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Can today’s church overcome division?


The Week of Christian Unity, celebrated this week, supports an unfashionable cause. It encourages the healing of divisions between churches. In culture, politics and religion, however, division provides most of the news of the day. The religious headlines emphasise fractures within churches, discrepancy between the professed values of churches and the bad behaviour of their representatives, and division between church leaders and people in the congregation. It is understandable that church leaders focus on holding their own churches together than on their relationship to other churches. 

The history of the movement for Christian Unity, and particularly of Catholic attitude to it, however, suggests deeper things at stake. It may also illuminate the broader tension between unity and division in Western societies.

Catholics came relatively slowly to the ecumenical table. The roots of the movement for unity lay in the late nineteenth century at a time of vigorous missionary activity by European and American churches in the colonies. Those involved recognised how far their rivalry and exclusive claims for their own churches had weakened efforts of each to win converts. Non-Christians among whom they worked were also deterred by the contradiction observed in people who fought with one another while they preached a Gospel of peace and unity. 

The Week for Christian Unity was one of many initiatives aimed at healing the divisions of the past, at restoring unity among Christians, and at encouraging shared prayer and action. It was part of what became known as the ecumenical movement. Attitudes towards the movement among church leaders and members were ambivalent: in favour in theory but cautious in practice.

In the Catholic Church the initial attitude to the ecumenical movement was generally suspicious. It was seen to downplay the vital importance of unity of belief. It risked giving the impression that all churches were equally valid, so failing to recognise that the true Church already existed in the Catholic Church. For it, unity meant abandoning error and returning to the Catholic Church. 

In the Second Vatican Council, however, disunity among Christians was seen as a scandal, the many elements shared with other churches were recognised, and the urgency of church unity was stressed. Catholic leaders and theologians joined their fellows in other churches in seeking common ground on disputed points of doctrine and practice. Local congregations of different churches prayed together and sought to cooperate on common projects. 

For many of us Catholics this was an exhilarating journey of discovery. It involved moving beyond the emphasis in Catholic identity of being different and superior to other so-called Churches to find unsuspected similarities, and ideas and practices and expressions of the Gospel commendable in their difference. We began to centre our identity in the faith that we shared with others, and not in the ways in which we differed from them. 


'Today our public culture appears largely to have given up hoping for a unity of vision that transcends division. Perhaps the call to go beyond the comfort of like-minded people to those on the margins of our society and to attend to them and their needs might reinvigorate commitment to the common good.' 


More recently, however, the passion for Christian unity has waned as church congregations have declined, the place of Churches in society has diminished, and Churches have become more preoccupied with their own identity and questions of governance, including the scandal of sexual abuse of children.  As all churches cope with more limited resources there is less energy or enthusiasm for deepening relationships with other churches.  Among the few young Catholics for whom faith and Church are central to their lives, too, many emphasise its separateness from the secular world and from other Churches. 

These changes have affected all churches in the West. In the Catholic Church, Vatican II was not their cause. It formed part of a distinctive cultural change that affected all Churches. The identity of the Catholic Church had been defined by its superiority to other Churches and to the secular world in general. This distinctive identity was expressed in a strong community cohesive in its understanding of faith and its ritual practice.  The changes of Vatican II were designed to foster an identity defined by openness to the world and other religious bodies, expressed in a strong and cohesive community renewed in its faith and its reformed ritual practice. In practice, however, the move from superiority and difference to hospitality was accompanied by a widespread loss of cohesion and of commitment to a defined faith and ritual. 

For an increasing number of Christians church allegiance and belief were seen in terms of personal history and individual choice, not as a commitment to an authoritative tradition. The movement for Church union then seemed quixotic to people who felt free to move between churches and to make what they wanted of Christian doctrine. The unity of the Church was seen in spiritual and not in institutional terms. 

This change is echoed in the political culture. Once large political parties with a distinctive, shared and often polemical vision of society and a strong allegiance to it, have been replaced by small parties, united by interests more than by convictions. These in any case are subordinated to the winning of elections. Candidates for Parliament are drawn from those for whom politics is a career not a calling. The current hatred that marks politics seems to flow as much from ambition and entitlement as from policy. In response, voters are correspondingly more detached from political parties. They favour individuals who appear to be authentic in their principles or who share their interests. 

In this situation, Pope Francis’ approach to Christian unity may be of wider interest. He has challenged an inwards-turned vision of Church that identifies itself either by what it is not or as a collection of loosely bound individuals. He has encouraged Catholics to go out to the edges of the Catholic Church to engage with disengaged members of the Church, Christians in other Churches, people of all Churches and none who suffer from poverty and discrimination, and to all to whom Christ came. 

