From the very beginning, the People of God have sought unity and communion. This was the image Christ presented to his disciples as essential qualities of the Church. “That they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21) So the unity he envisioned is not just an organizational expedient but a sign and testimony enabling others to come to faith in Christ. In regard to giving witness, this unity seems closely aligned with the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) In the Church, unity and love are intertwined.
If we somehow were to conclude that the unity intended is ideally a commitment by all to think, believe, and behave as one, the goal would be unrealistic and unhealthy. We read that the Jerusalem community was “of one heart and mind.” (Acts 4:32) This was, perhaps, a somewhat idealistic vision and a fleeting moment at best in the life of the early Church. The community soon found itself divided over sharing, equal care for the needy, and eventually the potentially destructive issue of welcoming Gentile converts into what had been an observant Jewish community. Solutions were found, compromises were reached, and somehow the community re-formed itself and moved ahead. New growth came not by demanding uniformity but by coming to a consensus based on accommodations drawn on Christ’s teaching.
Today we are also confronted with the issue of unity and diversity in the Church. The recent discussions regarding clerical sexual abuse and the role of Church leadership in dealing or failing to deal adequately with it have polarized many. As the Pew Research Center (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life) can attest, many Catholics hold some fairly divergent positions on such basic issues as abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, and sexual ethics. Catholics are divided not only on the issues themselves but on how to respond to members of the Church who hold differing opinions. Many favor discussion and debate within a framework endorsing the fundamental truths of faith. Others feel that there is little room for discussion and that those who do not completely endorse all teaching presented by Church leadership are disloyal and should be subject to disciplinary action. For example, some bishops would not have allowed government office holders who do not explicitly oppose abortion to receive Communion.
The fundamental issue here is not just the question of differing opinions but how we must approach plurality within the Church. We are constantly drawn to try to understand the meaning of unity in the Church. We come back to the meaning of Christ’s words and the unity that is essential to the Christian community so that it may be a genuine sign of Christ’s mission. Are we to equate unity and uniformity? The responses of some Church leaders would seem to answer affirmatively, at least in practice if not necessarily in theory. Others feel strongly that a fair amount of plurality is not only not dangerous but healthy and is reflected in the long history of the Church.
The Second Vatican Council never hesitated to affirm Catholic belief and morality. But the council, responding to the spirit of aggiornamento, responded positively to plurality and open dialogue. Interestingly enough, the same principle was understood by many of the bishops gathered for the Council of Trent. They felt that in its decisions the council should exclude only those statements that were contrary to essential Catholic teaching and continue to allow responsible debate among Catholics on other issues and opinions. They recognized that one of the strengths of Middle Age theology was the tolerance for discussion and debate. After the council the Church entered into a time of defending itself in the polemics with the Reformation Churches and tended to solidify its theology so as not to give any impression of weakness or internal controversy. Perhaps the response was helpful as a defensive measure, but by the mid Twentieth Century, the time had come to pursue a new openness in order to be able to continue the mission of Christ in today’s world. One of the goals of Vatican II was to move beyond the time of polemics to enter into more open dialogue, not only with the other churches but also with the whole of society.
The council acknowledged that the same challenges affect the Church and modern society and that the values of the Gospel are needed to allow the light of Christ to penetrate the darkness. To be able to speak to others, we in the Church must learn to listen to and respect one another, especially when we see things in different lights. In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the council wrote: “By virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance of the gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all people of whatever nation, race, or culture, the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherliness which allows honest dialogue and invigorates it. Such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence, and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity.” (no. 92.) It is perhaps this last element that should speak clearly to all within the Church as we struggle with issues, discerning the Lord’s will with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
This requires a certain humility and an openness to listen. We are to engage in genuine dialogue, not simply issue pronouncements and condemnations. Dialogue begins with both sides listening and being able to search for some common ground. Once some shared concerns and goals have been identified, more delicate and controversial aspects of the issues can be addressed. Dialogue is based on mutual respect. If we want to be heard, we must listen as partners. A “tea party” attitude does not reflect the kind of unity to which Christ calls us. We will not and cannot always agree completely. We must also trust the Spirit to lead us as he directed the early Church and the Church throughout all history to new understanding and growth. The council also continued with advice which is quite appropriate today. “For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything which divides them. Hence let there be unity in what is necessary, freedom in what is unsettled, and charity in any case.”
Fr. David Foxen, MSC
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