Monday, November 05, 2012

The Problem of Catholic Unity (part 2)

Last week, we introduced the "problem" of Catholic unity; namely, how can the Catholic Church claim a oneness and supernatural unity substantially superior and different from the vague unity claimed by Protestant sects when a large number of contemporary Catholics are either ignorant of the Church's teachings or else actively dissent from them? How can this be considered unity? After introducing the dilemma, we answered and I think put to rest the objection against the Church's unity based on the existence of ignorant and uncatechized Catholics. Now we have to address the objection against unity based on the existence of rampant dissent within the Church's ranks.

First it is necessary to divest ourselves of the defense that the external dissent does not harm to the unity of the Church because, after all, it is only the internal unity that matters. While tempting, this answer is too similar to the Protestant "unity in disunity" concept - thousands of denominations all in disagreement about every major doctrine but somehow possessing a vague "spiritual" unity based on the fact that they worship the same God. No, we cannot posit such an concept in the Catholic Church.

It is true that the essence of the Church's unity is an internal reality based on the union of the Father with the Son that Christ bestowed upon His Church. However, unity as a mark of the Church is not primarily this internal unity; it is the external, visible unity that flows from that inner unity. St. Cyprian of Carthage, in his famous work On the Unity of the Church, explains that the very unity of the Trinity is the bond which assures the Church of its unity:

"The Lord says, "I and the Father are one"; and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, "And these three are one." And does any one believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills?" (On the Unity of the Church, 6).

That is why unity is one of the Four Marks; the marks are supposed to be visible realities that identify the true Church and distinguish it from false sects. A unity that is ultimately invisible is of no use and cannot be the Oneness that Christ gave to the Church.

That being said, it is helpful to look at this question of Unity in the larger context of the Four Marks. Let's look at the mark of Holiness. We know that when we profess that the Church is Holy that we do not mean that every individual member of the Church is holy, or that her holiness comes from the sum total of everybody's individual holiness - as if we could quantify and add up holiness and proclaim the Church holy if 51% or more of its members qualified as holy.

The Church is not said to be holy because of the individual holiness of its members, but because it possesses the very principle of of holiness within it: the treasury of the grace merited by Christ made available through the sacraments, specifically the sacrament of the Eucharist. This holiness does in fact manifest itself in that a very many members of the Catholic Church end up displaying exemplary personal holiness, so much so that the world takes notice.

Similarly, the Church's oneness is not derived from the sum total of everybody's "unity" - by quantifying how many Catholics are in perfect standing with the Church and then trying to add that up. On the contrary, the Church is One because she has the principle of oneness within her - her Union with Christ. This union is manifested physically in the unity of the Bishops with the Pope, and secondarily with the faithful to the Bishops.

Note that the external manifestation of the Church's unity is not primarily measured by how many of the laity agree with the Magisterium. Although it is an ideal situation for the laity to be in docile obedience to the Holy See, that is not primarily what constitutes the Mark of Unity. The Mark of Unity is found primarily in the relation of the episcopate to the papacy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists three elements to the visible unity in paragraph 815:

What are these bonds of unity? Above all, charity "binds everything together in perfect harmony." But the unity of the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion:

- profession of one faith received from the Apostles;
-common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments;
- apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God's family.

 "Profession of the one faith" refers to the formal profession of the Catholic Faith by the Bishop being in union with Rome. "Common celebration" again refers to public, liturgical celebrations, under the jurisdiction of the Bishop; finally, "apostolic succession" again refers to the legitimacy of a Bishop's episcopal consecration. Ultimately, all the visible elements of the Church's oneness have to do with the Bishops being in union with the Successor of Peter.

