Photo: Megan Polosky
I recently was bragging about the unity that marks Roman Catholicism. I then turned to touch on problems and movements that have threatened that unity in the past and continue to do so until this day. I covered heresy the other day. Now let’s take a look at the two other problem areas that threaten the Church; namely, schism and apostasy.
Schism is defined as the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him. Remember, now, I am writing from a Roman Catholic perspective. The best examples of this in today’s world are the Orthodox churches in Greece, Russia and the Balkins as well as their members currently scattered all over the world. The Orthodox, of course, do not consider themselves to be in schism. They contend that it is the Roman Catholics who are guilty of this offense against unity!
The key point here is that it is a question of accepting authority and not doctrines of faith. After recognizing the authority of the Bishop of Rome for one thousand years, Orthodox leaders in Constantinople began to reject it. Rome was no longer an important city while Constantinople had become the most important city in the world. Many of the Orthodox teachers believed that the influence of Rome was because of its importance in the first century and that this world had now changed. When you look at the two theologies there is an overwhelmingly sameness in beliefs, whether it be about the Triune God, the divinity of Christ, the seven sacraments, the nature of the Church, etc., etc. When you take a look at that you get another insight into the fact that the Church’s disunity, while painful, is not as bad as some people first see. Remember, there are approximately one billion, three hundred million Roman Catholics in the world and another half billion or so (I don’t have hard statistics at my fingertips) Orthodox, so nearly two billion Christians in the world hold essentially the same doctrinal benefits. Add the hundreds of millions of our Protestant brothers and sisters who also share happily an extraordinary commonality in the message of Jesus, and you can see that the missionaries have done a moderately good job over the centuries! The task is far from being complete, but we need to encourage ourselves that we are on the way.
The third cause of disunity is apostasy and this is the saddest of the three. In both heresy and schism, one can presume good will but in general, we consider apostasy a failure of the will, a rejection of belief. Apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith, total rejection of God’s love for the human family and the salvific life and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. This is by someone or some people who once had the gift of faith. That is what makes it really sad.
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Several weeks ago, I commented on the Roman Catholic Church’s extraordinary commitment to maintaining the unity of the faith across the world. The responsibility for unity flows from one of the last messages from our Divine Lord when he prayed that his followers would be ONE even as he and the Father are one. The pursuit of that unity has been extraordinarily successful but has come about only because of constant struggle to maintain it. In this 2,000 year effort, the single greatest aid to that unity has been the office of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Buy yourself a good one-volume history of the Catholic Church and you will see that in these last 2,000 years the Church’s constantly pursued unity is threatened time after time after time. There are many reasons, many causes that threaten the Church’s unity across the planet but I want to touch on the biggest three realities that have threatened the Church’s unity and endeavored to render the seamless garment for which the Church is ever in pursuit. Those three are heresy, schism and apostasy.
Just a few words about heresy. Heresy is defined as the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed and accepted according to the universal magisterium of the Church. And what are those truths? Well, essentially and implicitly it is the creed of the first generation of the Church, the Apostles Creed, and later refined in the beginning of the 4th century as the Nicene Creed. These two documents contain implicitly all that is necessary to believe about God’s revelation of himself in history.
For 400 years, Catholics and Protestants have fought, argued and frequently killed each other because of their different views about what was and what was not heresy. The problem continues but with the passage of time and cooler minds there is a beautiful understanding sweeping Christianity across the world to see that although there are very sharp and real differences in certain segments of our Christian beliefs, there is also an extraordinary unity. People committed to the unity of the Church are continuing to expand our deepening understanding of Christ’s revelation and joyful reality that we are really not as far apart as once we thought that we were. We all believe in God, the reality of God’s creation, human nature, sinfulness, redemption through Jesus, the necessity to live a good moral life and utilize the gifts that Christ has given to his followers.
The terrible split of the Reformation shattered Christian unity 400 years ago, and disunity is still very much with us but we are moving in the right direction. There are, of course, other causes of disunity and tomorrow let’s take a look at schism.
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The First Vatican Council declared that the Bishop of Rome, speaking in his official capacity as shepherd of the Universal Church in the area of faith and morals, would be guided by the Holy Spirit and would teach no error regarding the essential message of salvation. This was an awesome decision but actually was rather tightly confined to an important but small area – the official teachings of the Universal Church as proclaimed by the pope and when exercising his official capacity. Infallibility does not guide the pope in matters of politics, economics or other important areas in the life of the Church.
Regretfully, most of the people outside of the community of faith know about the word “infallibility” but they know nothing about its limitations. This creates some embarrassing situations when Church leaders frequently make serious blunders in administration and leadership roles. When Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication on those four Lefebrve’s bishops, one of whom denied the Holocaust, he was not acting infallibly. When Pope Benedict XVI was perceived to be speaking in a derogatory manner about the Muslim faith when he was on his way to Turkey, he was not acting infallibly. Tragically, thirty or forty people died violently when Benedict XVI was seen to be speaking negatively about the Muslim faith. That people died as a result may say something about Muslim tempers… but the Holy Spirit is not involved.
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