The Unity and Diversity of the Mystical Body of Christ

Can the diversity of the Church be reconciled with her unity? In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks about the diverse manifestations of the Spirit while insisting upon the essential unity of the Church. Using the analogy of the human body, St. Paul shows how the Church can have many parts, yet still be one in nature: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). There is an important underlying distinction that Paul makes between diversity and division. Diversity is not the same thing as division. The manifold elements of the Church do not entail that she is somehow divided. The variety of her gifts and members does not detract from her unity rooted in Christ.

Despite St. Paul’s answer in resolving the tension between unity and diversity, one can ask about the origins of such a question. What would cause us to believe that the variety of gifts present within the Church are inimical to her unity? What frame of mind makes us raise a question concerning the oneness of the Church? One way this problem occurs is when we perceive a part to be the whole: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor 12:21). When we reduce our idea of the Church to only a part of the Church, we begin to see tensions with the other parts. The eye is seen as a competitor to the ear, or the ear is seen as a competitor to the nose.

In the Church, there is always a temptation to reduce the Church to one of her parts such as a single vocation, parish, apostolate, or religious order. When we view any of these as the entirety of the Church, every other form of the Church’s expression becomes an obstacle, an enemy. In other words, how we perceive the operational level of unity within the Church affects how we understand her diversity. If I identify the Church at the level of a single preacher, other preachers are no longer on my team. St. Paul advises seeing beyond such a characterization to the Corinthians: “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:5-7). The Church’s unity is in her catholicity: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). We must have a bigger picture of the Church if we are to understand her diversity to be compatible with her unity. The unity of the Church is in Christ.

Br. Anthony Michael Martin, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE