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

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Peter and Reunification

Recently, Alastair posted three articles on "Denominations, Church Union and Reunion". You can find them here, here, and here. There he seems to be arguing that the institutional unity we should pursue involves dissolving all present institutions and creating one new institution. I share his goal of institutional unity, but I want to consider the assumptions underlying his proposal for institutional unity.

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.

Alastair seems 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, he thinks that 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 he seems 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 institution 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 a person loses his toe he neither ceases to exist nor does he continue on as a toe. Likewise, an organic notion of the unity of an institution allows for the continuation of the institution in the event of schism.

Catholics hold an organic notion of the institution of the Church. We believe, from Scripture, doctrine, and the fathers (see especially the quotations of St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, and St. Optatus) that the successor of Peter has the role of principium unitatis in the institution Christ founded. This is why Catholics believe that the original institution Christ founded 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 is what we mean by "Ubi Petrus, Ibi Ecclesia". Peter's role as principium unitatis does not mean (necessarily) that those departing from full communion with the successor of Peter depart from the aggregate of all believers.

If Alastair's reunification plan involves starting a new institution (and abolishing all the present ones), then it 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 Alastair's desire for institutional unity, we cannot support the manner in which he [apparently] wishes to see it brought about. Moreover, there cannot be true institutional unity of all Christians without two things. First, the institution must have a sacramental as opposed to democratic authority. We can see the intrinsic disunity of democracies in Book VIII of Plato's Republic. Second, that sacramental authority must be one. Any form of magisterial authority involving multiplicity at the highest level will be intrinsically disposed to schism. Institutional unity requires a visible principium unitatis. And that principium unitatis, in order to be such, must itself be one. I discussed the four theoretical ways for achieving institutional unity here.

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