“The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul…” One of the striking descriptions of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles was its unity. Such was this unity that they even shared all their possessions. Such was the effect of the Resurrection and descent of the Holy Spirit that those early disciples looked to the things above and saw the things of the earth in true perspective. We are told that none of the believers was in want, each had what they needed.
Of course this would be too hard to continue to organise within the Church as it began to expand so quickly through the gentile world. Nevertheless this outward sign of the priority of the things above would continue to be present through the ages in the communities of monks and nuns, and then later in the mendicant orders (e.g. Franciscans).
This unity of the believing community remains a firm characteristic of the Church. The unity of the Church is not something that believers give to the Church. Unity is not a goal but is in fact something the Church possesses as being intrinsic to her very nature. She is one because Christ is one. Christ is one because He is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
One of the problems with the Reformation is that in a way Protestants legitimated to themselves disunity. They reduced the criteria of unity to suite their situation. Unity became essentially an invisible thing, and it didn’t really matter that there were lots of separate groups of Protestants believing different things, because there was this invisible unity.
The Catholic Church refutes this understanding of unity. Unity is a characteristic of the Church which is the Body of Christ. Just as the Head and Body cannot be separated, so parts of the Body cannot be visibly separated either.
St Bede, in his homilies on the gospels, says, “The Spirit also comes of his own accord, because just as he is equal to the Father and the Son, so he has the same will in common with the Father and the Son.” St Bede was reflecting on the Spirit being likened to the wind which goes where it wills. What St Bede is reminding us is that this does not mean the Spirit is operating independently from the other two Persons of the Trinity. All three divine Persons are united. It is just that we, from our perspective, cannot fathom the mystery of the workings of the Holy Spirit.
So also in the Church there cannot be different versions of Christianity teaching different things as being true. There can be different cultural expressions of the truth but they must all be expressing the same deposit of faith. In the Catholic Church there is diversity of expression but one faith, because there is one teaching authority (the Magisterium). This teaching authority is Christ Himself teaching through those whom He gave authority to guide the Church in the truth (the Apostles with Peter as their head).
Of course it is possible for people to dissent from this teaching of the Church, but in doing so they are dissenting from the teaching of Christ. So let us pray for the unity of the Church, that all disciples of Christ may accept the authority of the Church to teach the truth which the Holy Spirit imparts through the Bishops in communion with the Successor of St Peter. United in faith the Church will then be able to be much more effective in its mission, just as the early Church was so effective.