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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Catholic Awareness of Protestantism

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

A recent issue of The Lutheran weekly carries two unrelated news items. In Philadelphia the Protestant policemen and other law enforcement agents have organized the Legion of Cornelius, a religious group named for the pagan garrison commander who was converted to Christianity by Saint Peter. The legion was formed as a “counterpart of the League of the Sacred Heart” for Roman Catholic police officers. In Minnesota the state Methodist Conference plans drastic action against ministers with large families. Clerical salaries are to be scaled downwards with each additional child, to encourage the clergymen to cooperate in stemming the population explosion.

Both items are symbolic: of the unwitting effect of Catholic faith and practice on Protestant Americans, of the deep cleavage between the two religious cultures, and of the need for a conviction that Protestantism should be a growing Catholic concern.

Sacred Responsibility

As Catholics who possess the fullness of revelation, we cannot be indifferent to the spiritual needs of millions of our fellow-Americans who have lost what, through the mercy of God, we have received. Perhaps the Protestant world is too close to be seen in perspective as the fruit of tragedy, the worst in the history of Christianity. We are rightly interested in converting pagans in India and Africa, and no sacrifice should be spared in the effort. But the needs at home are equally pressing and, in some ways, more urgent, because of the impact that a vital Protestantism in the States is making outside the country, as in the invasion of Latin America.

Yet if any serious apostolate to American Protestants is to be effective, Catholics must know whom they are trying to convert, from what and to what; otherwise both sides will be disillusioned. Clear ideas are indispensable, based on accurate and up-to-date sources and covering specific areas of faith and worship. Not to know, for example, that Protestants have a great respect for Jesus of Nazareth will prevent us from using this common heritage in presenting the faith as a dedication to the Person of Christ, and only consequently as submission to ecclesiastical authority. In the same way, ignorance of the desire for peace of mind in a soul that is laden with sin may cause us to fail to stress the consoling effects of sacramental confession.

The more fully we understand what Protestants believe or practice, and what they deny or avoid, the better we can labor for their welfare. If this is a platitude in advertising—to know the wants of prospective customers and not overreach or underrate—it is eminently true in the business of propagating the faith.

But even short of direct conversion, Protestants depend on the Catholic Church for their own religious vitality (on its positive Christian side) to a degree that few Catholics recognize and fewer Protestants are willing to admit. The English convert, William Orchard, is warrant for the statement that “even the most militant Protestant church would lose its raison d’etre if the Catholic Church ceased to exist. Whatever truth other churches retain, they have derived from the Catholic Church, whom they have to thank for preserving it for them.”

There is more here than appears on the surface. Not only do Protestant denominations owe to Catholicism the Christian principles they kept from the Reformation, but today the Catholic Church is affecting their creed and ritual and morals, indeed every fiber in their religious being, to sustain and invigorate their possession of the Gospel message.

This suggests a correlative duty. Apart from other reasons, enlightened self interest dictates an awareness of those citizens who form the national majority an in many ways still determine national policy in government, education and social welfare. Their innate Christian faith, though often weak and always resistible, urges them to approve what Catholics teach and believe, and to act accordingly.

Catholic influence is found not only in more dramatic ways like the quest for unity, found in Catholicism and imitated in the ecumenical movement; or a new emphasis on the liturgy in Protestant church architecture, ceremonies and vestures; or the movement for including religious values in the public school curriculum to obtain some of the spiritual benefits of Catholic education within the structure of public schools. Even on the broadest level of faith and morals, Catholic principles exert a powerful influence on the minds and wills of Protestant contemporaries, from the Methodist husband of a Catholic wife faithful to her religious duties, to theologians in the schools of divinity whom the writer can testify are (or may be) deeply affected by Catholic belief and action. I have in mind a professor of systematic theology at a Presbyterian seminary who said that reading Saint Thomas had convinced him that Calvin was wrong in his theory of predestination.

