Tag Archives: unity

119. Unity … on Which Foundation?

February 1st, 2016

Unity is one of the most used and perhaps abused words in the present-day Christian vocabulary. The problem is that while the word is the same, its meaning may differ significantly according to who is talking about it. Those who speak about unity may have the impression that they are talking about the same thing because they use the word “unity”, but the reality is that more careful attention is needed in order to avoid unpleasant pitfalls in understanding and communication. The Ecumenical Week of Prayer which takes place in the second half of January is always an opportunity to focus on the different views of Christian unity that are promoted on a global scale. The general message of the Week (which is endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches) is that unity is key for the present and future of Christian witness. Emotionally, this message is very powerful and attractive given the various forms of persecution that Christians suffer in many parts of the world and given the rampant attacks of secularism against Christian values. In the audience on January 20th Pope Francis also made reference to unity, urging Christians of all confessions “to grow in that unity which is greater than what divides us”.[1] Fair enough, but what kind of unity is he talking about?

Unity Based on Baptism

Commenting on First Peter, the Pope gave a telling insight of the foundation of this unity. Here are his words: “In his Letter, Saint Peter encourages the first Christians to acknowledge the great gift received in Baptism and to live in a way worthy of it. He tells them: ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’. This Week of Prayer invites us to reflect on, and bear witness to, our unity in Christ as God’s People. All the baptized, reborn to new life in Christ, are brothers and sisters, despite our divisions. Through Baptism we have been charged, as Saint Peter tells us, ‘to proclaim the mighty works of the one who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light’”.

This rather complex sentence about the foundation of the Christian life needs unpacking. The Pope makes several interesting points about unity here: 1. It is baptism that makes Christians one in Christ; 2. It is baptism that regenerates us; 3. It is baptism that makes us brothers and sisters; 4. It is baptism that commissions us to be witnesses of the mighty works of God. This is the standard Roman Catholic doctrine whereby the most significant turning point in human life happens at baptism, ordinarily administered to infants. Whatever one thinks about this theology of baptism, the implications for Christian unity can be readily outlined: all those who have been baptized are one in Christ. Therefore unity must be sought, lived out and celebrated with all those who have received the sacrament or ordinance of baptism.

Building Christian unity on baptism, however, brings several challenges at various levels. In my corner of the world (Italy), for example, a vast majority of people have been baptized and yet very few show any sign of regeneration or even appreciation of basic gospel truths. Many baptized people are as secular or pagan or indifferent or even against any reference to the gospel as their non-baptized, non-Christian fellow citizens. How can Christian unity and brotherhood be based on baptism, then, when in most cases the people who received it consider it a meaningless act and totally removed from their lives?

Unity Among Believers

More importantly, theologically speaking, unity needs a more biblical foundation than baptism in itself. Rather than being granted through baptism, unity is a gift given to believers in Jesus Christ. According to First Peter, unity is a privilege of those who, having being elected by the Father and sanctified by the Spirit, obey the Son Jesus Christ (1:1-2). They are born again (1:3) and saved (1:5), waiting for their heavenly inheritance (1:4). These are people to whom faith has been granted and is now tested (1:7). This people who responded in faith to God’s initiative are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. In other words, unity is a corollary of the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ which is granted to those who believe in Him.

When the Pope speaks about unity as based on baptism, he stands on the ecumenical mainstream consensus about unity. The ecumenical view of unity posits the foundation of unity in the sacrament of baptism. But this view is practically faltering and biblically wrong. There is a far better way to appreciate and to celebrate Christian unity. As the World Evangelical Alliance’s statement of faith argues, we believe “The unity of the Spirit of all true believers[2]. Unity is among believers in Christ. The Lausanne Covenant speaks of unity as it relates to those “who share the same biblical faith” (par. 7)[3], i.e. people who have made a public profession of their faith in the Jesus of the Bible. It is with fellow believers only that Christians can join in prayer asking God to help them “to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3).

