The Octave of Church Unity begins tomorrow (January 18). (Help spread the word!) With preparation for the Octave in mind, I wish to reflect on "Communion as a key to Church Unity". On March 29, 2006, Pope Benedict gave an address titled: "The Gift of 'Communion'". In it, he helps us understand the nature of the gospel, and how it relates to the unity of the Church.
The summary article says this:
The Bishop of Rome dedicated much of his [talk] to explain that "communion" consists in participation in the life of the Trinitarian God, "which must unite disciples among themselves." This life of communion with God and among ourselves is the very object of the proclamation of the Gospel, the object of conversion to Christianity," noted the Holy Father.For most of my life, I thought of the gospel almost strictly in propositional terms, that is, as some set or other of propositions. There were Evangelical versions like the Four Spiritual Laws, or like the ones the televangelists would sometimes summarize at the end of their programs. There were more sophisticated Calvinistic versions you could learn in Evangelism Explosion workshops where you could practice your summary and delivery of the gospel. What I did not understand is that the gospel that the Church offers to the world is participation in the communal Life and Love of the Trinity, descended from heaven in the incarnate Christ, and received by us through His Mystical Body, the Church. It is precisely for this reason that the gospel cannot be reduced to a set of propositions. The communal Life and Love shared between the three Persons of the Trinity is not a set of propositions. Nor is Christ Himself. Nor is His Church. Because the gospel is Christ Himself (Who cannot be separated from the eternal communal Life and Love He shares directly with the Father and the Spirit), and because Christ became incarnate, therefore the gospel must be incarnate. To treat the gospel as a mere set of propositions to be believed is thus to gnosticize (i.e. de-materialize) the gospel, and in that performative manner to deny the incarnation.
But what is the incarnate gospel? It is "communio", that Life and Love of the Trinitarian communion of Persons, become incarnate in the Person of Christ, and still incarnate in His Mystical Body, the Church. The Church is, through its union with the incarnate Christ, the incarnation of the Communion and Life of the Trinity. The communio in which we participate and which we share with other baptized believers is a divine Communion. That entails that it was not created, but is eternal. The Life of the Church is uncreated, for it is the Life of the Trinity. Of course the human persons participating in the Church's Communion were created. But the Communion in which we participate with fellow believers is itself eternal, because it is the eternal Communion of the Trinity, come down from heaven in the Word made flesh, and then communicated to us through the Spirit working through the sacraments of the Church. So although our entrance into eternal Life has a beginning, when we were incorporated into the Body of Christ at our baptism, our eternal Life itself has no beginning. We bring persons to the gospel by bringing them into that divine Communion and that Life into which we ourselves have been reborn through baptism. The love we have for each other, and the life we share together, is a real participation, through our union with Christ in His Mystical Body the Church, in that eternal Love and Life which is the communio of the Trinity. This is the "life, had more abundantly" our Lord Jesus talked about (St. John 10:10), and that He came to give us. When we share the Eucharist, Love enters us, and we enter Love. The Life we enjoy together is that very Love shared between us. In this way, our communio with each other in the Church is Life in the Eucharist.
What does this have to do with the unity of the Church? The Love in which we participate is a communal oneness of divine Persons. We see this oneness reflected in the love between a lover and his beloved. A true lover seeks the deepest, most intimate possible union with the beloved. In a seeming paradox, he desires to be one in being with the beloved, but at the same time he also wishes to deepen the community they share between them. And yet community requires plurality of some sort. For this reason, his love is (naturally) insatiable, for his desires are in tension with each other, given his ontological relation to his beloved as a distinct being. But what the [merely] human lover desires, the Persons of the Trinity have with each other. They are one in being, and yet they are distinct in personhood. Here the Lover and Beloved are truly one in being, and for that very reason have perfect community. The Trintarian communio in which we participate is not content with anything less than ontological unity. "A body you have prepared for Me" (Hebrews 10:5) refers not only to the incarnation, in which the Son [ontologically] became man [without ceasing to be God], but also to the marriage supper of the Lamb, the ontological union of Christ and His Bride, wherein, in a reflection of and participation of the Trinitarian communio, genuine ontological unity is not incompatible with plurality.
Those Christians who are content with the present divisions among us have not understood how intense and perfect is this Love into which we communally have been embraced. It is the Love of a Bridegroom that relentlessly seeks perfect unity with the Beloved, not just as individuals, but as a community. It is for the sake of love that we are to settle for nothing less than perfect unity with one another: unity in doctrine, unity in worship, and unity in government. St. Paul writes, "Now I exhort you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you [plural] be made complete (i.e. perfect) in the same mind and in the same judgment." (1 Corinthians 1:10) The danger in claiming that it is Christ who divides His Church into factions is that such a claim serves to excuse the evil of our present disunity, and make such evil appear acceptable, by failing to distinguish between Christ's capacity to bring good out of evil human acts on the one hand, and Christ Himself doing evil, in mutilating His Bride by dividing her into pieces. Even the sons of Israel were appalled when the [less than wholly virtuous] Levite cut the corpse of his concubine into twelve pieces. (Judges 19:29-30) How much more should we not speak evil of Christ in attributing to Him (rather than to our own sinful hearts) the divisions that separate us from one another?
Another implication of communio for Church unity has to do with the distinction between communio and congregatio. David Schindler discusses this distinction briefly here. Schindler says:
The notion of the Church as "communio" thus contrasts with the notion of the Church as "congregatio." While "communio" emphasizes the nature of the Church as a gift from God, established "from above," "congregatio" indicates a community that comes to be "from below," by virtue of the decision of the individual wills of the community, in the manner of a democratic body. ... The communion of persons that makes up the Church is an icon of the divine Trinitarian communion of Persons. The life of the Church is drawn intrinsically from the life of God, in and through Christ and the promise of his abiding, vivifying presence in the Church. The Church springs from the bosom of the Trinity, from the life of divine love, revealed in and through Christ by means of the loving obedience of Mary's fiat.
The sacramental nature of the gospel as a participation in the divine Life of the Trinity through the incarnate Christ is what makes congregatio the ecclesial equivalent of the Tower of Babel. Congregatio is defined by bottom-up (democratically grounded) authority, which is the only alternative to sacramental magisterial authority. Congregatio thus treats the gospel as something formal (i.e. de-materialized), so that the Church can be reproduced by anybody anywhere, so long as one knows the message. Treating the gospel as something formal is what necessarily makes congregatio a kind of gnosticism, because necessarily we relate to form by way of knowing. And knowledge is the root meaning of the word 'gnosticism', which came to mean (in the first two centuries after Christ), most simply, "salvation by knowledge".
Communio, by contrast, is a handing on of the communal Life of the Trinity made incarnate in Christ. That is why communio is necessarily sacramental, because it is incarnate. Just as the flame of a candle is reproduced in other candles only by physical continuity, so likewise the Life of the incarnate Christ in the Church is spread sacramentally, through the handing on of that incarnate Life from the Apostles, to the bishops whom by the laying on of their hands they ordained to succeed them, and then to those whom they ordained, down to the present day. That is why Church unity depends on valid sacramental authority, because it is not just any life that we share; it is the one Life that was given to us in the incarnate Christ. Thus because congregatio lacks valid ordination (i.e. lacks sacramental magisterial authority), there is no ground for believing that those in congregatio are participating in the Life of the incarnate Christ. St. Paul's question, "How shall they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:15) makes no sense to the congregatio. The Apostles were not obsessed with control. Rather, they understood that preaching [keruxwsin] the gospel was more than delivering a message; it was handing on sacramentally the very Life of Christ, which no one can give who has not first received. And ordination is precisely the reception of the power to hand on sacramentally the Life of Christ. For these reasons, understanding the gospel in terms of communio helps us understand how sacramental magisterial authority is essential not only for the Life of the Church but also for the unity of the Church.
Christ Jesus, please bring all Christians into the unity which You share with the Father and the Son. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.