That They May Be One

It’s often forgotten that Jesus’ central petition is: “keep them in your name that you have given me that they may be one just as we are.” (John 17:11) Pope Benedict explains this as follows: “He asks the Father that these believers ‘be in us’ (v. 21); that they will live, in other words, in interior communion with God and Jesus Christ, and that this inward being in communion with God may give rise to visible unity.”

He continues: “Twice the Lord says that this unity should make the world believe in the mission of Jesus. It must thus be a unity which can be seen – a unity which so transcends ordinary human possibilities as to become a sign before the world and to authenticate the mission of Jesus Christ.”

Catholics have made a shambles of this unity and a shambles of their visibility through the centuries, and have continued this unfortunate process right down to our own day.

The unity of “mind and heart” (Acts 4:32) was greatly disrupted in the sixties by the one magic word “prophetic.” In that frothy and shallow time, those who disagreed with Church teaching were being “prophetic,” implying that the Church would come round to their way of thinking at some point in the future.

This egocentric perspective is still with us today. Unfortunately for proponents of such thinking, Vatican II dealt with this issue (precisely in the sixties) and explained the point routinely left out of the picture: “discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.” So far so good for the dissenters, who took it to mean that “anything that I happen to think must be the work of the Spirit.”

But the council went on to say: “It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God.” Ouch! And things were going so well. The council must have gone wrong and the opponents of actual conciliar teachings thought of themselves as being “prophetic” in saying so.  

It was analogous to the story of the proud mother watching the troops march by – so proud that, when she discovered that her Johnny was not in step with everyone else, she exclaimed: “Look at that! Everyone is out of step except my Johnny.”

Consistency is an essential quality of the people of God, the being of one mind and heart that makes Christ visible. Being in step is not a privation or an affront to the person, provided it is being in step with the one truth of Christ and the Church that propagates it.

              Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Karen Laub-Novak

The very next sentence in the passage I have been examining is that: “Through [the teaching authority], the people of God adheres unwaveringly to the faith given once and for all to the saints, penetrates it more deeply with right thinking, and applies it more fully in its life.” So the community is not where people just make up anything they like (even assuming they do really think hard – solipsism is solipsism no matter how long and hard you do it).

Rather, the Church is set up so that people can learn the truth confidently because she has the “sure gift of truth” (Vatican II). The truth is given to us so that we can then get into the demanding business of applying it to our lives. That is how God’s people will come to be conformed to Christ, not by dreaming up contrary propositions.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas explains that it is necessary that we learn from divine revelation – which of course happens in the Church not outside of it:

Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.
Thomas was an experienced teacher and he knew that we are very poor at working out the truth for ourselves. We invariably need revelation and the Church’s settled reflections on it.

Luke also spoke, however, of the community possessing “one heart.” This is his way of speaking about the will and it indicates that we commit ourselves to this truth because of its life-giving qualities.

This is a day-to-day decision: “the great ‘yes’ of the decisive moment in our life – the ‘yes’ to the truth that the Lord puts before us – must then be won afresh every day in the situations of daily life when we have to abandon our ‘I’ over and over again, placing ourselves at the Lord’s disposal when deep down we would prefer to cling to our ‘I’.” (Benedict XVI)

This existential work of coming to be of one mind is essentially the diametrical opposite of the facile claims to being “prophetic” that we have had to endure for the past half century.