UNION OF CHRISTEDOM
The Catholic Church is by far the largest, the most widespread, and the most ancient of Christian communions in the world, and is moreover the mighty trunk from which the other communions claiming to be Christian have broken off at one time or another. If, then, we limit the application of the term Christendom to this, its most authentic expression, the unity of Christendom is not a lost ideal to be recovered, but a stupendous reality which has always been in stable possession. For not only has this Catholic Church ever taught that unity is an essential note of the true Church of Christ, but throughout her long history she has been, to the amazement of the world, distinguished by the most conspicuous unity of faith and government, and this notwithstanding that she has at all times embraced within her fold nationalities of the most different temperaments, and has had to contend with incessant oscillations of mental speculation and political power.
Still, in another and broader sense of the term, which is also the more usual and is followed in the present article, Christendom includes not merely the Catholic Church, but, together with it, the many other religious communions which have either directly or indirectly, separated from it, and yet, although in conflict both with it and among themselves as to various points of doctrine and practice agree with it in this: that they look up to our Lord Jesus Christ as the Founder of their Faith, and claim to make His teaching the rule of their lives. As these separated communities when massed together, indeed in some cases even of themselves, count a vast number of souls, among whom many are conspicuous for their religious earnestness, this extension of the term Christendom to include them all has its solid justification. On the other hand, if it is accepted, it becomes no longer possible to speak of the unity of Christendom but rather of a Christendom torn by divisions and offering the saddest spectacle to the eyes. And then the question arises: Is this scandal always to continue?
The Holy See has never tired of appealing in season and out of season for its removal but without meeting with much response from a world which had learnt to live contentedly within its sectarian enclosures. Happily a new spirit has lately come over these dissentient Christians, numbers of whom are becoming keenly sensitive to the paralyzing effects of division and an active reunion movement has arisen which, If far from being as widespread and solid as one could wish, is at least cherished on all sides by devout minds.
CONDITIONS OF REUNION
The longing for the restoration of unity to Christendom, which is active in these and other ways, must be regarded by Catholics as one of the most precious features of the present age, and should enlist all their sympathy. Even if these reunionists be working on lines that are in themselves hopeless, at least their desire is for a high object, and desires fondly cherished and energetically pursued tend to the acquirement of solid experience, and so eventually to the discovery of the true course for the attainment of their object. Nevertheless their schemes cannot have been worked out with much insight, for the principles on which they are based are such as could not possibly sustain a fabric of Christian unity -- are in fact, the self-same principles which we have seen to be the cause of disunion in the past. What they contemplate is corporate reunion, that is to say, the reunion of whole Churches as such, each of which is to come into the union with its organization intact, its clergy remaining in their respective ranks, and the general body of its laity in theirs. It is from this standpoint that we need to consider the possibility of their projects.
We ask, then, what kind of corporate reunion do theyhope for and consider likely to prove satisfactory? The idea of reunion on a purely undenominational basis has been generally rejected by Anglican reunionists and rightly. For, if it means anything, it must mean that the reuniting communions are to coalesce into a huge undogmatic Church in which the utmost license of religious opinion will be allowed, as long as it does not claim to be more than opinion; and in which, on that understanding, the sacraments will be accessible to all who seek them. Still, it is not out of place to reflect on this system, inasmuch as it is the system which, though not in any way sanctioned by its formularies, practically prevails in the modern Anglican Church, those of its members who hold the most subversive doctrines being not only allowed to approach its sacraments unchecked when they desire to do so, but often promoted to its posts of trust and authority.
An individualism equally subversive has invaded the ranks of some of the Nonconformist bodies. Obviously, this scandal will need to be suppressed by a drastic discipline before the Churches affected by it can be in a position to propose a scheme of unity to other Churches. It is of little use for a group of Churches to pledge themselves to definite doctrines as long as their individual members are free to hold or reject these doctrines, or even condemn them, without forfeiting their right to its membership.
"Comprehension not compromise" is a phrase often employed to express what is considered fitting and possible. The reuniting Churches are not to be asked to renounce any of the beliefs and practices to which from long usage they have become attached. They are to come in just as they are -- all, that is; who are agreed as to a substratum of fundamental doctrines and institutions -- and on this basis they are to be in recognized sacramental communion with one another everywhere. This system seems to its advocates not only to remove the chief difficulties in the way of reunion, but, to have positive advantages. Instead of a dull and deadening uniformity extending throughout, it will give unity in variety, a "synthesis of distinctions", in which each reuniting Church will contribute to the general harmony some special gift which, under the Providence of God, it has cultivated with peculiar care and success. Under a slightly changed form we have here the self-same scheme, based on the distinction between essentials and nonessentials, which in the past has been put forward so often, and always so unsuccessfully. Is it likely to succeed any better now? First; what are to be deemed essentials? Is this a point on which agreement is likely to be reached? We have seen what four conditions the Pan Anglican Conferences have laid down as in their estimation essential, and we may be inclined to wonder at the liberality of the concessions involved in it. This "Quadrilateral" had in view, so it was understood, the Nonconformist Churches in England and perhaps the Presbyterians in Scotland and elsewhere. But general and indefinite as it is, it does not seem to have found favour with any of these; it does not go far enough for them.
But it will be found to go much too far for the Easterns, leaving it open, as it does, to anyone to believe that the sacraments are efficacious channels of grace or only nude symbols of the same, to believe that in the Holy Eucharist the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present or really absent, to believe that besides the two sacraments explicitly included there are or are not five others equally instituted by Christ and equally partaking of the true nature of sacraments, to believe that the historic episcopate does or does not involve the transmission of a mystic power over the sacraments such as is wont to be called the grace of Holy orders.
Secondly, what guarantee is there that the assignment of essentials agreed to at the moment of union will continue to satisfy the contracting parties? What makes this question so pertinent is that in the "Quadrilateral", for instance, the stipulation is only that the reuniting Churches shall in fact be agreed on these four points; there is no stipulation for any formal principle of unity. It will be said, perhaps, that the first-named condition, that Holy Scripture is to be accepted as containing all things necessary to salvation and hence is the sufficient rule of faith, is this formal principle.
But does this mean, as it appears to mean, that the individual is to be the judge of what Holy Scripture contains? If so, surely it is a bold thing, after these four centuries of disastrous experience to put forward this rule as calculated to ensure an all-pervading and durable doctrinal agreement. Or does it mean that the governing authorities of the reuniting Churches are to decide what is contained in Scripture, and are to be qualified to enforce their decisions? If so, another crop of difficulties springs up. Why is this further condition, supremely important as it is, not included in the first article of the "Quadrilateral"?
And what is to be the nature of these governing authorities, and of their relation to one another? Are they to be each and all autonomous, and, if so, what guarantee is there that they will all agree -- for instance, that the Easterns will not insist that the Bible shall be interpreted according to the decrees of the seven ecumenical councils, and the Anglicans that at least the decrees of the Seventh, which sanctions the veneration of images, shall be deemed inadmissible? Or are these governing authorities of the reuniting Churches to be subjected to one supreme authority, and, if so, what is to be its nature (the papacy being, of course, out of the question)? Also, is the submission of the individual to the decisions of the heads of his own Church, or the submission of the reuniting Churches to the supreme authority they have recognized as over them, to be treated as imposed under pain of sin by some Divine sanction, and, if so, what is that sanction, and why is it not explicitly stated in the "Quadrilateral"? Thirdly, if we grant the impossible, and assume that the system will be found to work on the lines indicated, could the result be claimed as a becoming realization of Christian unity?
Although the essentials are to be firmly fixed and accepted by all, each reuniting Church is to be free to retain the further beliefs and methods it has built on this foundation; in fact, it is just through this superstructure of its own that it is to make its own contribution to that "synthesis of distinctions", from which unity in variety is expected to result. But is it this that will result? If the Easterns, for instance, are to insist as they now do on the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the necessity of confession, on the invocation of saints and veneration of their icons; and the Anglicans, or at all events the Nonconformists whom we must suppose to have joined in likewise, are to teach that confession is soul-destroying; the Mass and invocation of saints idolatrous -- will that be a synthesis of distinctions, and not rather a synthesis of contradictions? In short, if this system of "comprehension not compromise" were to obtain the general acceptance desired for it, in what respect would it differ from the present system of divisions, which is felt to be so scandalous, except that it would add the further element of scandal that those who preached these conflicting doctrines would come up together to the altar-rails, as if to show what light value they attached to the points about which they none the less contend so stubbornly?
Evidently, "comprehension not compromise" cannot be a guiding principle for those who wish to restore to Christendom such unity as our Lord prayed for, and the world will be constrained to recognize as an evidence of Divine handiwork. Neither can compromise help us, for truth does not admit of compromise, and what it is desired to restore throughout the world is unity in truth. What we do require is neither comprehension nor compromise, but conviction; for unity in truth must mean that all whom the system embraces profess one and the same creed in all its parts, that they are honestly convinced that in professing it they are adhering to the simple truth, and that in reality they are professing only the truth. How can a unity of that kind, a unity of conviction which is also a unity in truth, be brought about in such wise as to include the many separated Churches of Christendom and their members?
That is the problem on which serious reunionists should concentrate their attention. They may begin by observing that in societies of all kinds -- in kingdoms, armies, trade-unions, clubs, and even Churches -- the principle of unity which holds them together is the authority of their chief rulers. If they submit to these -- be they kings or presidents, bishops or moderators, parliaments, or committees, or conferences -- they become one with them in their action, and (if the rulers have a recognized right to impose opinions) in their opinions also; and by way of consequence become one among themselves. On the other hand, in proportion as the members refuse submission to this ruling authority they become disunited and, if the insubordination continues, break up into parties, or drift away, or set up opposition societies. Almost any Protestant Church among the many around us will supply an illustration of this. At one time its ruling authority is recognized by all the members to be the authentic interpreter of its formularies, and all are prepared to submit to if. It is then a united Church in itself. Later comes a time when a number of its members grow dissatisfied with these formularies, and refuse to accept them at the hands of their church authority. Then disunion sets in; either dissent from the letter of the formularies is tolerated, and intestine divisions arise, or some split off and set up for themselves opposition Churches elsewhere.
If this is the law of all human societies, is it not to be anticipated that the Christian community is also subject to that law, in other words that its unity is to be secured by the submission of its members and component Churches to the one ruling authority which is duly set over them all? It will be objected that this principle of authority, if allowed to prevail, may suffice to secure unity in Christendom, but not unity in truth. As soon as the time comes when it is the conviction of individual members or groups of members that their ruling authority is departing from the truth, they cannot but give the preference to truth over unity, which in fact is what has happened in the history of Christendom, and has caused the present disunion. The answer to this difficulty is that the human mind is indeed bound to truth, and acts irrationally if it does not pursue it at all costs; but none the less it is rational for the individual mind to subordinate its personal judgments to those of a mind which can give it a securer guarantee of truth than it can derive from its own reasonings; it is, therefore, supremely rational for it to submit to the mind of Christ, whensoever this can be securely ascertained.
If Christ communicated His own mind to His Apostles as to the doctrines and laws He desired His Church to receive and obey; if His Apostles transmitted these Divine communications by tradition to future generations; if a living authority duly set over His people has watched over the safe transmission of this tradition; and, if the Holy Spirit was sent by Him to abide in His Church and secure this living authority in the faithful discharge of its trust -- then, so far as we can see, the duty to truth and the duty to unity are fully harmonized, and a way opened for the reunion of Christendom without any outrage being done to the nature of the human mind. This, it may be said, is only an inference based on the law of human societies and the nature of the human mind. Can it be safe to take it as sufficing to determine a question of fact, such as is the question whether our Lord really did make this particular provision for the safeguarding of His revelation?
But if it were only that, at least it proves that this principle of a Divinely guarded Magisterium is not irrational, but on the contrary is, so far as we can see, the only principle capable of harmonizing the two certain facts, that our minds are by nature bound to truth at all costs and that our Lord prayed and therefore provided that we might all be one in faith. A principle, however, of this value must be regarded as resting on a much firmer basis than mere inference, especially when it is associated with the massive historical fact that the oldest and greatest of all the Churches -- which is also the only one that has known how to secure unity among its children without injury done to their sense of truth -- has all along been ruled by this very principle in the sure belief that it rests on the express words of Christ. Should not this send us back to a study of the words as they came from Christ's lips, and as they were understood by His Apostles, to see if those words do not correspond with this belief of the later Church?
And here we join on to the historical survey with which this article commenced, for in that survey has been epitomized the evidence from the New Testament and the early Christian writings, which shows that if we are to credit these records, our Lord did establish and impose this very system; that the Apostles whom He sent forth to lay the foundations of the Church, did so understand Him; that the Church of the second century, as represented by St. Irenaus, likewise so understood Him.
PROSPECTS OF REUNION
If corporate reunion were a practical ideal, capable of being realized at no distant date, it would have enormous advantages, for it would greatly facilitate the task of those who feel the sadness of their present isolation. But, the conditions of this mode of reunion being such as we have seen, it is unfortunately impossible to regard the prospect of its realization as other than discouraging. Why is if that those who tell us with transparent sincerity that they long for the time when Christendom will be united once more, so persistently resist the rule of tradition and submission to the Holy See, though as capable as ourselves of appreciating the reasoning of the last section, and admiring the results which that rule can produce in the communion of the Apostolic See?
Why is it that they continue, in the face of all their past disappointments, to stand out for their principle of comprehension, and to ask for reunion on the basis of mutual concession and contract? Obviously if is because they are still dominated by those self-same principles of religious division which we discerned in the earlier part of this article, when we were tracing to their ultimate causes the schisms that troubled the first four Christian centuries. We counted five such causes: "I cannot belong to a Church in whose doctrines I find insoluble intellectual difficulties", or "which cannot find a place in its system for religious experiences I take to be the direct voice of God to me", or "which claims to put fetters on my mental liberty", or "which runs counter to my national attachments and antipathies", or "which involves me in opposition to my temporal rulers"
These principles, we said then, all or some of them, would be found likewise at the root of all subsequent schisms, and have not the summaries above given proved the truth of this? In the Oriental schisms, though private judgment on doctrinal subtleties had its part, the chief agencies at work were national antipathies and subservience to temporal rulers. In the sixteenth-century revolt all the five influences were fiercely active. Many Catholic doctrines -- as, for instance, those of transubstantiation, the sacramental principle, the merit of good works -- were condemned as offensive to the private judgment of the Reformers.
The doctrine (Lutheran) of justification by faith was an egregious example of putting absolute trust in the assumptions of emotionalism, indeed was the first step towards transferring the basis of faith from the preaching of the word to the so-called testimony of experience. How repugnant to these Reformers was the idea of submission to any teaching authority save their own, is evidenced by their denunciations of popes and priests: how much they were possessed by the principles of Nationalism and Erastianism, is evidenced by the way in which they allowed their rulers to split them up into national Churches and gain their favour for these by stirring up their national animosities.
At the present time, among the Churches of England and America which are asking for reunion -- or rather, some of whose members are asking for reunion -- these same sentiments still prevail, with some modification as regards their particular application. Is not this sufficiently attested by the tone of the criticisms which come so readily to their lips? "I cannot bring my mind to believe in a Trinity in Unity, in a Godman, in a sinless man, in an atonement, in transubstantiation, in original sin, in the power of a little water to wash away sin, in a power of absolution entrusted to sinful men, in a gift of immunity from religious error vested in a succession of under-educated Pontiffs." And again, "I know from my spiritual experience that I am saved, that the sacraments I have received are valid whatever reasons may be urged against them, that my particular form of religion is the true one though it contradicts the religion of others who can cite similar experiences on their behalf." Or again, "I am not going to hand over the keeping of my conscience to any priest or Church, I am not going to surrender the open-mindedness which is the essential quality of a truth-seeker." Or again, "I want a religion to suit my national temperament as an Englishman or an American; I am not going to submit to a foreign priest or listen to an Italian mission." How is it possible that men saturated with principles so antagonistic to the obedience of faith should be induced to seek reunion in the only form in which, as we have seen, it can be solid and lasting, that is, by submission to the teaching of the Apostolic See?
Indeed, how can one imagine that they would accept even a system of comprehension unless, like their own present systems, it should be one prepared to tolerate every variety of individualism? But the fact is, these Anglican reunionists strangely overlook the mentality of their fellow-churchmen, and persuade themselves that the comparatively small section which forms the moderately High Church party can be taken as duly representing theirChurch; and then, realizing that neither this small section, nor even they themselves, have the true Catholic disposition of submission to a teaching authority, they have taken refuge in a project of comprehension that would just include themselves.
But it will not do to take this over-hopeful view of the situation. The possibilities of an approaching corporate reunion must be judged by the mentality of the whole body, and what chance is there, humanly speaking, that -- to say nothing of the Presbyterians and Nonconformists -- the general body of Anglicans, which is every year becoming more and more radical in its tone will be brought within a generation or two to such a degree of doctrinal unity and Catholic spirit among themselves as to make it likely that, as an organized body of bishops, clergy, and laity, they will approach the Holy See in the full spirit of submission, and ask to be received into its communion? Moreover, if we can imagine these internal difficulties overcome, and whole Churches approaching the Holy See in this manner, we must not overlook the probability that the difficulty from state interference, dormant for the present, would quickly revive.
The statesmen would be sure to take alarm, and work against the project with all their might as a danger to their own selfish schemes; and this all the more because aggressive Anticlericalism has captured so many of the governments of powerful countries, and would strive, by appealing to racial prejudices and fostering campaigns of misrepresentation and oppression, to stamp out a movement calculated, if successful, to add so greatly to the forces of Christianity, If must be repeated that individuals might hold out against this persecution, but the masses of men whom we are supposing to form the membership of Churches anxious to reunite would in all probability be shattered by it, and break up. We must not, indeed forget that we are all in the hands of God, and God may at any time intervene by some signal providence to clear away the obstacles from the path of corporate reunion. But we have no right to count on interventions of this kind.
Reunionists whose inquiries have convinced them that the way to unity is through submission to the Holy See will be imprudent indeed if they delay their personal submission in expectation of a corporate act on the part of their respective Churches which, in the absence of any such Divine intervention, is, in view of the difficulties indicated, most unlikely to come till long after the present generation of men has passed away. Nor is it to the purpose to ask here if by this method of individual conversions there is any prospect of an eventual restoration of Christendom to the unity which once held it together.
Possibly there is not; but why should there be? We may indeed look to a continuance, and perhaps to an expansion, of the process now going on whereby appreciable numbers are added to the Church through individual submissions, but it does not seem likely that, in this age of individualism, whole nations will be brought in by this method, nor is there any Divine promise that they will be. Another age may bring forth better things, but whether it will we know not. Still, though the prospects of corporate reunion appear discouraging, Catholics may well show themselves appreciative and sympathetic towards the efforts of those of other communions who are captivated by the splendid ideal and think that under one form or another it is capable of realization.
We may safely leave to the Providence of God to determine what course the present reunion movement shall ultimately take, and meanwhile we may emphasize the substantial point that Catholics and other reunionists have in common: their mutual desire to see the barriers that separate them removed. They can co-operate, too, in working for the good cause in useful ways without any surrender of their own principles. For they can cultivate friendly personal relations, to the formation of which it will greatly contribute if they can work together for objects, social or otherwise, as to the value of which they are agreed.
There is a special value in the personal friendships thus formed, for they tend to dissolve the obstacles which come from sheer misunderstandings and the animosities that these engender. And they can further co-operate for the removal of these same obstacles by positive efforts to understand one another correctly, particularly by the others seeking and the Catholics, if they are competent, showing a readiness to give simple explanations of the true character of their beliefs and practices.
The latter cannot indeed be too careful to avoid bitter controversies, for these, as experience has proved, serve more to harden estrangements than to cement reconciliations. But their explanations will be often welcomed, if it be known that they will be marked by candour, cordiality, and patience, for nowadays there is a growing number who have come to suspect that Catholicism is not as black as it has been painted for them, and are anxious to hear about it from those whom they can trust, and who have intimate knowledge of it from the inside.
If would be rash, however, for Catholics to expect that their non-Catholic friends will be readily convinced by the explanations they give. Convictions are of slow growth; besides it is not for the human agent to intrude on the office which the Holy Spirit reserves to Himself. Lastly, there can be co-operation in efforts to promote reunion by earnest and assiduous prayer. Catholics cannot join an association for prayer like the A.P.U.C., which is under non-Catholic management, but they have the highest sanction for joining similar associations under Catholic management, such as the Confraternity of Compassion, which Leo XIII himself established in 1897, and entrusted to the administration of the Sulpician Fathers.
(adapted from Catholic Encyclopedia)