At the end of this month, four hundred ninety-nine years ago, a German Augustinian Catholic priest and theology professor sent the archbishop of Mainz a letter and a list of ninety-five statements disputing the Church’s teachings on indulgences. The friar later may have also posted his “ninety-five theses” as an invitation for debate on his university’s chapel door in Wittenberg. Events would snowball from there, with examinations and public debate, and ultimately an excommunication. That monk’s name was Martin Luther.
Luther rebelled in the belief that he was calling the Church to holy reform, back to its original purity, freed from all false additions. But unlike St. Francis, whose radical devotion to the Gospel and the Church strengthened Christendom, Luther’s efforts brought about division which remains to our day. The “Protestant Reformation” gave rise to Lutheranism, Calvinism, Anglicanism, and their many denominational breakoffs, including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and others.
What do we as Catholics believe about the Christians in these non-Catholic communities and what does the Catholic Church believe about herself? The following excerpts on this subject are drawn from The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs #816-822):
The sole Church of Christ is that which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it…. This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism explains: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God.”
In fact, in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame. The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body – here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism – do not occur without human sin: As Origen wrote, “Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.”
However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities that resulted from such separation and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers…. All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.
Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements. Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”
Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time. Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, … so that the world may know that you have sent me.” (John 17:21) The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.
Certain things are required in order to respond adequately to this call:
– a permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation; such renewal is the driving-force of the movement toward unity;
– conversion of heart as the faithful try to live holier lives according to the Gospel; for it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ’s gift which causes divisions;
– prayer in common, because change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name “spiritual ecumenism”
– fraternal knowledge of each other;
– ecumenical formation of the faithful and especially of priests;
– dialogue among theologians and meetings among Christians of the different churches and communities;
– collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to mankind. “Human service” is the idiomatic phrase.
Concern for achieving unity involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. But we must realize that this holy objective – the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ – transcends human powers and gifts. That is why we place all our hope in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.