Vibrant Catholicism, 3: Unity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 10, 2015

For the third installment in this series, I have been wondering whether I wanted to take up the importance of Catholic consistency in lifestyle decisions, particularly for parents, or instead to focus on the need to exemplify a deep practical unity with the Church. The recent outcry in the Traditionalist press over my effort to summarize the differing opinions on the use of the vernacular in the liturgy at the Second Vatican Council has pushed the problem of factiousness to the fore.

A vibrant and effective Catholicism is impossible without unity in the Church.

Anyone who had the misfortune to live through the low period of liturgical music in the late 1960s and early 1970s will remember that horrendous Indian war chant that used to be sung at Mass, “They will know we are Christians by our love (by our love)”. Interestingly, even the poorest of the new “hymns” which came and went during this period had one positive element which was frequently lacking in older hymns (but not, of course, in the sung parts of the Mass): Namely, they drew directly on Scripture.

The musical settings were often very bad, but in their Scriptural lyrics they were typically Psalm-like. Even this worst of all examples was based on John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” However, it is unlikely that many of those who shuddered at singing such truly deplorable music ever recognized this point. Most of us were preoccupied by “seeing red”.

But this Scriptural focus was in fact characteristic of nearly the entire early “glory and praise” corpus. There is a lesson here, even if it is a painful lesson.

Prudence is always multivalent

The great St. Augustine is reputed to have said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Actually, Augustine never said this. The expression has been traced back only to the 17th century, which rather robs it of its traditional force. But it is a sensible proverb nonetheless. Christian disunity and division are inescapable when there is a denial of revealed truth or ecclesiastical jurisdiction (the twin evils of heresy and schism). But more often than not, divisions occur over non-essentials. They are frequently the result of emotional attachments or “feelings”, which we tend to rationalize into arguments, in order to justify ourselves.

When it comes to mere taste or mere preferences, of course, we should keep our passions out of it. Even when we are considering what the best approach to some problem might (or might not) be, we are in the realm of prudence. This virtue consists in the combination of an accurate assessment of circumstances with the ability to select and effectively implement an appropriate response. Because our assessment of circumstances is inescapably affected by our own personalities, experiences, aptitudes, awareness and preferences—and because solutions likewise depend on capabilities and perceptions for their effectiveness—there can be different opinions on prudential questions.

In fact, prudence always admits of multiple values. We quickly see that responding to a problem in one way would maximize benefit A but incur drawback X, while responding to it in another way would maximize benefit B but incur drawback Y, and so on. Rarely are practical matters amenable to perfect, fool-proof, one-size-fits-all solutions, if only because of the great variety of persons who will be affected, each of whom responds to different policies in different ways. For this reason, all disciplinary matters in the Church admit of differences of opinion. The key to Catholic unity in such matters, then, is docility to the competent ecclesiastical authority.

Any of us may have very strong opinions on any subject. But apart from those matters which are guaranteed to us in Divine Revelation, we can never be certain that our own opinion is ultimately the best opinion. Even when we are sure we are right, honesty demands the admission that we might be wrong, that there may be important values in another approach that we do not see. Moreover, it is infinitely better to accept even inferior prudential solutions (in Church parlance, disciplines) than to break the unity of the Church.

The lesson of that new music of the 1960s and 1970s is pertinent here. Speaking for myself, I did not like it. But it did typically have a Scriptural focus that most older hymns lacked. This was liturgically appropriate, especially when music could be selected to match the texts or themes of the prayers and readings. In contrast, I very much like “Faith of Our Fathers”, but it doesn’t have that advantage. Singing the actual parts of the Mass seems to me to be ideal, but this admits of less thematic variety.

I repeat: Prudential questions are multivalent.

The Lesson of the Apostolic Age

Already in the days of the apostles, St. Paul was writing to the various churches he founded to quell disturbances and divisions:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? [1 Cor 1:11-13]

Similarly, the fourth pope, Clement, had to write to the church at Corinth to rebuke them for rebellious factiousness, while the apostle John was still living.

There are no circumstances under which we feel so justified in fomenting divisions as when we are convinced of our own spiritual righteousness in what are actually matters of prudence. This could involve a quarrel over the form of the liturgy, or the music at Mass, or the focus of various parish organizations, or the Church building program, or the personality of a pastor. (Perhaps he is viewed as too stern or too lax, too interested in social problems, or not interested enough in our favorite devotions; or maybe we do not like his taste in Church decor.) Where our religious sensibilities are involved, we grow instantly passionate. In our self-love, we invariably assume not only that we know best but that those who disagree are spiritually inferior.

Religious sensibilities are frequently confused with the interior life. The former demand satisfaction; the latter grows best when satisfactions are absent. The devil gleefully exploits our confusion on this score—our self-love—to subvert the unity of the Church.

The key to unity in the Church is the great love we are to have for each other, our pastors, our bishops, and the pope. This unity of love is essential to a vibrant Catholicism. Without it, those whom we would hope to win for Christ are put off by our constant quarreling and bitterness. St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Christians at Ephesus around the year 100 AD, expressed it this way:

Wherefore it is fitting that you should run together in accordance with the will of your bishop, which thing also you do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And do you, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son. It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus you may always enjoy communion with God.

We have seen in history how the splintering of Catholic unity by Protestantism dramatically reduced the effectiveness of Christian witness over the past five hundred years. Yet despite this great lesson, we continue to be the victims of our own quarrels, which mostly result from the confusion of prudential judgment with Revelation, of self-love with piety, or even of personal taste with holiness.

A house divided against itself cannot stand (Mk 3:25). Nothing is more calculated than division to sap Catholicism of its vibrancy. Through division, our faith becomes a false witness—a witness that does not attract, but repels.


Previous in series: Vibrant Catholicism, 2: A Life of Constant Prayer

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 11, 2015 2:12 PM ET USA

    You wrote: "I have always argued that it is a mistake to label such persons 'Traditionalists'. They are Catholics." That's the point, isn't it? The FSSP and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest were established as evangelical outreaches to the schismatics long before "evangelization" recently became fashionable in the Western Church. Our mission was and remains to bring the separated sheep back into the fold. We stand FOR unity, not against it. We understand the price of fielty.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 11, 2015 10:31 AM ET USA

    To jasoncpetty3446: I don't think I indicated anywhere that the quarrels with traditionalists are the only occasions for unfortunate divisions within the Church. But a larger point would be that Catholics can have different views on many issues without breaking the unity of the Church. Some people call themselves "Traditionalists" when, preferring the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, they attend Mass in that form as provided by the competent ecclesiastical authority. I have always argued that it is a mistake to label such persons "Traditionalists". They are Catholics. But when these differing opinions divide the Church, set people against each other, and involve a refusal to obey our bishops, then we are dealing with the kinds of divisions which render effective Christian witness all but impossible. Also, as I said, divisions are inevitable—and necessary—when people reject Revelation or defy ecclesiastical authority. It is a denial of both Revelation and ecclesiastical authority, by the way, to insist that what the Church has declared optional is required by God. But it is perfectly acceptable to argue peacefully that X is a better way than Y (which is a prudential question).

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Jun. 10, 2015 11:23 PM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, are you going over to the traditionalist side then for unity's sake? Or proposing they come to your side in liturgical matters? I don't see why you can't just take your Liturgiam Authenticam translation and give them their Summorum Pontificum Masses. You may have been able to "stop worrying and love the bomb"--and I can do this, too, but only after many years of bitterness--but there will never be unity on liturgical points, or even agreement that we're talking "prudential" matters.