently,” 373.
96 Nancy Jill Hale, “Dis-Abling the Body of Christ: Toward a Holistic Ecclesiology of Embodiment” (PhD diss., Boston University, 2015).
97 Anne Hillman, “Being the Body of Christ: Rethinking Christian Identity in a Religiously Plural World” (PhD diss., Boston University School of Theology, 2017), v.
99 Lennan, “The Church as a Sacrament of Hope,” 273.
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