This broad sense of mission draws its energy from and encourages a deep faith in Christ who embodied God’s love in suffering rejection and rising from death. It invites an ecumenism in which the faith of members and congregations of different Churches leads them to reach out beyond their doors into the world around them and its needs.

Today our public culture appears largely to have given up hoping for a unity of vision that transcends division. Perhaps the call to go beyond the comfort of like-minded people to those on the margins of our society and to attend to them and their needs might reinvigorate commitment to the common good and to the democratic habits that sustain it.  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Church, Unity, Politics, Division



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Existing comments

Such an important and urgent reflection, Andrew. Doing all we can together in addressing current need is the only thing that will revitalise Christian community.

Vivien williams | 16 May 2024  

In our small country town there is a monthly informal coffee afternoon at which local ministers, chaplains and others representing church communities can sit down to discuss local affairs, problems and matters of interest then pray for each other and the community. The development of relationships and mutual respect does wonders for those attending and potentially for the community. We would encourage others to try the practice!

Joe | 17 May 2024  

Andrew's title speaks of a sad fact – that commitment to ecumenical activity is a question with an uncertain outcome. Yet, Joe's regional snapshot provides cause for continuing hope. Perhaps, it is worth taking time to salute those local achievements often overlooked when taking a 'big picture' perspective.
In the early 1970's, at home on holiday, I heard Fr Florrie O'Donahue PP reading an instruction on ecumenical initiatives affecting marriage ceremonies to his Tea Gardens parishioners - one of his outpost congregations. Noting the possibility of weddings which allowed for the involvement of protestant ministers, he solemnly announced in broad Irish brogue, 'Now don't you be getting ideas, that sort of thing won't be happening here.'
Some twenty plus years later, I had some responsibility for co-ordinating the details of Florrie's funeral. The day before his mass, I learnt the local police would be providing an escort from the Church to the cemetery and that members of the Shire Council would be attending. Then we discovered we would have to expand the reserve seating for visiting dignitaries, as the entire chapter of the Ministers Fraternal would be attending. Florrie had spent three decades in the parish, but had been retired almost ten years when he died. Yet, somewhere along his ministry, he learnt to look beyond his own congregation and walk respectfully and co-operatively with fellow Christian ministers – and his local community remembered and honoured him.

Bill Burke | 17 May 2024  

The Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), Second Vatican Council, 21 November 1964, "...that they may all be one..." is perhaps the only enduring good thing that resulted for Catholicism in the wake of Vatican II !!

John Frawley | 18 May 2024  
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Vatican II unleashed much that is spectacular for the Catholic Church and its followers, including medical scientists like Dr Frawley who are by reputation, open to new scientific research and discovery as is the hallmark of the Catholic approach to Revelation.

Since diagnosis occurs on the day of the doctor's visit and is a determination/detection/discovery of a disease and prognosis is a prediciton/prophecy of what's to come, concerning progression of the disease and its outcome, post-visit, are we to assume that your views on all matters subscribe to a view of the cosmos as fixed, when the universe of evolution, as we know it, is plainly dynamic?

Granted there are and have always been prophets of doom and that human nature is of the variety that, in my field which is political theory, teeters between Hobbes, the pessimist, and Locke, the progressive, doesn't it make sense to see such a scale as a continuum rather than one that excludes and shuts down engagement and, notwithstanding the admission of failure, some improvement to the human condition?

NB. That 'life is solitary, nasty, brutish and short' ain't quite 'canonised' as yet!

Michael Furtado | 22 May 2024  

For us humans, if they is not to be merely an exercise in wishful thinking, the desire for unity and the creative initiatives unity effects require an ongoing radical receptivity to the source of all unity, the life of the Trinitarian God revealed and accessible in and through Christ's incarnation.
The words of St Gregory of Nyssa are highly pertinent to Christ's Last Supper prayer:
"For when in his blessing he bequeathed all power to his disciples, in his prayer to his Father he bestowed on his followers all good gifts, and he added the greatest gift of all, that they should never be fragmented or divided by a multiplicity of choices in their judgment concerning what was right, but that they should all be one, united in growth with the one and only good. And so, through the unity of the Holy Spirit . . . they should all become one body and one Spirit through the hope to which they are called." (Homilies on the Song of Songs).
Gregory's exhortation also echoes the words of the Pslamist:
"If the Lord does not build the House, in vain do its builders labour. . ." (Ps 126).

John RD | 20 May 2024  
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The Catholic Church possesses all of the elements of sanctification and grace that exist outside Heaven. But for the mercy in God's permissive will to allow strands of these elements, though Catholic in substance, to remain in schismatic denominations or be implanted by various influences in other religions, they would be unrecognisable to God and their adherents would be lost. All Catholic ecumenicists are doing, if they stay faithful to the magisterium, is to refresh the strands by joining them in some, albeit imperfect way, to the source.

