Many Catholics today question why Church unity matters in light of recent cultural and political developments. Many people also say that the Church is against freedom of thought and and is inherently anti-intellectual. This post answers the question of why Church unity is important with respect to holding fast to timeless teachings as present to the local church community.
Modern historiography dictates that enforcement of Church beliefs began quite recently, around the 15th century. If the historians and historical theologians looked to the earliest writings of the Church, namely, the Church Fathers, they would see that Church unity was of grave concern even in the second century after Christ. Saint Cyprian of Carthage says in his Treatise on the Unity of the Church:
If any one consider and examine these things, there is no need for lengthened discussion and arguments. There is easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth. The Lord speaks to Peter, saying,
I say unto you, that you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.And again to the same He says, after His resurrection,
Feed my sheep.And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says,
As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins you remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins you retain, they shall be retained;John 20:21 yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says,
My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.Song of Songs 6:9 Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying,
There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, onebaptism, one God?Ephesians 4:4
Saint Cyprian clearly indicates that there is but one Lord and one Faith. This one Lord is Jesus Christ, sacramentally present to man as the Church... the Catholic Church. Just as Christ had no body, and every body has functions that work together in unison, so the Church is one body that works together. The inner-workings of the Church are compromised when one member holds ideas or teachings that are contrary to the proper functioning of the body. If someone had cancer, that cancer must be eradicated from the body for the body to work properly. Therefore, heretical ideas that compromise the health of the Church must be eradicated in order for the Church to function properly.
Even Saint Paul, though not a Church Father, extrapolates on this point when he says: "For in one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free" (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Church is made up of individual members who work toward the same goal, union with God by following Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Many Christians today believe that the Church Fathers (and Saint Paul) spoke of a very loose unity, one in core dogmas and doctrines: Belief in one God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, one "Church," more as a collection of individuals not bound to anything except the aforementioned.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote several letters to local churches while he was being lead to his martyrdom. He says:
Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there follow as sheep. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captive2 Timothy 3:6 those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place.
The Church is made up of several individual members, but these members are of one mind, heart, and, most of all, baptism. This unity is personified in the person of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. The Church expresses this unity par excellence in her supreme act of public worship: The Celebration of the Eucharist.
The celebration of the Eucharist, or as it is commonly known as, the Mass, is re-presentation of Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross. The Mass does not crucify Christ over and over again; rather, the Mass makes present again Christ's love for man as He hung upon the Cross. This is testified to by the Greek word anamesis, a making present again. When the local church assembles and becomes and unites itself to the larger Church, the local church is an ecclesiola, a little Church. The local Body of Christ resembles the whole Body of Christ. This is made present in Ignatius' words when he says:
Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.
The Church makes unity present by her very being. If the Church was a collection of loose-fitting members who did not share in the beliefs of the her Savior, then there would be no Church. Just as a body cannot function properly without a limb, so the Body of Christ, if fractured, cannot function properly.
The local church community, the parish, is a reflection of the diocesan church, united with her bishop. The diocesan church is a reflection of the whole Church. Therefore, the parish makes present the entire Church in her belief system, and most of all, in her Eucharistic celebration. Fracturing this unity means compromising, not only the unity of the local church, but also the unity of the entire Church. Fracturing the entire Church means breaking up the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, His Bride. Church unity means adhering to teachings that have been handed-down from the Apostles, to the Church Fathers, to the bishops of the modern day. Christ gave authority to Peter and the other Apostles and therefore gave them the power to safeguard Church teaching. As Catholic Christians, we believe that the Body of Christ cannot be fractured. Let us go back to the teachings of the early Church, as they are the teachings of the Church in modern times. Maybe then we can all be one in Christ Jesus.