Christian Unity in an Age of Social Division

On the night before he was to suffer and give up his life in love for us, our Lord Jesus prayed for his disciples, knowing that we would face times of opposition precisely because of our Christian faith, as well as the usual trials of the human condition. “I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth,” he said. “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you” (Jn 17:19-21).

The Present Situation

The context of our efforts to bring about unity includes some realities we all face: a culture that is losing respect for human life and dignity, family and sacrifice for others. Violence and terror in our world destroy lives, target people based on race, religion, sexual orientation or other differences. We are losing a sense of right and wrong and the value of human life; an economy that, as productive and powerful as it is, leaves too many behind and where there remains persistent and pervasive poverty and growing gaps between rich and poor; a polarized society with racial divisions, political, ideological and economic isolation, hostility to migrants and intolerance of religious convictions; and a dysfunctional politics that too often demonstrates paralysis and polarization, with little cooperation for the common good, and a marked abandonment of civility.

Moreover, the dominant culture — expressed in the information and entertainment industries, many educational institutions and now government — has adopted an aggressive secularism. By secularism here, we are not referring to a healthy separation of church and state that recognizes the two spheres of appropriate autonomous action. Rather, we are concerned about the claim of an increasingly organized group that religious conviction and faith-based values have no place in the public square. Secularism in this sense sees the only horizon within which public affairs and policy can be determined is that which excludes any faith-based perspective. Those who have been inundated with this secular vision and convinced by it now no longer give credence to or allow a place at the table of public discourse for the foundational truths of faith. Similarly, the influences of materialism and individualism have led many to turn selfishly inward and focus undue attention on personal worldly pleasure at the expense of the transcendent good.

Together, these ideologies foster a radical autonomy which not only denies human interdependence but places the person above even the self-evident, created order and objective truth. This idea of autonomy convinces people that fidelity to moral truth and faith only restricts human freedom rather than securing it.

Renewing the Christian Tradition

As our country and world faces these challenges, I submit that we need to look again at the place of religious faith and Gospel values in society in a unified effort to renew the temporal order and build up the common good. The collective voices of religion can touch hearts and inspire people in a way others cannot.

In his visit to Washington, again and again, Pope Francis spoke of the importance of encounter and unity. Urging that “we confront every form of polarization which would divide us,” he asked people of all beliefs to reach across boundaries of politics, ideology and sources of division to seek the common good and to care for one another.

This unity must begin with the Church and include the whole Body of Christ — Catholics in communion with the successor of Peter, as well as the Protestant and nondenominational communities, and the Orthodox Churches of the East. First and foremost, it is the will of Jesus that his disciples might all be one, just as he and the Father are one. Moreover, unity will help Christians withstand the current persecution and other challenges to religious liberty.

Already we are one in a certain sense in the waters of baptism and in the blood of the martyrs, past and present. Yet, in other important aspects, the Christian family is separated, and our task is to reconcile and truly be as one.

Catholic Social Doctrine

Beginning with our own house, whatever their motive for leaving, it is time to invite back home our Catholic sisters and brothers who have grown distant or feel alienated from the Church. Initiatives like the recent Jubilee Year of Mercy and the pastoral emphasis of Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) have been important elements in this noble effort.

On a larger scale, important steps have been taken toward reconciliation, repentance and forgiveness among the separated Christian communities. During his trip last September and October to Georgia, a nation that is 85 percent Orthodox, Pope Francis offered that the key to these endeavors is accompaniment, dialogue, mutual prayer, friendship and common works of charity when possible.

One effort is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which Christian communities around the globe observe annually Jan. 18-25. Other instances of Christians worldwide coming together include leaders joining in prayers for peace in Assisi, Italy, and, on this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, prayers for reconciliation in the one Church of God.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Each year, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has a theme. The theme for 2017 is “Reconciliation — The Love of Christ Compels Us,” which comes from 2 Corinthians 5:14-20:

Drawing from experience in the United States, we know just how fruitful ecumenical dialogue and collaboration can be. The diverse faith traditions here have a history of coming together in common cause to improve the human condition. Whether it was the abolition of slavery in the 19th century or the struggles for human rights, social justice and peace in the 20th and 21st centuries, Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, Orthodox and more found themselves working together side by side.

In this dialogue, Catholic thought has been enriched by the reflections of other Christian communities, and we Catholics have made our own fruitful contributions, especially with our social doctrine. Particularly since Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (“On Capital and Labor”), there has been a constant flow of Catholic social teaching that is grounded in concern for the dignity of the human person and the common good, including genuine freedom and justice.

The impact of these faith-based principles helped to form public policy in the areas of labor relations, working conditions and social justice issues concerning the poor and marginalized. Another area of influence involved “just war” principles and efforts for peace. Today these teachings, which find agreement in other Christian communities, can also serve to foster efforts toward unity within the Body of Christ.

During my own 30-plus years as a bishop — 10 as archbishop of Washington — it has been my privilege to join in solidarity with many Christian groups and communities. Rather than focusing on differences, we have been able to concentrate on what we agree on — often enunciated in Catholic social thought — and stand together for the common good.

This month in our nation’s capital, Christians will again march side by side for a culture of life, and Christians are standing together now in the legal struggle for religious freedom and rights of conscience. Another common cause is the collective voice against the violent persecution that followers of Christ face throughout the world. Christians are coming together in solidarity to work for peace and mutual support in groups like the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation and In Defense of Christians.

On the local level, we can also take pride in the number of charitable ministries that are partnerships among Catholic parishes and neighboring Christian communities, and we come together also for ecumenical thanksgiving celebrations and other services. Many of our families at home are made up of Christians of different traditions, and we pray together at family celebrations confident in our shared belief in Jesus who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. Similarly, in many of our schools, students come from a variety of Christian backgrounds and learn to pray and study together. These experiences help foster the unity Christ desires and this world needs.

Manifesting the Kingdom of God

History and experience show that dialogue and even unity are possible, and when we work together, our efforts can be fruitful. In a polarized nation, by providing Christian witness that we are all brothers and sisters who are called to reconcile our differences and live together with goodwill, we show the world that peace is not an impossible dream. It is possible to deal respectfully with others who believe differently even in the face of deep historical differences. In this way, we not only restore some much-needed civility and tolerance to our society and culture, but it fosters the solidarity of all people that is needed to address pressing social issues.

Through Christian unity, we are better able to plant seeds that can transform the culture. Through a joint effort, as witnesses to the greater society, disciples of Jesus are better able to awaken consciences and overcome indifference and a lukewarm commitment that impedes the changes that are needed.

As we look forward in hope at the start of this new year, still we recognize that our nation and people of faith face challenges from a culture that is at times hostile. The mission Our Lord entrusts to us is not an easy one. But it never has been.

The early Church often faced oppression and began as a small band with no great resources. Yet animated by the fire of the Spirit, these first Christians touched the hearts of others and managed to transform the world. Today, if we work to be one with Christ and one with each other, bringing to others the vision of a more fully and authentic human life, and hope for a better world, there is no reason we cannot do the same.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl is the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Pope Francis on Christian Unity
On Jan. 25, 2016, Pope Francis delivered the homily to close the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is an excerpt: