Sense and Nonsense: No Patience for Division

In John Paul II’s letter on the Third Millennium and in his encyclical on Christian unity, he has let us know what he things about the diversity among Christians.  Rouhgly, it ought to stop.  While not lessening the importance of prayer for unity, the Holy Father is putting considerable pressure on all of us, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, to come clean.  This historical disunity ought to stop, preferably by the year 2000.  This disarray among Christians disrupts his further plans with regard to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and whomever.

Christian disunity, the pope thinks, has lasted too long. Let’s leave it at the twentieth century and go on to what the world ought to be about. One cannot help but be amused and delighted by how this greatest man of our time operates. He is so far beyond most of us that we do not even suspect what he is thinking about next. What he does seems humanly impossible, except that he is about the most human man that we have ever seen. What he does in fact is humanly possible. That is probably why he is treated so gingerly by those who confuse us either from within the Church or with other visions of human purpose.

The Holy Father, however, is at home on all grounds, social, philosophical, literary, human, and theological. No other public figure could ever speak to the United Nations in all six of its official languages. Likewise, no one has ever talked to us simultaneously of moral philosophy in Veritatis splendor, of the fall of Marxism and the free market as in Centesimus annus, of the essentials of our faith as in the Catechism, and of heaven knows what in almost everything else he does. He has spoken to women in Cairo and Beijing, of St. Thomas to the Dominicans, to Franciscans about St. Francis’s concern about Islam, to universities about what they are in Ex corde ecclesiae. He has taught us to read and preach the Scripture again, all of it. His ordinary sermons in ordinary parishes at almost anyplace on the planet—where has he not been?— make us wonder whether he has not surpassed, both in depth and in quantity, all the other homilies of all the other bishops put together.

At Castel Gandolfo on August 30, 1995, the Holy Father spoke of Christian unity. To recall this brief elocution during January, the month devoted to Christian unity, seems fitting. He said: “The faith tells us that the Church’s unity is not only a future hope: it already exists. Jesus Christ did not pray for it in vain,” he said. When we start from this position, the many distinct churches on our blocks look different. The visible unity is not yet achieved. The Church is holy, but requires our renewal and forgiveness; it is catholic, but needs missionary activity to find ways to respect and vitalize other cultures.

Christian unity is not something that we produce by ourselves, then turn to God to approve our efforts. Rather, the pope proclaims, “the problem of ecumenism is not to bring about from nothing a unity that does not yet exist, but to live fully and faithfully, under the action of the Holy Spirit, that unity in which the Church was constituted by Christ.” We have seen an energetic effort on the part of the pope to engage Christian denominations in a serious conversation about their differences. We have made progress, even agreements about common principles. But the agreement cannot be simply from below. The Church, he said, is “a gift from on high. A redeemed people, the Church has a unique structure that differs from that which regulates human societies.” This sentence is powerful and clarifying, since many of the problems with the Church come from those who insist on treating it as a human organization to be modeled on and criticized as if it were a political entity. No, he reminded us, “the Church … receives her institution and structure from Jesus Christ.” This structure includes a papacy and episcopacy. The principle of authority in the Church is to serve — “This is the basis of Church structure.”

What I like about John Paul II is his utter honesty and uncanny ability to state both what he is as pope and what the Church is, not because it makes sense philosophically, though in an odd way it does, witness his own ability to talk to the world, but because it is structured as Christ would have it. That the churches come to see this divine structure is an immediate task. What the Pope is telling us is to get to work making this unity a reality.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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