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The Gospel Call to Christian Unity

March 5, 2018


I’m currently on a pilgrimage in the Holy Land, a journey which I’ve been sharing on my Facebook page, but it seemed fitting to mark today as the last day of the Week of Prayer of Christian Unity (which is actually an octave and not a week). The Holy Land is an amazing reminder of the universality of Christianity, and we’ve seen Christians praising God in Arabic, Aramaic,  Greek, Armenian, Korean, Polish, Spanish, and Latin over these last few days. But it’s also a reminder that Christians are divided: just today, we visited the Monastery of the Temptation and Jacob’s Well, but weren’t able to celebrate Mass in either location, as they are under Eastern Orthodox control.

In saying this, I don’t want it to sound triumphalist, like I’m saying Catholics are all holy saints and Protestants and Orthodox are awful for not being part of the Church. What I am saying is that, given that there are Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants and other Christians all striving for holiness and conformity to Jesus Christ, it’s an embarrassment and a shame—in fact, a scandal and a sin—that we’re not in full communion with one another. I’m not sure how anyone could hear these words of Jesus and come to any other conclusion:

I do not pray for these [Disciples] only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.

Father, I desire that they also, whom thou hast given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which thou hast given me in thy love for me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world has not known thee, but I have known thee; and these know that thou hast sent me. I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:20-26)

In other words, the prayer of Jesus’ heart on the night before he was crucified for us was that we would be “perfectly one.” We’ve betrayed him by not living out that Christian unity (and again, there’s blame enough to go around: no honest assessment of the Great Schism or the Reformation puts all the blame on one side of the aisle). And what’s more, in betraying him, we’ve also betrayed our mission: “that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.

But rather than pointing fingers and placing blame, I think it’s important to do two things instead. First, recognize that this current state of disunity is unacceptable. Ecumenism is part of the core of Christianity, because it’s a form of fidelity to Christ. Christian unity isn’t a bonus, but a part of what Christ is calling us to. Second, figure out what can be done. And here, I want to appeal directly to my non-Catholic readers. I’m reminded of a story—an urban legend, actually—about a conversation at sea with a U.S. ship that allegedly went something like this:

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.
Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.
Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.
Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

So if you’re on a collision course, and you find out that the other side is a lighthouse that can’t move, it’s up to you to decide if you want to change or crash. Or to put it in more explicit terms for this discussion: If we’re supposed to be one Church, what is that Church?

It’s not good enough to give a generic answer like “the Christian Church,” if by that you mean that we just stay a big mess of feuding Christians who aren’t in full communion. That’s a non-answer.

And it doesn’t really work to say “the Protestant Church,” because there’s no such thing. There’s no single body of Protestants believing the same thing. Rather, there are several different major denominations, and an untold number of smaller ones, all under the same general umbrella. And this is the cause of a lot of flux within Protestantism. About half of the Protestants in America are no longer in the denomination in which they grew up: some become Catholic, some ceased being Christian altogether, but most simply switched Protestant denominations.

So that leaves you with three options: (1) all Christians everywhere should become whatever denomination you happen to be; (2) we should all be Eastern Orthodox; (3) or we should all be Catholic. The absurdity of suggesting that the problem of denominationalism be solved by having all Christians everywhere convert to, say, Wisconsin Synod Lutheranism, seems self-evident. How likely is it that only you, or only your local church, or only your obscure denomination, has gotten Christianity right? If your denomination can’t be traced back to the time of the Apostles, then it doesn’t appear to be a candidate for the Church described by Christ in John 17.

And it’s also just impossible in another sense. The Catholic Church has declared several teachings as infallible, and is quite explicit about having received traditions which she neither changes nor can change. St. John Paul II, writing on women’s ordination, pointed out “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” That’s how it is for anything that the Church has received from Christ or the Apostles. We’re stewards of these gifts, not lords over them, so we can’t modify these teachings any more than we can change Scripture. As a result, we’re the lighthouse, a fixed quantity.

But that still leaves the Orthodox. Aren’t they also a lighthouse, but a contrary one? I’d suggest no, for two reasons. First, the Orthodox have previously rejoined the Catholic communion, at least somewhat. At the Council of Florence, the Eastern Orthodox (and later, Coptic Orthodox) delegates agreed:

That the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff holds the primacy over the whole world and the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church, as is contained also in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons.

The Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos was in attendance for this Council, as was Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarch for the Eastern Orthodox. He died shortly before the above-quoted decree, but his successor, Ecumenical Patriarch Metrophanes II of Constantinople, confirmed it. His succcessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory III, also supported this reunion of the Eastern Orthodox with the Roman Catholic Church. Ultimately, the reception of the Council was thwarted by anti-unionist monks in the East, meaning that the situation on the ground was confusing (some Eastern churches prayed for the pope and were in communion with him, some refused). But still, it’s promising. If that did happen once, it can happen, and perhaps more.

Second, there’s the role of the Roman Church. From the earliest days of the Church, the Church of Rome played the role as a sort of Supreme Court in matters of theological controversy, meaning that when local churches would feud on something, they would send the matter to Rome for a decision. We find evidence of this as early as 96 AD, while the Apostle John is still alive: the Corinthian church sent their internal dispute to Rome, and Pope Clement settled things. In the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), accepted by both the Orthodox and Catholics, the Illyrian bishops mentioned this practice, saying, “Let those who contradict be made manifest. Those who contradict are Nestorians. Those who contradict, let them go to Rome.”

In other words, when the Church was one, there’s no denying that the Roman See, headed by the pope, played some sort of special role overseeing matters in other churches (both in the East and in the West). What that looks like has certainly varied from age to age, but if we’re all committed to ending the scandal of denominationalism, it seems that the unified Church we’re longing for is one with the Bishop of Rome at the head, at least in some sense.

If you’re with me so far, I’d leave you with a very specific, practical proposal: start praying, “What’s keeping me from being in complete union with the Roman Catholic Church, and what can I do to change that?” You may conclude that the reason you’re not in complete union is that the Catholic Church is wrong and you’re right, and there’s nothing you can do to change, and nothing needs changing. Maybe! But I’d urge you to pray it anyway, with an openness that maybe, just maybe, God has a better view of things than you or I do.