The Unity Dilemma

The Unity Dilemma

Pope Francis has joined non-Catholic Christians, including Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, and Mormon, in an effort to “put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches, and seek instead to grasp more fully what unites us,” and to “advance the life and ministry of Jesus.”

He has met, too, with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, stressing “the importance of furthering respect [and] friendship between men and women of different religious traditions.” He has even dialogued with agnostic and atheistic humanists, calling them “precious allies” in the search for truth.

Francis’ goal in these encounters is obviously to achieve unity, not just among Christians, but among all people. This ambitious goal derives from Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one, even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You . . ..” (John 17: 20,21).

Jesus, of course, offered that prayer for His disciples and those who believe in Him as a result of the disciples’ teaching. The problem is that Francis’ formulation goes beyond the Gospel’s. It concerns not just the unity of those who embrace the Christian faith proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples, but also those who do not.

Francis may have in mind a more complex path to unity than his public statements imply. Christians already have a shared religious faith so, as he implies, the impediment to their achieving unity with one another is only their “polemic or apologetic approaches.” (Many would object even to that euphemistic designation because it minimizes substantive differences in doctrine.) What Francis does not say is that non-Christians face a much greater impediment to unity—their non-belief (or disbelief) in Christ as the Son of God. Before they can be capable of genuine unity with Christians, they must become believers, and this cannot happen merely by an act of will. It requires the grace that only God can give.

Francis’ reluctance to speak in such stark terms is understandable. Doing so might be interpreted as the kind of insensitivity (and even arrogance) many believe characteristic of the Catholic Church. Even so, to avoid the full meaning of John’s wording is to suggest unfaithfulness to the Gospel. This is what I mean by the phrase, “the unity dilemma.”

Is it possible to address this dilemma in a way that is both faithful to the Gospel yet inoffensive to those who do not share our Christian faith? If so, I believe it should reflect these facts and conclusions:

  1. Divisions among Christian denominations have often kept members from offering the example of loving kindness to one another that the Gospel requires. Overcoming those divisions should therefore be a priority for every Christian.
  2. Lack of respect for others, especially those who are different from us, is the fundamental cause of strife between individuals, groups, and nations. Therefore, the standard of negotiation and conduct within and among groups and nations should be the Golden Rule, which is widely endorsed by religious and non-religious philosophies. Individuals who accept the Golden Rule themselves, but belong to religions and societies that do not accept it, must work to gain acceptance for it.
  3. Respect for others requires that their dignity be acknowledged and the rights that flow from that dignity—notably liberty, equal opportunity, and property—be not only honored but also guaranteed by nations. Religions, individually and in concert, should be the foremost champions of these human rights.
  4. Unity, in the sense of one religious, philosophic, and/or political belief for all of mankind, is an unrealistic goal for human beings. However, unity in the more modest sense of working together across religious, philosophical, or political lines to overcome divisions, cultivate mutual respect, and guarantee human rights to all people is achievable. If such unity of purpose is pursued diligently enough, it is reasonable to hope that, in time, the greater unity specified in John 17 will come to pass.

Nevertheless, the importance of the italicized sentence in point “2” above can hardly be overstated. The “elephant” present in all ecumenical dialogue is the fact that Muslim Jihadists reject the Golden Rule, as least as it applies to infidels, especially Christians and Jews. Their perspective and the barbarism that flows from it are a singular impediment even to the modest form of unity, working together. To ignore the reality of that impediment denotes foolishness rather than faith.

While we are working for the greater unity Pope Francis rightly aims for, we should pray for the perceptiveness to distinguish between those who understand and appreciate demonstrations of respect and loving kindness and those who do not, and for the wisdom to deal appropriately with each.

Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero