Holy Spirit Graphic

June 14, 2010

Virtually every group I've been involved with or watched from a distance has struggled with conflict and division. Somebody wants to have his or her own way and someone else resists. The unity of the group is broken.

This happens even in the Church, even in groups that are explicitly dedicated to the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the conflict erupts in a boiling argument. More often, it is quiet and behind the scenes. Someone has a complaint with another person. But instead of talking face to face with the person involved, he or she raises the complaint only with others.

The true Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. That is what we proclaim in the Nicene Creed.

The first of these "marks" is unity. That unity is real, but alas it is far from perfect. The source of the Church's unity is divine, but the means for guarding and fostering that unity are often human.

"We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another" (Romans 12.5). That is profound. Not only are we one body, we are one body in Christ. Further, we are members of one another.

The prevailing way of thinking today is that we gain our dignity as people by exercising our autonomy, our so-called freedom. Any limit on one's freedom is an assault on human dignity.


The Catholic belief is that our dignity is the result of our being members of one another in Christ. We are fundamentally oriented towards Jesus Christ and, through Christ, to others. The greatest exercise of human dignity is the gift of oneself.

The Holy Spirit is the very instrument of unity. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is unity. The Father and the Son are one in the Spirit. We are not in the Spirit if we are at odds with one another.


This is why St. Paul was upset with the Corinthians. They had the charisms of the Spirit but their community was wracked with division. Paul's ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 was not written to be read at weddings. It was written because Paul was cajoling the Corinthians to make unity rooted in love the highest value of their community.

More than anything else, it was divisions in Christian communities that led Paul to write his letters. He, for example, urged the Ephesians to "maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (4.3).

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic approach to unity tended towards legalism. The law of the Church would determine who is in and who is out and how we were to relate to those who were "out." The council's pastoral emphasis grew out of its understanding of the Church as communion, a mystery that could not be captured by the idea of the Church as a human institution.

Council theologian Yves Congar says the Church moved to a much greater respect for the Spirit acting within each person. The Spirit, Congar wrote, "does not bring about unity by using pressure or by reducing the whole of the Church's life to a uniform pattern. He does it by the more delicate way of communion."


Truth has not changed. But for unity to thrive, each baptized person is called to greater responsibility to make the life in the Spirit more than a slogan. Unity is difficult to achieve and maintain. We must be vigilant about exercising "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5.18) before divisions grow too deep.

A contemporary theologian, Alan Schreck, describes the ministry of reconciliation this way: "When symptoms of division appear, the members of the group must prayerfully and honestly seek the cause of the problem. They must ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom to know the causes of the disunity, as well as the ways in which it might best be healed."

The Holy Spirit is the foundation of the Church's unity. The Spirit is also gentle and unobtrusive. If we truly want unity and we call on him, he will lead us to that unity without undermining anyone's integrity or authenticity.

Likewise for the unity of the Christian Church. The Spirit wants the Church to be one. Christians need to repent of our divisions and call on the Spirit to repair our shattered communion. Through the Spirit, we can be one in Christ.