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The Difficulty & Promise of Catholic-Evangelical Rapprochement: An Address to an Evangelical Congregation
by S. M. Hutchens
The increasing friendliness of Evangelicals and Roman Catholics is often in the news these days, especially since the publication of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” This statement was advanced by a group of Catholic and Evangelical leaders repenting of mutual mistrust and traditional enmity, and looking forward to working together more closely.
I am convinced that Catholics and Evangelicals need to know each other better, but I am just as convinced that any real progress we make, barring extraordinary divine propulsion, will be hard and come slowly. Maybe we are getting another chance where we have failed before—failed because what has been needed to succeed are the hard virtues of maturity, self-control, patience, sober judgment, careful study, discernment, and perhaps above all, the willingness to be ill-spoken of by people who want easy answers, or who want no answers at all.
Indeed, we live in a time when everything we undertake has to be quick and easy, or not at all, including our religion. But we are not speaking here about something that lends itself to an easy answer or none at all. We are talking about understanding and loving one’s neighbor as one ought, which is neither easy nor impossible.
The Problem of Definition
I should say at the beginning that I am a Protestant. My experiences with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, while they have been immensely enriching and have brought me very close to those communions (greater and wiser in many ways than our own), have also served to confirm my belief in the Protestant doctrine of the Church (as articulated in documents like the Articles of Religion or the Westminster Confession—less the condemnation of the pope as antichrist), so Protestant I must remain.
A Protestant, contrary to what some teach, is not made by his belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, for the Scriptures do not teach justification by faith apart from works. (I shall say more about this below.) What makes a Protestant at base is his inability to agree with Rome or Orthodoxy on the identity of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, which both of these communions believe themselves to incarnate. Our other disagreements can be traced to this one. While we are able to recognize them both as parts of the Church, and perhaps even (as I do) far better images of the true Church than anything one finds in Protestantism, we are unable to see either as the Church—that is to say that all Christians are truly Christian only so far as they are in some way tributary to them. This conscientious inability to confess or believe what Rome or Orthodoxy require in these matters makes one a Protestant. Beyond that—and I am at frequent pains to stress this with my Catholic and Orthodox friends—it is very difficult indeed to make a firm statement about what Protestants believe.
This problem of definition is what I wish to concentrate on here, for in order to know how we should approach Roman Catholicism, we must first have some idea of what it is. This, too, is no easy matter, for Catholicism, a highly organized “juridical” body and so in a sense the most comprehensible division of Christendom, is still a large and complicated thing. Only when we have some grasp of what Catholicism is, however, can we determine what Scriptures are to control our conduct toward it, Scriptures like, “What fellowship hath light with darkness?”—the light being us and the darkness being them? Or Scriptures like,
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and there be no dissensions among you. . . . For it has been reported to me that there is quarrelling among you. Each one of you says, I belong to Paul, or, I belong to Apollos, or, I belong to Peter, or, I belong to Christ. Is Christ divided? (1 Cor. 1:10–13)
No, Christ is not divided, but that doesn’t give us easy answers to the problem of Catholic-Evangelical relations. This is a matter that requires prayer, labor, and discretion. What I hope to do here is give some perspective on the first question: Just what is Roman Catholicism? I do so from the viewpoint of someone who understands the concerns of Evangelicals. I hope this will help you work through the second question: Which Scriptures apply, and how, and when?
The Demonic Faces of Wittenberg & Rome
“Talking theology” on such matters has its place, but it is not the best way to say what I wish to say. Let me instead tell you some stories—each of them true, and each with its own kind of light to shed on the subject.
There was a young monk, an Augustinian I believe, who was born and raised in the Archdiocese of Chicago. It occurred to him one day that he knew practically nothing about Protestants—which, by the way, is quite possible for a Chicago Catholic—and that he would be wise to find out something about them from a Protestant source. There was a Lutheran seminary near where he lived, and what could be more Protestant, he reasoned, than Lutheranism? He was acquainted with one of the seminarians, so he approached him and said, “I want to find out what Protestants believe. Who is the best and most representative Protestant theologian?” “Oh, no question about that,” was the reply. “If you want the essence of Protestantism, you have to read Paul Tillich.”
The monk was an intellectual, and not afraid of theology, so he got all three volumes of Tillich’s Systematic Theology from the library, took them home, and read them. When he finished, he was convinced that Protestantism was a cunning and powerful heresy from the very pit of hell. Tillich’s theology, he discovered, is profoundly non-incarnational. He severs Christianity almost completely from its actualities, reducing it to a set of universal ideas that only are incidentally Christian and have no power to save. This, indeed, comported with what he had been taught by his more anti-Protestant teachers: Protestantism, having stepped outside the Church, is no longer connected to the divinely ordered means of grace in which God is actually, materially present for the salvation of his people in the Church and its sacraments. If this, he thought, is Protestantism, then Protestantism must be stopped. The young Catholic from then on interpreted Protestantism in light of what he had read in Tillich and purposed to win as many Protestants as he could back to the faith given to the Church by the prophets, apostles, saints, and martyrs, converting them from their darkness.
