Jesus desires a united church. The gospel depends upon it. There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” These require “one body and one Spirit” to proclaim them (Eph 4:4-5).
In the church, when there are many conflicting voices, the body is not served; it is severed.
This Sunday, we hear Jesus pray for the church: “that they may all be one.” His prayer for unity is not merely an organizational concern. He is not looking toward the internal workings of the church. Rather, he has an outward, evangelical, motive. Unity is ordered to proclamation. One body means one voice: “that the world may know that you sent me” (Jn 17:21).
Today, Jesus’ prayer for unity is typically associated with Christian ecumenism, the effort to promote unity and mutual understanding between the church and ecclesial communities. At its best, this movement aims to heal the divisions among Christians that are an obstacle to evangelization. At one time, the cross was the stumbling block of faith (1Cor 1:23); now, it is Christians themselves.
But we don’t have to look to other denominations to find disunity. We find it in our own pews. A study published in 2011 entitled “Catholics in America” found striking statistics concerning those who self-identified as “highly committed” Catholics. For many, this “high commitment” did not include weekly attendance at Mass (49%); following the church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage (46%), on abortion (31%), or the necessity of giving time and money to the poor (39%). We have always had the problem of people separating their faith from their actions. But now, the faith itself is divided.
Disunity is devastating. The primary issue here is not the authority of the bishops. Neither is this an empty political game. What is at issue is the gospel. Our disunity dismantles our witness. Can we preach a divided Christ?
Can we offer the world a vision of Jesus who unites us as one body (1Cor 12:12-27), when Mass attendance is a personal preference? Can we confess Christ to be God, the true teacher, and also dismiss his teaching on marriage (Lk 16:18)? Can he be simultaneously God and wrong on human love? Can we tell the world that God became incarnate in the womb, and also deny that human life is sacred from conception? Can we proclaim the babe in the manger, and also deny his right to be born? Can we announce an impoverished messiah, and turn away the poor? Can we direct others to “seek what is above” (Col 3:1), while we hoard below?
Church members are divided over a host of moral issues. The one real issue is the gospel. Our division is its downfall.
Father George K. Nixon serves as assistant pastor at St. Philip Parish, Greenville. Ordained in 2011, he holds a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “Verbum Domini” is a series of Father Nixon’s reflections on the Scriptures.