The Catholic Church is either too monolithic or too diverse, depending on the person you’re talking with. Many people who attack the Church because of the latest round of sex-abuse scandals argue that the hierarchy is too male, too old, too powerful, and must accept a diverse, younger, more decentralized leadership to survive this crisis. Others claim that a fatal weakness of the Church – with its “big-tent” identity – is its diversity, because it has allowed too many opposing camps, with mutually exclusive ideological visions, to co-exist within her walls.
There are partial truths, of course, within all of these positions. But the teachings of St. John Paul II – as offered in the recently published The Church: Mystery, Sacrament, Community, a collection of papal audiences between 1980 and 1984 – is a healthy reminder that one of Catholicism’s greatest strengths is its embrace of both unity and diversity.
In a papal audience from July 24, 1991, entitled “Christ and the Church are Inseparable,” JPII expertly explains, and rejects, the most common reasons typically offered by those who abandon the Catholic Church. This is a welcome argument given the current distemper afflicting Catholicism. He first reminds us that “the Church is in a certain sense the continuation of the mystery of the Incarnation,” citing St. Paul’s teaching that the Church is the “Body of Christ,” as well as Jesus’ analogy of the Church as the “branches” of Himself as the vine. This intimate identifying of Christ with His Church rebuts those who claim that they are somehow for Christ, but against the Church.
Yet there’s more to the argument. JPII adds that the sinfulness of those within the Body of Christ, rather than “eliciting[ing] a pharisaical attitude of separation and rejection,” should “compel us” to a deeper trust in the Church’s mission, which is precisely to overcome and redeem sin.
Moreover, by fleeing the Church amidst her greatest trials, a person cowardly seeks to escape the heroic demands to which Christ calls us. We are called to suffer with the Church, and to work for her good, not run away when the going gets tough. In this suffering, we actually participate in Christ’s mediatory role between God and men. Finally, those who seek autonomy in rejecting the Church actually end up in, “dependence on the opinions of others, on ideological and political ties, on social pressures, on one’s own inclinations and passions.” In short, it is the Church, or it is nothing.
Apart from her inseparable identification with Christ, we should also be drawn to the Church’s universality: in her, St. Paul tells us, “there is neither Jew nor Greek. . .for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Christ calls all men, regardless of “nation, language, or culture.” This universal call, what JPII calls an “openness to the whole world,” sets the Church apart from any other organization or institution in the history of the world.
Indeed, unlike the totalizing forces of globalization offered by technocratic elites who seek to remake the entire world in terms of their very narrow vision of the human person, the Church’s unity respects and elevates every cultural tradition. In heaven, Revelation tells us, our unique identities remain: with those present “from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.”
Commensurate with this vision of diversity is one of unity, perceivable through the Pauline analogy of the people of God as the “body of Christ.” In this body, like the body of a human person, there are many parts that work together, but retain their unique roles: “The multiplicity of the members and the variety of their functions cannot damage this unity, just as, on the other hand, this unity cannot cancel or destroy the multiplicity and variety of the members and their functions.”
How can the Catholic Church avoid a polarization that, on the one hand, forces all persons into a single monolith, or on the other, welcomes an indiscriminate diversity that causes her to crumble under the weight of multiple conflicting voices?
St. John Paul II argues that Christ, the “principle and source of cohesion,” who preserves and builds His Church through the power of the Holy Spirit, is the answer. Christ’s call for his followers to maintain an unassailable love for each other serves as an essential backdrop to this tension: “as I have loved you, so must you love one another.”
In loving Christ, we find it impossible not to love His body, the Church. Prayer, too, binds the diverse members of the Church, by uniting divergent voices into a common offering to God. This prayer is realized in all the sacraments but reaches its climax in the Eucharist, the greatest prayer, and height of Catholic worship, which everyone is expected to participate in.
Yet, JPII observes, the Church is a structured society, and all of her sacraments are performed by those bearing Christ’s authority, mediated through apostolic succession. The New Testament tells us that Christ intended the Church to be both hierarchical and ministerial. Moreover, bishops, the clearest manifestation of this hierarchy, are signs of the Church’s unity, being united to Christ through their sacramental marking, as well as its diversity, representing the many peoples and languages spanning the earth.
Thus in a single papal audience by St. John Paul II, we find that unity and diversity are intrinsic to Catholic self-identity and that these two qualities are peculiarly manifested in the Eucharist and the episcopacy.
Whatever the future holds for our Church, we must remember the essential nature of these two supremely Catholic qualities, lest we undermine, if not destroy, her unique identity.
*Image: The Twelve Apostles (fresco) by Enrico Reffo, 1914 [Chiesa di San Dalmazzo, Turin, Italy]