That's what John Paul II is saying in Paragraphs 10 and 11: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25051995_ut-unum-sint.html

It's the logic of a mother obliged to find in order to nourish the straying cub to which she is genetically connected and identifying it by some signal produced by that genetic connection.

Ecumenism is not for the Catholic Church but for the sake of the outlying strands of Catholic sanctification and grace that need to be re-associated with the source for the purpose of nourishing.

roy chen yee | 26 May 2024  

Christian unity is much prayed for and talked about and yet what were the major mainstream denominations in this country continue to shrink. Surely there is a lesson there and it is not by watering things down to the lowest common denominator. God does work in mysterious ways and the Father Barry O'Flathers and the Rev'd Billy Belchers of yesteryear were dead wrong: both Protestants and Catholics can be saved. Equally.

Edward Fido | 21 May 2024  

I simply suggest that not all outcomes of Vat II served the Catholic Church well. I despair at the abandonment of practice by some 80% of baptised Catholics, the lack of knowledge of Catholic teaching amongst the last two lost generations, the obliteration of religious orders and the priesthood, the virtual disappearance of devotional practices. I recall perhaps the greatest of all theologians who warned many years ago, "Beware the false prophets, the wolves in lambs' clothing. By their works you will know them."

John Frawley | 28 May 2024  

Edward's post, unquestionably well-intended, doesn't cohere with his theology. We are already saved! Indeed, the critical ecumenical, as much as any other question - theological, pastoral and ecclesiological - must relate to a more open and honest finding out, amidst which we cannot avoid a matter that undoubtedly prompts Andy to write, but which, in typically invitational mode, he leaves us to answer.

The question, as yet undiscussed, except in a few kindly responses of a few, and for which 'crumb' I am grateful, is to address the toll on active church membership taken by those now proud to describe themselves as 'fundamentalist'.

The hallmarks of their theology are plain for even the most objective observer to see. They want certitude! They are fixated on John Frawley's external 'devotional practices' that have made a comeback, especially in the form of Corpus Christi processions, the practice of saying the Rosary, before and after Mass and sometimes during, and when droves of my fellow Asian Catholics depart the main body of the church to offer their private prayer at Our Lady's Altar, etc.

The resulting exodus from all three mainstream churches can at least in part be attributed to damage from within.

Michael Furtado | 30 May 2024  
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'They are fixated on John Frawley's external 'devotional practices'

Just as you are 'fixated' on the external 'culinary practices' of cooking a meal, laying the table, transferring the meal from pan to plate, and applying a variety of psychomotor actions using appliances of one kind or another to transport the contents of your plate through your mouth and into your stomach?

You can't internalise nutrition unless you pay homage to the relevant 'external' practices. So too with internalising grace by exercising various attitudes and postures to do with imbibing grace. Why do you kneel in church when your Protestant compatriots do not?

roy chen yee | 31 May 2024  

In an era of unprecedentedly rapid and widespread change, it's hardly surprising that the defining characteristics (not to be confused with accidentals) of any valid tradition should be sought and affirmed by those who value what millennia of teaching and practice have bequeathed.
In matters ecclesial, fundamentals are the indispensable criteria of faithfulness and genuine growth, and give rise to cultural expressions expressive and supportive of them.

John RD | 04 June 2024  

Precisely! Even if reduced to the poor test of matters of taste, the reforms of Vatican II, misunderstood and grossly misrepresented by Roy as akin to the status of culinary preference, do not stand up to any reasonable measure of comparison with the inessential cultural fripperies of a former era that I cite and call out and which have reduced the Celebration of Eucharist, joyous and profound in its invocation of God's Love for us, to a pious iteration of practices in many quarters that have driven away the young and the put-upon.

Just a few months ago when the bridges were 'up' in Brisbane, I attended a Southside Mass at St Mary's, where it shocked me that the altar rails had been retained in express defiance of the liturgical reform that removed that barrier between Priest and People.

By the same token it shouldn't surprise that John RD should view such matters as 'inessentials', reducing critical sacramentological rules relating to the celebration of the Eucharist and its reception to mere matters of style.

For one so rigidly committed to the rubric on matters magisterial to dismiss such blatant malpractice in regard to the reception of Communion is a contradiction.

Michael Furtado | 06 June 2024  

'akin to the status of culinary preference'

Only if you think a condition in which the alternatives are eating cooked and eating raw a 'culinary preference'. That's like saying the alternative between drinking unsanitary water in a Third World village because there are no means for cleaning the water and going thirsty is a 'preference'.

An alternative is not necessarily a preference.

Are the alternatives between kneeling and not kneeling a 'preference'?

roy chen yee | 15 June 2024  

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