Nationalism is the major cause of religious divisions.

By Msgr. John Wynand Katende

The breach between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches, also known as the Orthodox Church schism of 2018, is bad news for the ecumenical movement. Christian ecumenism seeks the unity of the one Church founded by Jesus Christ. Nationalism is the major cause of religious divisions.

Religion and nationalism are known to be a dangerous combination. Nationalism was behind the failure of Israel’s call by God  to be a light to all nations (Isaiah 49:6). The great schism of 1054 AD which saw Eastern Catholicism, under Constantinople, broke away from the West under Rome, was basically caused by nationalism. Lutheranism, Anglicanism, among others, followed the precedent. A divided church easily falls prey to manipulative politics. Nationalism is majorly at the heart of religious persecutions.

It is a scandal when national gains trump over theological principles. By its very nature a scandal scares away would be adherents to a cause or organization. A schism is more about weakness than advancement of the Church. As Charles Taylor observes, “Fragmentation happens whenever a people are increasingly less capable of forming a common purpose and carrying it out. As a result, the common ground shrinks”.

The Church recognizes a natural, legitimate attachment to one’s fatherland or motherland, but that it must be qualified by the greater love of the Church and of God. We must avoid the elevation of the nation as the sole object of one’s attention or a “narrow nationalism”. It is God who holds first place. It is essentially the duty of Christians to put the love of our heavenly home above the love of our earthly home, human laws must be never set above the divine law.

The early Church, calling itself “the Jesus movement” or “the Followers of the Way,” decisively distinguished itself from its origin in the bounded territory promised by God to the Israelites (Acts 9:2, 22:4, 24:4). It realized a transition from old Israel to new Israel, freed from sin through the universal love of Jesus Christ (cf. Revelation 3:12, 21:2).

A divided church leads one to ponder the problematic question raised by Jesus: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”(Luke 18, 8). Because of so many divisions in the Church, faith in God has declined dramatically, especially throughout the nations of the Western world. Many perceive the church as a man-made invention, not God’s idea and chose to do with it whatever they want. Others simply quit!

The idea of the church being imperfect should not lead into despair. The fact that Jesus started the church with imperfect people, to a world in need of redemption, should, instead, make us marvel at God’s incredible grace (Cf. Ephesians 3:10-11). Christians must believe that the church is essential for moral formation and that the followers of Jesus must transcend the political debates and divides of our day and bear witness to another King.

According to Pope Benedict XVI, “by flirting with the spirit of the age the church continues to betray itself and its founder.” He strongly believes that only personal piety and adherence to church teaching, governance and liturgy will ultimately prevail. He recommends a retreat to faith in Christ as expressed by the Vatican Council II.

Between January 18 and 25, the ecumenical movement calls upon all people of good will to pray with Jesus for the unity of the Church that he founded, as demonstrated in John’s gospel chapter 17. 25th January marks the conversion of St. Paul from persecuting the Church to becoming a great pillar of its universal missionary activity. “Strive to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”, says Paul (Ephesians 4:3).