Prayer itself is not unity.
Several years ago, a well-known English Jesuit priest, Fr. Hugh Thwaites (1917-2012), gave an interview on Catholic television in which he discussed his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. It was clear that, even so many years after his conversion, he still had a great affection for Anglicanism, because it was from the religion of his youth that he got a love of the Scriptures and of Our Lord. However, it was with the conviction that the Catholic Church is the one true Church that he left Anglicanism and converted to Catholicism in 1941.
Fr. Thwaites’s view on conversion to Catholicism from Protestantism was not so much about what one loses as what one stands to gain – that is, the fullness of truth. In this interview he jokingly stated: “I tell good Anglican friends that I love the Church of England, but their Church is like whiskey with three parts water; we’re straight out of the bottle”. He was pointing to the purity and fullness of the Christian faith which is only to be found in Roman Catholicism.
During the week of 18-25 January, we are called to join in the week of prayer for Christian unity. Often this can merely seem to be a nice idea, and an abstract one at that. We like the idea that Catholics and Protestants across the world are united in prayer for unity. The prayer of Our Lord, “that they may all be one” (Jn.17:21) is usually invoked. It is undoubtedly an important prayer for all of us, but what should it mean for us in the context of a week of prayer for Christian unity? There will be no unity among Christians without prayer, but prayer itself is not unity – in other words Christian unity is not achieved by the fact that all Christians pray simultaneously for unity. Nor is unity achieved by pointing out those elements upon which there is agreement, because it neglects the fact that non-Catholic Christians are in error and implies that unity can somehow be reached by Protestants persisting in their error.
The true meaning of Christian unity.
The traditional position of the Catholic Church with regard to Christian unity has been clearly reiterated by several popes over the past century or so. In his 1896 encyclical on the unity of the Church, Satis Cognitum, Pope Leo XIII points out that Christ founded and willed but one Church – Christ:
“…did not institute a Church to embrace several communities similar in nature, but in themselves distinct, and lacking those bonds which render the Church unique and indivisible” (SC 4).
He also explains how the unity of the Church was to be preserved by the Apostles and their successors – in short, he points to the divine institution of the Catholic Church, “which continues the mission of the Saviour for ever” (SC 9). Concluding his encyclical, Leo XIII, following the Lord’s command to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (Jn.21:17), issued an appeal to the sheep who are not in the fold. In this he demonstrates the true meaning of Christian unity and of all of the Catholic Church’s ecumenical efforts: to call everyone into the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith for their salvation.
True ecumenism cannot be achieved by ignoring or accommodating error.
A similar appeal was made by Pope Pius XI in his 1928 encyclical on fostering true religious unity, Mortalium Animos. Towards the end of this great encyclical, the pope makes a loving and heartfelt plea to Protestants to return to the Catholic Church. He laments the fact that the children of the various Reformers left the chief shepherd of souls, the Bishop of Rome, to become entangled in the errors of their fathers. However, he says that when they return to the Catholic Church, they will be accorded a “most loving welcome” (MA 16). The plea is urgent, and he bids all to heed the words of the Roman author, Lactantius (c.250-c.325): “The Catholic Church is alone in keeping the true worship. This is the fount of truth, this is the house of faith, this is the temple of God; if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation”. He then makes a very important point, which seems to be frequently cast aside in the present age, namely that truth is to be embraced and falsity to be rejected. While calling the “separated children” back to the Apostolic See, Pius XI adds: “…let them come, not with any intention or hope that ‘the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth’ (1Tim. 3:15) will cast aside the integrity of the faith and tolerate their errors, but to submit themselves to its teaching and government” (MA 17). In other words, true unity – true ecumenism – cannot be achieved by ignoring or even accommodating error.
Christian unity means that those who are separated from Rome will return.
There is no doubt but that the efforts at unity made by the aforementioned popes (and, indeed, others whom I have not mentioned) have been hampered by ambiguous statements and actions by some within the Catholic Church. A prominent cardinal during the Second Vatican Council, Augustin Cardinal Bea S.J., promoted the idea that ecumenism was no longer about a return to the Roman Catholic Church, stating that Protestants are not completely separate from the Church since they are validly baptised. In other words, the unity is already there but it merely needs to be made explicit.
The idea of a “return” to the Catholic Church, for which Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI pleaded, was conspicuously absent from the documents of the Second Vatican Council, where the focus became more on “convergence” (on a point outside of all Christian denominations) rather than “return”. Despite any confusion which has arisen in recent decades, the traditional teaching of the popes is clear, and it is upon this that we must focus. We say in the Creed at every Mass: I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. There is but one true Church – this is our faith – so our prayer during the week of prayer for Christian unity ought to be that those who are separated from Rome will return.
It is interesting that the theme for this year’s week of prayer for Christian unity is “Justice and justice only you shall pursue” (from Deuteronomy 16:20). Looking at the resources provided by the organisation “Churches Together in Britain and Ireland”, which are being promoted by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, it is clear that the meaning of “justice” is people living together in harmony. There is nothing wrong with people living in harmony, but the CTBI resources seem to imply that the unity among Christians is in sharing this common goal. In fact, the CTBI booklet for the week of prayer for Christian unity refers only to the Church, as if we are all members of the one Church in which there are divisions (the very idea promoted by Cardinal Bea). However, as the popes have taught us, Protestants have separated themselves from the chief shepherd, the Vicar of Christ, and this is the unity which must be restored. As mentioned earlier, unity is not achieved by praying for unity or for having a common goal of social justice, but by a return to the Church which was founded by Christ.
Injustice to non-Catholics not to give them the truth that Our Lord founded.
For us as Catholics, however, the theme of justice ought to have a specific resonance with regard to ecumenical efforts. Justice has been traditionally defined as a virtue in a person by which they will to render to everyone what is due to him. It stands to reason that justice cannot be done to another person if there is no regard for truth. There will be no just verdict in a court case if the truth is not known and obeyed. Christ’s trial before Pilate is evidence enough of this, where God is condemned by men because truth is cast aside. Where, then, is the justice in our efforts for Christian unity if we do not call people into the truth? Surely it is an injustice to non-Catholics not to give them the truth that Our Lord founded only one Church which is to be ruled by one shepherd. It is not an act of justice for any Catholic, clergy or laity, to leave non-Catholics “where they are”, to set aside differences, to cast a blind eye to error, or to assume that unity already exists by our common prayer or by other common goals.
Praying for unity within the Catholic Church.
As a final thought on our prayer for Christian unity, we ought to pray fervently every day for unity within the Catholic Church herself. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger noted during the Way of the Cross in Rome in 2005, the Church:
“often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side”
– no one can deny that the Church is enduring a terrible trial and that so much of that turbulence is being caused by those within the Church. There seems to be so much division, and even departures from the Church’s traditional teachings. If only our shepherds were as fervent in fostering concord within the Church as they are with those who are separated from her! We have seen within the past year how our bishops invited (or at least approved of the invitation of) Fr. James Martin S.J., to speak to Catholics at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin.
Fr. Martin currently travels the world spreading errors about the nature and meaning of human sexuality. Far from being exhorted to return to unity with Rome, Fr. Martin has been promoted as a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications and has been invited personally by several bishops around the world to give presentations in their dioceses.
Would it not be a beautiful thing if our bishops called the dissenting voices and lost shepherds back to union with the Catholic Church.
Closer to home, we have plenty of priests who remain officially in “good standing” but who reject elements of the Catholic faith. There are priests, for example, who still reject the English translation of the Roman Missal which came into use in 2011. There are others who, without sanction, permit serious liturgical abuses, thus denying the faithful the treasury of the Church’s worship. There are nominal Catholics, both clergy and laity, who have taken public positions in support of same-sex “marriage” and even in support of abortion. In our National Seminary there have been ongoing scandals involving the infidelity of certain faculty members to Catholic teaching, with some denying the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and others opposing infallible teachings such as Humanae Vitae.
Meanwhile, those Catholics who hold steadfastly to the perennial teachings and liturgy of the Church are often the ones viewed with suspicion by our bishops! Would it not be a beautiful thing if our bishops called the dissenting voices and lost shepherds back to union with the Catholic Church in the same manner as Pope Leo XIII or Pius XI did?
Christians lose nothing when they embrace the Truth.
Perhaps during the coming week of prayer for Christian unity, we should become more conscious of what we are praying for, or that for which we ought to pray. Let our prayers for Christian unity not be vague and without a clear intention, because the intention ought to be exactly that of Our Lord: “That they may all be one”. Prayer, although necessary, is not in itself a realisation of that goal, nor is working together for justice. We who have been blessed with the gift of our Catholic faith cannot but pray for all those who are separated from us to return to unity with the one Church founded by Our Lord, which offers them the key to salvation. Let our prayer be fervent and our witness be authentic, and with the help of God, many will see the beauty and truth of the Catholic Church. May those who are separated come to know, as the late Fr. Thwaites did, that they lose nothing of the truth found in their own denominations by embracing the Catholic Church, because she offers them nothing but the pure truth.