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

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.


Anonymous said...

I didn't read each quote, so forgive me if this is redundant: I was particularly moved by the Pope's statement that authentic ecumenism must have a 'diachronic' aspect, which is somthing that all of us can so easily forget.

The reason I am commenting, however, is to ask whether you would be willing to re-post, in a more readable format (perhaps this blog), your excellent remarks on how philosophy helped you to enter the Papal communion (i.e., the Catholic Church).

Bryan Cross said...

Hello Andrew. I updated the original link so that it goes to a cleaned-up pdf form of the document. I hope that is more readable for you. And thank you for the compliment.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Anonymous said...

Thanks. The pdf doc looks great.

You stated that "unity and goodness are interchangable." It is long since I thought about the transcendentals of being (oneness, unity, goodness and beauty), but I do not remember thinking about these as interchangable. They are actually inseperable from being, and conceptually distinct ways of thinking about being. In neither way do the transcendentals of being seem, to me, interchangable. Unless a sufficient condition for x and y being interchangable is for each to be actually inseperable from being, yet conceptually distinct from one another; i.e., to be a transcendental of being. Basically, I am taking a long time to say that I do not know what is to be interchangable.

Anyway, it was new to me to think about the oneness of the Church along these lines, especially tying in the philosophical ideas about government. Your thinking about philosophy and the Church has got me thinking philosophically (which I have been neglecting to do), which should make my thinking about the Church (which I have been very diligent to do) a more fruitful endeavor.

Bryan Cross said...


The transcendentals are co-referential. They are the same in reference, though different in sense. Perhaps a good example is "the morning star" and "the evening star". These two terms are different in sense, but the same in reference, since they both refer to the planet Venus. Likewise, all the transcendentals are co-referential, though they differ in sense. That is why they are *referentially* (but not conceptually) interchangeable. Wherever there is being, there is goodness and unity and truth. Wherever there is a privation of one of the transcendentals, there is therefore necessarily a privation of the others. So, perhaps where I wasn't clear was in specifying the nature of the interchangeability. By 'interchangeable' I am speaking at the ontological level, not at the conceptual level.

I hope that helps. Thanks again for your comments.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Anonymous said...

bingo. thank you sir. I somehow got caught up in thinking about the interrelation of the transcendentals of being as a mode of perseity (which may be the case, I dont know), hence, emphasizing their inseperability, which does not go to the heart of the matter, as does the apprehension of their interchangability.

anyway, I have been on this rabbit-trail long enough. I look forward to reading more of your blog.

Oso Famoso said...

Thanks Brian. We are so blessed to have such a wonderful Papa. After re-reading everything for about the third time I am convinced that he pretty much said the exact things that needed to be said.

Although he is 81 years old and although he is German...he has a great grasp on the condition of the Body of Christ in the US.