Charity as guide to church unity

For an ecclesiologist, saying the word schism out loud is like yelling fire in a crowded theater. Unity is at the heart of the church’s mission, perhaps its only real function -- to hold together the center of a vast dynamic process of graced human development around the mystery of Christ. Unity in diversity is the triumph of charity. Fragmentation is the scandal that thwarts and dissipates the promise of the Gospel.

The church, to be credible, must first demonstrate this triumph of charity in itself. “See how they love one another” is the most effective evangelization, even if the reality, like the church itself, is always a work in progress.

Reported in this issue of NCR are two initiatives by the Vatican that some would call bold moves toward unity: a welcome embrace for Anglicans (See story) and reassurance to traditionalists that they have a place in our church (See story). Others would see these as wedges, widening fractures in the church.

Earlier, NCR reported on the departure of one-third of Catholics from the American church (NCR, April 15). Is this a de facto quiet schism? It must be cause for concern, even for some who might believe a smaller church is better than one with too much theological ferment or pastoral accommodation. The need to purge dissent and the discussion of certain questions is having chilling effect. The real question becomes: Have these losses been necessary?

Think of the arduous task of our bishops. They are not just called to be teachers; they are also to be shepherds. The parable of the lost sheep, it seems, should weigh heavily on them.

Is there a different way to understand and be church at a time when the challenge of unity and diversity is especially complex and vital, a way that might hold open the conversation and keep the flock together around the mystery of Christ?

A wise and knowledgeable ecclesiologist is needed, one whose maturity and familiarity with church history can reassure us that these same crises have been met before, and whose deep love for the church can command the respect of all sides in the current debates. Such a voice was that of the late Dominican Yves Congar (1904-95), whose 1950 classic (revised in 1968), True and False Reform in the Church, was credited with helping influence Pope John XXIII to convene the Second Vatican Council.

Now available in a new English translation by fellow Dominican Paul Philibert (Liturgical Press, 2011), Congar’s essay contains four “conditions for authentic reform without schism.” It offers a helpful, doctrinally grounded and pastorally responsive framework for examining issues that today threaten to paralyze institutional leadership and snuff out the prophetic and pastoral insights that necessarily inform orthodoxy.

The four conditions, listed simply with some explication added, reveal Congar’s trust in the Holy Spirit, his large-mindedness and generosity of soul, and a deep patience honed during five years as a prisoner of war during World War II, and then later when silenced by the church in the 1950s for his views on the laity, ecumenism and church reform, the very issues he emerged to help shape at Vatican II. Congar’s analysis is a potent challenge to both progressives and traditionalists today. Here are his conditions for authentic reform without schism:

1. The primacy of charity and of pastoral concerns: Congar’s making this a defining priority was reflected in John XXIII’s vision of the council as a pastoral rather than a doctrinal one, based on the belief that if the church renewed its pastoral effectiveness it would also address its need for ongoing theological updating and an internal structural reform that would open up the church at every level.

2. Remain in communion with the whole church: Collegiality at every level in the church need not challenge central authority and always informs and enriches it. Initiatives normally start at the periphery and move to the center. Councils give counsel, and broad dialogue builds a living consensus that strengthens reform.

3. Having patience with delays: Like the slowness of the justice process that hears all sides, deliberates thoroughly, reforms take time to find balance, to be tested, take hold. Press on, but take the long view, trust the Spirit.

4. Genuine renewal through a return to the principles of tradition (not through the forced introduction of some “novelty”): Reform as adaptation to contemporary needs comes about through returning to the sources. This was especially visible in the liturgy, where the return to the biblical sources and to the early writings of the Fathers renewed the rites and the communal nature of worship. No other historical version or contemporary form can substitute for the original sources of the tradition.

This is only a glimpse of Congar’s essay on reform. But perhaps it can remind us of how each of us can contribute to the larger good of church unity in these difficult times. Congar’s voice deserves a place in the present debate as a framework for defining priorities and renewing our sense that what must be done on behalf of the church can be done with intelligence and love.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here