Reviewing Wright’s Universal Apologia: Part 11

The Cross

This the eleventh in a series reviewing John C. Wright’s A Universal Apologia for the Catholic Church. See the index.

A Question of Disunity

The issue of unity within Christianity is the fifth argument that convinced John C. Wright of the truth of Roman Catholic claims. Upon his conversion, he was, and remained, greatly distressed by the lack of ecumenical unification within Christianity:

My reluctance in taking up my pen to discuss this hideous divorce between orthodoxy and its various deviations is partly from a natural dislike of voicing disagreement with beloved brothers. [..] My reluctance again is partly from a pragmatic dislike of exposing the weakness of disunity to our mutual foes [..] It is no fault of mine that you weak-minded and hate-addicted Christians could not maintain the unity Christ bestowed upon His followers, and I resent to this day that this choice has been forced upon me. [..]  Thanks to the followers of Christ who ignored and betrayed Christ’s last prayer spoken on Earth, which was for radical unity between His followers, I nonetheless had to choose between the denominations.

A common objection of atheists is that it is impossible to choose which branch of Christianity is the true one, after all, what God would allow his church to split into thousands upon thousands of different competing sects? Wright appears to have carried some form of this common atheist objection along with him past his conversion experience. However, unlike atheists, he could not deny the supernatural nature of his conversion experience, so he was led inexorably towards the largest, most influential, most authoritarian and heirarchical denomination. After all, isn’t the largest one by definition the most unified? He thus concluded:

I took it as fundamental that the Church was meant to be unified, a single institution under a single head, if for no other reason that the disunity of the denominations made a mockery of their claims of exclusive and universal truth.

It is not completely clear how Wright reasoned from the resurrected Christ being the leader of his followers to all Christians being united under a single human leader. This is not a logical conclusion, yet he assumes it to be the case. Indeed, his justification for this position is that denominations make claim to exclusive and universal truth, but this does not follow from Christ’s claim to exclusive and universal truth, as Christ is not a denomination.

Having eliminated all of the younger denominations from consideration (including, of course, the non-denominational churches), he was left with few remaining options, Roman Catholicism being the most obvious one remaining.

A Hideous Divorce

Wright writes:

“At two opposite doors on opposite ends of the majestic ruin, his parents stand. They suffered a messy and vindictive divorce, and each now crossly demands of the foundling that he choose which one to love and which to hate. [..] No bridegroom ever thought the best expression of true and perfect love for his bride was divorce.”

Does this sound familiar? It did to me. Jesus said:

“Do not assume that I came to send peace on the earth. I did not come to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a person’s enemies will be those of his own household! Whoever is attached to his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever is attached to his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me, is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” — Matthew 10:34-39

On one hand, Wright is correct: unity cannot be division. On the other hand, Jesus plainly told us that the Word would cause division. On account of Christ, one’s enemies would include even those in one’s own household. Disunity is both an expectation and a fulfillment of Christ’s words. Indeed, as we will see below, unity is not defined as complete harmony and a lack of all disunity would be extremely suspicious. Unity is not and cannot be indiscriminate.

I agree that Christ’s followers must be unified, but who are his followers and how are they unified? A mere three chapters earlier in the book of Matthew, Jesus said this:

“Enter through the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and spacious is the road that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. How narrow is the gate and constricted is the road that leads to life, and few are those people who find it. Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are destructive, greedy wolves. You will recognize them by their fruit. [..] Every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [..] Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter in. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you who work lawlessness!’” — Matthew 7:13-23

The first point is that few will find the path to life. Far from an expectation of universal unification and uniformity, Christ’s words imply that—by default—we should expect the majority to be lost. Recall the athiest’s objection that one cannot reasonably expect to find the correct denomination out of thousands. Recall also how Wright carried this objection along with him and reasoned that the larger and older[1] denominations must be the ones that showed the greatest unification in Christ. The flaw in both of these objections is answered in how Christ—not a denomination—holds exclusive and universal truth and that few will find the path. Jesus gives the reason for this: a failure to do the will of the Father.

The second point is that we will know who is in Christ by the fruit they produce. Jesus is very clear what he means here. Prophesying and doing great works[2], including exorcising demons, is not a sign of good fruit.[6] Rather, it is doing the will of the Father.

The third point is that those that do not bear good fruit are cut out and destroyed. Christ came with the words of life[3] and those that refuse it are removed and destroyed. There can never be true unity with those who do not do the will of the Father, only division.[4]

And so, who are Christ’s followers? It is those that do the will of his Father and in the same way are unified. Denominational membership is not sufficient to be fully and completely doing the will of the Father, nor did Jesus ever imply it. Thus, unity is not, and cannot be, fulfilled in the form of any denomination, including Roman Catholicism.

A Matter of Tradition

Wright continues:

“I did not notice any of my Protestant friends who praised disunity quoted scripture to support his position.”

Disunity comes from the failure to do the will of the Father. There are many scriptures, such as Matthew 18:15-17, which instruct the congregation to treat the unrepentant—whether baptized or not—as they would the unbeliever. But this division is not itself disunity in Christ, for Jesus himself commanded that we do it. Cutting out—excommunicating, disfellowshipping, banning, dismissing—the unrepentant from among the faithful is obedience to the will of the Father. It is, in fact, unity. And so, as before, the mere presence of division is not itself proof of disunity, but may in fact be evidence of unity among that which remains.

Nonetheless, Wright is at least partially mistaking (the lack of) uniformity with (dis)unity.

“Not one showed me any passage where Christ was seen praying that his followers should each man go his own way, and should interpret Christ’s saying each man according to his own lights, and should not submit nor serve his brothers, and should accept no authority over him. Logically, it may be that this disunity is Christ’s desire, and it may be that natural reason or Christian tradition can reveal this to us.”

Regarding submission, in Ephesians 5:21-33 Paul says that our submission is due to our fear of Christ. We submit because of Christ, who did the will of the Father. Most notably, the submission is mutual, everyone to each other. It is not a matter of authority, an historical anachronism. Peter, in 1 Peter 2-3, echoes this:

For you were called to [submit and suffer], because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you follow in his footsteps. — 1 Peter 2:21

Regarding unity, the first church council in Jerusalem is describe in Acts 15 and took place around 50AD to discuss the issue of circumcision of the Gentiles. Their decision was to not to require it. The early church did not consider it to be disunity for the Jewish Christians to do one thing and the Gentile Christians to do another. Similarly, in Romans 14 and Colossians 2, Paul instructs that certain practices and traditions are matters of individual conviction.

Late in the 2nd Century, “pope” Victor, bishop of Rome, tried to codify the date to celebrate Easter/Passover. He tried to excommunicate the entire church in Asia Minor for disagreeing with him. Irenaeus rebuked him, citing how the regional churches historically celebrated according to their local traditions, writing that:

“[A]ll of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.” — Eusebius, Church History, Book V, §24 ¶12–13.

Astounding! The disagreement in peace proved the agreement in the faith: unity exists within a lack of uniformity! Moreover, enforced uniformity implies an underlying disagreement of the faith and is an indication of disunity and lack of peace.[5]

Irenaeus went on to recount how Polycarp and “pope” Anicetus, Bishop of Rome disagreed over the observance, but chose to set aside their differences. Anicetus, out of respect for Polycarp, submitted.

But there is one historical disagreement that was not so easily put aside: the issue of wine mixed with water. In the midst of the Filioque Controversy in 1054AD, both sides met in Constantinople:

“At Constantinople the impression bequeathed by Cardinal Humbert and other western visitors was one of incredible arrogance. … It offended western visitors to find that at the consecration of the elements, Greeks did not add water to the cup until after the bread and the wine were sanctified.” — Chadwick, Henry, “East and West: the Making of a Rift in the Church.” (2003) p.226.

Not only did both the West and the East err in believing that their positions were apostolic (they were not), but they arrogantly elevated their false tradition to law. Consequently, the fact that they were unable to have communion with each other doomed any chance of resolving the Filioque Controversy. To this day both sides remain ignorant and incorrect on the liturgical use of wine and water. Neither denomination is following the will of the Father. Their disunity is self-inflicted.

“But it cannot be that the scripture is the sole and sufficient source of all truth necessary for salvation, and that the correct interpretation of scripture is open to any scholar who diligently seeks it, and that disunity is needed for salvation, because the scripture does not say so (and says much indeed against).”

Scripture is the sole and sufficient source of all truth necessary for salvation and the correct interpretation is available to all who diligently seek it. But disunity is not required. The irony of Wright’s claim is that without his own denomination turning tradition into sacred law, there might have been no disunity between the East and West. Yet, the tendency throughout the entirety of Roman Catholicism’s existence has been to add the Word of God, first creating tradition, and later turning it into law. Roman Catholicism has served to codify a great many things which should never have been codified. Here is an abridged list of late-4th-century or later Roman Catholic innovations:

  • Papal and Roman primacy
  • Papal infallibility
  • Priestly celibacy
  • Elevation of virginity and fasting over marriage
  • Mariology
    • Immaculate conception
    • Perpetual virginity
    • Assumption of Mary
    • Mary, Mother of the Church
  • Kneeling on the Lord’s Day
  • Incense and candles
  • Relics and images,
  • Baptismal regeneration
  • Intercession of the saints
  • The title of Pontifex Maximus
  • Ex communicare replaced by ex civitate
  • Taking up the civil sword to persecute and kill the faithful
  • Civil taxes flowing through the Bishops and priestly wealth acquisition
  • Eucharistic alterations:
    • Liturgical order
    • Transubstantiation
    • The sacrifice of the Mass
    • Eucharistic adoration
    • Communion on the tongue
  • The liturgical mixing of water with wine
  • The church holidays (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday)

This list is quite long. I suspect that the list of Roman Catholic innovations is longer and more essential than any other denomination. Yet this is where John C. Wright has planted his flag.

Simplicity or Complexity

Roman Catholicism is extremely complex. Whereas Jesus instituted two sacraments (Baptism and Communion), the Roman Catholic church has seven.  The Cathechism of the Catholic Church is 2,865 entries long and when published reaches 904 printed pages from cover-to-cover.[6] The number of official and semi-official church documents (e.g. those produced by councils, popes, and bishops) that are part of Sacred Tradition or the Magisterium is beyond count. One of the things that surprises most people is that Roman Catholicism is relatively new, that there is no evidence for its existence prior to the late 4th century. All of this complexity was developed centuries after Jesus walked the earth. And so, Wright’s views on heresy are curious, with a touch of irony:

One is so be surprised that so many modern opinions are so ancient, and be unimpressed with reopening a case that was long ago decided. [..] Heresies are always simplifying a subtle or complex idea, and therefore robbing it of life and energy.

What is surprising to most is how many heresies (of the Roman Catholic Church) are older than Roman Catholicism. Wright, unsurprisingly, views the complexity of Roman Catholicism doctrinal development as a feature. Indeed, no other denomination can compete with the sheer weight of rules that burden its congregants.

The complexity or simplicity of doctrine does not determine its rightness or wrongness. It is only when following a doctrine is the will of the Father that it is imbued with life and energy. But the fact is that many of the simpler Roman Catholic heresies (e.g. the Eucharistic liturgy; Immaculate Conception) are more ancient than Roman Catholicism because the doctrines of Roman Catholicism are themselves against the will of the Father and the so-called heresies are not.

The False Façade of Uniformity

Why did Wright find so many Protestants who were not bothered by the concept of denominational divisions? Because by-and-large Protestants choose to respect each other by disagreeing in peace, proving the unity of faith that they do hold in common, just as did Bishop Anicetus towards Polycarp so long ago. Among Protestants, organizational division just isn’t that important. What matters is whether or not their practices are the will of the Father, not obedience to denominational hierarchy.

The rise of non-denominational churches is the logical response to the corruption and failure of authoritarian ecclesiastical hierarchies. If complex church organizations get in the way of doing the will of the Father and maintaining unity among Christians, then they must be cast off. Yet Wright appears to have completely dismissed the non-denominational approach as utterly invalid.

Uniformity can never produce unity. Despite the alleged superiority of having a single human head atop a hierarchical church organization, Roman Catholicism remains unable to explain to its congregants what they must believe. There is no infallible list of infallible papal statements. There is no official list of which church counsels are valid and which are not. Not even the Cathecism of the Catholic Church is reliable. When Papal Infallibility was defined, the Catechism had to be updated to remove the contradiction. Internal debates rage within Catholicism: those who object and debate merely have no power to enact change. Under Roman Catholicism’s façade of uniformity hides disunity. All the supposed benefits of Roman Catholicism’s ecclesiastical structure avail nothing.

Jesus did not call for radical denominational unity. Neither did the apostles. In part 6, I said “The church is supposed to live in unity, not a particular denomination.” Why should we expect denominational unity, when the idea of denominations (a set of practices that go beyond the need for unity) is itself an addition?

Christians are United

It is my assertion the Christians who do the will of the Father are indeed united and that these Christians can be found in all places, especially in those churches that Wright and Roman Catholicism has rejected. I also assert that even he recognizes this:

“The disunity is not based on a different of worldview, for we are all baptized Christians who believe in the Apostle’s Creed. It is based on small theological differences and large differences of hierarchy.”

We are all baptized Christians who believe in the Apostle’s Creed. This is an acknowledgment that we are, in fact, united. Many of those theological and hierarchical differences are merely matters of tradition and personal conviction. They indicate a lack of uniformity, even as it shows our unity. As Irenaeus once stated, it is our ability to live in peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ that proves our agreement in the faith.

But there is one thing we do agree on. Not everyone who calls themselves a Christian is united. In the next part we will continue this discussion as well as complete the response to Wright’s argument on unity.


[1] Roman Catholicism is not, in fact, the oldest, having been largely formed in the late 4th century. It is the largest.

[2] Matthew 25:31-46

[3] John 6:63

[4] Matthew 18:15-17

[5] This is how it should be. Matters that are not essential are left to personal conviction. We must remain in unity even as we differ in practice. But on essential matters, we are commanded to disunity—to cast out and divide—if we are unable to mend.

[6] For comparison, the Westminster Confression is only 12,000 words long. The lengthy KJV of the New Testament is 421 pages, less than half the length of the 2nd edition of the Catechism.

[6] Mighty works may, in fact, be a sign of lawlessness.


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