"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Is the Church a Democracy?

In my conversations with Protestants it is not uncommon for me to hear or read a statement like this, "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z", where x, y, and z are actions that in some respect would 'Protestantize' the Catholic Church, either in doctrine, in sacraments and liturgy, or in Church government. (For a similar way of thinking, see, for example, the Touchstone article titled "Plausible Ecumenicism", and my reply to Craig Higgin's comments therein.) Last week I was in a conversation in which a Protestant said, "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise."

Statements such as that reveal a Protestant conception of the Catholic Church, a viewing of the Catholic Church while wearing Protestant 'glasses'. Of course I do not expect Protestants to wear Catholic 'glasses' while looking at the Catholic Church, but successful ecumenical dialogue does require that all participants, insofar as possible be aware of the 'glasses' they are wearing. Protestants are in some way aware of this shared Protestant paradigm. When I went from Pentecostal to Presbyterian, nobody said anything to me. When I went from Presbyterian to Anglican, again, nobody said anything to me. But when I made known that I was becoming Catholic, suddenly, I was getting many letters and phone calls urging me to reconsider, even on the very morning that I was to be received into the Catholic Church. Why?

These well meaning persons (who genuinely love me, and whom I genuinely love) recognized that I was leaving "the Protestant paradigm". I have discussed this before, in my post titled "Two Paradigms", but I want to expand on it here. Just as a fish cannot know that it is wet until it experiences dryness, so it is very difficult to know a paradigm that one has always been in, until one steps out of it (in some respect). When I stepped out of the Protestant paradigm, I came to see it more clearly. It had been with me all along, through my Pentecostalism, through my Presbyterianism, and through my Anglicanism.

What had been with me all along, through this process, was a certain way of thinking about the Church and myself in relation to ecclesial authority. In this paradigm, I would pick the denomination that seemed to me most true to Scripture and most conducive to meeting my spiritual needs. That right there almost defines the paradigm. (See my post titled "Ecclesial Consumerism vs. Ecclesial Unity".) According to this paradigm, if or when that particular community or denomination no longer seemed most true to Scripture or no longer met my spiritual needs, then I could and should go elsewhere.

Once, for example, when I was discussing my list of 'exceptions' to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a fellow seminary student said to me, "Well, if you're going to take that many exceptions, why do you even want to be one of us?" The obvious background assumption was that one joins this denomination because one agrees with it for the most part. Notice what he didn't say: "You should agree with and submit to our denomination because of the authority of our denomination." The recent FV controversy in the Presbyterian Church in America shows the very same way of thinking, as FV advocates are sometimes urged to leave and find a denomination that is more friendly to their FV way of thinking. J.I. Packer's recent
decision to leave the Anglican Church of Canada, and align himself with a South American Anglican bishop shows a similar way of thinking. You place yourself under those who teach your way of interpreting Scripture (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3). Those Protestants who reply to the Catholic, "But you do the same thing" show that they are still perspectivally restricted to the Protestant paradigm. (See "The Alternative to painting a magisterial target around our interpretive arrow".)

Loaded into this paradigm is a conception of the Church as defined by form, not matter, as I shall explain. According to this paradigm the Church is an invisible body with many 'branches' more or less true to Scripture but whose essence is some kind of "mere Christianity". Conceiving of the essence of the Church as some kind of "mere Christianity" is the way in which this paradigm defines the Church by "form". According to this paradigm, no 'branch' is "the Church" or is "the institution that Christ founded". According to this paradigm, no existing ecclesial institution was founded by Christ. Hence in this paradigm, no 'branch' of the Church has ultimate ecclesial authority. Each 'branch' has an equal say at the ecumenical dialogue table, though in practice the greater number of members had by a denomination gives it more say. (This is, roughly, the ecumenical paradigm one finds in the World Council of Churches.) In this paradigm, the Christian's ecclesial task is to find the branch that best suits him at that time in his life. Hence the phenomenon of "church shopping". If you are disciplined or 'excommmunicated' in one branch, you just move to another branch, or start your own branch.

The Catholic conception of the Church, on the other hand, is that the Church is a visible body founded by Christ upon the Apostles. Essential to the Church is the authority of Christ passed down through sacramental succession from the Apostles by the laying on of hands. This sacramental understanding of Apostolic succession is what makes the Catholic conception of the Church not merely formal, because the laying on of hands intrinsically involves matter. Form (i.e. doctrine) and matter (i.e. sacramental succession from the Apostles) are retained as integrated and mutually essential to the Church. This precisely is why the Catholic Church recognizes Orthodox Churches as actual [particular] Churches, but regards Protestant bodies as "ecclesial communities", for they lack Apostolic succession. See Responsa ad quaestiones, which was released last July. And see here for the response by the World Council of Churches. Hopefully it is clear, given the differences between the two paradigms I am describing, why the Catholic Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches.

In the Catholic paradigm, if a person is excommunicated, there is simply nowhere else to go (cf. John 6:68); that person has been excommunicated from "the Church". In the Catholic paradigm, if the Church establishes a dogma, and a person rejects it, that person is ipso facto a heretic. (See Aquinas' statement on that here.) The person who accepts it by faith on the authority of the Church, even while not understanding it or its basis, exemplifies that supernatural virtue of faith described by the phrase fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Faith involves believing on the basis of the authority of the successors of the Apostles, for that is the way in which the hearers of the Apostles believed the Gospel, i.e. on the authority of the Apostles. ("For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." - St. Augustine) The individualism and egalitarianism of the Protestant ecclesial paradigm limit faith to belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, excluding faith from the interpretive act per se.

As you can see from the diagram above, there are twenty-two Churches within the Catholic Church. There are even four Rites with the Latin Church. So in this sense, from the Catholic point of view, there is diversity, and there are branches, *within* the Catholic Church. But these are all still within one institution, in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

As I have argued here, conceiving of the Church as defined by form, not matter, has individualism and anti-hierarchical egalitarianism as a necessary implication. And the only form of government that conforms to individualism and egalitarianism is democracy. Statements like "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z" are intrinsically anti-Catholic, because they carry with them democratic and egalitarian theological assumptions rooted in the paradigm that conceives of the Church as identified essentially by *form*. And the same is true of statements like "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise." The democratic conception of the Church is one of individual autonomy. Since governing authority is derived from the governed, it can therefore be taken away by (and/or is ultimately subject to the wishes of) the governed. But imagine if the Pope had to conform to the particular wishes and positions of all Christians, and achieve unity by common ground or common consensus. Not only would there would be no doctrine left (see here) , there would be no unity left. And without unity, there would be no being, i.e. the Church would no longer exist. (See here.) Ecumenicism grounded in this democratic paradigm is, as I wrote here:
"the kind of ecumenicism that seeks unity by finding the lowest common denominator between all the divided parties. Such an ecumenicism is doomed to failure, like the fragile unity with which the feet and toes made of iron and clay were unified (Daniel 2). The peace it pursues is the world's peace."

The Catholic conception of the Church is not democratic, and never has been. If we look at the way David treated Saul, we see a very different way of thinking, one that does not make the authority of the ruler depend on the opinion of the ruled concerning the character or beliefs of the ruler. Jesus shows us the same way of thinking in Matthew 23:2-3 when He tells the people that because the Pharisees sit in the "chair of Moses", "therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them." According to Jesus, their hypocrisy did not nullify their authority. (This is what made Montanism, Novatianism, and Donatism schisms from the Catholic Church – see page four and following,
here.) That is because in the Catholic paradigm, the ecclesial authority of Church leaders does not have its origin in the choice of those leaders by the laymen. In the Catholic conception, as I pointed out recently , authority is not bottom-up, but rather from the top-down. That is not to say that laypersons had no role or responsibility in contributing to the decisions and actions of the Church. But the locus of hierarchical authority has always been believed to come from the top-down, from Christ, to the Apostles, through the Apostles to the bishops whom they appointed, and then to the bishops they appointed, and so on. The locus of authority was never conceived of as coming from the bottom-up, that is, from the laypersons to the clergy.

The irony in statements like "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z" is that persons who think this way would still be Protestant in their conception of Church authority, even if the Pope happened to do x, y, and z, because such persons think that the Church should conform to themselves. We do not become Catholic to make the Church conform to what we think it should be; we become Catholic so that Christ through the Church may make us into what He wants us to be. To submit to Christ is to submit to His Church. Similarly, the notion that "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise" carries with it the implicit assumption that no present institution is the one Christ founded and to which all Christians should conform. Implicit in the very statement is the assumption that the speaker has the authoritative determination of what is "true ecumenicism". The authority issue simply cannot be avoided; one either finds authority and submits to it, or one arrogates it to oneself. I frequently see a bumper sticker that reads, "If you want peace, work for justice". In the context of the Church I think an appropriate one would be: "If you want ecumenical unity, seek out authentic sacramental authority."

As we prepare for Pentecost, may the Holy Spirit work in us to make us truly one.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Trivial Pursuit

Nescire quaedam magna pars sapientiae est. [Ignorance of some things is a large part of wisdom.] -Tacitus

"We should give no more than a side glance at all that happens in the world, but the eyes of our soul are to be focused right ahead; for our whole attention must be fixed on those realities which constitute our goal." -St. Gregory the Great

While growing up I attended church weekly with my family and often Sunday evenings as well. And yet, out of all the sermons I heard from infancy to the time I went away to college, I can remember only one sermon distinctly. The others, no doubt, remain unconsciously in my patterns of understanding Scripture and life. But only one sermon remains in my conscious memory. It was preached by a visiting missionary on furlough. Coming back to the US after a number of years away, he noticed the popularity of a new board game: Trivial Pursuit. This was somewhere around 1984 or 1985. The board game 'Trivial Pursuit' had been introduced in late 1981 or early 1982, and by the mid-80s, it was the rage. In his sermon the missionary said that this game seemed to capture quite well the state of our culture. We pursued trivia, and neglected or ignored the important things. The popularity of the game, he pointed out, was a self-indictment. We were revealing ourselves to be the-people-who-pursue-trivial-things.

The sermon was a like a seed that gradually grew in my way of seeing the world and evaluating our cultural practices. I started to notice that he was right. We focus a great deal of attention on actors and actresses, Hollywood gossip, television shows, sports figures, pop artists, and all sorts of trivial information. This trivia we attend to is generally not in itself harmful or evil. So what was the missionary's objection? It was that the pursuit of trivia tends to displace and distract us from the awareness and pursuit of that which is meaningful, weighty, worthwhile, and eternal. Like the prisoners in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, we come to think and live as though the trivia about which we quiz each other is the fundamental substance and activity of the real world. In an era of social media even more so, attention to every tweet, post, comment, 'news story,' etc., results in nothing less than a life of dissipation. The wise man says no to the stream of trivial information flowing toward him, nor does he contribute to that stream as it flows to others.

So far as I can tell, there are two reasons why people pursue trivia: either they are trying to avoid facing the important truths, and/or they are simply unaware of anything more important than the trivia they pursue.
But the two reasons are not so entirely distinct. Recently I spoke with my ethics students about the traditional virtue of silence, and being present to oneself, knowing oneself. I had one student respond by telling me that he must constantly fill up the silence, because he can't bear to be alone with his thoughts. Another student told me that to allow oneself to think about the big questions in life (e.g. the afterlife, God, etc.) is to lose sight of what we are here for, which in his opinion is to focus on the present moment. For such persons every waking moment (and even during sleep) is often intentionally filled with noise from a radio, or an mp3 player, television, etc. David Hume did this as well, in a way. To cure himself of "this philosophical melancholy or delirium" brought about by deep meaningful questions, he resorted to diversions: "I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and I am merry with my friends, " so that his speculations then appeared to him as "cold, and strain'd, and ridiculous". (Treatise I, iv, 7) The habit of filling up our lives with the pursuit of trivia is not only a way of avoiding the more important matters, it can even keep us from realizing that there are more important matters.

Of course none of what I am saying should be taken to imply that entertainment and fine art are intrinsic evils or intrinsic distractions. Not in the least. The danger is in ourselves, in our tendency to let trivia become our primary pursuit, to let the values and priorities of our popular culture's pursuit of trivia become our values and priorities, in short, to let ourselves succumb to the delusion that life is as the pursuit of trivia depicts it to be. We become what Plato referred to as the "lovers of sights and sounds". To succumb to that delusion is to become a prisoner in Plato's Cave, lulled into a delusion that sweeps the truly important questions of life into some secluded recess of our minds.

What does this have to do with the pursuit of unity among Christians? We can very easily allow the pursuit of trivia to become more important to us than the pursuit of unity among Christians. That is obvious when the trivia is something to do with Hollywood or professional sports. But it is less obvious, yet no less true, when the discussion is a theological dispute about minutiae unrelated to (either intrinsically or instrumentally) the goal of unity among Christians. Of course there is a place for disputing theological minutiae. The relevant question, however, is where the importance of pursuing unity ranks in relation to such disputes. It seems to me that the goal of Christian unity is so important, that a good deal of our theological energy should be devoted to and focused on precisely those meta-level points of difference that underlie the other differences presently dividing Christians from one another.

Today is the 100th birthday of Oskar Schindler, who came to see the incommensurable value of persons in relation to cars and rings and other such material goods. (click on the photo to view that scene of the film Schindler's List) For me this scene symbolizes the essence of philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom, for it shows a man coming to see things for what they really are, how what he had thought was valuable was in actuality of so little value in relation to that which is truly valuable.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:45-46)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, may our Lord Jesus help us all come to see the true value of the pursuit of unity among Christians, in relation to the trivia which we otherwise pursue.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Institutional Unity and Outdoing Christ

The Tower of Babel (1563)
Pieter Bruegel the elder

In June of last year, I had a conversation with Alastair Roberts on his blog adversaria, in the comboxes of four of his posts on "Denominations and Church Union and Reunion" (cf. here, here, here, and here). These posts were prompted, at least in part, by the passing of the FV/NPP report at the 2007 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. Alastair was arguing for, among other things, the "desideratum of visible and even institutional unity" among all Christians. In our ecumenical efforts we [Christians] should be striving, in his opinion, for institutional unity, i.e. that we all be joined together in one institution. I agreed with Alastair on that particular point, but Alastair seemed to suggest that this future institution (in which all Christians of all denominations would be united) would not be any of the presently existing institutions; it would come into being as a result of the unification of all the various denominations.

To understand my concern about this claim, it may be helpful to read something I wrote last year titled "On the Imminent and Final Conflict Between the City of God and the City of Man." In my view, the Tower of Babel represents that religious unity established and advanced by [mere] men. It has its origin in [mere] men; it is established from the bottom up. It is, in its essence, the social embodiment of the act of Cain, who sought to make his own way to God, by his own labor. It is the institutionalized form of Pelagianism; it is the antithesis of grace. It is also, in my opinion, a type of the man-made religious unity (i.e. the Antichurch) that is to arise in the last days, and which the Antichrist will head. The Church, by contrast, is not like the Tower of Babel in that the Church has its origin from the top down, that is, from God, to man. In that way the Church is grace from beginning to end. Christ is the Head of the Church. For that reason, the Church existed before any [mere] men were members of it. To be received into the Church is to be received into that which the incarnate Christ Himself (i.e. God Himself) established, He Himself being the Head. Whatever [mere] man establishes, is not the Church; only what the incarnate Christ established is the Church.

With that in mind, my argument in response to Alastair was roughly this:

If Christ did not found an institution, then to seek to bring all Christians into institutional unity is a form of "outdoing Christ", that is, it goes beyond the degree of unity that Christ Himself saw fit to place in His Church. In that case, in our ecumenical efforts we should merely settle for moral and basic doctrinal agreement and collaboration in aid to the poor and needy. But if Christ did found an institution, then logically either that institution no longer exists or it continues to exist to this day. If that institution no longer exists, then it cannot come back into existence (by the impossibility of intermittent existence), and any institution we [mere] men might make in attempting to reestablish it is a different institution, not the institution founded by the God-man Christ Jesus. But if the institution founded by Christ still exists, then all our ecumenical efforts should be directed toward getting all believers into that institution. So, either we should not be seeking institutional unity, or we should be seeking out that existing institution that Christ Himself founded and seeking to bring all men into it.

I have copied and pasted below some of the relevant parts of the dialogue between Alastair and myself.

June 20, 2007


When you say, "the denominations will cease to be necessary", it looks as though you are saying that the future unity of the Church (prior to the Second Coming, but after the reunion of all denominations) will be non-institutional. In other words, it seems as though in your opinion, the visible Church in the future will not be one institution, but simply non-institutional. Am I understanding you correctly?

You said in your combox comments to "The Denominational Church" that you think "Christ founded the Church to enjoy institutional unity", implying in my mind that you think that the Church (in its future state of reunion) will be institutionally one. So do you think that the Church in its future state of reunion will be institutionally one or simply non-institutional?

If you think that the future visible Church will be one institution, then I don't understand why you are trying to do something to the Church (make her institutionally one) that [you think] Christ Himself did not see fit to do while on earth.

But if you think that the Church in her state of future reunion will be non-institutional, then I don't see how that is anything other than ecclesial anarchy, the necessary fruit of individualism and ecclesial egalitarianism.

- Bryan


I don't know what the future Church will be like. However, I expect that it will enjoy some form of institutional unity.

June 21, 2007


I too seek institutional unity. I do so believing that I'm not outdoing Christ, because I believe that Christ founded an institution. I'm not sure if you agree that Christ founded an institution, because I do not know what it means for something to have "institutional dimensions". But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you agree that Christ founded an institution.

The way we work for institutional unity will depend on whether we believe that one of the presently existing institutions is the original one. If none of the existing institutions is the original one, then all the existing ones can be done away with, and a single new one created. But if one of the existing institutions is the original, then institutional unity should involve all the other institutions being incorporated into the original.

You seem to think that if there was an original institution, it was schism-sensitive, such that it [though not the Church-as-mere-aggregate-of-believers] ceased to exist in the event of some schism. That is because, apparently, you think the institution of the Church does not have an ultimate "principium unitatis" (principle of unity) fixing the locus of institutional continuity in the event of schism. In that way you seem to have something more like a "mereological essentialist" view of the original institution — all the parts (or at least all the major parts) are equally central to the being of the organism as such. The organic notion of unity, by contrast, allows that an organism can lose certain parts and still continue to exist as an organism. In more complex organisms some parts are more central than others to the continued existence of the organism. This is why, for example, if you lose your toe you neither cease to exist nor do you continue on as a toe.

But I think there is good reason from the Scripture and the fathers (see especially the quotations of St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, and St. Optatus) to believe that the successor of Peter has the role of principium unitatis. This is why, in my opinion, the original institution did not cease to exist when schisms occurred. Those remaining in full communion with the successor of Peter ipso facto remained in the original institution. And those separating from the successor of Peter ipso facto separated from the original institution. That does not mean (necessarily) that those departing from full communion with the successor of Peter depart from the aggregate of all believers.

The point I am making is that if your reunification plan involves starting a new institution (and abolishing all the present ones), then your plan assumes that the Catholic Church is not the original institution Christ founded, and that the successor of Peter does not have the role of principium unitatis. But Catholics cannot accept those assumptions. Therefore, while Catholics share your desire for institutional unity, we cannot support the manner in which you [apparently] wish to see it brought about. ...

- Bryan



Let's say that the institution of the Church that Christ founded had the pope as one of its principles of unity. Suppose that Christ did intend that one dimension of the unity of His Church was to be the unity found in the one Bishop of Rome, the first among equals. This does not mean that, after the split between the West and the East and the split at the Reformation the Roman Catholic church is the one true institution that Christ founded.

It either means that, or it means that the institution that Christ founded ceased to exist. The institution, so long as it exists, cannot fail to have its locus in its principium unitatis. The idea that the institution continued as something other than the Catholic Church but not as any particular institution, would reduce the institution to the aggregate of believers. In other words, it would conceptually eliminate the institution altogether by conceptually making the institution equivalent to the aggregate of believers.

And the notion that the institution continued on as some other particular institution would have to posit a different principium unitatis, someone other than the successor of Peter.

You might accept the idea that the institution ceased to exist. One problem for that position is that the future institution you envision would then not be the same one that Christ founded. It would not be a divine institution (i.e. one founded by Christ), but a man-made institution. The only way to have a divine institution in the future is for it to be the divine institution that Christ founded. And that means that the original institution cannot go out of existence.

But as I just showed, if the original institution did not go out of existence, then it would have had to continue as one of the concrete institutions, in 1054 as either the Catholic Church or one of the EOCs, and in the 16th century as either the Catholic Church or as one of the Protestant denominations. And, as I have tried to argue, the role of Peter as principium unitatis is good reason to believe that in any split, where goes Peter, there goes the institution that Christ founded.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Pope Benedict on the urgency of Christian unity

(Pope Benedict participates in an Ecumenical Prayer Service at the Church of Saint Joseph in New York, April 18, 2008.)

During his visit to the US, Pope Benedict said some things quite relevant to the goal of the full visible unity of all Christians. (The texts of the homilies and addresses Pope Benedict delivered while here in the US are available here.) In his address to the Bishops of the US, he said the following:

In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them. This emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church (cf. Spe Salvi, 13-15), giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community. Yet from the beginning, God saw that "it is not good for man to be alone" (Gen 2:18). We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love - for God and for our neighbor. If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God (cf. Spe Salvi, 14). If this seems counter-cultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture.

In that paragraph Pope Benedict addresses the individualism that infuses our culture and leads American Christians into ecclesial consumerism and gnosticism.

In his homily at the Mass at Nationals Park Pope Benedict said the following:

Christ established his Church on the foundation of the Apostles (cf. Rev 21:14) as a visible, structured community which is at the same time a spiritual communion, a mystical body enlivened by the Spirit's manifold gifts, and the sacrament of salvation for all humanity (cf. Lumen Gentium, 8). In every time and place, the Church is called to grow in unity through constant conversion to Christ, whose saving work is proclaimed by the Successors of the Apostles and celebrated in the sacraments.

Here Pope Benedict reminds us that the Church is a "visible structured community" built on the "foundation of the Apostles". He affirms that at the same time, the Church is a "spiritual communion". Those who would propose that the Church is either an institution or a spiritual communion are, according to Pope Benedict, offering us a false dilemma, based on a dualism that misunderstands the nature of the unity of bodies.

Then on Friday, April 18, at St. Joseph's Church in New York, Pope Benedict met with over 300 leaders and representatives of various Christian communities. (Here is a video of Pope Benedict greeting some of these various leaders and representatives; another video of that meeting can be found here.) A Zenit article about Pope Benedict's address at this ecumenical meeting quotes papal spokesman Fr.
Federico Lombardi as saying that the Pope is seeking honesty in the ecumenical dialogue, a desire to get to the foundations of that which divides the various Christian communities, rather than merely exchanging mutual expressions of good will.

Father Lombardi said the Pope wants "to go to the foundations," "to move all Christians of every community to reflect on the importance of seeking the truth together," without being satisfied with "a certain 'well wishing,' let us say, a certain generic goodwill, but to seek out that which is our duty to revealed truth." What the Pontiff is promoting, he added, is therefore "a commitment of honesty, of honesty and reflection in which the true Christian faith is brought to light [...] by seeking the essential elements of the profession of faith that Scripture and Tradition uphold and on the basis of which, then, we must come together."

The full text of Pope Benedict's address at this ecumenical meeting is available here. In it he encourages Christians laboring for unity to persevere in our ecumenical efforts. He reminds us that "the Lord will never abandon us in our quest for unity", because we are called:

to live in a way that bears witness to the "one heart and mind" (Acts 4:32), which has always been the distinguishing trait of Christian koinonia (cf. Acts 2:42), and the force drawing others to join the community of believers.

The notion that our unity (i.e. com-munity) draws the world into the Church is biblical. In St. John 17 Jesus prays "that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me." (St. John 17:23) And in St. John 13:35 Jesus says, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." This love is expressed and revealed in community, not division. Pope Benedict writes:

Globalization has humanity poised between two poles. On the one hand, there is a growing sense of interconnectedness and interdependency between peoples even when - geographically and culturally speaking - they are far apart. This new situation offers the potential for enhancing a sense of global solidarity and shared responsibility for the well-being of mankind. On the other hand, we cannot deny that the rapid changes occurring in our world also present some disturbing signs of fragmentation and a retreat into individualism. The expanding use of electronic communications has in some cases paradoxically resulted in greater isolation. Many people - including the young - are seeking therefore more authentic forms of community. Also of grave concern is the spread of a secularist ideology that undermines or even rejects transcendent truth. The very possibility of divine revelation, and therefore of Christian faith, is often placed into question by cultural trends widely present in academia, the mass media and public debate. For these reasons, a faithful witness to the Gospel is as urgent as ever. Christians are challenged to give a clear account of the hope that they hold (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

The faithful witness to the Gospel through Christian koinonia is "as urgent as ever", claims Pope Benedict, because of the globalization that brings the world's citizens into greater interconnectedness and mutual awareness, and also because in the midst of the advance of communication technology, there is (paradoxically) now an individualism and isolation that is making people more hungry than ever for "authentic forms of community". That is why, more than ever, we [Christians] need to be showing to the world the unity of Christian koinonia, the authentic community (i.e. unity) made possible through the Spirit of Christ. There is also now, claims Pope Benedict, a secularist ideology that undermines or rejects divine revelation. And this too makes authentic Christian unity urgent for a faithful witness to the Gospel. Pope Benedict continues:

Too often those who are not Christians, as they observe the splintering of Christian communities, are understandably confused about the Gospel message itself. Fundamental Christian beliefs and practices are sometimes changed within communities by so-called "prophetic actions" that are based on a hermeneutic not always consonant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition. Communities consequently give up the attempt to act as a unified body, choosing instead to function according to the idea of "local options". Somewhere in this process the need for diachronic koinonia - communion with the Church in every age - is lost, just at the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel (cf. Rom 1:18-23).

Pope Benedict points out that when people see the divisions among Christians, it confuses them regarding the message of the Gospel. It confuses them in the sense of making it difficult to determine what is the Gospel, since the inquirer must sort through all these various competing and contrary "Gospels". But the myriad of opposing Christian factions also makes it seem as though there is no Gospel at all, for these divisions make it appear as though whatever is present is not supernatural, for it is [apparently] not even strong enough to unite Christians into one people. Not only that, adds Pope Benedict, in many cases, these divisions lead to changes in "fundamental Christian beliefs and practices", i.e. they lead to heresy. These divisions also undermine the perceived need for the Church to be institutionally one. Hence, denominationalism is intrinsically disposed to fragment into local independent communities, what Pope Benedict calls "local options". These in turn, are disposed to withering away over time, for the same reason that individualists are prone to falling away; they are detached from the larger Body of Christ, both in the present time, and through the past, what Pope Benedict calls "diachronic koinonia", i.e. "communion with the Church in every age". Diachronic koinonia is preserved only when in communion with the whole Church of the present, we hold on to the tradition that the Church of every age has passed down to us, and through which we remain in communion with Her members of every age. Not only does the world need a "common witness" to the saving power of the Gospel, but those Christians who have fallen into heresy and lost sight of "diachronic koiononia" need it as well.

Pope Benedict goes on to teach that the unity of the Church flows from the unity of the Holy Trinity. (I have discussed this previously here.) He writes:

Faced with these difficulties, we must first recall that the unity of the Church flows from the perfect oneness of the Trinitarian God. In John's Gospel, we are told that Jesus prayed to his Father that his disciples might be one, "just as you are in me and I am in you" (Jn 17:21). This passage reflects the unwavering conviction of the early Christian community that its unity was both caused by, and is reflective of, the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This, in turn, suggests that the internal cohesion of believers was based on the sound integrity of their doctrinal confession (cf. 1 Tim 1:3-11). Throughout the New Testament, we find that the Apostles were repeatedly called to give an account for their faith to both Gentiles (cf. Acts 17:16-34) and Jews (cf. Acts 4:5-22; 5:27-42). The core of their argument was always the historical fact of Jesus's bodily resurrection from the tomb (Acts 2:24, 32; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30). The ultimate effectiveness of their preaching did not depend on "lofty words" or "human wisdom" (1 Cor 2:13), but rather on the work of the Spirit (Eph 3:5) who confirmed the authoritative witness of the Apostles (cf. 1 Cor 15:1-11). The nucleus of Paul's preaching and that of the early Church was none other than Jesus Christ, and "him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). But this proclamation had to be guaranteed by the purity of normative doctrine expressed in creedal formulae - symbola - which articulated the essence of the Christian faith and constituted the foundation for the unity of the baptized (cf. 1 Cor 15:3-5; Gal 1:6-9; Unitatis Redintegratio, 2)."

Notice that for Pope Benedict, unity cannot preclude shared doctrinal confession. We cannot bypass truth to get to unity. Truth and unity go together. This doctrinal truth upon which our unity must be based was articulated in the Creeds, the "symbols" of the faith. Those who claim that agreement on the Creeds is not necessary for unity are offering a false unity that does not include the "essence of the Christian faith".

Pope Benedict then raises a concern about the effect of relativism and scientism on our contemporary culture's way of conceiving of doctrine, the possibility of knowing doctrine, doctrinal unity and the importance of doctrinal unity. He writes:

My dear friends, the power of the kerygma has lost none of its internal dynamism. Yet we must ask ourselves whether its full force has not been attenuated by a relativistic approach to Christian doctrine similar to that found in secular ideologies, which, in alleging that science alone is "objective", relegate religion entirely to the subjective sphere of individual feeling. Scientific discoveries, and their application through human ingenuity, undoubtedly offer new possibilities for the betterment of humankind. This does not mean, however, that the "knowable" is limited to the empirically verifiable, nor religion restricted to the shifting realm of "personal experience".

For Christians to accept this faulty line of reasoning would lead to the notion that there is little need to emphasize objective truth in the presentation of the Christian faith, for one need but follow his or her own conscience and choose a community that best suits his or her individual tastes. The result is seen in the continual proliferation of communities which often eschew institutional structures and minimize the importance of doctrinal content for Christian living.

Pope Benedict is suggesting that the relativism and scientism that saturate our culture play a role in devaluing our perception of the possibility of knowing objective truth regarding Christian doctrine. In this state of epistemological skepticism and despair, the individual Christian is by default left with ecclesial consumerism, seeing no other option than to choose a community that "best suits his or her individual tastes". And this practice, in turn, leads to the proliferation of non-institutional communities, and thus to the further fragmentation of institutional unity among Christians.

Pope Benedict affirms the importance of doctrinal truth for ecumenical unity:

Even within the ecumenical movement, Christians may be reluctant to assert the role of doctrine for fear that it would only exacerbate rather than heal the wounds of division. Yet a clear, convincing testimony to the salvation wrought for us in Christ Jesus has to be based upon the notion of normative apostolic teaching: a teaching which indeed underlies the inspired word of God and sustains the sacramental life of Christians today.

Don't settle for false unity that plasters over doctrinal differences or ignores the necessity of doctrinal agreement, claims Pope Benedict.

Only by "holding fast" to sound teaching (2 Thess 2:15; cf. Rev 2:12-29) will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world. Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching. This is the message which the world is waiting to hear from us. Like the early Christians, we have a responsibility to give transparent witness to the "reasons for our hope", so that the eyes of all men and women of goodwill may be opened to see that God has shown us his face (cf. 2 Cor 3:12-18) and granted us access to his divine life through Jesus Christ. He alone is our hope! God has revealed his love for all peoples through the mystery of his Son's passion and death, and has called us to proclaim that he is indeed risen, has taken his place at the right hand of the Father, and "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead" (Nicene Creed).

How must we show Christian koinonia to the world? By holding fast in unity to "sound teaching", giving "unambiguous testimony" to the truth of the Gospel. The world is "waiting to hear [this message] from us", and we show this message to the world when we proclaim it as one people, not when we are divided among each other. The Great Commission in this way depends on our ecumenical work. Do you want to win the world to Christ? Pursue the full visible unity of all Christians. These two ends go together.

Pope Benedict closes his address with a prayer, a reminder of the importance of prayer for ecumenical success, and an expression of gratitude to God for the ecumenical progress that has been made toward the full visible unity of all Christ's followers:

May the word of God we have heard this evening inflame our hearts with hope on the path to unity (cf. Lk 24:32). May this prayer service exemplify the centrality of prayer in the ecumenical movement (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 8); for without it, ecumenical structures, institutions and programs would be deprived of their heart and soul. Let us give thanks to Almighty God for the progress that has been made through the work of his Spirit, as we acknowledge with gratitude the personal sacrifices made by so many present and by those who have gone before us.

By following in their footsteps, and by placing our trust in God alone, I am confident that - to borrow the words of Father Paul Wattson - we will achieve the "oneness of hope, oneness of faith, and oneness of love" that alone will convince the world that Jesus Christ is the one sent by the Father for the salvation of all.

Amen. May it be so Lord.

UPDATE (April 22, 2008):

Fr. Richard Neuhaus had this to say about the Pope's ecumenical address:

Then there was the ecumenical meeting that evening at St. Joseph's Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Here, more than at any other point of the papal visit, there was a sharp edge to what Benedict said. In sum, he said that the hope for Christian unity, to which the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed, is undermined by those bodies that claim "prophetic" authority in jettisoning the Great Tradition of Christian faith by abandoning revelation and its apostolic transmission through the centuries.

There was specific reference to the cardinal doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, as defined by the early councils of the one Church of Jesus Christ. The pope has written that the Church is not a poorly managed haberdashery in search of customers, and, employing different language, that is what he told the assembled Christian leaders in his caution against the accommodation of the Faith to the fashions of culture. My impression, reinforced by conversations with some of the participants in the meeting, was that there was a good deal of salutary squirming in their seats on the part of some denominational officials present. The only unity we can seek, Benedict was saying, is unity that is pleasing to God, and the only unity that is pleasing to God is unity in the truth.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A meditation on the Crucifix

(Click on the photo to see a different photo of this Crucifix.)

At Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis I often meditate on the Crucifix, because the Crucifix represents incarnate Love in His most loving act. Here before me is what I am to become, what I am to long to become, that I might participate in "the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death." (Phil 3:10) But what is here before me? Here before me is death, death preceded by unbelievable suffering and agony. I must therefore long for suffering and death. For its own sake? No, for Love, and for all those Love loves. Why must suffering and death be necessary for Love? (Luke 24:26) Love says, "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone." (John 12:24) Love, by its very nature, cannot be alone; Love is always for others, even when abandoned by them. To live for others, I must die. I must embrace death, and all its accompanying sufferings, in order to give life to others, and to give glory to Love, who is Life. Love "does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered. " (1 Corinthians 13:5) Love is like this in us only through the embrace of suffering and death. Love does not take into account a wrong suffered, because Love has embraced suffering. Love is not provoked, because Love has embraced death. To love, and to love Love, is to embrace suffering and death for the sake of Love and the love of Love.

The greater suffering Love suffered was not His physical suffering; it was the suffering of rejection and betrayal, abandoned by those He loved, scorned and mocked by His own people. That this was His greater suffering can only be understood by those who have loved deeply. Love was rejected and abandoned by those He most loved, those to whom He had poured out His heart. "He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him." (John 1:11) The greater the love, the greater the suffering when that love is rejected. And Love's love is unlimited, hence His suffering in soul was unfathomable. In the lowest level of Dante's hell are the betrayers, and in the lowest zone of that level are those who betrayed their own lords and benefactors. Why is this sin so great? Because it is the most contrary to Love. To turn against those who love us, and to repay them evil for good, and hatred for love, especially when they have opened their hearts to us in love, is to cause them the greatest suffering. This suffering too Love embraces.

Those to whom Love came and revealed Himself and opened His heart, turned their backs on Him. But He says, "I gave My back to those who strike Me" (Isaiah 50:6). They praised Him on Palm Sunday, referring to Him as a King. He opened His heart to them and wept in front of them. (Luke 19:41) But a few days later they demanded that He be crucified. They had not the sensitivity or empathy even to bear with Him in the garden, where He obviously was longing for the support of their companionship. "Could you not keep watch with Me for one hour?" (Matthew 26:40) To be united to Love is to embrace rejection and betrayal by friends and family, not just persecution by enemies of the Lord.

To be a Christian (i.e. a Christ-follower), I must be like Christ, allowing my hands and feet to be stretched out and pinned to my instrument of death, my instrument of eternal life. Thus nailed, I am made immobile, dying to that natural clinging instinct to avoid death at all costs. I am to bear the shame of my indignity exposed. I am to be silent in the face of those who ridicule me (1 Peter 2:21-23). I am to turn my cheek to those who pluck my beard. (Isaiah 50:6) I am to allow my heart to be pierced in violence, even by those whom I love dearly. To be a Christian, to share Christ's cross, is to carry around suffering and death in my body. St. Paul tells us this very thing, saying that we are "always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies." (2 Corinthians 4:10) To be a Christian is to love to the point of suffering deeply. Can we carry around in our bodies the pierced heart of Jesus, and not allow our own hearts to be pierced?

Is it only death that is before me as I look upon the Crucifix? No. It is Life that is before me. Life is found in this death. This is the death that death cannot hold, the death that overpowers death and gives Life. (Acts 2:24) Do we really understand what it means that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God"? (Matthew 4:4) If I were a mere beast, I could live by bread alone, at least so far as I (as mere beast) could determine. But insofar as we try to live on bread alone, we treat ourselves as though we are mere beasts. "Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die." (Isaiah 22:13; 1 Corinthians 15:32) It is precisely because we are made in the image of God that we cannot live on bread alone. "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee." (St. Augustine, Confessions, I) If we try to live only for bread, we treat our lives as meaningless and hopeless, and we thus die, for man cannot live without meaning or hope. In the encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict writes, "Tantummodo cum futurum certum est uti realitas positiva, tunc praesens dignum est ut vivatur." (Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live the present as well.) This is what is meant by "man does not live by bread alone". The gospel of Life makes no sense to those who conceive of life as nothing more than metabolism. Our gospel message includes this message: Awake, you without hope, to your hopelessness and the impossibility of bread giving you hope or life or meaning, the very things you as bearers of God's image crave above all else, and without which you wither and die.

But the gospel message is not just negative. Before me represented in the Crucifix is the very "Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Father", the "Living Bread that came down from Heaven". To eat this Bread is to receive Eternal Life. This Word says:
"For the Bread of God is that which comes down from Heaven, and gives Life to the world. ... I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. ... I am the Bread of Life. Your fathers ate the wilderness, and they died. This is the Bread which comes down from Heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the Living Bread which came down from Heaven; if anyone eats of this Bread, he will live for ever; and the Bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. ... Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the Bread which came down from Heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this Bread will live forever." (John 6)
In the Eucharist I receive the Bread of Heaven, and my heart is no longer restless, for now I truly Live, not as a mere beast, but fulfilled in my nature as a being made in the image of God. Before me, represented in the Crucifix, is the Love by which I am Loved and Fed, and by which I am given true meaning and hope, a participation in Eternal Life Himself. Love's suffering and death, represented before me in the Crucifix and in which I participate in this present life, is "not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us." (Romans 8:18)

Only by this Love, with its accompanying embrace of suffering and death, can the divisions between Christians be overcome. Love seeks to work through us to do what Love does, bring unity. Why does Love seek to work through us? Pope Leo XIII wrote:

"Although God can do by His own power all that is effected by created natures, nevertheless in the counsels of His loving Providence He has preferred to help men by the instrumentality of men. And, as in the natural order He does not usually give full perfection except by means of man's work and action, so also He makes use of human aid for that which lies beyond the limits of nature, that is to say, for the sanctification and salvation of souls." (Satis cognitum, 2)
"For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps." (1 Peter 2:21)

While my heart still beats I wish to follow Christ's example, loving deeply "from the heart" (1 Peter 1:22), stretching out my hands and feet, so that my heart too may be pierced, and in Love I may embrace the suffering and death of His cross. In that Love, in union with His sacred heart, is Life Abundant (John 10:10), and overflowing joy, for Love tells us that our "sorrow shall be turned into joy" (John 16:20). By following in His steps we participate in His joy (John 17:13), the joy He receives in loving us and sacrificing Himself for us (1 Thess 2:19-20), the very joy for which He endured the cross. (Hebrews 12:2)

Lord Jesus, teach us from Your cross. Unite your people, in love, through us, as we follow your example on the cross, embracing in ourselves Your suffering and death.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the US tomorrow


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sex, Dualism and Ecclesial Unity

Amor and Psyche
Antonio Canova (1786-93)

Any Christian in the West who takes his faith seriously is keenly aware of the significant difference between the Christian moral tradition regarding sexual practices, and the sexual practices and values of contemporary culture. But we have had difficulty explaining to our youth the basis for the Christian moral tradition. We tend to resort to sentimental slogans (e.g. "love waits"), anecdotal evidence (e.g. those who wait report better sex) or pragmatism (e.g. you'll avoid STDs). We have been reduced to these sorts of reasons because we have lost sight of the philosophical basis for the Christian sexual ethic. The four principles that have been lost are (1) the normativity that accompanies teleology as understood through the natural law, (2) the inseparability of the procreative and unitive aspects of the sexual act, (3) the nature of the unity of the soul and body, entailing that our sexuality is intrinsic, not extrinsic, to each person's personhood [hence the impossibility of a 'sex-change'] and (4) the irreducible sacredness and mystery of our sexual organs and the sexual act. (See this pdf article on John Paul II on Love and Responsibility.)

The one-night stand approach to sexuality is based on a dualism that fails to recognize the unity of soul and body. It fails to recognize that in human persons, to unite two bodies in a sexual act without a union of souls is to treat the human person as a mere body. It treats the human person as something other than what he is: an irreducible composite of body and soul. In the sexual act the human person is seeking personal intimacy and mutual acceptance and love from the heart, not merely sexual pleasure. It is dualism that reduces the sexual act to an "exchange of fluids", and disregards what is essential to a truly human sexual union, i.e. the exchange and union of hearts, each heart pouring itself into the other and receiving the heart of the other.

This dualism is widespread. I've been to conferences where Evangelicals, as invited plenary session speakers, have *defended* dualism. (That is partly due to a sola scriptura approach to philosophical anthropology, and partly due to the Cartesian influence on Protestantism.) Evangelical defenders of dualism tend not to see the contradiction between their defense of dualism on the one hand, and their proscription against premarital sex on the other hand. A stipulative, voluntaristic treatment of the divine commands regarding sex is used to fill the resulting philosophical vacuum.

But this dualism also has another form of expression. Not only does it treat union of persons as allowing bodily union without union of soul, in other contexts it treats union of human persons as having nothing to do with bodily or physical union. This can be seen in the notion that a family is any group of people that wants to live together, or that internet chats (or electronic greeting cards) are sufficient for friendship, that "distance learning" is essentially no different than face-to-face discussions with a professor, and that community has nothing to do with living in the same neighborhood, but merely with common interests or beliefs. Dualism also expresses itself in the notion that our unity as Christians has nothing to do with belonging to the same visible body of believers, or sharing the same meal at the Lord's table, or even sharing the same table. All we need for unity, according to dualism, is shared love of Jesus, or shared beliefs in the essentials of the faith. For the dualist, physical, bodily, visible, or institutional unity is deceptive and misleading, or at best unnecessary. What matters is the heart, not all those empty rituals, church buildings, bureaucracies, hierarchies, etc. But this is just the old dualism of the gnostics. It sets up a false dilemma: either empty and dead ritualism and shared bureaucratic unity on the one hand, or shared living faith at the level of the heart on the other hand. To see that this is a *false* dilemma, one need only put it in the mouth of one spouse to the other: "We must choose between engaging in mindless mechanical coitus, or pursuing a purely platonic relationship in which we love each other from the heart."

