11 – The doctrine of the polyhedron ‒ unity in diversity

Ever since the early Greeks, the sphere has been considered the perfect shape par excellence. This philosophical consideration served as a basis amongst the Scholastics for interesting theological constructions regarding the concept of God and the Church.
Francis, however, considers the figure of the polyhedron as symbol of the ‘unity in diversity’ to which his idea of ecumenism aspires.
Is this St. Paul’s concept of ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all’ (Eph 4:5)? Who or what is this mysterious polyhedron, of which Francis has spoken of on so many occasions?



Quote AQuote BQuote CQuote DQuote EQuote F
We are in the epoch of globalization, and we think about what globalization is and what unity would be in the Church: perhaps a sphere, where all points are equidistant from the centre, all equal? No! This is uniformity. And the Holy Spirit doesn’t create uniformity! What shape can we find? Let us consider a prism [poliedro]: the prism [poliedro] is unity, but all its parts are different; each has its own peculiarity, its charisma. This is unity in diversity. It is on this path that we Christians do what we call by the theological name of ecumenism. (Visit to the Evangelical Pastor Giovanni Traettino, July 28, 2014)

Note: Here, the translation posted on the website of the Holy See has wrongly used ‘prism’ for the original Italian word poliedro - unlike the better translations in the earlier cases.
I know that you are persons of different religions, trades, ideas, cultures, countries, continents. Here and now you are practicing the culture of encounter, so different from the xenophobia, discrimination and intolerance which we witness so often. Among the excluded, one finds an encounter of cultures where the aggregate does not wipe out the particularities. That is why I like the image of the polyhedron, a geometric figure with many different facets. The polyhedron reflects the confluence of all the partialities that in it keep their originality. Nothing is dissolved, nothing is destroyed, nothing is dominated, everything is integrated. (Address to the participants in the World Meeting of Popular Movements, October 28, 2014)
Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each. There is a place for the poor and their culture, their aspirations and their potential. Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked. It is the convergence of peoples who, within the universal order, maintain their own individuality; it is the sum total of persons within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone.(Apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, no. 236, November 24, 2013)
Uniformity is not Catholic, it is not Christian. Rather, unity in diversity. Catholic unity is different but it is one: this is curious! The cause of diversity is also the cause of unity: the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does two things: he creates unity in diversity. Unity does not imply uniformity; it does not necessarily mean doing everything together or thinking in the same way. Nor does it signify a loss of identity. Unity in diversity is actually the opposite: it involves the joyful recognition and acceptance of the various gifts which the Holy Spirit gives to each one and the placing of these gifts at the service of all members of the Church. It means knowing how to listen, to accept differences, and having the freedom to think differently and express oneself with complete respect towards the other who is my brother or sister. Do not be afraid of differences! As I wrote in Evangelii Gaudium: ‘Our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness’ (no. 236), but they form a unity. (Address to members of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships. October 31, 2014)
We become so-called “guardians of the truth”. When this happens, we choose the part over the whole, belonging to this or that group before belonging to the Church. We become avid supporters for one side, rather than brothers and sisters in the one Spirit. We become Christians of the “right” or the “left”, before being on the side of Jesus, unbending guardians of the past or the avant-garde of the future before being humble and grateful children of the Church. The result is diversity without unity. The opposite temptation is that of seeking unity without diversity. Here, unity becomes uniformity, where everyone has to do everything together and in the same way, always thinking alike. Unity ends up being homogeneity and no longer freedom. But, as Saint Paul says, “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor 3:17). So the prayer we make to the Holy Spiritis for the grace to receive his unity, a glance that, leaving personal preferences aside, embraces and loves his Church, our Church. It is to accept responsibility for unity among all, to wipe out the gossip that sows the darnel of discord and the poison of envy, since to be men and women of the Church means being men and women of communion. (Homily on the Solemnity of Pentecost, June 4, 2017)
Last year in the stadium I also spoke of unity in diversity. I gave the example of an orchestra. In Evangelii Gaudium I spoke of the sphere and of the polyhedron. It is not enough to speak of unity, it is not any sort of unity. It is not uniformity. Said thus it can be understood as the unity of a sphere where every point is equidistant from the centre and there are no differences between one point and another. The model is the polyhedron, which reflects the confluence of all the parts which maintain their originality in it and these are the charisms, in unity but in their own diversity — unity in diversity. The distinction is important because we are speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit, not our own. Unity in the diversity of expressions of reality, as many as the Holy Spirit wills to arouse. It is also necessary to remember that the whole, namely, this unity, is greater than the part, and the part cannot attribute the whole to itself. […] There is another strong sign of the Spirit in Charismatic Renewal: the search for unity of the Body of Christ. You, Charismatics, have a special grace to pray and work for Christian unity, so that the current of grace may pass through all Christian Churches. Christian unity is the work of the Holy Spirit and we must pray together — spiritual ecumenism, the ecumenism of prayer. […] Unity, for the blood of today’s martyrs makes us one. There is the ecumenism of blood. We know that when those who hate Jesus Christ kill a Christian, before killing him, they do not ask him: “Are you a Lutheran, are you an Orthodox, are you an Evangelical, are you a Baptist, are you a Methodist?” You are Christian! And they sever the head. […] Unity in the diversity of the Spirit, not any unity — the sphere and the polyhedron — remember this well, the common experience of Baptism in the Holy Spirit and the fraternal and direct bond with the diocesan bishop, because the whole is greater than the parts. Then, unity in the Body of Christ: pray together with other Christians, work together with other Christians for the poor and the needy. We all have the same Baptism.(Address to the Renewal in the Holy Spirit Movement, July 3, 2015)