We call this type of influence self-interested, not because it is selfish but because our way of life is safeguarded by a public citizenry which, though Protestant, has been made sympathetic with Catholic interests and institutions. Take the current agitation in some Protestant circles for removing tax-exemption from churches and church-affiliated schools. If ever this became fixed in law and universal, as the late president of the National Council of Churches advocates, we could partially blame ourselves for not having cooperated more actively with high-minded Protestant educators who are desperately trying to put some minimum of religious principles into the public schools.

Intelligent Understanding

Any effort to have Catholic ideals affect American Protestantism must begin with knowledge that goes beyond reading an occasional pamphlet on the subject. Perhaps the first lesson to learn is that Protestantism is highly complex, constantly changing in juridical structure, and so diversified that every church or almost every churchman has to be treated separately. It is easy enough to say this, but immensely difficult for Catholics to realize, with their uniformity centered in Rome and resting on centuries of Christian tradition.

This does not mean that certain broad lines of emphasis do not appear, or that Protestants are never consistent in applying such norms as private interpretation, faith without works, no mediator between Christ and man, and the eternal protest against any human agency professing to speak in the name of God.

I would divide American Protestants somewhat arbitrarily into three categories, since we need some kind of classification to make sense of what looks like a maze of contradictions. At one extreme are authentic Christian believers in most churches, who accept the Nicene Creed and its implications, profess the divinity of Christ and rely on his merits as the instrument of salvation. At the other end are the emancipated churchmen and laity who reject the supernatural order and divine grace, the inspired Bible and, for many, even the certainty of a personal God as distinct from the world he created. In between, and often shuttling back and forth, is a large minority of educated Protestants, or at least their more prominent writers, whose opinion on the most fundamental questions of man’s existence are either confessedly vague, as in Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, or so fluctuating that one of the common features of theological literature is the change in religious conviction from one volume or monograph to another.

Against this backdrop we can further distinguish two periodic trends, one towards greater conservatism in the direction of Catholic beliefs, and the other away from orthodoxy into naturalism, whether in the established denominations or by severing church connections entirely.

On the credit side, therefore, a healthy doctrinal revival is taking place in American Protestantism. For the first time in living memory “evangelical” is something more than a brickbat in the hands of liberals who felt they had a monopoly on religious intelligence. The popularity of Billy Graham, I believe, is more than a passing mood. It shows the hunger that thousands have for dedicating themselves to Christ as their Lord and Savior, something which their clergy had made impossible if, in the title of Fosdick’s book, Jesus was not God in human flesh but only The Man from Nazareth.

Parallel with this rise of orthodoxy is the more familiar drive in the opposite direction: the urge to autonomy or independence of any earthly authority in matters religious. Hence the curious spectacle of the religious press having to defend the proposition that “Protestants believe in God,” which the symbolist theories of some theologians had called into question.

For a Catholic not to be aware of these wider categories and their divergent tendencies would certainly hinder his approach to Protestantism. It is hard for a born Catholic to associate one name with myriad concepts. He has nothing in his own experience, unless he was himself a convert like Isaac Hecker, to tell him that Protestantism is “the exaggerated development of a personal independence” in the Christian religion. But unless he makes this adjustment he will be confused and ineffective in dealing with the Protestant mind.

The problem is further complicated in America where more than sixty million people, not affiliated with any church body, call themselves Protestant and on many issues affecting the national welfare, like education and marital morality, follow the spirit of their church-going confreres. They do not feel the need of “official” forgiveness or rituals or catechisms or creeds. In the words of a prominent spokesman, “they try to lead a life which is honorable, productive, satisfying, right, good—for them. It may or may not be right or good for someone else.” The impact of this mentality on American culture is well known; but not so well known are its Protestant sources.

Active Apostolate

More important, however, than mastering the convolutions of Protestantism is to put the knowledge into practice. But this will not be done—even the knowledge will not be acquired—without motivation. In plain English: what good is it? What use can I make of information about the sects and their curious vagaries, or about the latest issue that divides Catholic and Protestant thought? The answer, in four words, touches every aspect of the Christian apostolate: conversion, salvation, defense and cooperation. In the degree to which we understand the Protestant viewpoint we become more effective in the work of conversions, in assisting those outside the Church to be save, in defending Catholic faith and institutions, and in collaborating with others for a Christian American society.

The convert apostolate in the States is a well-established movement that needs no promotion here. But when we compare the hundred thousand plus of annual converts with the millions who are not even invited to study the Church’s claims we ask ourselves, “Why?” Why this apparent indifference to what Christ himself desires, “That they all may be one”? One reason must be forgetfulness of the deep-souled spiritual needs of people whom we meet every day, work with and perhaps live with in the same family, that are not being met by the diluted form of Christianity which these people profess.

Correspondingly, the better I know the Protestants (as Christians) desire and cannot find in their own religious commitment, the more zealous I become to share what I have with another who lacks what I enjoy: the Real Presence and Holy Communion, companionship with Mary and the saints, complete certainty about the purpose of life and my eternal destiny, solidarity with a whole world of believers under obedience to the same Vicar of Christ, freedom of minds in having absolute principles of moral choice and the assurance that I am not a pawn of fate, but may love God with full liberty of spirit.

Less obvious but equally cogent is the realization born of knowledge that, even though Protestants do not become Catholic, they must and do believe certain essentials in order to be saved. Protestantism is a fluid concept, so fluid that for many Americans nothing religious is certain; anything descriptive of God is nebulous and unaffirmable. Thus in a recent study of Harvard undergraduates (mainly Protestant) the majority denied that “God is benevolent,” or that “God is just,” while affirming that “The idea of God does not affect me.” If not many church-going people belong to this category, others who trace their lineage from the Reformation do; yet unless we are conscious of this spiritual vacuum we shall not be concerned to fill it.

Defending Catholic belief and practice is a simple duty of Christian charity, as the late pastoral of the American hierarchy on birth control reminds us, and as the steady pressure on the Catholic conscience of an alien philosophy should make us aware. But defense without adequate knowledge is precarious. No matter how well I understand the treatise De Ecclesia, until I also see the issues raised by Protestant critics of Catholic church-and-state policy I am, to put it mildly, handicapped in trying to answer their charges. The same may be said for criticism of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce, religious education and the Index—where the opposition may not be vocal or explicit and yet shouts by implication in the contrary customs and practices all around me. The more clearly I understand how and why these things are contrary and defended as such by Protestant leaders, the more validly can I defend what I believe as a Catholic—first to myself, which is primary, and then to others as circumstances require.

Social and civic cooperation between Catholics and Protestants presupposes that both sides know where the other stands. If this is less urgent for the Protestant, it is indispensable for a Catholic, with whom cooperation in matters touching religion is always provisional—provided faith and morals are not compromised and religious indifference is not sanctioned. To avoid both dangers, a Catholic must know what differences separate him from the Protestant. The better his knowledge, the wider will be his freedom of action, in concert with people of other beliefs, and the greater the promise that whatever is decided will also be accepted in a heterogeneous society. The ramifications of this principle are infinite and become highly pertinent as Catholics play a more dominant role on the American scene. It is enough here to stress the importance of understanding religious pluralism, notably on its Protestant side, and not only vaguely knowing its existence, if Catholics are to make that contribution to the national welfare which their growing numbers and the mandate they have received from Christ so clearly demand.

A final word. If we need encouragement in this task of Christian charity, we may find it in a well-known prayer, written for Protestants by one of their churchmen. “Almighty and all-loving Father,” they are bidden to say, “forgive thy Protestant servants, who would follow thee through loyalty to Christ, every sinful disposition by which they fail to understand and fail to act as Christians ought to act toward their Catholic brothers-in-Christ. Increase in both thy Protestant servants and thy Catholic servants, who would follow thee through loyalty to Christ, the spirit and the wisdom of Christ.” The grace of God will surely not be wanting to sentiments like these.

Sponsa Regis
July - 1961

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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