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from issue no. 09 - 2011

Cain builds the city, Abel offers what God gives him

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Christ on the throne presiding over the Council of Nicaea

Christ on the throne presiding over the Council of Nicaea


Several times in recent days Pope Benedict quoted passages from the Ecclesiam Suam of Paul VI. On Sunday 25 September at the Konzerthaus in Freiburg im Breisgau, at the gathering, not by chance, with Catholics engaged in the Church and in society: “If the Church, in Pope Paul VI’s words, is now struggling ‘to model itself on Christ’s ideal type’, this ‘can only result in its acting and thinking quite differently from the world around it’ (Ecclesiam Suam, 58)”. The following Sunday, at the Angelus, recalling the parable of the murderous vineyard tenants, the Pope here clearly set out the essential nature of such a type of Church: “The Church, the People of the New Covenant, is built only in Him, for Him and with Him. On this the Servant of God Pope Paul VI wrote: ‘The first benefit which we trust the Church will reap from a deepened self-awareness, is a renewed discovery of its vital bond of union with Christ. This is something which is perfectly well known, but it is supremely important and absolutely essential. It can never be sufficiently understood, meditated upon and preached’ (Ecclesiam Suam, 35)”.

This type of Church, to be interpreted (and understood, one should add, in that normally it is misunderstood because one fails to grasp that the two cities coexist on this earth) in terms of the Augustinian categories of the two cities, is the city of Abel in book XV of De Civitate Dei. “In Scripture we read that Cain built a city, while Abel being a nomad did not build it”. Where the point is not so much in building or not, but knowing who builds and how. In fact, Augustine goes on to say that we are dealing with two forms of city on this earth: “One which (according to a meaningful translation of Del Noce in an old 1986 article in the Corriere, on the occasion of the anniversary of the conversion of Augustine) atteststo its own presence, the other that by its presence serves as emblem for the heavenly city”. One that has the problem of attesting itself (suam praesentiam demonstrantem), the other that is simply there for an Other (sua praesentia servientem).

This type expresses the mensof Vatican II on the Church, as recalled by Father Cottier in a reflection on Lumen gentium that appeared in the last issue of 30Days: “The last Council recognizes that the wellspring of the Church is not the Church itself, but the living presence of Christ Himself who personally builds the Church. The light that is Christ reflects itself in the Church as in a mirror. The consciousness of this elementary fact (the Church in the world is a reflection of the presence and action of Christ) illuminates all that the last Council said about the Church”.

But more generally this type of Church expresses the apostolic tradition, which remained luminous and untroubled especially in the first millennium of the undivided Church (as one reads ever more frequently in a variety of Italian writers on religious topics, from Messori to Morini, from Magister to Melloni). But which also re-emerges, if one looks closely, precisely in the most critical moments of the second. It would be enough to go back to the Decree of the Council of Trent on justification, which by no accident has constituted in our own days the most solid and fruitful basis for dialogue with Lutherans, precisely because it is not primarily anti-Protestant but anti-Pelagian. Or to refer back to Vatican I, when it ‘sets limits on itself’, one might even say, in stating that “the doctrine of the faith that God has revealed was not proposed to human intelligence as a philosophical system to perfect, but was entrusted to the Bride of Christ to preserve faithfully and to infallibly proclaim” (Dei Filius).

The following article shows the specific meaning that perspective served at the time in the interventions of Pope Celestine I (422-432) in the very years and with the same mensthat Augustine was composing the De Civitate Dei. But today also it can constitute a simple and beautiful image of a Church that does not build itself on its own, in the words of Ecclesiam Suam, recently quoted by Pope Benedict XVI.

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