In Pope Francis’ general address on unity, given on June 18 last week, he has two major points. I commented on the first one on Wednesday, June 26. Now I comment on the second. Here is the point that the pope made:
And here I come to a second aspect of the Church as the Body of Christ. St Paul says that as members of the human body, although different and many, we form one body, as we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13). In the Church, therefore, there is a variety, a diversity of tasks and functions, there is no dull uniformity, but the richness of the gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes. But there is communion and unity: we are all in a relation to each other and we all come together to form one living body, deeply connected to Christ. Let us remember this well: being part of the Church means being united to Christ and receiving from Him the divine life that makes us live as Christians; it means remaining united to the Pope and the Bishops who are instruments of unity and communion, and also means overcoming personal interests and divisions, in order to understand each other better, to harmonize the variety and richness of each member; in a word, to love God and the people who are next to us more, in the family, in the parish, in the associations. In order to live a Body and its limbs must be united! Unity is beyond all conflict. Always! Conflicts, when they don’t end well, separate us from each other, they separate us from God. Conflict can help us to grow but can also divide us. We must not travel the path of division, of conflict among us, no we must all be united – with our differences – but united because that is the path of Jesus!
All attempts to properly explain Christian unity must recognize that in true unity there will always be rich diversity. Paul says, “although different and many, we form one body” (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-13). This refers to variety, diversity . . . “no[t] dull uniformity” as Pope Francis expresses it. It is the same Spirit who richly distributes various gifts. But the pope rightly notes that there is “communion and unity: we are all in a relation to each other and we all come together to form one living body, deeply connected to Christ” (italics mine). The reason for this unity in diversity is that we all receive real divine life from being united with Christ. If we are in Christ then we are one with each other in sharing in that divine life. This makes all things new.
As I noted several days ago the Catholic concept of the church leads the pope to say that this unity has an earthly reality that means union with the pope and the bishops. But he, and all serious Catholics since Vatican II, understand that this is a reality that other Christians deeply question. Some believe there is unity with the historic episcopate (i.e., bishops, etc.). Others do not see such a historic episcopate. Catholics alone uniquely affirm unity with the bishop of Rome as the pope. But to read this statement of the pope, as a complete reading clearly reveals, as a blanket denial of Catholic unity with other non-Catholic Christians is to misread the pope’s view.
Note that he adds to this the statement that “Unity is beyond all conflict.” This is a correct way of saying that our unity is a primary doctrine in the New Testament, not a secondary one. Conflicts do come, even within contexts where godly Christians abide in Christ. But unity is of such great importance that it should not be lost in any conflicts but rather it should “help us to grow.” This is so important for each of us to understand. Our conflicts, with one another, and between our churches, should promote unity, not create new division. This prompts Pope Francis to add, “We must not travel the path of division, of conflict among us, no we must all be united – with our differences – but united because that is the path of Jesus!” He seems to be saying that in spite of our differences we can experience unity so long as we travel “the path of Jesus.” Why? Following him keeps us in fellowship with one another even when we are not in full agreement. This is what I, and my friend Fr. Edward Oakes would call, “the Christocentric core of true unity.” This is what I refer to in my chapter (Chapter 6) “Christ the Center” in Your Church Is Too Small. Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great Catholic theologian expressed this so well when he said, “Only in Christ are all things in communion. He is the point of convergence of all hearts and beings and therefore the bridge and the shortest way from each to each.” This is why I stress “building bridges” that are strongly grounded in Christ alone as the surest way to renewed love and fellowship.
There is an indestructible and undeniable oneness about the church. The reason for this is that the church is in Christ. Thus the pope can say, and please read his words very carefully, “we must all be united – with our differences.” We can be united “with” our differences. Not in them but with them. The difference in preposition here is critical. This language is paradoxical. This is why it is language that is too easily missed by both Catholics and Protestants.
The pope is not saying that our differences do not matter. He is not advocating that we simply reduce our differences to the lowest common denominator and then bury the proverbial hatchet. He is not calling us to a new kind of progressivism that treats our real differences as if they are not really there, or they do not matter. He is rather calling us to a new understanding of our unity, an understanding that I believe is both ancient and post-modern.
In this understanding we work from unity toward our differences, both honestly and forthrightly. We understand what we disagree about but we keep talking and praying together, not in spite of our differences, but before them in love. We keep talking and praying together because we are in Christ and thus we are still one.
The final major paragraph of his address, which I will look at tomorrow, begins with these paradoxical words: “Unity is beyond all conflict.” How can this be? The sentence makes no real sense at first glance. It makes no real sense because this understanding of unity has not been adequately grasped by Catholic or Protestant, especially by many who are on the far ends of the ecclesial-theological spectrum – liberals and conservatives. We have to get beyond such labels and begin to love one another as Christians if we are to enter into this “unity which is beyond all conflict.” Do you hunger for this in our day of fierce and polarizing debate? Do you recognize that some differences really do matter but even these should not keep us from praying and working for unity in Christ?