The Onus of Reunification

One of the biggest questions in my Catholic journey has been this: How does God view the Catholic and Orthodox and Protestant churches, and their schism with one another? God desires unity in His Church. St. Paul writes to us, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10 ESV). The very fact of our disunity attests to our sinfulness: We have all fallen short. We have all failed to preserve the unity of His Church. We all share part in the blame — even those of us alive today, we who perpetuate the division and fail to ardently seek reunification.

I’ve come to believe, in my journey, that the Catholic Church holds the treasury of apostolic faith, the fullness of truth having been passed down; that it is the One (unus, single, undivided) Holy and Apostolic Church founded by Christ and the Apostles. Studying the history of the Church, I have come to see that the traditions of the Church are not accretions or inventions as I once thought, but have persisted through the great men of faith of the Middle Ages, through the great Church Fathers, all the way since the beginning, the faith of the Apostles. I believe that the Catholic Church represents an unbroken continuity of belief and tradition, from the Apostles to the present day.

Unbroken, that is, except for those who have broken away.* Being raised a Protestant, I always admired and celebrated the great Protestant Reformers. I still do — they were courageous men passionate about God and willing to stand up for what they believed. I cannot, even as a Catholic, paint the Reformers or the Reformation black. The Catholic Church certainly needed to be reformed in many ways — and in fighting back against that reform, she must share a part of the blame for the schism that ensued. I now consider that schism one of the most heart-wrenching and tragic events in all of history — the rending of Christ’s Holy Church, his Spotless Bride.

(* I am not abandoning Eastern Orthodoxy, either. I am only leaving it out of this discussion for simplicity’s sake, because the majority of us Christians in the West are Catholic or Protestant, and because I know comparatively little about the Orthodox churches.)

Protestant churches have borne much good fruit. Christ continues to be active in them, in teaching, love, service, and salvation. There have been many great Protestant thinkers and theologians — and I do consider their thought and theology great; they are worthy and useful ways for thinking about God and our life in Him. There have been many good and holy Protestant servants of Christ, who have fed the hungry, clothed the poor, bound up the wounds of the hurting, and won many souls for His kingdom. God, without a doubt, uses, ministers, and saves through Protestant churches.

So God is merciful and forgives us of our sins — even the great sin of breaking His Church into fragments. But is that enough? Is it enough to accept His forgiveness, accept the fact of our division as final and irrevocable — that what’s been done is done, and we can’t go back? That this is the way things are now? That our churches can’t break bread together, and that’s okay? To most Protestants (to me as well, not that long ago), the thought of rejoining with the Catholic Church is unthinkable. To many, it is outright offensive. To them, the Catholic Church had sinned and been corrupted; it needed to be re-created. But even supposing that were true — the fact remains that the Christian Church — the Body of Christ — is fragmented. Are we going to allow this to persist?

There have many efforts over the years at ecumenism. Mostly in recent times, this has consisted of getting some members of the various churches together to share and discuss what they have in common and worship together. I applaud this, and think there needs to be more of it: the more we all talk to each other, the more we’ll realize that we all share the same Christ, and that He doesn’t want us to be divided. Others, however, continue to attack our differences, and decry any ecumenical efforts. How can this be what Christ wants? Can any of these people really sit down with faithful Catholics and continue to believe that Catholics are not Christians? How can anyone believe that our God is so small as to exclude large bodies of believers from His Kingdom because of minor doctrinal differences?

I feel that the onus is on us to seek not just dialogue, but reunification of Christ’s Church. As we ever approach the end of the age, we will need each other — we will need to be One and whole as a faith — more than ever. Recognizing this need for reunion is one of the many reasons for my decision to join the Catholic Church. History has failed to prove to me that the Catholic Church has ever been “wrong” or “corrupt” to the point of justifying a break (everyone sins; but she has never departed from the Truth); and so, if she was not “wrong,” then she must still be “right.” And the onus is on me to do what I can to make reparation for my ancestors' mistakes (this probably applies to my ancestors other mistakes as well). I am just one lonely pilgrim, but in returning to Rome, I am doing what I can. And I am a part of an ever-growing wave. And I believe as this wave gains momentum, it will sweep up more than only individuals. I truly have hope to see whole churches, even whole denominations, return to communion with Rome. I truly have hope to see, in my lifetime, a reunification of all Christians.

Just as the blame for our division is shared among all Christians, I believe that in reunification, some ground must be given by all. I’m not an expert on this — more learned people than I have written whole books on the problem of reunification — but the baseline for communion with Rome would have to be, I think, accepting the authority of the Pope and Magisterium, and belief in the Sacraments. I think the idea of accepting an institutional church authority at all will be most difficult for many Protestants — but I’ve come to see that it’s necessary. From Rome’s position, I think there is plenty of ground to yield regarding practice: just as Rome is embracing many Anglicans and allowing them to preserve their Anglican identity and heritage, and just as the Eastern Catholic Churches are embraced in all their differences, even a “Baptist rite” or a “Presbyterian rite” could be accommodated. I can quite easily imagine the liturgy of a Baptist church that embraced Rome and the Sacraments, while still remaining essentially Baptist.

We are all Christians, after all. We all worship the same Triune God. We all believe the same things about Christ. We all adhere to the same creeds†, whether we proclaim them or not. Regarding the Sacraments, our differences of opinion are more minor than most people recognize. Unity is within reach — if only we are willing to reach out. The onus is on every one of us.

† Obviously, I am excluding those who don’t — Sorry. Y’all come on back now, too.

12 thoughts on “The Onus of Reunification

  1. Very well written. It is easy in our current culture to play the blame game, and make ourselves out to be perfect while demonizing the other (as a Protestant, I know that game quite well on both sides). But we all have to recognize that unity of the church is the work of all, and both the victories and the failings of the past belong to all of us.

    I am interested by this statement: “I think the idea of accepting an institutional church authority at all will be most difficult for many Protestants”

    I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. What worries Protestants most, I think, is what that authority looks like. We all have our own institutional authorities (even those that would deny such a claim). The way papal authority has developed over 2000 years is what puts Protestants on edge. The idea of so much power invested in one man can be frightening.

    • Thanks for the comment. Regarding institutional church authority: I know it would be easier for some Protestants to accept than others. For Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans — those that already have a firm and established episcopal structure — it really is, as you say, a question of what’s at the top. In the end of Christianity I’m coming from, though — evangelical, fundamentalist, Pentecostal, and the like — it’s a completely different matter. So many Protestant denominations (and even more so non-denominations) don’t even expect their pastors to have any sort of education or ordination. Anybody who has a Bible and a voice can preach and found a church and call himself “pastor.” The idea of another person having authority over the pastor is both frightening to Christians of this sort and seen as unnecessary. If sola scriptura is true, in their understanding, then anyone at all can interpret the Bible; or Scripture is self-evident and doesn’t need interpreting at all. The highest authority, then, becomes the individual conscience and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Why would someone who has the Holy Spirit need a higher authority? Choosing to follow a pastor becomes a decision of personal preference and personality; if a follower doesn’t like what he has to say, they are free to leave and go to another church, or start another church themselves.

      Even in the history of the Baptists, there has been a strong element of individualism and resistance to authority (it is, after all, in their genes). Many Baptist churches have insisted in the past and continue to insist on individual church sovereignty, only associating with conferences, if they associate at all, for the purpose of funding missionaries. Presbyterians, as their name implies, place authority in a council of elders and not a bishop.

      What gives you (and other Protestants) pause about papal authority? I don’t really have much of a sense of that, since my church upbringing gave me little sense of church structure or authority at all (or history or theology either, for that matter). Our pastor was, and is, the highest recognized authority, and even his authority is only what the deacons and the congregation give him. I’ve never had a problem with papal authority. I’ve always admired the popes from a historical and a personal perspective, even before it ever occurred to me to become Catholic — even recognizing that there have been sinful popes, just as there are sinful Christians. Just as a family needs a head, the Church needs a head. A monarchy doesn’t necessarily entail a dictatorship — every major decision the popes have made has generally been made in conference with the other members of the family, the cardinals and bishops, and only after much consideration, much consultation of authority in Scripture and tradition, and much prayer and guidance by the Holy Spirit. The popes and councils don’t make stuff up. They only declare and clarify what has been there from the beginning. They are there to keep the ship on the right course, and to rock the boat only when necessary.

    • Also, this occurred to me: part of the settlement for a reunification could be appointing cardinals from the denominations that are returning, to give them a voice in the Church.

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  4. In the end there needs to be someone who can say where the limits of orthodox belief lie. in the end there needs to be an authority. Christ knew our capacity to disagree and quarrel, and the idea that He left His Church without a guide except the Holy Spirit appealing through each if us, can’t hold: either we are misunderstanding Him, or whatever spirit speaks to some of us is not the Holy Spirit.

    The Orthodox Churches claim it is the councils which guide us, and they have not have one in more than a thousand years, so that doesn’t convince.

    Then there is the Patriarch of the West. As an Anglo- Catholic I come closer and closer to thinking that he is who the Church has always proclaimed. You help me. A great deal.

    • I absolutely agree. Authority turned out to be the key to my whole journey, to all my years of wandering between churches and never finding what I was looking for it. All that time it was authority. Protestant churches lack it, even reject the need or the possibility of it, beyond Scripture and ultimately the individual conscience. The Orthodox have at least retained the structures of authority — but they’ve cut themselves off from the rest of the Body. I’m convinced that the See of Peter is the Rock that Christ built the Church upon. When the Orthodox make their claims to authority, my simple response is, “But… Peter!”

      • That was the same for my brother in law, who went from Anglicanism into Orthodoxy, but found the question of authority nagging him. He’s an historian, and his researches ended by taking him across the Tiber – two years ago. I have learnt a lot from him, and I can see such familiar things in what you write.

        • I’m glad. The funny thing is, I wasn’t even looking for authority when I found it. I was insisting that I wasn’t interested in the Catholic Church right up until a month or two before I decided to convert. My road has been about signposts and harbingers I didn’t even recognize, always pointing me toward the Church, even though I never knew it.

          • That is so familiar to me. My brother in law, who helped me find God in the Anglican Church, found it had moved away from him. Having been brought up in a very Protestant household, he didn’t even consider the Catholic Church, but went into the Orthodox Church. But in the end it was the question of authority which brought him, without him knowing it until very late on, to the banks of the Tiber. It is marvellous how the Spirit leads us.

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