A Divided Church?

by Hans Urs von Balthasar

from the Third Volume of the Theo-Dramatic

"The division of the Church, brought about by sin, is rendered all the easier because of the distribution within her of various charisms and offices. At the very outset the community must be warned against envy and jealousy: someone else has been given something I do not possess; but, in the dispensation of love, it is for the greatest advantage of the whole in which I share. The eye sees on behalf of the whole body, and so on (1 Cor 12).

The administration of charisms presupposes selfless love on the part of all (1Cor 13). It takes only the slightest change of perspective to highlight the special nature of a charism--perhaps its striking and attractive side-making it seem more important than the Church's organic unity. Thus parties arise, often through no fault of the bearers of charisms. So Paul exhorts his hearers: ‘I appeal to you, brethren.... that there be no dissensions [schismata] among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me ... that there is quarrelling 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. . . .' Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?’ (1 Cor 1: 10-13).

Of course, there is a difference between schisms within the Church and the ultimate schism that separates people from the unity of the institutional Church. But there can be no doubt that the former were the cause of the latter. Sin in the Church is the origin of the (equally sinful) separation from the Church. The process can last for hundreds of years within the Church--think of the long prelude to the schism with the East and to the Reformation--but it can always be traced back.

Not that this justifies the ultimate rupture. A slackening of the love that preserves and builds up the Church's catholicity is the beginning, however hidden, of all division in the Church: ‘ubi peccata, ibi multitudo.’ ‘Where there are sins. there is multiplicity, divisions, erroneous teachings and discord. But where there is virtue, there is oneness, union; thus all believers were 'of one heart and one soul'. (Origen, In Ez. hom. 9)

This raises the grave question whether, and when, the Church, divided internally and often externally as well, ceases to be a single person in the theo-drama. Two principlesecclesiaxross.jpg (76764 bytes) are crucial here. The first is that the Church, both as a community of saints and as an institution, is designed and equipped to sustain and save the sinners who dwell within her; she is *corpus permixtum* and must not separate herself from them as a Church of the "pure", elect", "predestined", and so forth.

To that extent, she has to continue to endure the inner tension between her ideal and her fallen reality, endeavoring to draw what is at her periphery toward the center. Thus the unity that encompasses her (the "net") is a principle of this kind: it can hold on to those who are estranged from her provided they have not deliberately renounced her.

At this borderline, however, the other principle takes over: theologically speaking, there absolutely cannot be a plurality of Churches of Christ; if such a plurality empirically exists, these several Christian churches cannot represent theological "persons". It follows that it is impossible, by a process of abstraction, to deduce some common denominator from the historical plurality and so posit an overall concept of the one Church; for the latter's unity is not that of a species: it is a concrete and individual, unique unity, corresponding to the unique Christ who founded her.

We would do well to listen to Karl Barth at this point:

‘The plurality of churches ... should not be interpreted as something willed by God, as a normal unfolding of the wealth of grace given to mankind in Jesus Christ [nor as] a necessary trait of the visible, empirical Church, in contrast to the invisible, ideal, essential Church. Such a distinction is entirely foreign to the New Testament because, in this regard also, the Church of Jesus Christ is one. She is invisible in terms of the grace of the Word of God and of the Holy Spirit, . . . but visible in signs in the multitude of those who profess their adherence to her; she is visible as a community and in her community ministry, visible in her service of the word and sacrament.... It is impossible to escape from the visible Church to the invisible.

If ecumenical endeavor is pursued along the lines of such a distinction, however fine the words may sound, it is philosophy of history and philosophy of society. it is not theology. People who do this are producing their own ideas in order to get rid of the question of the Church's unity, instead of facing the question posed by Christ.... If we listen to Christ, . we do not exist above the differences that divide the Church: we exist in them.... In fact, we should not attempt to explain the plurality of churches at all. We should treat it as we treat our sins and those of others.... We should understand the plurality as a mark of our guilt’  (K. Barth, Die Kirche und die Kirchen. Theol., 9- 10).

We search the New Testament in vain, therefore, if we are looking for guidelines as to how separated churches should get on together; all we shall find there are instructions for avoiding such divisions.

While it is possible to say, with the Second Vatican Council, that "some, even very many, of the most significant elements and endowments that together go to build up and give life to the Church herself can exist" in those Christian communities that have deliberately distanced themselves from the institution of the Catholica; and while we may recognize that "men who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in some, though imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church", this does not mean that such communities constitute separate theological persons over against the Catholica.

With regard to the relationship between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the question is whether mutual estrangement has proceeded so far that we are obliged to speak of two "Churches", or whether, in point of historical fact, unity "has never ceased to exist at a deep level" (L. Bouyer, The Church of God: "Theology of the Church").

There have also been attempts to suggest that there is a theological ‘necessity’ behind the phenomenon of schisms, ‘whether on the basis of the Old Testament schism between the North and South Kingdoms’ or arising out of the ‘primal split’ between Judaism and the Gentile world at the founding of the Church. With regard to the former split, however, the tribes of Israel had never been a unity comparable to that of the Body of Christ but a ‘confederation of diverse tribal groups’ that had only lately been united ‘in the person’ of the monarch. With regard to the latter split, it would be difficult to maintain that the Israel that refused Christ was responsible for disputes within the Christian Church; according to Paul, the unity of Christians is based on an entirely different principle (Eph 4:3 ff.) from that of the Jewish ‘sects’ (and Paul had been a member of one of them).

Precisely this principle of unity, however--the Eucharist of the pneumatic Lord--is a wholly new and incomparable principle, and this makes the initial split, which becomes aggravated into full-blown schism, to be practically irreversible. Urged by the most elementary sense of Christian duty, the ‘ecumenical movement’ must indeed tirelessly exert itself for the reunion of the separated ‘churches’. By doing this many partial successes can doubtless be achieved: for instance, the reduction of mutual misunderstandings, suspicions and denigrations.

But the fact remains that the group of churches separated from the Catholic Church has, by this very separation, necessarily gotten rid of the visible symbol of unity, the papacy, and this results in a situation in which our partners in dialogue (including the Orthodox) do not possess any authority which is recognized by all the believers and as such can officially represent these. In each case we are dealing with individual groups or bishops who regularly divide themselves into a party of agreement and a party of objection whenever reunion with the Catholic Church is contemplated. And, seemingly, the best that such groups can produce is an offer of abstract catholicity arrived at by overlooking real differences. We have already described such ‘catholicity’ as being plainly unacceptable.

However fruitful and instructive the ecumenical dialogue between Churches is, exemplary holiness will show not only that obedience to the Church (as understood by Catholics) can be integrated into Christian *agape* but that it is actually an indispensable part of the latter and of the discipleship of Christ.

Finally, while the Church's missionary task is to give witness to the world, the chimera of the divided Church shows just how shaky her self-transcendence into the world is. Indeed, it becomes increasingly precarious, the more Christian sects proliferate. Even if the worst stumbling blocks were overcome by making pacts between missions professing different beliefs, the fundamental stumbling block would remain as far as the recipient of missionary activity is concerned.

Nor can it be removed by portraying the diversity of Christian expressions as something harmless, something arising necessarily as a result of historical development, or even as something that brings blessing. To do this would simply be to obscure Jesus' original wish even more. To repeat the words of Karl Barth on the phenomenon of division in the Church: ‘We should treat it as we treat our sins and those of others.’"