Thus, the unity of the Church is not ultimately threatened when theology professors dissent or when whole parishes adopt liberal positions. For the unity to be broken, there would have to be a massive invalidation of Apostolic Succession universally, such as the Sedevecantists posit, combined with a massive disruption or schism across most dioceses in the world and a breaking up of the Church's common profession of Faith. There are some (Sedes, some radical SSPX) who claim that these things have all happened, but I think most thinking people will acknowledge that, however bad things are, this has not happened yet. Most Bishops have no positive intention of breaking from Rome, apostolic succession is not in danger, the sacraments are still celebrated all over the globe and the profession of the Faith (at least publicly) is still generally intact, although it is watered down in some places. Therefore, the dissent of some, even many, does not destroy the Church's oneness - and because Protestants lack apostolic succession, valid sacraments or one common profession, this argument cannot be used to support their claims to a vague spiritual unity. Thus we have a good reason why Catholic unity is not imperiled even while Protestant unity is not affirmed. For Protestants, any real unity really must depend upon the sum of each person's agreement with this or that doctrinal statement.

But, in case this line of argumentation is not strong enough, there are a few other points to take into consideration.

The position in favor of the endurance of the Church's unity becomes stronger when we draw in an important point from traditional Catholic ecclesiology. According to classical Catholic theology, the Mystical Body exists in three states: the Church Militant, comprised of Catholics now upon the earth; the Church Suffering, those Catholics who are undergoing the purifications of Purgatory, and the Church Triumphant, those of the faithful who have gone on to their heavenly reward. Thus, the Church encompasses all the Faithful who have ever lived, both those who have gone on before and those upon the earth at this moment. The Church always has one foot on earth and one in heaven. As such, it can never be bound to the fortunes of just one era upon earth because at any given time the majority of the Church is not on earth but in Purgatory and Heaven, where their union to God is much more perfected that it is for us. In light of the all of the Faithful who are alright perfectly united to God in the Beatific Vision, "a multitude which no man could number" (Rev. 7:9), the failings of even a mass of Catholics on earth pale in comparison; they union of the Blessed with God is so strong and profound as to outshine and overwhelm the sins of a few. Not only do they outshine the wicked, but they actually communicate their blessedness to us through their intercession. This is the essence of the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints.

This is especially the case when we realize that the Church also encompasses all the angels as well, which is a truly innumerable multitude (at the very minimum, one for every soul born on this earth, but obviously more than that). These angels who never fell are in constant union with God and mediate His grace to us through their angelic ministry. St. Augustine comments upon this:

"Therefore due order in the profession of faith required that the Church should be named after the Trinity, like a house after the one who lives in it, a temple after its god, and a city after its founder. Here the whole Church should be understood to be meant, not only the part that is in pilgrimage on earth, praising the name of the Lord from the rising of the sun to its setting and singing a new song after its old captivity, but also that part which has remained with God in heaven ever since its foundation and has never suffered any fall into evil. This part is found among the holy angels and continues in blessedness, giving generous help as it should to its comrades who are on pilgrimage, since they will together form one company in eternity, which is one already by the bond of charity, established to worship the one God" (Enchridion, 56).

Looking at the Church from the light of eternity, these problems about a vocal group dissenting, even a very large group, do not seem so formidable. Please notice that no Protestant sect can make this claim about the unity of their own church, denomination or loose association of churches. For them, who deny any communication in spiritual goods between those in heaven and those on earth, the church really is only that which on earth; the church is bound to the fate of this present generation, and as this generation goes, so goes the Protestant church. Thus they can make no argument for unity based on a church existing in multiple states outside of time.

But even if we discount the argument from the Church's three states and take a purely historical view of the Church, from its founding by Christ to the Second Coming, we can still see a powerful argument for the persistence of the Church's unity in the face of the dissent and defection of some of its members: Because the Church professes to also be Apostolic and a historical Church with roots firmly planted in Tradition, the Catholic Church's unity therefore does not stand or fall with any one generation. There may be much dissent at the moment, but given the hundreds of generations of Catholics who lived and died vehemently attached to the unity of the Faith, it becomes a drop in the bucket. The fact that the generation of St. Athanasius was largely Arian and that the mid-4th century was marked by schism and crisis did not undermine the overall historical unity of the Church; the 4th century dissenters did not destroy it, nor will those of the 21st century. The Church is founded on a certain deposit of Faith, it has guarded and preserved this deposit, and no matter what is going on now, we know from Divine Revelation how this story ends - we know that we totally and unambiguously win in the end.