In another part of the world, a Protestant missionary watched a religious procession march through the streets on a Catholic holy day. A statue of Mary, adorned with votive offerings, was being carried on the shoulders of chanting men. Others were running around the litter, shouting prayers, and cutting themselves. They took the image to a church where Jesus was pictured as a baby, a corpse, a pallid weakling, or a cold, distant judge; and his mother, who had absorbed all of the majesty, beauty, love, and power that had drawn the missionary into the Lord’s service, was the one who was in fact worshipped as the merciful savior of the world.
The missionary was more convinced than ever that Roman Catholicism was a heresy from the pit of hell, designed specifically to draw people away from Jesus, and given what he knew, he too was correct, for there are forms of Catholicism that deny the historical reality of the faith set forth in Holy Scripture in which Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the God who will share his glory with no other. From that point on he interpreted Catholicism in light of what he saw in the place where he was and (very reasonably) purposed to win as many Catholics as he could back to the faith given to the Church by the prophets and apostles, converting them from their darkness.
Christ in the Catholic Jungle & the Protestant Desert
These both are true pictures of actual events and they reflect true states of affairs. In them we see Protestantism and Catholicism at their worst. While these things are not to be ignored, they should not be at the center of our vision. We have been commanded by an apostle to contemplate whatever is true, whatever is honorable, just, pure, lovely, whatever is gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy. Plato agreed with Christian teaching when he said that we should define things by their perfections, not their most corrupt examples.
Why must we do this? Because this is ultimately what we want God to do for us. We want to be defined in his eyes by the perfection who is Jesus Christ, not by who we are at our sinful worst. We do not wish to be finally judged by the monstrosities in the dark corners of our souls, but by what has been transformed by the Savior’s life. On the day of judgment we want God to look at us and see Christ, not our sins and errors. If we would obey our Lord we must do as we would be done by in this regard.
I believe that only when this rule is put into practice will some light begin to fall on the problem of Catholic-Evangelical relations. This does not mean that what we believe to be errors are to be ignored, rather that we must diligently seek, with God’s help, to put them where they belong.
Let me give another true story that shows a picture I believe closer to the center of things than the first two. There once was a Protestant boy who grew up in a neighborhood near a Catholic church. His regular babysitter and a number of his playmates were from devout Catholic families. His young Catholic friends went to catechism on Saturdays to receive instruction from the notorious Sister Ursula, a nun so redoubtable that even Protestant children took the long way around St. Michael’s to avoid her lair.
The boy went to Sunday School and would sometimes compare notes with the little Catholics. It was understood as fundamental by both the Protestant and Catholic children that the salvation of the other was to be seriously doubted and that both were under obligation to convert their friends. The Catholic children knew that Protestants weren’t members of the True Church, outside of which you couldn’t be saved. The Protestant children knew that the Catholics didn’t believe in being born again, and thought you got to heaven by doing good works and having the priest perform magical ceremonies that included the unspeakable abomination of real, alcoholic wine. My Catholic friend Paula Ashbaugh and I—for, yes, I was the boy—tried briefly and unsuccessfully to convert each other, and, having done our duty, went soberly back to our games.
I believe that God moderates infant conversations and left both Paula and I with some comfort and lasting impressions. One was that we certainly didn’t understand what might be called the overlayment of each other’s faith. To me Catholicism seemed—and still seems—burdened with traditions of men that have hardened into immovable doctrines. To her, no doubt, Protestantism seemed—and with good reason—dry and rootless, empty of beauty, wonder, and authority. There is no Presbyterian Holy Father in Geneva, there are no Baptist Mozarts or Berninis, and all Protestants fight about what the Bible means.
The other impression I think we both received was that we knew, believed in, and worshipped the same Jesus. We both spoke of him as if he were still alive—and, yes, our personal Savior living in heaven, who had very similar expectations of us. This amazed us, since we both had been taught not to expect it. That a Catholic could come to faith through that incredible jungle of false and unneeded beliefs seemed nothing short of a miracle to me. That a Protestant could come to the same place through that vast desert of ignorance and infidelity no doubt seemed miraculous to Paula. But there you had it—we were both apparently living in the context of a miracle.
All Christians are, you see. When I consider how sinful we all are and how much there is in every denomination that can pull the sinner’s vision from Christ and make him concentrate on things—even good things—that cannot save, it seems to be a grand miracle that the gospel can still get through at all.
And then there is the problem of deficiencies. It now bothers me much more than it used to that the Protestant form of the faith in which I stand has produced no Mozarts or Berninis, and that it is so prone to division. It seems reasonable to think that this lack points to a genetic defect—particularly in our thinking about authority. I would not go to the stake for Protestantism. And what might the Catholic think of his own church when he considers the banality and weakness of its preaching, that, Mozart notwithstanding, the congregations don’t sing, even when there is music in their hearts? If I were a Catholic, this would seem to me a symptom of something very wrong at the bottom of things.
