The redoubtable Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput, told his fellow bishops gathered in the Vatican Synod on the Family that in a world as confused as our own, precise language is critical for keeping the Church united, and unity is key.
“Imprecise language,” he told the Pope and bishops on Saturday, “leads to confused thinking, and that can sometimes lead to unhappy results.”
In his address, Chaput tackled two examples of fuzzy language that can lead to confusion among the faithful, the expressions “inclusive” and “unity in diversity.”
Being “inclusive” can be misunderstood to mean accepting of anything and everything, the archbishop cautioned, which is not what Christianity is all about.
Of course if by inclusive we simply mean “a Church that is patient and humble, merciful and welcoming,” then we are all for it, he said. But in practice, since Christianity actually has content to its teaching and beliefs, it’s very hard to include those who “insist on being included on their own terms.”
“We need to be a welcoming Church that offers refuge to anyone honestly seeking God,” he continued. “But we need to remain a Church committed to the Word of God, faithful to the wisdom of the Christian tradition, and preaching the truth of Jesus Christ.”
The second example of muddied language is the expression “unity in diversity.” Diversity, Chaput suggested, must always be subordinated to universality, since the Church herself is “catholic” or universal.
While honoring the many differences that exist among the faithful, the Church’s pastors above all must be at the service of unity.
Because we live in a time of “intense global change, confusion and unrest,” the archbishop said, “our most urgent need is unity, and our greatest danger is fragmentation.”
The danger of fragmentation has practical consequences, Chaput noted, urging his brother bishops to be “very cautious in devolving important disciplinary and doctrinal issues to national and regional episcopal conferences,” an idea that has already been floated on the synod floor.
The implication here is that a move in this direction would cause further splintering of the Church at a time when her unity is already under attack, and would allow for the willfulness of individual groups to triumph over the unity of the faith.
Chaput warned that this suggestion seems especially dangerous “when pressure in that direction is accompanied by an implicit spirit of self-assertion and resistance.”
The Archbishop’s warnings on the question of unity and diversity were oddly reminiscent of a celebrated academic battle in 2001 between then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and fellow German Cardinal Walter Kasper. The debate took place on the pages of the Jesuit magazine America and concerned the question of which should take precedence, unity or diversity, local churches or the universal Church.
In his essay, “On the Church,” Cardinal Kasper argued for the precedence of the local Church, highlighting diversity over unity, the very position Chaput criticized on Saturday.
“As the bishop of a large diocese,” Kasper wrote, “I had observed how a gap was emerging and steadily increasing between norms promulgated in Rome for the universal church and the needs and practices of our local church.”
For a bishop to “enforce the general norms ruthlessly as his Roman superiors sometimes expect, his effort is likely to be useless, even counterproductive,” Kasper contended. As examples of areas where enforced unity could be counterproductive, Kasper included “ethical issues, sacramental discipline and ecumenical practice.”
Later that year, Cardinal Ratzinger responded in the same journal with his own essay titled “The Local Church and the Universal Church.” In his piece, Ratzinger reasserts the principle “that the universal church (ecclesia universalis) is in its essential mystery a reality that takes precedence, ontologically and temporally, over the individual local churches,” a principle sharply criticized by Kasper.
Ratzinger asserted that the central thread of sacred history is that of “gathering together, of uniting human beings in the one body of Christ, the union of human beings and through human beings of all creation with God.”
“There is,” he wrote, “only one bride, only one body of Christ, not many brides, not many bodies.”
“Variety becomes richness only through the process of unification,” he noted.
Ratzinger also approached this question from a pastoral point of view, as Kasper had tried to do, emphasizing the importance of unity for the lived faith of the people of God throughout the world.
“Anyone baptized in the church in Berlin is always at home in the church in Rome or in New York or in Kinshasa or in Bangalore or wherever, as if he or she had been baptized there. He or she does not need to file a change-of-address form; it is one and the same church,” he argued.
In his own address on Saturday, Archbishop Chaput invoked the historical figure Erasmus of Rotterdam, who “at a moment very like our own,” wrote that “the unity of the Church is the single most important of her attributes.”
Whether the other synod fathers accepted Chaput’s reasoning or not, there is no doubt that he put his finger on one of the neuralgic issues underlying the bishops’ discussions, an issue that cannot be prudently ignored.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome