Christian Unity as “Reconciled Diversity”

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, May 2013
Licensed by Creative Commons (Edgar Jiménez)

His encyclical Laudato Si’ has received such enormous (and justifiable) attention this month that I wonder how many people have noticed two smaller events involving Pope Francis:

• On June 15th, the pope met with Czech Christians whose churches descend from the 15th century renewal movement led by Jan Hus, a key precursor to the Protestant Reformation who was burned at the stake in 1415. Six hundred years later, Francis reiterated Pope John Paul II’s 1999 statement of “deep regret” for that killing and the “the consequent wound of conflict and division which was thus imposed on the minds and hearts of the Bohemian people.” Francis concluded on a hopeful note: “…in answering the call of Christ to continual conversion, of which we all need, we can move forward together on the path of reconciliation and peace.”

• Then yesterday morning Francis visited a Protestant community in Turin, Italy that descends from an even earlier medieval reform movement: the Waldensians. Founded in the late 12th century by a French merchant named Peter Waldo, the Waldensian movement emphasized apostolic poverty, vernacular Bible translation, and lay preaching, themes that drew condemnation from the church hierarchy. After being driven largely underground, the Waldensians came back to the attention of bishops in the 15th century, and Pope Innocent VIII called for a crusade in 1487 meant to exterminate the movement. “On the part of the Catholic church,” said Francis this week, “I ask you forgiveness for the non-Christian, even non-human, attitudes and behaviors that, in history, we have had against you.”

Waldensian Presbyterian Church - Valdese, NC
The Waldensian Presbyterian Church of Valdese, North Carolina, founded by Italian immigrants at the end of the 19th century – Creative Commons (Upstateherd)

In both cases, Francis hearkened back to one of the first writings of his papacy, the 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) — in particular, to its description of Christian unity, which Francis related to the document’s central theme of evangelization:

It is he [the Holy Spirit] who brings forth a rich variety of gifts, while at the same time creating a unity which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony. Evangelization joyfully acknowledges these varied treasures which the Holy Spirit pours out upon the Church.

Francis’ notion of unity as harmony rather than uniformity may offer considerable wisdom, not only for the going work of reconciling interdenominational divides but also within Christian communities that are facing division — for example, evangelical congregations and institutions facing difficult conversations about human sexuality.

Acknowledging first that “Conflict cannot be ignored or concealed,” Francis nonetheless warned that “if we remain trapped in conflict, we lose our perspective, our horizons shrink and reality itself begins to fall apart. In the midst of conflict, we lose our sense of the profound unity of reality.” Those who become “prisoners” to conflict, Francis observed, “lose their bearings, project onto institutions their own confusion and dissatisfaction and thus make unity impossible.”

To avoid such extremes required first that we be “willing to go beyond the surface of the conflict and to see others in their deepest dignity,” to seek a kind of “solidarity” in which “conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity.” Here it’s well worth quoting Francis at length:

This principle, drawn from the Gospel, reminds us that Christ has made all things one in himself: heaven and earth, God and man, time and eternity, flesh and spirit, person and society. The sign of this unity and reconciliation of all things in him is peace. Christ “is our peace” (Eph 2:14). The Gospel message always begins with a greeting of peace, and peace at all times crowns and confirms the relations between the disciples. Peace is possible because the Lord has overcome the world and its constant conflict “by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20). But if we look more closely at these biblical texts, we find that the locus of this reconciliation of differences is within ourselves, in our own lives, ever threatened as they are by fragmentation and breakdown. If hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace in society.

The message of peace is not about a negotiated settlement but rather the conviction that the unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity. It overcomes every conflict by creating a new and promising synthesis. Diversity is a beautiful thing when it can constantly enter into a process of reconciliation and seal a sort of cultural covenant resulting in a “reconciled diversity”.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis was particularly concerned about the “counter-witness of division among Christians” within war-torn societies in Africa and Asia: “Signs of division between Christians in countries ravaged by violence add further causes of conflict on the part of those who should instead be a leaven of peace.” But I think there are implications for those of us who live in the security, stability, and prosperity of the Global North, yet face the prospect of renewed “culture war.”

What better witness can the church offer to a society wracked by polarization and fragmentation than to “see others in their deepest dignity” and work with them to seek the unity of a “reconciled diversity”?

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