True Church Unity, Its Meaning and Importance

We are in the midst of the Chair of Unity Octave. This is a good time for some considerations on what constitutes true Church unity and why it is so important.

The fundamental truth concerning Christian unity seems, in these days of profound confusion, to be the best kept secret in all of Christendom. Christian unity can only be attained in the Catholic Church, which is where it has existed, does exist, and will exist from the time Christ established His Church until the General Judgment. I know that’s a long sentence, and to some it may even appear to be a contradiction. How can we attain to something that has existed for two millenia?

The answer is simple. We attain it by accepting it, by conforming ourselves to it.

So much of Christianity involves the effecting on earth of already existing heavenly realities, or the ongoing application to new matter of forms already perfected by God. Liturgy, the sacraments, and the Mass all work this way. What Jesus finished on the Cross is still being carried out. That’s not an oxymoron, but a profound Christian mystery.

When Christ gave the Church the gift of unity, he made it one of her essential marks that cannot be taken away. Christ’s Church is, after all, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The baptized who leave the Church via a sin against faith (heresy) or a sin against charity (schism) do not destroy Christian unity; they merely leave it.

In Unam Sanctam, Pope Boniface VIII compared the unity of the Church to Christ’s seamless garment. This garment cannot be torn or rent, but it can clothe more or fewer members at various times, depending upon who enters or leaves the Church. Whether the militant Church on earth has comparatively greater or lesser numbers at any given time, she remains perfect in her divine constitution. In the end, the membership of the Church triumphant in Heaven will be made up of the exact number of the predestined, so even the number of members will be perfect.

Because of certain practices carried out in the name of ecumenism, many of the faithful are confused about all this. Joe Catholic in the pew has a fluffy notion of what Christian unity is. He might think it means a sort of inter-church cooperation in feeding the hungry, or getting together for discussions which conclude in irenic slogans like, “the points on which we agree are vastly more important than the points on which we differ.” If he could articulate the common misconception of Christian unity, Joe might say that it is the greater cooperation, mutual respect, and love between all Christians, no matter what their denomination. So, when he prays for Church unity, Joe might be praying for more of this kind of thing.

But he would not be praying for Christian unity.

The article on Father Paul Wattson of Graymoor we recently posted on our site reveals that his conception of Christian unity was not Joe’s. This apostolic man, a convert from Episcopalianism, knew that true Christian unity can only be achieved in the Catholic Church. To work for this, he started the Chair of Unity Octave, which eventually received ecclesiastical approbation. Father Paul, who died in 1940, resisted efforts to make the Octave more “inclusive” and less explicitly Catholic:

There was an attempt to “water down” the intention of the Octave by some Christians, including an influential Catholic priest, Abbe Paul Couturier of France. Their adjusted prayer became “the reunion of Christians in the manner best pleasing to Christ,” rather than “reunion under the authority of the Successor of Saint Peter.” Many non-Catholic Christians, especially the Orthodox, jumped on this bandwagon. Although the leaders of this prayer octave tried to enlist Father Paul in their support, he remained adamant that reunion had to come under the auspices of the pope. (“Father Paul of Graymoor: Founder of the Society of the Atonement and Father of the Church Unity Octave“)

The misdirected effort to unify Christians without seeking converts to Catholicism was already under way in the first half of the twentieth century. In 1929, Pope Pus XI wrote on this subject in his encyclical Mortalium Animos, in which he said clearly that:

The unity of Christians cannot be otherwise obtained than by securing the return of the separated to the one true Church of Christ from which they once unhappily withdrew. To the one true Church of Christ, We say, that stands forth before all, and that by the will of its Founder will remain forever the same as when He Himself established it for the salvation of all mankind.

His Holiness also gave the reason why such true unity is of major moment:

Children did, alas, abandon their father’s house, but the house did not therefore fall into ruins, supported as it was by the unceasing help of God. Let them return, then, to the common father of all. He has forgotten the unjust wrongs inflicted upon the Holy See and will receive them most lovingly. If, as they often say, they desire to be united with Us and with Ours, why do they not hasten to return to the Church, “the mother and mistress of all the followers of Christ?” (Conc. Lateran IV, c.5.)

Let them listen to Lactantius crying: “It is only the Catholic Church that retains the true worship. It is the fountain of truth, it is the household of the faith, it is the temple of God: If anyone does not enter it, or if anyone departs from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. Let no one deceive himself by continuous wranglings. Life and salvation are in the balance, which if not looked to carefully and diligently will be lost and destroyed.” (Divin. Instit. 4, 30, 11-12.)

So the unity of Christians in the Catholic Church is not a matter of “our club” being bigger than the other guys’ clubs; neither is it a question of “sheep stealing,” as some, even priests, fatuously call the seeking of converts; it is, rather, a matter of everlasting life and death. In a celebrated discourse, Saint Augustine strongly affirms this and refutes the spiritually bankrupt notion that “the points on which we agree are vastly more important than the points on which we differ.” With this strong stuff of the Doctor of Grace I will conclude:

A man cannot have salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church he can have everything except salvation. He can have honor, he can have Sacraments, he can sing Allelulia, he can answer Amen, he can possess the Gospel, he can preach faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: but never except in the Catholic Church will he be able to find salvation. ( St. Augustine, Discourse to the People of the Church at Caesarea , Migne, PL, 43, 689, 698; cf. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. III, p. 130.)