‘Unity is of the essence of the Church.’
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We profess faith in a Church that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” and we make that profession because it is true. Truth is accessible to faith and reason but truth can, at times, be overshadowed by a thousand doubts all of which can be prompted by a thousand reasons, none of which diminish its veracity.
I am reminded of the portrayal of St. Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons”. The influence of his Catholic faith upon his conscience is presented throughout the play as almost indefensible when confronted with the desires of King Henry VIII to act contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and to make himself head of the new “Church of England.” In Act Two of the drama, More says to the Duke of Norfolk, one of King Henry VIII’s most ardent supporters in this effort to replace the Pope,
… the theory is that he's also the Vicar of God, the descendant of St. Peter, our only link with Christ. …The Apostolic Succession of the Pope is … why, it's a theory, yes; you can't see it; can't touch it; it's a theory. But what matters to me is not whether it's true or not but that I believe it to be true, or rather, not that I believe it, but that I believe it.
St. Thomas More will not deny the truth of his faith or the dictates of his conscience informed by that faith, despite the urgings of his fellows in the Court of King Henry VIII to do so if, for no other reason, than to remain in the “fellowship” of their company. With a conviction that ultimately cost him both their company and his life, More responds
And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?
That the Church is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” — traditionally called the “four marks of the Roman Catholic Church”— is a truth that must be recovered wherever and however it may be overshadowed by doubt or some other reason. This truth of our “profession of faith” will never be recovered if it is not believed. St. Augustine’s words ring true, “Seek, therefore, not to understand so that you may believe but believe that you may understand; for unless you believe, you will not understand.”
“I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” What is it that we believe?
The Church is one. On the night before he died for us, the Lord Jesus prayed for his apostles and for those who would believe in him through their word — the Roman Catholic Church — “that they may be one as you, Father, are in me and I in you … that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me (John 17:21-23).” Jesus did not pray that everyone would be the same or think the same or act the same. No, he prayed for something deeper, a unity of faith, a unity of belief that would lead to a unity — a believing community — of love.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke wrote that “the community of believers was of one heart and mind (Acts 4:32).” The sacred author was not describing “sameness” among the members of the early Church. No, he was speaking about something much deeper than mere similarity, something that dwelt in the deepest part of the community: unity in faith and unity in beliefs without which there would never be a unity of love witnessing to the truth of that faith and those beliefs, in a community “of one heart and mind.”
That should not surprise us. After all, as St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians, there is “one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4: 4-6).” He urged us in that same place “to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received … bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4: 1-3).”
Does that describe the Church in the times in which we live? The Catechism reminds us
813 The Church is one because of her source: “the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” The Church is one because of her founder: for “the Word made Flesh, the Prince of Peace, reconciled all men to God by the cross … restoring the unity of all in one people and one body (The Second Vatican Council Pastoral Constitution On the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 78, para. 3).” The Church is one because of her “soul”: “It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the entire Church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church’s unity (Second Vatican Council Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, 2).” Unity is of the essence of the Church.
If the Church ceases to be one in faith, if voices and actions within the Church move against its essential unity in faith, the Church ceases to be. The Catechism affirms
172 Through the centuries, in so many languages, cultures, peoples, and nations, the Church has constantly confessed this one faith, received from the one Lord, transmitted by one Baptism, and grounded in the conviction that all people have only one God and Father (Ephesians 4: 4-6). St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a witness of this faith, declared:
173 “Indeed, the Church, though scattered throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, having received the faith from the apostles and their disciples… guards [this preaching and faith] with care, as dwelling in but a single house, and similarly believes as if having but one soul and a single heart, and preaches, teaches, and hands on this faith with a unanimous voice, as if possessing only one mouth (St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 1, 10, 1-2).”
174 “For though languages differ throughout the world, the content of the Tradition is one and the same. … The Church’s message “is true and solid, in which one and the same way of salvation appears throughout the whole world (ibid., 5, 20).”
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