Teachings of the Magisterium

Enter the various parts of our study


Pius IX

To compare the Religion revealed by God with other ‘religions’ is to seek agreement between Christ and Belial

It is with no less deceit, venerable brothers, that other enemies of divine revelation, with reckless and sacrilegious effrontery, want to import the doctrine of human progress into the Catholic religion. […] Also perverse is the shocking theory that it makes no difference to which religion one belongs, a theory which is greatly at variance even with reason. By means of this theory, those crafty men remove all distinction between virtue and vice, truth and error, honorable and vile action. They pretend that men can gain eternal salvation by the practice of any religion, as if there could ever be any sharing between justice and iniquity, any collaboration between light and darkness, or any agreement between Christ and Belial. (Pius IX. Encyclical Qui Pluribus, no. 7. 15, November 9, 1846)

It is deceitful to say that one may please God in Protestantism just as in the Catholic Faith

You are aware indeed, that the goal of this most iniquitous plot is […] to draw the Italian people over to Protestantism, which in their deceit they repeatedly declare to be only another form of the same true religion of Christ, thereby just as pleasing to God. Meanwhile they know full well that the chief principle of the Protestant tenets, i.e., that the holy scriptures are to be understood by the personal judgment of the individual, will greatly assist their impious cause. They are confident that they can first misuse the Holy Scriptures by wrong interpretation to spread their errors and claim God’s authority while doing it. Then they can cause men to call into doubt the common principles of justice and honor. (Pius IX. Encyclical Noscitis et nobiscum, December 8, 1849)

Religious societies separated visibly from the Church are not part of it

Now, whoever carefully considers  and meditates on the state in which the diverse religious societies are found, divided among themselves, and separated from the Catholic Church… will easily be convinced that none of these societies, nor even all of them together, may in any way constitute nor be recognized as that Church, One and Catholic, that Christ the Lord founded and established, and that by His will exists. Nor may they in any way be considered branches or a part of this same Church; since they are visibly separated from the Catholic unity. (Denzinger-Hünermann 2998. Pius IX. Apostolic Letter Iam vos omnes, September 13, 1868)

Condemnation of the doctrine that considers Protestantism as just a variant of the only true Religion

[Condemned:] 5. Divine revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to a continual and indefinite progress, corresponding with the advancement of human reason.

[Condemned:] 18. Protestantism is nothing else than a different form of the same true Christian religion, in which it is possible to serve God as well as in the Catholic Church – (Denzinger-Hünermann 2905, 2916. Pius IX. Syllabus of Modern errors, December 8, 1864)

Those that live separated from the true Faith do not attain eternal life

 We should mention again and censure a very grave error in which some Catholics are unhappily engaged, who believe that men living in error, and separated from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain eternal life [see n. 1717]. Indeed, this is certainly quite contrary to Catholic teaching. (Denzinger-Hünermann 2865. Pius IX. Encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore, August 10, 1863)

Vatican Council II (Ecumenical XXI)

The unity to which all men are called is in the teaching of the Apostles

All men are called to belong to the new people of God. Wherefore this people, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and must exist in all ages, so that the decree of God’s will may be fulfilled. In the beginning God made human nature one and decreed that all His children, scattered as they were, would finally be gathered together as one (cf. Jn 11:52). It was for this purpose that God sent His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things (cf. Heb 1:2), that he might be teacher, king and priest of all, the head of the new and universal people of the sons of God. For this too God sent the Spirit of His Son as Lord and Life-giver. He it is who brings together the whole Church and each and every one of those who believe, and who is the well-spring of their unity in the teaching of the apostles and in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers (cf. Acts 2:42). (Vatican Council II, Dogatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964)

John Paul II

Other communities do not have the fullness of the Catholic Church

Indeed, ‘the elements of this already-given Church exist, found in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other Communities’ (cf. Uni. Redin., 4). (John Paul II. Encyclical Ut unum sint, March 25, 1995)

The work of the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the one true Church

Whatever the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions serves as a preparation for the Gospel and can only be understood in reference to Christ, the Word who took flesh by the power of the Spirit ‘so that as perfectly human he would save all human beings and sum up all things.’ Moreover, the universal activity of the Spirit is not to be separated from his particular activity within the body of Christ, which is the Church. (John Paul II. Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, December 7, 1990)

Ecumenical dialogue does not mean diminishing the treasures of the Church

True ecumenical activity means openness, drawing closer, availability for dialogue, and a shared investigation of the truth in the full evangelical and Christian sense; but in no way does it or can it mean giving up or in any way diminishing the treasures of divine truth that the Church has constantly confessed and taught. (John Paul II. Encyclical Redemptor Hominis. no. 6, March 4, 1979)

Benedict XVI

The unity operated by the Spirit is visibly manifest in the profession of the faith in its entirety

It is the Holy Spirit, the principle of unity, which establishes the Church as a communion (cf. LG, 13).  He is the principle of the unity of the faithful in the teaching of the Apostles, in the breaking of the bread and in prayer (cf. ibid; Acts 2:42). The Church, however, analogous to the mystery of the Incarnate Word, is not only an invisible spiritual communion, but is also visible (cf. LG 8; Communionis notio, 4); in fact, ‘the society structured with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches, are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complex reality formed from a two-fold element, human and divine’ (LG, 8). The communion of the baptized in the teaching of the Apostles and in the breaking of the eucharistic bread is visibly manifested in the bonds of the profession of the faith in its entirety, of the celebration of all of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and of the governance of the College of Bishops united with its head, the Roman Pontiff. (Benedict XVI. Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, November 4, 2009)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The principle of ‘unity in diversity’ expressed as it really is

814. From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by a great diversity which comes from both the variety of God’s gifts and the diversity of those who receive them. Within the unity of the People of God, a multiplicity of peoples and cultures is gathered together. Among the Church’s members, there are different gifts, offices, conditions, and ways of life. ‘Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions’ (LG 13). The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church’s unity. Yet sin and the burden of its consequences constantly threaten the gift of unity. and so the Apostle has to exhort Christians to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4:3).
815. What are these bonds of unity? Above all, charity ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’ (Col 3:14). But the unity of the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion: —
— profession of one faith received from the Apostles;
— common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments;
— apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God’s family
  (cf. UR 2; LG 14; CIC, can. 205). (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 814-815)

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

The true Church of Christ is not a kind of collection of churches and ecclesial communities

But at the same time Catholics are bound to profess that through the gift of God’s mercy they belong to that Church which Christ founded and which is governed by the successors of Peter and the other Apostles, who are the depositories of the original Apostolic tradition, living and intact, which is the permanent heritage of doctrine and holiness of that same Church (cf. Paul VI – Ecclesiam Suam, AAS 56 (1964): 629). The followers of Christ are therefore not permitted to imagine that Christ’s Church is nothing more than a collection (divided, but still possessing a certain unity) of Churches and ecclesial communities. Nor are they free to hold that Christ’s Church nowhere really exists today and that it is to be considered only as an end which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Mysterium ecclesiae, June 24, 1973)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply