All this week, we have been looking at various reflections and views on Christian unity. Below is a short article by fr Herbert McCabe, OP
, who was described as "one of the outstanding Catholic intellectuals of the post-war years
" and who was arguably the finest preacher and most original thinker in the English Dominican Province in recent years. Fr Herbert died in 2001 but was a prolific writer. This article, 'Christian Unity
' is from the book 'God, Christ and Us'
, a compilation of previously unpublished homilies and talks. Like all his work, it is clear, succinct and offers food for thought, contemplation and prayer:
"What does it mean to pray for Christian unity? This is really quite a hard question to answer. If we ask ourselves what Christian unity is or would be, we find ourselves entering deeper and deeper into a mystery. For to seek the unity of Christians is to seek to be united in one Spirit. In the end, the unity of Christians goes beyond what can be expressed by agreement in the words of doctrine. It goes beyond even our shared sacramental life. It has to do with the vision and enjoyment of God himself. As we seek unity amongst ourselves, we are seeking the unity of the Trinity: for this Jesus prayed to his Father 'that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one' (John 17:22-3). The unity that is not simply a matter of negotiations and reformulations, but is the gift of God, is the gift of God's own self. It is the unity of the Kingdom. And it is not to be given in full before the Kingdom.
In the meantime, what we really have to be concerned with is not so much Christian unity as Christian disunity. And here we have another kind of difficulty. If we ask what, in the end, Christian unity is about, we find ourselves confronted and surrounded by mystery. If we ask what Christian disunity is, we find ourselves confrinted by complexity. There are just so many different kinds of disunity, so many different ways in which Christians have discovered they are separated from each other.
All that the ecumenical movement can do is to seek out and analyse those nearest to hand, and those that seem most likely to be curable, and to try to heal them. We cannot have any grandiose plan for bringing about the unity of all Christians. That would be like having a plan for the total and complete health of all the human race. All we can hope to do is cure some of the wounds and diseases that are close to us.
Notice that the disunity we come across is not the same as diversity. Nor is it is same as sin. But it is connected with both. Then again, Christian divisions do not arise from weakness, from people failing in commitment to Christ. They arise from people striving to be faithful to the gospel while being so concerned with their own kind of striving that they become blind to the strivings of others. Christians discover, to their surprise, that they are separated. They wake up one morning to find that it has happened. It is certainly not something they seek. It comes from a kind of neglect of community.
As St Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:18-21, diversity is something necessary and healthy in the Church... Paul here is thinking first of all of different factions, followers of Apollos, or Cephas, or whoever - for the Corinthians were plainly a quarrelsome lot.
There are, and there have to be, many different ways of expressing the gospel, the good news that transcends any possible account of it. There are, and there have to be, different theologies - as there is, for example, a theology of St Luke, and another of St John, which grew up in different churches. Different churches, too, can and should develop different customs, diverse forms of worship. And all these contribute to the one body, to the diversity, the catholicity of the Church.
Divisions happen in the Church when good people discover that they have been so intensely concerned with their own theology, their own interpretation of the gospel, that they have lost sight of the unity of the body. Or, as is much more common, they discover that others have lost sight of the unity of the body. Diversity in the Church is an excellent and necessary thing. But, like many excellent and necessary things, it presents dangers too. It can give rise to a separateness - to the point where Christians feel that others have drifted away from communion, have excommunicated themselves, have preferred their own way to the whole body.
When that happens some churches try to abolish diversity altogether. And others become complaisant about separateness. Hence the monolithic, exclusive and uncatholic character of the Catholic Church in the last few centuries. Hence, too, the strange multiplicity of Protestant churches. The answer does not lie in imposing uniformity or in accepting division. And, unless we find the answer, we move from diversity, which is good, through division, which is not good. We move, in fact, to sin. At this point, the disunity of the Church becomes the sin of the Church. The real sin of disunity does not lie in what happened in the past. It lies in what is not happening in the present: in our failure to heal divisions. It is not that our fathers have sinned and we, in our superior charity, must do their repenting for them. On the contrary, our fathers were, for the most part, very good men, passionately concerned for the purity of the gospel. But they were limited, as human beings are. And maybe they were a little careless at first. They were taken unawares by the disasters and divisions that followed. What we have to repent of is not the sins of our fathers but our own failure to deal with the mess. The sin of the Church is not the divisions of the past, but the failures of the present. It is the perpetuation of divisions of, say, the sixteenth century - divisions which, though springing from important arguments of great and good people intensely concerned for the truth of the gospel, are now quarrels of little, mean people concerned mostly for the status of their own groups.
There are real and important arguments for the Church of today which are not at all the same as the arguments of the sixteenth century. Today there are great and good Christians who find they must disagree about, say, the meaning of the Church of the poor - about what it means to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim liberation to captives and those who are oppressed (cf Isaiah 61:1-2). So in thinking about Christian unity we need not just a determination to heal the wounds of the past but a warning about new wounds in the future. We need to be warned lest the real disagreements of good people should lead, not by malice, but by folly and recklessness, to new division, to another denial of the one Spirit in which we were baptized.
If we are to face that task of maintaining the unity of the Church now and in the future, we must clear up the irrelevant divisions of the past. And we do that not by forgetting them or ignoring them, but by going back to the Reformation, not simply to repeat the old disputes but to recapture in charity the passion for the truth of the gospel that people then had on both sides. For this passion can take us now not into division again, but toward the one Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit of love."