One common perception that many people have today is that all religions essentially believe the same thing, or at least that the various denominations within Christianity essentially believe the same thing. While it is true that there are many core beliefs that unite us, there are also significant differences. I’d like to dedicate this and some future columns to offer a brief teaching on the major denominations in Christianity, and attempt to explain the beliefs that unite us, and those on which we differ. To do this, I will be drawing significantly from two sources: Separated Brethren, by William J. Whalen, published by Our Sunday Visitor in 2002; and A Shepherd Tends His Flock by Fr. John Girotti, published by Tau in 2010.
In John 17:21, Jesus prayed to the Father that the flock of his followers be united: “I pray that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us… so that the world may know you have sent me.” Why would Jesus pray for unity among his followers, i.e. among his Church? Simply put, unity among believers gives a more effective witness of the presence of Christ in the world. Just imagine how many more hearts would be converted to the Lord if more Christians were united in worship and belief! Some Christians today have gone as far as to suggest that such differences among Christians (at least in belief) are good and healthy. But how could this be true? If Jesus Christ is the Son of God who has come into the world to reveal to us the Truth, how could the message involve contradictions or a contradicting belief system?
The Second Vatican Council makes a very strong claim: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained.” In other words, while the Church acknowledges the existence of truth (or degrees of truth) and helps to salvation in other churches or ecclesial communities, the fullness of truth and help toward salvation are found in the Catholic Church. The Council also stated that, “The sole Church of Christ is that which our Savior, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it… This Church constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of St. Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.” Again, in simpler words, we believe that Christ founded the Catholic Church. This claim comes well supported by Scripture, history, and the unbroken line of successors of St. Peter to the present Pope Francis.
The divisions that exist in the Church/Christianity today could be attributed primarily to two main breaks. The first occurred when the Eastern Orthodox Churches broke away from the Western Catholic Church in 1054. The second was the Protestant Reformation following objections made by Martin Luther in 1517. These divisions did not occur without sins and failures on both sides of the fence. As we strive to learn more about our differences and similarities, we want to pray that unity among us may one day be restored. The work of dialogue and overcoming differences between us and our separated Christian brothers and sisters is what we call “ecumenism.”