Ecclesiology consists in articulating what the Word of God tells us about the Church. It has been the central theme of the last two general councils, Vatican I and Vatican II. During the twentieth century, several leading Catholic and Orthodox theologians wondered whether over time the faithful had acquired a conception of the Church that was more juridical than Eucharistic. In accordance with Sacred Scripture and the apostolic tradition, the early Church was keenly aware that the Church is constituted above all in the celebration of the Eucharist. As St. Paul teaches, the Church becomes the body of Christ by offering and receiving his body in the Eucharist. “The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). The twentieth-century retrieval of these teachings became known as eucharistic ecclesiology and is sometimes summed up by saying that “the Eucharist builds the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist.” (John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia 26). However, it has also been criticised for offering a partial view of the Church. Nevertheless, understanding the place of the Eucharist in the Church is indispensable for leading the Christian life in full.

In this interview, Dr. Richard G. DeClue, Jr., will explain eucharistic ecclesiology and five recommended books on the subject.

Richard G. DeClue, Jr., S.Th.D. is the Professor of Theology at the Word on Fire Institute. He specializes in systematic theology with a particular interest and expertise in the thought of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI and has published articles on his theology in peer reviewed journals such as Communio and Nova et Vetera,  he taught a college course on the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, and has written book, The Mind of Benedict XVI: A Theology of Communion (Word on Fire, 2024). He is also interested in the ecclesiology of Henri de Lubac, the debate over nature and grace, and developing a rapprochement between Communio (ressourcement) theology and Thomism.

  1. Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages
    by Henri de Lubac SJ
  2. Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today
    by Joseph Ratzinger
  3. Flesh of the Church, Flesh of Christ: At the Source of the Ecclesiology of Communion
    by Jean-Marie Roger Tillard
  4. Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries
    by John D. Zizioulas
  5. Sacrament of Salvation: An Introduction to Eucharistic Ecclesiology
    by Paul McPartlan
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links in this post.

How would you define Eucharistic ecclesiology?
It is a way of understanding the Church through its intimate relationship to the sacrament of the Eucharist. It understands the nature, mission, and structure of the Church in light of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

The Eucharist makes the Church, and the Church makes the Eucharist. Could you explain each clause of this common summation of Eucharistic ecclesiology?
De Lubac talks about this. The second clause might seem more obvious. It is more obvious that the Church makes the Eucharist. The bishops and priests, through the words of the institution, can effect the Eucharist. The Church thereby makes the Eucharist.

The other clause—the Eucharist makes the Church—might be less obvious to the average person.  In some ways, however, it is even truer. It is through the reception of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist that we become the body of Christ. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:17) The Eucharist is a communion in the body and blood of Christ. St. Thomas Aquinas talks about this. As he puts it, the communion of the Church is the res of the sacrament of the Eucharist. The effect of the sacrament is the communion of the body of Christ.

Eucharistic ecclesiology is undoubtedly of interest to theologians, but how should it inform the faith, piety, and practice of the average Catholic?
It is very important. I would like to see it become more widely understood by the average Catholic. Maybe it should be a part of basic catechesis. It helps us understand the true essence of the Church and why the Eucharist is so central.

We are accustomed to thinking that the Eucharist is central because it is Christ himself: body, blood, soul, and divinity. That is true. However, Christ's real presence in the Eucharist is also the reason that its effects are real. You can fall into the trap of thinking that you receive the Eucharist for yourself and united yourself to Christ. If so, you are forgetting that we are called to communion as one Church. Many Catholics do not recognise that it is the reception of the Eucharist that unites us as one Church.

The Eucharist is central to our faith and Christ has established one Church. Sometimes, we see those as two separate truths. In reality, they go together and are linked intimately.

"Probably the best advances in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue have come through Eucharistic ecclesiology."

The books that you have recommended are by professional theologians. Which of these books is most suitable for the general reader or do you have an alternative recommended title for beginners?
If I had to recommend one, it would be Cardinal Ratzinger’s Called to Communion. Even though he is a professional theologian, he is fairly easy to read. He does a great job of focusing on the essential details. Moreover, this is a fairly short book. A decently educated person can understand it, follow it, and get a lot out of it.

Has Eucharistic ecclesiology facilitated ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Churches?
Yes, it has. Probably the best advances in Catholic-Orthodox dialogue have come through Eucharistic ecclesiology. There has been a joint declaration on The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity.  In many ways, a lot of the dialogue has been focused on Eucharistic ecclesiology: understanding of the Church through the mystery of the Eucharist and how the essence of the Church, including its structure, is tied to the Eucharist itself. Eucharistic ecclesiology has become the scaffolding within which we can address some of our differences.

"Even in dialogue with Protestants, there has been some benefit from Eucharistic ecclesiology."

Eucharistic ecclesiology does not seem to be the most advisable starting point for ecumenical dialogue with Protestants. The ecclesial communities born in the Reformation, with their original rejection of the sacrament of Holy Orders and the traditional doctrine on the Eucharist, ceased to be churches. Should we start instead by discussing with our Protestant brethren the biblical testimony to the Eucharist?
That is an interesting question. Even in dialogue with Protestants, there has been some benefit from Eucharistic ecclesiology. The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches issued a document. More Protestant communities are recognising the importance of the Eucharist and beginning to see their ecclesial communities as Eucharistic communities. With a few exceptions, this is something that was not as prevalent in the past.

However, the difficulty is that their understanding of the Eucharist and priesthood is vastly different from that of the Catholic Church. We run the risk of using the same terms equivocally. That is a major roadblock.

Nevertheless, there has been an advancement. There is a greater recognition among Protestants that the Eucharist is neither secondary nor optional but should be at the heart of our Christian life. That is an improvement and this recognition of the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian life might get them interested in examining its nature.

So, Eucharistic ecclesiology is really a decent place to start.

In 1992 Letter of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to bishops Communionis notio, Card. Ratzinger criticised Eucharistic ecclesiology for its one-sided emphasis on the local church. “It is claimed that, where the Eucharist is celebrated, the totality of the mystery of the Church would be made present in such a way as to render any other principle of unity or universality non-essential.” How would you counter this critique of Eucharistic ecclesiology?
It is not a critique of Eucharistic ecclesiology itself but of one strand of it.

Ratzinger himself holds to Eucharistic ecclesiology. He is critiquing one strand of Eucharistic ecclesiology: the Eastern Orthodox approach and, to be frank, that of Cardinal Walter Kasper. Their approach holds that, because the local church has the Eucharist, it has the whole Christ. Therefore, the diocese is the whole Christ. This approach conceives of the universal Church as a mere confederation of local churches.

I agree with Communionis notio on this point because I hold to a more Ratzingerian understanding of Eucharistic ecclesiology. Yes, Christ is wholly present in the Eucharist celebrated by each local church, but he is only one. Therefore, the universal Church has an ontological and temporal priority. The Church present with all of her essential elements in a given location is the local church. However, it is the one Church that is present. Hence, there is still a priority of the universal Church. So, Communionis notio is a great document for a truly Catholic understanding of Eucharistic ecclesiology.

The Catholic Church is currently engaged in a discussion about synodality. However, in its Alexandria document of June 2023, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church stated that a “eucharistic ecclesiology of communion is the key to articulating a sound theology of synodality and primacy” (5.3 Alexandria Document). How can eucharistic ecclesiology help us think correctly about synodality?
Synodality can occur at different levels of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Traditionally, there are either regional or universal synods. Synodality helps us understand how simultaneously there is both the full ecclesial quality of the local church (i.e. dioceses or particular churches) and the necessary communion of the local churches as one Church. It shows how these local churches are not meant to remain in isolation: their full ecclesial quality still necessitates this universal communion and their working together. The real authority of the local bishop and the ecclesial status of his church does not make them independent. The local church is only fully church within the community of the one Church. Synodality, therefore, helps us understand the need for unity at the regional and universal level, which is required for the full ecclesial reality of the local church itself.  Consequently, there needs to be this collaboration among bishops. Synodality exists primarily amongst bishops.

Does not synodality have to do with the different ways that the bishop, presbyter, and lay people participate in the Eucharist? The bishop’s power to govern is linked to his role as priest. Nowadays, much of the debate about synodality seems to confuse participation in the Church with participation in the three munera (sanctificandi, docendi, regendi) or offices that are proper to bishops and presbyters. I imagine that the Orthodox also conceive synodality along these lines.
With the Eastern Orthodox, synodality is focussed heavily on the cooperation amongst the bishops themselves.

Has eucharistic ecclesiology run its course, made its contribution, and become superseded or absorbed by better approaches to ecclesiology?
In my opinion, it is still the best ecclesiology on offer.


Your first recommended book is Henri de Lubac’s Corpus mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages. De Lubac stumbled upon the central discoveries of this study by chance. He was assigned as an examiner of a doctoral dissertation on a ninth-century French theologian and decided to read some of the other theologians of the period to prepare for the task (Paschasius Radbertus, Ratramnus, Godescalc, and Rabanus Maurus). To his surprise, he realised that there had been a shift in the meaning of the term ‘mystical body’. Originally, ‘mystical body’ designated the Eucharist, not the Church. What brought about this shift in meaning?
He locates it primarily in the controversy surrounding Berangar of Tours.

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