Authentic Unity

I am troubled by what I see as a lack of unity in our church and wonder whether it results from a failure to appreciate precisely what kind of unity we Catholics should anticipate finding. Should we all hold and say the same thing, whether we are discussing a theological, philosophical, cultural or political question? Surely that would make our lives as Catholics less interesting. Most of us would judge correctly that such uniformity is not unity, but rather a failure to appreciate human nature and the challenges of human interaction. Since we have an intellect and a free will, we can reasonably conclude that each of us has to think things through and decide what the truth is. Our own experience teaches us that this is not an easy task; we know how complicated human motives can be.

Authorities in the church are there to assist us in the process, but the opposite is also true: at various levels we are there to assist them. Many Catholic lay people, for example, are highly educated and in some fields have much more expertise than most church officials. While we have every reason to believe that the Holy Spirit works above all in the pope and in his collaborators, the Spirit’s activity is limited to no particular human person.


The lack of unity in our church does not stem from Catholics’ refusal to accept basic church doctrines, that is, our creedal statements. Rather, various spiritual weaknesses lead us to demand of others an unjustified agreement with ourselves. The old Latin saying Divide et impera (“Divide and conquer”) points to my main concern: Is the evil spirit promoting division among us to hinder as much as possible our real mission to evangelize?

For years the church has used the high priestly prayer of Jesus in Chapter 17 of John’s Gospel ecumenically; all Christians are asked to reflect on the passage, especially verses 20-26, in which Jesus prays for those who will believe in him through the words of the apostles. Jesus is praying for you and me, yet it is a little early in the church’s history, there in the upper room, to be speaking about ecumenism. Twice Jesus prays that we might be one as the Father is in him and he is in the Father, and that we may be one in them. And twice Jesus gives the purpose for this unity: “that the world may believe that you sent me.” Jesus’ explanation supports my negative contention that a lack of such unity hinders evangelization.

Even among Catholics, the unity that ought to typify the church is not easy to achieve. I think most Catholics would grant that the image of the church as the body of Christ is one of unity. Yet in l Cor 12, where Paul presents this image, he writes of diversity in the midst of unity. The body, though one, has many members. The diversity of our gifts comes from the Spirit, in whom we were baptized into the same body. Paul requires that these gifts be used for the common good, but the very existence of different gifts challenges the members to allow each other to exercise all of the Spirit’s particular gifts. To do this we must be accepting of one another; we need to practice a basic tolerance so that all can use their respective gifts.

In his homily on Jan. 25, 2006, the feast of the Conversion of the Apostle Paul and the concluding day of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Pope Benedict XVI said, “True love does not eliminate legitimate differences but harmonizes them in a superior unity that is not ordered from the outside but gives form from within, so to speak, to the whole.”

Catholic tradition has long supported that contention. Henri de Lubac, S.J., in his book Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man, cites great church thinkers who have forcefully stated it. Tertullian, for example, contends in Adversus Marcionem that “the schismatic or provoker of dissension outrages what is dearest to Christ, for he commits a crime against that ‘spiritual body’ for which Christ sacrifices his carnal body.” But he is writing of a schismatic. More directly relevant is Fulgentius, who in De Remissione Peccatorum claims that “it is a violation of that vital charity which is the guardian of unity.” Also Cyprian in one of his letters asserts that “he who does not keep charity cannot speak in the name of unity”; and Hugh of St. Victor, in De Sacramentis, was convinced that “charity is the unity of the church. Whether we call it charity or unity [it] is all the same, because unity is charity and charity is unity.”

One can look for an incorrect concept of unity in the church and, upon not finding that, become an instrument of division. By contrast, we should be promoting the unity of the body of Christ, taking the church’s justifiable diversity as a given.

What, then, about that passage in Luke 12:51 (and parallels) where Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? I assure you, the contrary is true; I have come for division”? The “division” of which Jesus is speaking relates to those who believe in him as opposed to those who do not. He is not speaking of division that flows from our failure to appreciate the kind of unity appropriate to the church or from our inability to recognize the division that flows from our human weaknesses.

We need to pay attention to the diversity in the midst of unity of which St. Paul speaks in 1 Cor 12. Our new pope has apparently moved in this direction in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), for he asks us to reflect on a fundamental Christian truth, the importance of love in our life. If in our love we work at preserving the unity of our church, we will be better evangelizers; if not, we weaken the proclamation of the Gospel message.

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11 years 8 months ago
The juxtaposition of the treatment (9/25) of Liturgiam Authenticam in “Translating the Liturgy,” by John F. Baldovin, S.J., with “Authentic Unity” by Robert F. O’Toole, S.J., is providential and painfully instructive. The most discouraging sentence in Father Baldovin’s article is “The U.S. bishops obviously have decided to accept the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam as insisted upon by Cardinal Arinze.” What a surprise! Not only has Latin become a sacred cow, but even Latin word order. That could leave us with “And with spirit your!”

11 years 8 months ago
The big division among non-Catholics is between fundamentalists, who interpret the Bible literally and, for want of a better word, the mainstream Protestants. The Catholic disunity of which Robert F. O’Toole, S.J., writes in “Authentic Unity” (9/25) is similar, but not as pronounced. Catholics differ in that some accept certain passages as literal and others do not. Some hold that the story of Adam and Eve and Genesis 1 to 11 are literal history. Others accept the findings of science that our first parents were totally different from Adam and Eve, a multitude rather than one pair, and date back well over 100,000 years.

As a result, the understanding of original sin and related formulations is blurred. Small wonder that as a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI stated that “the inability to understand original sin and to make it understandable is really one of the most difficult problems of present-day theology and pastoral ministry.”

While the problem of disunity muffles the voice needed by evangelization, the process of dealing with our problem can contribute to the unity of all Christians who sincerely try to ascertain Christian truth. The Bible-only theory for doing this has been discredited. Recognition is unavoidable of the need of an institution like a general council. But a tremendous amount of dialogue is called for about the structure, area of competence, competence of members, limits and membership. Our work and the expertise we attain in solving our problems, together with more humility, will render us more skilled and flexible in that dialogue. Without a council that Christians generally can accept, substantial advance in ecumenism is not possible.

The Lord wants unity, but not yet, as I see it. Unity of love, yes, now and always, this unity that popes have promoted zealously and with much success. Organic unity awaits the reconciliation of our differences, a great part of third-millennium history. Please God.


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