Catholicism, with an emphasis on its sacramental system, tends to take faith for granted, and so to teach salvation by works. Protestantism, with its emphasis on the ministry of the Word, tends to take works for granted, and so separates faith from the works in which it must incarnate itself. Both tendencies are at war with Scripture.
But Paula and I, at the end, appeared to each other, despite the churches in which we were raised, to be living in the context of a miracle in which the face of Christ, while seen through a glass, usually quite darkly, is nevertheless seen by those whom God has purposed to save. What we both had been told by good teachers was at the center of our faith and was there, intact, and recognizable as Christ himself by both of us.
Faith versus Works?
What I learned there on the red steps of the Ashbaugh home has stayed with me. It always has seemed to have been learned in the school of God, and I am not quick to unlearn such things. What I learned was not taken up in the context of theological wrangling, but by firsthand knowledge of and contact with a person whom I liked and for whom I wished the best. (Paula was nice—and she was beautiful!) It was taken in with the heart of a child—not uncritically or without discrimination, but one that asked questions because it was interested in answers. The answers I got then still fit the realities I have perceived as I have grown up, my horizons have expanded, and I have traveled in the Christian world.
We agree with Catholics, at least with traditional Catholics, on who the Savior is, but not on how we are saved. Nevertheless, however it is that Christians are made, it appears that the Lord makes them among us anyway. And if someone objects to this observation, I can only say that he needs to meet more Catholics than he has and apply the same standards for Christian life and confession that he does to himself, remembering the words of the Epistle of James:
You say you have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works and I will show you my faith by my works . . . You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. (2:18,24)
Do you believe this to be the Word of God? Martin Luther could not conceive of it as such, but Martin Luther was wrong on this point. Catholics agree with Protestants that sinners are saved by grace through faith, and that none of us does any good works of which he can boast as though his ability to do them did not also come from the grace of God in Christ. And I will say this again, with as much force as it needs to be said: the reputedly Protestant sola fide, the notion that one is saved by faith alone, is simply unbiblical. This separates faith and works in salvation where Holy Scripture makes them inseparable. To be sure, as Paul says, we cannot be saved by the works of the Law. This means that no one can be good enough to make God his debtor and merit salvation apart from Christ. But that is a different matter. In many of these things the Catholics put us to shame, showing us their faith by their works, as James said they should.
I am not obliged to believe that every Catholic, not even every devotedly religious Catholic, is a true believer, or that the Catholic Church has never erred, or that there isn’t much idolatry in Catholicism. As a matter of fact, I firmly believe that no separate communion is the Church, and that all churches have erred—that each has its characteristic form of error to which it is drawn as a besetting sin. But I can see Christ among the Catholics as Savior and Lord, and this seems to me the main point.
“Glory to God!”
I will end with a story told by Fr. Paul Quay, of blessed memory, a wise and godly Jesuit priest who taught theology for many years at Loyola University in Chicago. It is no doubt apocryphal—it is, in fact, a joke he used to put Protestant believers at ease—but it makes several very serious points that were important to him, and to many of us who were (and, by God’s grace in the communion of the saints, still are) his friends.
It seems that a bishop was making his annual visit to a Catholic parish to confirm and give First Communion to the children in that year’s crop of confirmands. It is an old custom of bishops to question the catechumens to see what they have learned. The interrogation was creaking along with hesitant and not very satisfactory answers when the bishop said, “Very well. Here’s one that everyone should be able to get. Who is Jesus Christ?” There was a long silence. Finally a little boy in the back row raised his hand. “Yes, my son?” the bishop said.
“Jesus Christ,” said the boy, “is the Son of God, our Savior. He is God of very God and Man of very Man, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He lived a perfect and holy life among us, was crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. He ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God, our mediator and advocate, who will come again in glory to judge the world and receive us to himself.”
“Glory to God!” exclaimed the bishop. “Who is your confirmation teacher, my son?” An embarrassed-looking woman reluctantly raised her hand and said, “Ah—Your Eminence—he’s a Baptist. He just came along with one of his friends to see what a bishop looked like.”
One of the truths in this story—and mind you, it was told by a very serious Roman Catholic who I am sure had no intention of becoming a Baptist himself—is that there is one Person at the heart of our faith, and that hearts that are true to him speak the same tongue. I know of very few Protestants who have learned anything about a Catholic like Mother Teresa who wouldn’t also, hearing her testimony, say, “Glory to God!” There comes a place where if one is willing to doubt the Christianity of people like that, one must doubt one’s own, and where one must say, if this very Catholic Catholic is not a Christian, then neither am I.
But underlying this, as Father Quay’s story implied, must always be the more basic understanding that our eyes are to remain fixed upon Christ, for only then will we have the ability to remove the beams from our own so that we may see our brothers as we ought.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.