Cardinal Donald Wuerl
Cardinal Donald Wuerl

As Catholics, we live not simply as individuals, but also in the unity of the Body of Christ that is the Church, which is meant to be a reflection of the communion of persons in the Holy Trinity. “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body,” teaches St. Paul. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:20, 13).

Thus, individual Catholics and Catholic institutions like schools, universities and charities should not see themselves as autonomous entities, but as parts of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, sharing in her life, mission and tradition (cf. Lumen Fidei, 22, 39, 47). As Paul adds, “If a foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body” (1 Corinthians 12:15).

Together, we form a unity, with a co-responsibility for the mission given to the Church to be a sign and instrument of salvation in the Risen Christ (Lumen Gentium, 1). Within this communion with the Lord and one another, the essential and primary role of every constituent part of the Church — including each of the clergy and laity, orders and institutions — is to invite people to encounter Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). However well we may excel at other things, if we do not do this, we have failed in a fundamental purpose.

The work of the evangelizing disciple, to which Pope Francis calls all of us, unfolds through a wide range of efforts appropriate to each part of the body, but the goal is always the same. In living continuity with the Lord, we are each summoned to bear witness to him, passing on to others the truth he reveals about God and ourselves as human persons.

At the Last Supper, Jesus spoke of the intense unity that makes him one with those who love him: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The vine is what gives life, and the vine and branches are one living reality.

The branches that are Catholic individuals and institutions will live and bear fruit only insofar as they are attached to the vine which nourishes them. If they are cut off from the vine that is the Lord who gives us our being and identity, if there is discontinuity with Jesus and the Church and the teachings that have been revealed to her, then they will cease to flourish.

But connected to the vine, in communion and solidarity with the Magisterium, the Pope and local bishop, we receive the richness of Truth, of God’s word, which has the power to nurture and sustain each aspect of our society and thereby blossom and bear fruit. So it is with the members of the Church and Catholic institutions, and with those serving in ministries as paid employees or volunteers, as well as with those students attending Catholic schools and universities. In order to thrive, each of these and all of us need to remain in communion with Christ, the Church and her mission including advancing his Gospel message.

Some may say that this way is not for them. They might want to tread a different path or otherwise pursue worldly priorities instead. They are free to do so, but they are not free to demand that the Church’s institutions or teachings change to suit their beliefs.

Others might maintain that the values of academic freedom and engaging in dialogue with the world means accepting into institutions of learning all ideas as equally valid, that everything is up for grabs and there are no norms and lasting guides to help us through life. However, one should not “confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible,” Pope Francis tells us (Amoris Laetitia, 34).

There is truth. It is only if we remain in that truth, which is Jesus Christ and his teaching, that we are set free (John 8:32). Indeed, human freedom is corrupted and Catholic schools and ministries are disfigured when pressed into the service of ignorance, prejudice, or contempt for the revealed truth, particularly truth about the human person.

In these times, it is an urgent task for us to stay connected to the transcendent reality of our existence as one body in Christ so that we can radiate his light to the world. This is a common responsibility, a common mission, and it requires that each live and act in communion and solidarity. This is the charge and the means given to us by Jesus so that his work, accomplished in his death and Resurrection, might be re-presented in our day and applied to our generation.

Cardinal Wuerl is leader of the Archdiocese of Washington. This column appeared on his blog, Seek First the Kingdom, cardinalsblog.adw.org.