Therefore, knowing that the Faith began in a unified integrity, by and large has been transmitted in integrity, and that this Faith will eventually win and triumph in the end - that from beginning to end we have the knowledge and promise of unity and integrity - how can we worry that the failings of a single generation will jeopardize that unity? If we look at this generation against the backdrop of hundreds of better generations, we realize, again, that this present crisis is not as big as it seems to us. The sun is setting on this earth, and a setting sun casts long shadows, shadows that seem colder and deeper than the realities they reflect. These sorts of things will vanish away in a moment when Christ descends from heaven with a shout.

We could close with some words from Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis in which that venerable pontiff reminds us that the Church exists as both a supernatural and a natural reality, and that to the extent that there are wounds to her holiness or unity by bad bishops or sinful men, it is not due to the nature of the Church itself, but to sinful tendencies of human nature. Just as a desire for sanctity and a pull towards sin exist in us, so do forces rending unity coexist with the forces compelling unity within the Church. Just as these trials becomes tests of our virtue, so the trials of the Church are tests for her. Furthermore, just as our own souls shall be purified of our own weaknesses when we are glorified, so also shall the Church herself be divested of these human failings on that day when she is presented as a spotless Bride to Christ:

"And if at times there appears in the Church something that indicates the weakness of our human nature, it should not be attributed to her juridical constitution, but rather to that regrettable inclination to evil found in each individual, which its Divine Founder permits even at times in the most exalted members of His Mystical Body, for the purpose of testing the virtue of the Shepherds no less than of the flocks, and that all may increase the merit of their Christian faith. For, as We said above, Christ did not wish to exclude sinners from His Church; hence if some of her members are suffering from spiritual maladies, that is no reason why we should lessen our love for the Church, but rather a reason why we should increase our devotion to her members. Certainly the loving Mother is spotless in the Sacraments by which she gives birth to and nourishes her children; in the faith which she has always preserved inviolate; in her sacred laws imposed on all; in the evangelical counsels which she recommends; in those heavenly gifts and extraordinary grace through which with inexhaustible fecundity, she generates hosts of martyrs, virgins and confessors. But it cannot be laid to her charge if some members fall, weak or wounded. In their name she prays to God daily: "Forgive us our trespasses;" and with the brave heart of a mother she applies herself at once to the work of nursing them back to spiritual health. When, therefore, we call the Body of Jesus Christ "mystical," the very meaning of the word conveys a solemn warning. It is a warning that echoes in these words of St. Leo: "Recognize, O Christian, your dignity, and being made a sharer of the divine nature go not back to your former worthlessness along the way of unseemly conduct. Keep in mind of what Head and of what Body you are a member" (Mystici Corporis, 66).

Even when lay theologians and bishops dissent, even when whole dioceses fall into darkness, though it may wound unity, it can never destroy it so long as apostolic succession is maintained, the episcopate of the world remains in canonical union with Rome, and valid sacraments are being administered - furthermore, taking into account the how the disorders of the present age are outweighed by the faithful witness of hundreds of other generations, and how at the end of things, the vast majority of the Church already exists in perfect unity with Christ in the Beatific Vision, we can see that the presence of dissenters and scoffers within the Church is ultimately no threat to her unity. They were be burned up like stubble on the Day of Fire.

1 comment:

Titus said...

"As such, it can never be bound to the fortunes of just one era upon earth because at any given time the majority of the Church is not on earth but in Purgatory and Heaven."

Folks who talk about how we should have "democracy" in the Church should always be reminded of this fact. OK, let's take a vote, but remember that my side gets to count the faithful departed.