Sunday, 12 September 2010

1 000th post: some thoughts on the unity of the Church

This is my 1000th post. As I post, Sitemeter records 52 498 visits to the blog - so by the time that you read this post, the chances are that will have crept above 52 500 visits. I do feel sorry for the postulators of causes in years to come - in this era of electronic media communications, their work is going to change drastically, and the evidence is going to be on servers and hard drives distributed about the world! [Note to myself: do not encrypt or password protect any drives that I would like to be part of the process in a certain eventuality ...]

It would have been nice to wait until Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United Kingdom on Thursday, so that the 1000th post could report his arrival. Instead, a not unrelated post on the nature of the unity of the Church.
161. Why is the Church one?

The Church is one because she has as her source and exemplar the unity of the Trinity of Persons in one God. As her Founder and Head, Jesus Christ re-established the unity of all people in one body. As her soul, the Holy Spirit unites all the faithful in communion with Christ. The Church has but one faith, one sacramental life, one apostolic succession, one common hope, and one and the same charity.
The last sentence of the answer to this question from the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies for us five different components that make up the unity of the Catholic Church. We cannot take one or other of these components, and raise them above any of the others; they all belong together, and together make up the unity of the Church.

"The Church has but one faith .." This means that the content of what the members of the Church believe is one and the same - Catholics do not choose to believe some of what the Church teaches and to disregard other parts of what she teaches. What is believed forms itself a unity. Expressed in a slightly different way, this means that the idea of the truth of the doctrine taught by the Church, and the acceptance by the faithful of its truth, is a key component of the unity of the Church. This same consideration applies if one wishes to speak, theologically, in terms of the person of Christ as being Who is taught by the Church, rather than articulating it in terms of doctrine.

"The Church has one and the same charity .." Unity in charity, seen as the living out of Christian faith, refers to unity in moral life and practise. Every moral failing offends against the unity of the Church, and the idea of "mortal sin" is that there is a point reached where moral failing significantly separates a believer from the unity of the Church (though, of course, the Sacrament of Penance allows the restoration of that unity). A useful reflection on this idea of unity in moral life, presented in a very specific context (see particularly pp.5-9), introduces the idea that there are substantive life choices which are incompatible with the teaching of the Church and which therefore mean that the person making those choices can be seen objectively, and without any element of individual judgement, not to be in unity with the moral life of the Church (and therefore should not receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist).

"The Church has one common hope .." The Church does form a single, visible social reality. The Diocese, as the "particular Church", the presence in a particular location of the universal Church, is a particular manifestation of this. Within the Diocese, the parish is another expression of this unity at a social level. This social unity is also related to the unity of the Apostolic succession and sacramental life. It is not true to the nature of the unity of the Church to understand and express it exclusively in these social terms and therefore feel able to leave out questions of truth of doctrine and moral practise. And, on the other hand, neither is it correct to leave out the demand of this social unity.

And now I suggest some examinations of conscience, the common theme to which is that the unity of the Church is social, but cannot be reduced to the social alone:

Is the "picking and choosing" of the young people cited by Fr Tim from the BBC Radio 4's "The Pope's British Divisions" compatible with the unity of faith of the Church? Does the praising of the community aspects and denial of the morally demanding aspects not raise the social aspect of the unity of the Church over and above that of unity in moral life?

Does a pastorally inspired anxiety to be welcoming, and so respect the social aspect of the Church's unity, not at times undermine the demands of unity in faith and moral life, or, at the very least, lead to confusion about those aspects of the Church's unity? Thus the inadequacy of Fr Joe Wheat's response on Radio 4, noted here, and the painfulness of Liturgical celebrations that reduce the sacred to the banal and everyday - "Good morning everyone, Good morning Father" ...

Do those Catholics who challenge the Church's moral teaching, in the name of equality of rights and inclusivity, not put to one side the unity of faith and unity of moral life that is also part of the unity of the Church's life, and raise the unity at a social level above these?

And, on a different tack, is the persistent public attacking of Archbishop Nichols and others by some in the blogosphere (here and here, for example) compatible with the unity of the Church at its social level, or does it consider that aspect of the unity of the Church of no account at all?


Paul Mallinder said...

A thoughtful post, many thanks.

I am one of those that has been struggling with + + Nichols lately. I think he is being ambiguous on the Church's teaching regarding gay partnerships. I reached this conclusion before reading John Smeaton.

If I bring this discussion into the blogsphere am I really bringing the unity of the Church, at the social level, into some kind of disunity?

Joe said...

Thank you for your comment, Paul.

A couple of, hopefully, useful thoughts in response.

1. Perhaps one ought to see in Archbishop Nichols recent "I don't know" comments an (implied) view about a pastoral strategy rather than a statement that the Church might change its teaching. There is a sense in which the Church has "come to terms with" divorce/remarriage, for example - by way of a blessing at Communion, and acknowledgement of pastoral activity towards those in these sort of situations.

2. In particular, in the Telegraph interview, his "I don't know" is immediately followed by what I thought was a quite able account of the principles underlying Catholic teaching on homosexual relationships; perhaps not a complete account, and one lacking an explicitly stated conclusion; but one can't take away from it any idea that Archbishop Nichols was suggesting a change in the Church's teaching. And one could say a potentially successful communication of Catholic teaching to those who might otherwise "not listen". [My issue with John Smeaton on this is that it is rather crass of him to cite the "I don't know" and - because it suits his political purposes vis-a-vis Archbishop Nichols? - to ignore what follows. It isn't the first time I have seen him do something like this, and John doesn't do himself or SPUC any favours by doing so, IMHO.]

Joe said...


To answer your question!

There is a right way and a wrong way to raise the point in discussion - and I am not of the view that one shouldn't raise points like this in public discussion. One aspect of the right way is to discuss the point in question rather than making it a personal attack or part of an ongoing campaign. [John Smeation, I feel, fails on both counts here.]

And when a point is reached where it is going to become a campaign against ecclesial authority .... That might be the point at which, in the interests of unity, one stops.

A year or so ago, I had a comment made to me about my having "acted in favour of the unity of the parish", this after my explaining how I had diplomatically withdrawn from something. It was a way of looking at this particular situation, and things in general, that I hadn't previously thought about.

Paul Mallinder said...

Thank you for your response. I honestly do think that + + Nichols is being ambiguous in his responses. I see this ambiguous approach in my business life. It happens when someone is try to bob and weave so as not to loose business. They become economical with the truth and/or give ambiguous answers.
It seems to me that John Smeaton whistles a constant tune and likes to claim that the Pope is with him. I am not too sure this is the case.

Patricius said...

I share your unease about criticism of the bishops- especially regarding comments reported or shown in the media. In a recent interview with Archbishop Nichols it seemed very likely to me that there had been some editing of the question- and possibly of the answer too. As Christians in ordinary life with one another, we should try, at first, to put a good construction upon what is said and, failing that, seek clarification before rushing to judgement.If this is how we should deal with one another, should we not apply the standard more scrupulously when relating to our pastors- particularly since it is the good of the Church that is at stake?