True Christian unity, which Christ prays in John 17 that His followers would have, is not merely unity of heart, nor is it merely institutional unity. It is both, because human persons are body-soul composites. To understand the nature of the unity of the Church (i.e. the Body of Christ), we have to understand the nature of the unity of the human person. Regarding the Church St. Paul writes, "There is one body, and one Spirit". (Ephesians 4:4) There are not two bodies and one Spirit, or two Spirits and one body. There is unity at the level of body, and unity at the level of the Spirit that ensouls that one body. The unity of the Body of Christ is a unity of Spirit and body, not a dualism of merely hierarchical unity or merely spiritual (invisible) unity. If we import a gnostic or Cartesian dualism into our philosophical anthropology, we will fail to understand the nature of the unity of the Body of Christ. We will think that true Christian unity involves only sharing something at the level of heart (e.g. belief in essential doctrines) or sharing some extrinsic activity (e.g. helping the poor). We'll fail to see that Christian unity is incomplete and imperfect so long as we are not one hierarchically unified body.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Unity and "Mere Christianity"

Not too long ago, I heard something like this:

You claim that we [you and I] aren't in unity, and you seem to base this claim on the fact that we differ over certain Catholic doctrines. I certainly hope that unity doesn't require that I believe exactly like everyone else. I think we can't be in [religious] unity if we don’t believe that faith in the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin; that Jesus is the Son of God; that He was born of a virgin; that He rose again and is interceding at the right hand of the Father; and that the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit to guide us in our daily lives so that we might be more like Him. There probably are a few additional beliefs that would be helpful to hold in common if we expect to have unity within the church. And you undoubtedly share these core beliefs. But I don't see why we need anything beyond agreement regarding those core beliefs in order to have Christian unity.

This position is quite common, I think, especially among the Evangelical communities. It amounts to what we might call "mere Christianity". According to "mere Christianity", what is important are certain essential or core doctrines, and we need to agree on those essential doctrines. All other teachings or practices are matters about which we may disagree, without thereby having caused a schism or divided the Church.

There is a certain sense in which Catholics agree with "mere Christianity". There are points of doctrine about which the Catholic Church has made no determination. (Think of the debate between the Dominicans and the Jesuits in the sixteenth century regarding the nature of divine grace, for example.) On such points Catholics may disagree, without that disagreement being either schismatic or heretical, or diminishing our unity. And so in that sense, the Catholic Church grants that we don't all have to "believe exactly like everyone else" in the Church in order to be in full communion, i.e. in full unity with each other. And yet when a candidate or catechumen is received into the Catholic Church, he says the following sentence: "I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God." For a Catholic, therefore, "all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God" is essential to the faith, not optional.

So what are the problems with the "mere Christianity" position? Fr. Dwight Longenecker has addressed these in his book More Christianity. Here I want only briefly to address a few. For the first fifteen hundred years after Christ, if you had asked any Christian what are the fundamentals of the faith, he would have pointed to the Creed and the sacraments. But we find the sacraments only in the Church; and the Creed itself presents as an 'essential' of the faith that we believe in the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church." In other words, from the point of the early Christians, there is no "mere Christianity" that sets aside the Church, or treats the Church as irrelevant or superfluous or non-essential to the Christian faith. That explains the early dictum of the fathers that "he cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother". So that historical fact should give pause to any contemporary advocating some kind of Church-transcending "mere Christianity".

Second, the idea of finding a lowest-common doctrinal denominator between all the various factions and schisms, and treating that lowest-common doctrinal denominator as the "essentials of the faith" ultimately leaves us with no doctrinal content for the "essentials of the faith", for in that case there is no ground for a principled distinction between schisms and heresies. (That is because insofar as "mere Christianity" says anything about "the Church", it treats the Church as an invisible entity, i.e. as merely the plurality of all genuine believers of the content of those "essentials of the faith". For the problem with that notion see my posts here and here.) Church-transcending "mere Christianity" is for that very reason strapped with an authority vacuum that does not provide a ground for distinguishing between schisms and heresies. For example, in "mere Christianity", apart from the authority of the Church, there is no ground for an authoritative determination that Arianism is a heresy. There is just one's own interpretation of Scripture versus that of the Arian. (And don't think that heretics didn't appeal to Scripture: see here and here.) And so to find a lowest-common denominator between oneself and the Arian means that something even like "Jesus is God" must be left out of the "essentials of the faith". In this way, the "mere Christianity" position provides no authoritative determination of what exactly are those "essentials of the faith". By default, then, each man decides for himself what are the essentials of the faith. And thus
for "mere Christianity" what is described as "the essentials of the faith" is a chimera, an abstraction treated theoretically as though it were a concrete particular which we all can self-evidently recognize. But the "essentials of the faith" are not self-evident. Protestants often disagree regarding which doctrines are true, let alone regarding which doctrines are essential. That is precisely why there are so many factions within Protestantism. In short, when each man decides for himself what are "the essential doctrines of the faith", the result is not unity, but disunity, because there is then no authoritative determination and delineation of what those essential doctrines of the faith are. Without the authority of the Church, "mere Christianity" is merely a feel-good fiction.

"Mere Christianity" moreover leaves no ground for an authoritative determination of how much unity Christ wants Christians to have. The person defending the "mere Christianity" position has no way of knowing whether he has exchanged the sublime and sacramental unity Christ wants His people to have for a cheap substitute involving agreement on a few propositions. For the same reason he has no way of knowing whether his proposed unity is too strong, and that perhaps merely holding hands and singing Kumbayah with all the members of the World Council of Churches is the unity Christ wants. Thus the same problem that faces the "mere Christianity" position regarding determining "the essentials of the faith" also applies to its notion of how much unity Christ wants Christians to have. In this way, the "mere Christianity" position is self-refuting, for it arbitrarily sets up a standard of unity (i.e. agreement on some indeterminate set of doctrinal propositions) that closes itself off to a broader "mere Christianity" involving a different form of unity (e.g. liturgical, practical, social). For this reason, "mere Christianity" necessarily collapses into individualism, for that is what it is in essence, precisely because of its [implicit] rejection of the Church and the Church's authority.

Pope Benedict XV (the previous
pope Benedict) said, "Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected". About forty years ago, J.B. Phillips wrote a book titled Your God is Too Small. Those persons advocating some form of "mere Christianity" need to see that their proposed Christian unity is likewise "too small". It falls short by orders of magnitude from the sacramental and ecclesial unity Christ calls us to in John 17 and St. Paul calls us to in 1 Corinthians 1:10. The 'unity' of "mere Christianity" is indistinguishable from utter fragmentation and disunity. For a helpful article on the subject of "mere Christianity" from a Catholic point of view, see Kenneth Whitehead's article titled 'Is there a "Mere Christianity"?'.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Contemporary Hero

Pope John Paul II (May 18, 1920 - April 2, 2005)

This man helped me find the Church.

Thank you, your holiness.

Pray for us, Servant of God.

(Pope Benedict's homily today at the Mass for John Paul II can be found here.)