Dear Father, In the Creed we profess our belief that the Church is one. I am in my seventies but have never seen such division over questions like loyalty to the Pope, matters of doctrine, morals and discipline, etc. How can we say that the Church is one?
No matter how many divisions or differences of opinion we may see, the Church will always be one. There have always been differences of opinion over certain issues. In the Acts of the Apostles we see the disagreement in Antioch over whether converts to the faith should be circumcised. We read there that “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate” with those who wanted to impose circumcision (Acts 15:2).
When the apostles and elders met to discuss the matter in Jerusalem, again “there had been much debate” (Acts 15:7) but in the end they resolved the matter by common agreement.
The Church’s unity is much deeper than the differences of opinion that may exist over particular matters. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists six ways in which the Church is one.
First, the Church is one because of her source. The Second Vatican Council says that “the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit” (UR 2). The ultimate source of the Church is the Blessed Trinity, one God in three persons, so the Church is one for this reason.
Second, the Church is one because of her founder. The Church has only one founder, Jesus Christ, and his will is embodied in everything the Church believes and practises. “The Word made flesh, the prince of peace, reconciled all men to God by the cross, … restoring the unity of all in one people and one body” (GS 78 §3; CCC 813).
Third, the Church is one because of her soul. The soul of the Church is the Holy Spirit, “who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church’s unity” (UR 2; CCC 813).
Fourth, the Church is one because she professes one faith, the faith received from the apostles. Unity in faith is a salient feature of the Catholic Church and distinguishes it from other Christian denominations which can often be very divided in what they believe.
The faith of the Catholic Church was received from Christ through the apostles and has been developed and deepened ever since through ecumenical councils, the teaching of Popes and the study of theologians and saints later accepted by the Magisterium. It is one coherent body of teaching which today is found in readily accessible form in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Fifth, the Church is one because of her common celebration of worship. Everywhere in the world the Church worships God with the same seven sacraments, the sacrifice of the Mass, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, etc.
People travelling overseas appreciate this unity when they attend Mass in a variety of countries with different languages and rites, but always with the same fundamental structure based on the Missal approved by the Holy See. Anywhere in the world a Catholic is “at home” in the Mass.
And sixth, the Church is one in her government. The Church is one single organisation, with one head on earth, the Pope, and one body of bishops in communion with him. The Pope has immediate jurisdiction over the whole Church and over each of the faithful.
The marvellous unity of the Church is described by St Irenaeus at the end of the second century: “Since the Church has accepted this preaching and this faith we have outlined, despite its spread throughout the world it keeps it carefully, as though it lived in one house only. The Church believes these truths, as if it had but one soul and one heart; it preaches them and hands them on as though it had but one mouth.
For although there are many different languages in the world, even so the strength of tradition is one and the same. The Church founded in Germany believes exactly the same and hands on the same as do the Spanish and Celtic Churches, and the ones in the East, those in Egypt and Libya and Jerusalem, the centre of the world” (Adv. haeres. 1, 10, 1-3).