 

    91. Ecumenism in All Directions. Pope Francis and the Unity of the Church

    October 8th, 2014

    Nothing is substantially new, but everything is affirmed and lived out in a really new way. This is how Cardinal Walter Kasper, former head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, summarizes Pope Francis’ approach to ecumenism. In a foreword to a book that analyses the major papal speeches and acts as far as the unity of the church is concerned (Riccardo Burigana, Un cuore solo. Papa Francesco e l’unità della chiesa, Milano: Edizioni Terra Santa, 2014), Kasper argues that from his first address after being elected to his daily words and gestures, ecumenism has been central to what Francis has been doing thus far.

    As is often the case in the Roman Catholic Church, there is no substantial change in the overall doctrinal framework. The Catholic approach to ecumenism is still the same without additions or subtractions. The final goal of ecumenism is to bring the whole church cum Petro (with Peter, i.e. in fellowship with the Pope) and sub Petro (under Peter, i.e. in submission to the Pope). Having said that, emphases and attitudes do change and this Pope certainly has a distinct way of interpreting his mission as a chief promoter of the ecumenical cause.

    Ecumenism of Friendship

    The book reflects the on-going commitment of Pope Francis to foster his view of Christian unity. After reading it, here are some observations that can be made. His ecumenical initiatives are based more on personal contacts with leaders of different churches and organizations than on institutional channels. In performing his role the Pope does not totally depend on Vatican bureaucracy but instead retains his own sphere of initiative. This relational aspect is often underlined as the primary way to foster mutual trust and deeper relationships. In Francis’ view, theological dialogues are less important than personal acquaintances. Nothing changes as far as the long term goal of the Pope presiding over the whole church is concerned, but this is not the issue that the Pope likes to focus on. The important thing for him is to say that we are friends, brothers, sisters, already “one” in some sense.

    He wants different ecumenical partners and friends to be valued, listened to, cared for, and even admired. He wants to affirm them and wants them to feel appreciated. Theological and ecclesiastical alignments are secondary. Anyone interested in what is happening with this Pope should note that the paradigm he is operating under is that of an ecumenism of friendship rather than one of convictions. The two are not opposed, but the emphasis for him lies on the former, not the latter.

    In his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis made clear that time is more important than space. What he meant is that those who set their lives in long-term trajectories are better suited to achieve something than those who concentrate on the here and now. The overwhelming appreciation of the ecumenical partners and the on-going investment in personal relationships are two tracks of the ecumenical path that is consistent with this view.

    Closer to All?

    Another impressive mark of Pope Francis’ ecumenism is that he manages to get closer to all his ecumenical partners without making distinctions between them. He has similar words, attitudes, and approaches to Eastern Orthodox of various stripes, Liberal protestants, Anglicans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and other kinds of Christians. Theologically speaking this is rather awkward because the closer you get to the sacramentalism and the devotions of the East, the farther away you go from the liberal agenda of most Western protestant churches, and vice versa. Furthermore as you draw nearer to the “free” church tradition of Pentecostalism you at the same time distance yourselves from the highly hierarchical and sacramental ecclesiology of both the Roman and the Eastern traditions. Not so for Pope Francis. As already pointed out, this is not his approach. He invests in relationships with all people while leaving aside theological traditions and ecclesiastical settlements. He wants to get closer to all.

    A further illustration of this point is that as he draws nearer to all Christians, Pope Francis is also determined to draw nearer to all people, be they religious or secular. The same brotherly and appreciative afflatus is what marks the Pope’s attitude towards Jews, Muslims, and agnostic intellectuals. Divisive issues are left aside whereas the “brotherly” dimension is always in the foreground. The Pope is clearly pushing with the same intensity the relational side of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue as if they were two intertwined paths to achieve the overall catholic goal: cum Petro and sub Petro.

    The point is that one’s objective is to draw nearer to everyone, this means that the driving concern is not biblical truth and love that is a principled and discerning criterion but the catholicity of friendship that is much more flexible and fluid. While appreciating the friendly tone, the keeping of Christian unity cannot be a matter of friendship alone. Unity in truth is what Jesus prayed for in John 17, and unity in truth and love is what Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4.

     

      89. Is Unity Like a Sphere or a Polyhedron?

      September 18th, 2014

      Pope Francis does not like spheres: he likes polyhedrons. In various recent speeches and in different contexts he used the image of the polyhedron to illustrate what he has in mind when he thinks of unity, i.e. Christian unity and the unity of mankind. In elementary geometry, a polyhedron is a solid of three dimensions with flat faces, straight edges and sharp corners or vertices. Without going into too many technical details, the basic idea is that a polyhedron lacks the harmony and proportions of a sphere but retains the unity of a solid. Not only that, it has variable distances from its center and not a single way of being related to it. It may be an awkward type of unity, but it still holds the solid together.

      Unity in the Global World

      Francis first began talking about the polyhedron in the context of globalization.  In a message to a festival on the Social Doctrine of the Church, which addressed the issue, he said: “I would like to translate the theme into an image: the sphere and the polyhedron. Take the sphere to represent homologation, as a kind of globalization: it is smooth, without facets, and equal to itself in all its parts. The polyhedron has a form similar to the sphere, but it is multifaceted. I like to imagine humanity as a polyhedron, in which the multiple forms, in expressing themselves, constitute the elements that compose the one human family in a plurality. And this is true globalization. The other globalization — that of the sphere — is an homologation” (Dec 6th, 2013).

      According to this vision, globalization as a sphere can lead to cultural uniformity and social homologation whereby one model of development and one way of life become the center of what it means to be human and the whole world must conform to it. Globalization as a polyhedron, on the other hand, allows for multiple solutions that are all different from one another while still maintaining vital relationships between its components. In the latter, homogeneity is not imposed and multiplicity is encouraged. In his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis elaborated on the dangers of reducing the world to a single economic pattern and a monolithic cultural paradigm. This globalization brings “an economy of exclusion”, “the new idolatry of money”, “a financial system which rules rather than serves”, and “inequality which spawns violence”. Globalization, by desiring to mould the world into a single pattern, kills it. Conversely, if it celebrates the world’s diversity it causes it to flourish. The center of this polyhedron is the common humanity that all human beings share while the different faces represent the cultural particulars that cannot be squeezed nor overlooked by globalization.

      Christian Unity

      What is interesting in Francis’ use of these geometric images is how he applies them to the realm of ecumenism. Christian unity has its own biblical metaphors, such as that of a single body with a head and many organs and parts (1 Corinthians 12). In his visit to the Italian Pentecostal church (August 28th, 2014), Francis developed his idea of ecumenism as a polyhedron: “We are in the age of globalization, and we wonder what globalization is and what the unity of the Church would be: perhaps a sphere, where all points are equidistant from the center, all are equal? No! This is uniformity. And the Holy Spirit does not create uniformity! What figure can we find? We think of the polyhedron: the polyhedron is a unity, but with all different parts; each one has its peculiarity, its charism. This is unity in diversity”.

      Reading between the lines, it seems clear that unity as a sphere is pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic ecumenism whereby other Christians were drastically invited to “come back” into the Catholic fold and to conform to its doctrines and practices under the rule of the Pope. With Vatican II, Roman Catholicism updated its ecumenical project and embraced a concentric circle type of unity in which the one and only Church “subsists in” the Roman Catholic church and other churches and communities gravitate around this center according to their degree of nearness or distance from it. According to Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teachings, Christian unity is threefold: 1. professing the same faith, 2. celebrating the same Eucharist (i.e. the Roman Catholic way), and 3. being united under the same sacramental ministry in apostolic succession (i.e. under the Pope).

      How does a polyhedron kind of unity as advocated by Pope Francis fit this view of unity? For example: as far as the second mark of unity is concerned, is the Pope saying that the sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist and the theology of transubstantiation belong at the center of Christian unity or are they particulars that can accommodate differences? Or is the Pope saying that apostolic succession, which is the basis of the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, is still part of the center or is it a variable that is secondary to Christian unity?

      Polyhedrons are fascinating solids and Francis’ use of the image of a polyhedron is thought-provoking. However, the problem for Christian unity does not primarily lie in the metaphors used, but in the theological vision that nurtures it. If the Catholic Eucharist and the Catholic sacramental system are part of the center of Christian unity, one can make reference to spheres or polyhedrons all he likes, but the substance of the problem is that unity still gravitates around the Roman Catholic Church and its distinct outlook, and not around the biblical Gospel that calls all Christians to conform to the mind of Christ.