“In the view of the New Testament, what grounds justify a deliberate breach in communion [formal unity] within the church? Two contradictory answers press themselves on us, each with apparent inevitability. On the one hand, we are never justified in breaking communion within the church of Jesus Christ, for schism is sin; on the other hand, communion implies and requires fundamental agreement in the gospel. Those who ‘go out’ from the church of Christ declare that they were not of it (1 John 2:18). Yet disagreement is not something we are free to relativize or set to one side. So unity in the truth turns out to be a commitment that may pull us in opposite directions to opposite conclusions: there is no communion-breaking moral disagreement, on the one hand; on the other, any disagreement is potentially communion-breaking. The one answer we cannot find is the answer we set out to find: this, rather than that, is the specific cause that will justify a breach.
It is worth pausing to make a comparison with a similar moral antinomy, much discussed in the Scholastic period: Is it right to obey a mistaken conscience? On the one hand, obeying one’s conscience is, apparently by definition, something it is always right to do. One the other hand, a mistaken conscience is, again by definition, a conscience that instructs you to do the wrong thing. So doing what a mistaken conscience tells you is to do right and wrong at the same time. There is a lesson to be learned from the deft way Aquinas, confronting this paradox of ‘perplexity,’ thrusts it aside. ‘One can withdraw from the error,’ he tells us [Summa Theologiae II-1.19 ad 3]. Commentators have expressed bewilderment at this, for it is, of course, not an answer to the question, but an evasion. It does not tell us what to do when our conscience is mistaken; it tells us not to have a mistaken conscience. Is Aquinas merely saying, ‘If that was where I wanted to go, I wouldn’t start from here’–always a bad answer to a practical question, since ‘here’ is where all practical questions start from? No: he means that there is something that the framing of the question has left out of account; the alternative is wrongly posed.
It beguiles us into imagining a helpless innocent pathetically trapped between the devil of dutiful wrongdoing and the deep blue sea of guilt-ridden right-doing. Moral reality is simply not like that. The perplexed actor always has a further recourse: she or he can reconsider. The conscience is not a fixed and unnegotiable natural force, but precisely ‘the mind of man making moral judgments.’ It can therefore be made use of, and if it leads to bewildering conclusions, it can be made use of again, to reflect on the validity of its own deliveries [moral conclusions/intuitions] and hold them up to reflective scrutiny. On the best scenario further thought will correct the initial mistake; even on the worst scenario the effort of critical reflection will break up the illusory appearance of conscience as a moral dictator, imposing just one course of action upon us, perhaps the wrong one! The very possibility of moral thinking transforms our experience of the conscience, which is directed to forming judgments, not delivering commands.
Just as Thomas cuts the Gordian knot with the proposal, ‘one can withdraw from the error,’ so we may suggest, ‘one can address the disagreement.’ Communion should not be broken, but that does not mean disagreements can be ignored. There are ways of addressing serious disagreements that affirm and renew communion by proven willingness and determination to resolve them. And the very attempt to reach a resolution transforms our experience of the disagreement. Disagreements are no more unnegotiable natural forces than deliveries of the mistaken conscience are. They are openings for those who share a common faith to explore and resolve important tensions within the context of communion.
This kind of proposal is, of course, easy to mishear. It can be taken to mean that parties to disagreements must be less than wholly convinced of their position, ready to make room for possible accommodation. When really serious issues are at stake and talk of a status stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae [‘the issue/state on which the church stands or falls’] begins to rumble like thunder, urging the search for resolution can seem like an invitation to capitulate, to concede essential points before beginning. It can seem as though Scripture is deemed to be inconclusive and ambiguous, so that either side is free to concede the possible right of the other’s interpretation. It can seem as though what is needed is an indefinite irresolution about everything important, in which there is no need for, and no possibility of, a decisive closure. But that is all a trick of the light. None of this is implied in the search for agreement. The only thing I concede in committing myself to such a process is that if I could discuss the matter through with an opponent sincerely committed to the church’s authorities, Scripture chief among them, the Holy Spirit would open up perspectives that are not immediately apparent, and that patient and scrupulous pursuit of these could lead at least to giving the problem a different shape–a shape I presume will be compatible with, though not precisely identical to, the views I now hold, but which may also be compatible with some of the views my opponent now holds, even if I cannot yet see how. I do not have to think I may be mistaken about the cardinal points of which I am convinced. The only think I have to think–and this, surely, is not difficult on such a subject!–is that there are things still to be learned by one who is determined to be taught by Scripture how to read the age in which we live.
Every approach to resolving disagreements may turn out to fail. In the end God may have so hardened our hearts that we can see no way through our difficulties and simply find ourselves apart. God may in his judgment scatter a church that lacked a common will to search for its unity in the truth of the gospel. And then there may come a point at which this situation has to be given some kind of institutional expression. Nothing can exclude a priori the worst possibility that certain persons or groups, or even whole churches, may be declared to have left the communion of Jesus Christ. But it must be a declaration, a formal statement of what has obviously come to pass. It cannot be an act to produce a result. The problem with the notion of separation is its expressive, self-purifying character. It will not wait for God to purify his own church in his own time. Schisms may come, but woe to that church through whom they come! There is no right, or duty, of schism. As unity is given to the church as a gift, so it is taken away as a judgment. But on no account can disunity be a course of action that the church may embrace in pursuit of its mission or identity. The only justified breach is the one we have taken every possible step to avert, the one that lies on the far side of every conciliar process that can be devised.” (Oliver O’Donovan, A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy, pp. 30-34)