Historically, the division of Christianity marks the beginning of the end of Christian Culture. There are a number of historical causes for this, but the most prominent is the “religious wars” that resulted from the Protestant movement. Rightly or wrongly so, it was the Christian faith as a whole that was blamed for the wars. Many began to wonder whether doctrinal disputes could be worth so much bloodshed. This religious division touched the lives of nearly everyone and many had a difficult time believing that the neighbor who happened to have a different set of beliefs, but who they knew so well, was going to hell. In this climate, the doctrines of the individual churches didn’t seem to matter as much and people began to investigate other arenas as avenues to truth. In this soil, the Enlightenment philosophy was able to take root especially since science seemed to provide many answers in a rapid fashion to questions about the universe, while issues in theology seemed to go unresolved. People began to see science as the source for truth and no longer looked to religion. These advances in science also gave assurance of God’s power and wisdom, but led people to a “natural religion that could be established by reason alone. This natural religion spoke only of the basic truths about the existence of God and human morality known to all mankind. Eventually religion became merely a means for maintaining decent behavior and social order. It would seem almost common sense then, that in order to stem the rising tide of secularism, a restoration of Christian unity is necessary.
John Paul II commented numerous times throughout his Pontificate that Christian unity has suffered “deep lacerations” in the course of history through which “large communities came to be separated from full communion with the Catholic Church-for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3) However, the historical situation has now changed in that “(T)he children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection” (UR, 3). In other words, there is very little to be gained at this point in time to play a blame game. A divided Christianity is our present reality and this reality is a great scandal to the world. In a world marked by sin and division, unity stands out. This is why Jesus prayed in His High Priestly Prayer that His followers would remain united because that unity would be a sign that He had come from the Father (Jn. 17:21-23). In other words, the unity of all Christians has its own evangelical force, drawing people to the Truth Who is Jesus Christ. It is in this spirit that the Church has marked this week as the International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
In his Encylclical, Ut Unum Sint, Pope St. John Paul II surveyed the ecumenical landscape that was created by the openness of the Second Vatican Council and offered a primer on how this unity could be restored. He emphasized the need for prayer not just because it is necessary for all things, but because it is both a sign and a fulfillment of the desired unity:
It must not be forgotten in fact that the Lord prayed to the Father that his disciples might be one, so that their unity might bear witness to his mission and the world would believe that the Father had sent him (cf. Jn 17:21). It can be said that the ecumenical movement in a certain sense was born out of the negative experience of each one of those who, in proclaiming the one Gospel, appealed to his own Church or Ecclesial Community. This was a contradiction which could not escape those who listened to the message of salvation and found in this fact an obstacle to acceptance of the Gospel. Regrettably, this grave obstacle has not been overcome. It is true that we are not yet in full communion. And yet, despite our divisions, we are on the way towards full unity, that unity which marked the Apostolic Church at its birth and which we sincerely seek. Our common prayer, inspired by faith, is proof of this.
Drawing on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the Holy Father also provided the faithful with a game plan of sorts. Although the Council Fathers sought to enter dialogue with the whole world, they marked a clear delineation between the different groups. Often it is the case that the terms “ecumenism” and “interreligious dialogue” are used interchangeably. However the Council makes a clear distinction between these two terms because they have very different goals. Ecumenism is directed towards our fellow Christians with the goal of Christian unity so as to remove the “division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause of preaching the Gospel to every creature” (UR, 1). Interreligious dialogue, on the other hand, involves dialogue with non-Christian religions with the same goal of unity but it cannot be separated from proclamation of the Gospel.
The one Church still is found in physical form today and subsists in the Catholic Church (Lumen Gentium, 8). There has been some controversy around the use of the term subsists but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offered some clarification in 2007 saying:
[T]he use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth” which are found outside her structure, but which “as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity.
It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.
The point is that while the Catholic Church is the one true Church founded by Christ, sources of sanctification can be found within other Churches and ecclesial communities. These sources of sanctification have their source from within the treasures of the Catholic Church with whom Christ left the whole dowry.
In general, most Catholics struggle to hold both the truth that the true Church subsists in the Catholic Church and that other communities can be sources of sanctification in tension. What usually happens is that one aspect is over-emphasized to the detriment of the other and one or two attitudes usually emerges.
Very often those who consider themselves “traditional” Catholics will emphasize the fact that Jesus started one Church. For them, Protestant communities become a source of mockery. They see the Church as having the fullness of truth and we should condescend in giving it to them. This “convert or else” type mentality is something that John Paul II addressed in Ut Unum Sint when he says that in the other communities, elements of the “Christian mystery have at times been more effectively emphasized.” The Holy Father’s point is best understood when we examine what he is saying through his personalistic lens.
John Paul II had a unique way of examining the truths of the faith using personalism. He thought that any truth had two dimensions—the objective (which he called notional) and subjective (which he called real). There is the objective fact and the subjective experience of that fact. Faith, for Karol Wojtyla the Philosopher, involved moving the notional knowledge of the truth from the head to a real knowledge that is concrete personal, experiential, and taken to the heart. So then while Catholics have the fullness of truth (notional and ontological) there are those who may live it better (real and existential) and so we can learn from them how those truths can be better lived out. This is why Catholics in religious dialogue are not merely condescending but truly in a position of learning. Many Protestant communities live out certain aspects of the Gospel better than Catholics do and we can learn how to make those truths more present in the Church. Once these are more present, the Church will look more appealing to those who are separated and they will see how their experience of the truth fits into the fullness of truth overall.
The second attitude is one more in line with “tolerance.” But if we truly believe that the Jesus has entrusted the Church with a great treasure to be shared, why wouldn’t we share it? If we examine ourselves we may find that we don’t really believe that. But if we do, then it is a supreme act of charity to share the fullness of the faith with someone. Certainly we should take the reminder from the Council Fathers to heart that “the way and method in which the Catholic faith is expressed should never become an obstacle to dialogue with our brethren. It is, of course, essential that the doctrine should be clearly presented in its entirety. Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism, in which the purity of Catholic doctrine suffers loss and its genuine and certain meaning is clouded” (UR, 11). In an age of religious relativism this serves a stark reminder that while the truth itself may be divisive, we as Catholics must avoid being divisive in the manner in which we present that truth. But still we should actively engage others in order to share of the fullness that we have received.
This ultimately is why the onus for Christian unity falls upon us as Catholics. Many non-Catholics have no idea on what they are missing. Sure, they could get to Heaven even if they aren’t Catholic, but do we love them enough to show them just how full Christ’s Revelation really is? Do we love them enough to bring them to the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist of which Our Lord warned that it was impossible to have life without? There will come a day when we as Catholics will have to answer for the ignorance of our friends and neighbors.
Although the Catholic Church was somewhat late in entering the ecumenical arena compared with other Christians, they are the only ones who are still committed to the ecumenical movement’s original goal of the unity in Christ’s one Church in doctrine and practice. This is precisely because the Council Fathers grounded their approach in solid principles. In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity let us all examine our commitment to this most necessary cause.