Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Church’s Mark of Unity, and How It Works

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 22, 2014

Each week we profess our faith in a Church that is not just holy, Catholic and apostolic, but also one. Traditionally, the unity of the Church has been considered in terms of unity of faith, unity of cult, and unity of charity. Members of the Church believe the same things, worship in the same way, and enjoy a communion of love. Or rather they ought to. But clearly this unity is, in the Church’s members, only imperfectly realized.

If this is so, how can we say that “the Church” is “one”? I partially explored the answer to this question in my essay on the dangers of viewing the Church as a mere association (see Death by Association: The Church Transcends Your Own Identity). The Church has a “corporate” personality all her own. As the Body and the Bride of Christ, she possesses an identity which transcends the relative disarray of her members.

The marks of that personality are the characteristics enumerated in the Creed, mentioned above. Thus the Church already carries within her a fundamental unity with Christ which makes her the Divinely-ordained instrument by which all of her members are to be made one in Christ. Insofar as her members fail in the manifestation of this unity, it is only because of their resistance to the fundamental action of the Church. Insofar as they succeed, it is because they permit the unity which the Church inculcates by her very nature to be effected in themselves.

Creedal, Liturgical and Social Bonding

In his brilliant new theological treatise on the marks of the Church, Figuring out the Church, Aidan Nichols, OP speaks of the three key ways in which the Church bonds her members into her own unity. First, we see that the Faith of the Church came formally through Revelation to the Apostles. It is expressed most succinctly in her various creeds, or professions of Faith. This is the Faith to which her members are bound in unity, and insofar as they wilfully substitute their own ideas for the Church’s Faith, they are simply refusing with respect to faith to be drawn into unity with Christ.

In a similar way, the essence of the Church’s worship is found in her sacraments, above all in her perpetuation of the Eucharist. The theological virtues of faith, hope and love are given as an essential spiritual foundation in Baptism (an initiation into the Church and into Christ as one and the same). Then the faithful are progressively built up into unity through their communion with the body and blood of the Lord, made present through the Church’s liturgy. Once again, those who substitute their own human forms of celebratory mingling for the forms offered through the Church do this only insofar as they are resistant in this respect to being drawn into unity with Christ.

Finally, the Church possesses also a social bond. This is the bond of charity, which is weakened in her members by every form of sin. This social bond is effected interiorly by the Holy Spirit, the very Person who unites the Father and the Son, and the one Person who resides in the many members of the Church, drawing them into the Trinitarian life of Christ. But the Church is not a passive communion. She has a mission to extend her salvific presence throughout the world, a mission which requires the authoritative organization of her members and the disposition of her powers and gifts. This aspect of the Church’s essential unity is effected and manifested by the sacred hierarchy, which carries on the fullness of faith and sacrament in union with the successor of Peter, to whom were given the keys to heaven and the care of the one flock of Christ. Again, deciding good and evil for oneself over against the authority of the Church constitutes a sin against the Holy Spirit and a grave resistance to the Church’s singular mission of drawing souls into unity with Christ.

Member Participation

Paradoxically, it is precisely this understanding of the unity of the Church that enables us to see that an imperfect manifestation of unity in her members is not only inevitable but necessary. The Church could hardly possess the mark of unity unless she were constantly in the process of drawing souls into that profound unity with Christ that she alone possesses as part of her very nature. And if this process is progressive in her members, then it is also incomplete in them. The Church long ago settled the question of whether those who are spiritually imperfect ought to be permitted among her members. Her mission is to sinners, and so it is sinners who constitute her membership.

Unfortunately, in our time this perception often leads to an opposite error, the error that it is either impossible or sinful to make judgments about what does or does not impede the Church’s mission. But if we reflect for a moment longer, we can also see that the call to membership in the Church is a call to be a sinner on the way to unity in Christ. It is true that important aspects of holiness can be invisible, but the Church by her nature also possesses visible creedal, liturgical and social criteria by which her members not only may be judged but must be judged if she is to maximize her unitive power. It is one thing to be imperfect within the Church; all of us are imperfect, and presumably we are all, each in his own way, seeking to appropriate the spiritual riches of the Church so that we might improve. But it is quite another thing to deliberately set ourselves against the Church’s bonds of unity, to wilfully reject her faith, her liturgy, or her charity. This resistance is often all too visible. We have an obligation to detect and correct it in ourselves, and to remonstrate with those who scandalously impede the ability of the Church to draw others into her essential oneness with the Lord.

Both encouragement and criticism require judgment. The very bond of charity demands that we be quick to encourage, slow to reach a negative judgment, slower to remonstrate, and slower still to punish. But the unity that is inherent in the Church does in fact make it both possible and necessary, according to our abilities and opportunities, to judge, to remonstrate and to punish. All Catholics are bound to foster the creedal, liturgical and social unity of the Church in themselves and others, and this inescapably requires constant evaluation for compatibility with the Divine life signaled by the Church’s special marks.

Moreover, St. Matthew explains rather clearly what we are to do when we encounter serious resistance to this life in Christ which the Church provides (Mt 18:15-17). He explains that, under the authority of our pastors, we must judge, we must remonstrate, and—in particularly stubborn cases—we must even exclude. Prudence is absolutely essential, but unity cannot be completed in the members of the Church unless the members themselves seek to overcome the obstacles—and especially the deliberate resistance—which too often impedes that salvific progress into unity which marks the very identity of a Church that is holy, catholic, apostolic, and one.

Next in series: The Church’ Mark of Holiness, Noted by Friends and Foes

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 - Jan. 23, 2014 8:28 PM ET USA

    Few "traditionalists" that I know like the label. They think of themselves as "just Catholics". One of the most well-known "traditionalists", Michael Matt, made this point again recently. It's true they might use it has a shorthand for lack of anything better, just as you and I might occasionally use "conservative" as a shorthand for our views on, say, abortion. But for Catholics both "traditionalist" and "conservative" are more often used as terms of abuse than attempts at self-differentiation.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jan. 23, 2014 11:18 AM ET USA

    To oakes.spalding7384: I have always tried to make clear that the term "traditionalist" for me refers to those, like the SSPX, who elevate their own understanding of Tradition over the authority of the Church. These only do I attack. To me, and I hope to all of us, those who love Tradition in accordance with the Magisterium's judgment of what the authentic Tradition really is are simply Catholics, and should not be disparaged in any way. I would prefer that Catholics not differentiate themselves with divisive titles, which is why I do not like the self-description of "traditionalist" by faithful Catholics. But I have repeatedly made it clear that my use of the term does not impugn a faithful Catholic appreciation for Tradition nor (though this is not at all required by Tradition) a liturgical preference for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 23, 2014 8:02 AM ET USA

    What a splendid essay! I read and read again the paragraphs surrounding the following quote: "...the Church by her nature also possesses visible creedal, liturgical and social criteria by which her members not only may be judged but must be judged if she is to maximize her unitive power." This disposes so efficiently and charitably with all the misleading political baggage, the 'right' vs 'left', 'conservative' vs 'liberal', and 'traditionalist' vs 'progressive' nonsense in the Church!

  • Posted by: oakes.spalding7384 - Jan. 23, 2014 3:55 AM ET USA

    My recommendation for unity is to stop attacking traditionalists. In turn, traditionalists should have some charity with those who are still attached to the Mass in the vernacular. That we are against the New Mass is not merely because Jazz music offends our ears at worship, but because we think that the irreverence of the sum is leading people to Hell. To suggest otherwise is a slander, in the same way that saying that all non-traditonalists are the pawns of Satan (or whatever) is a slander.