Sandro Botticelli (1489)
I just returned from the annual American Maritain Association conference, which was held in Boston this year. This year's conference was excellent. And Boston is beautiful this time of year, as all the trees are in their prime. At this conference I was especially impressed by the papers given by Dr. Lawrence Feingold, a convert to Catholicism in 1989, currently teaching for Ave Maria University's Institute for Pastoral Studies. His dissertation The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas Aquinas and His Interpreters is being published by Sapientia Press, I believe.
What is the significance of the Annunciation? It is the moment of the incarnation, when Christ takes on human nature, and becomes man, with a human body and a human soul. Meditating on the incarnation helps us understand that Christ's Mystical Body (Rom 12; 1 Cor 10:17, 1 Cor 12, Eph 4, Col 3:15), the Church, must be a visible Body, that is, a unified hierarchical organization. That is significant because I occasionally receive a comment that reflects a rather common point of view. The comment runs something like this:
Your blog is about unity among Christians. But you and people who think like you are precisely the problem. You make people think that Christians are divided, when in actuality all Christians are already united. You are just choosing to see Christians as divided. We choose to worship differently, in different denominations, and in different styles, but that doesn't mean that we're divided. We're all Christians; we all love Jesus, and we're all united. What you refer to as divisions are merely variations, a kind of diversity within a spiritual unity. You are mistaking diversity for division.
Here's my short reply. That a deep and sincere love for Jesus can be found in each of the different denominations and traditions goes without saying. But Christ founded a visible Church (one hierarchically organized Body), with visible authorities (i.e. Peter, James, John, etc.). It wasn't the case in the first century that individual Christians could worship however they wanted, with whomever they wanted, while remaining in the Church. St. Clement of Rome (d. 99 AD) writes:
"The Apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the Apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe."
Just as Christ had been sent by the Father, and as the Apostles had received their orders from Christ, so the bishops whom the Apostles appointed received their orders from the Apostles.
And St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107 AD) writes:
"Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and [follow] the priests, as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Apart from the bishop, let no one perform any of the functions that pertain to the Church. Let that Eucharist be held valid which is offered by the bishop or by one to whom the bishop has committed this charge."
If believers wished to be Christians (i.e. true followers of Christ), they had to believe what Christ's Apostles taught, and worship as the Apostles taught, and submit to the decisions of the Apostles (e.g. Acts 15). When the Apostles ordained bishops to succeed them, these bishops received authority from the Apostles, as the Apostles had received authority from Christ, to teach and govern the Church in the Apostles' (and Christ's) name. They held the authoritative interpretation of the Apostles' teachings and the Church's doctrines. To reject these bishops was to reject the Apostles, because the choosing and authorizing of these bishops was also part of the Apostles' words and deeds. These bishops then ordained bishops to succeed them, and so on. To separate from the Apostles, or to separate from the bishops whom the Apostles had ordained, or the bishops whom they had ordained, was to be in schism. And that has remained true from that time until the present. Schism is only intelligible in the context of apostolic succession. Apart from apostolic succession, there is no principled difference between division and diversity.
To be in complete unity, therefore, we all need to be in the same Church, the very Church that Christ founded. Christ founded only one Church (Matthew 16:18), for Christ has only one Body, one Bride. If we disagree about doctrine, or disagree about worship, or disagree about what the Church is and which persons are the rightful leaders of the Church, then we are not as united as Jesus wants us to be, as seen in His prayer in John 17. He wants us to be perfectly one, as He and the Father are perfectly one. If all these various denominations that disagree with each other are not in schism, then schism is no longer possible. Yet schism is something that the Apostles and the fathers forbid. So an ecclesiology without the possibility of schism cannot be a true ecclesiology. I have written about this in more detail in the following posts:
The Sacrilege of Schism
Branches or Schisms?
Branches or Schisms? 2
Branches or Schisms? 3
Schism from a Gnostic Point of View
Christ Founded a Visible Church
Marriage and "spiritual unity"
Unity and Mere Christianity
Church and Jesus are Inseparable
Dodos, Passenger Pigeons, Schisms