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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Protestant Examination of the Christian Conscience

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

American Catholics [1] is a stimulating book by six Jewish and Protestant writers who were asked to tell us what they think we should know in order to meet our commitments in a pluralistic society. The contributors express their mind with perfect candor and great charity, considering the delicate subject on which they had to write. Certainly “the men who contribute to this volume have not written to be refuted,” and yet not a few positions they assume are highly critical of Catholic faith and practice. It would be naive to expect no reaction, at least to clarify the issue in the interests of that very dialogue which the book is intended to promote.

One contributor out of six will be examined in some detail, as a sample of the rest and, in my opinion, as the most representative of the Protestant attitude toward contemporary Catholicism in the United States. Martin E. Marty is Associate Editor of The Christian Century and contributing editor to several other publications, including The American Lutheran. A member of the Missouri Lutheran Synod, he has authored a remarkably sympathetic Short History of the Reformation which is yet sufficiently typical to consider the papacy the main obstacle to Christian unity in the modern world.

Toward a Religious Dialogue

Marty’s principal concern is to show the need for a constructive dialogue between American Catholics and Protestants, which he believes offers the highest promise of a happier religious atmosphere in the country. “If Protestants and Roman Catholics wish to make possible a creative coexistence, and to profit from each other’s separate histories,” he writes “they will have to participate in dialogue.” While he nowhere defines the term, the dialogue he recommends seems to be a kind of formal discussion, preferably along theological lines, of the differences between Catholics and Protestants, and (with emphasis) of the problems which Catholic principles and customs have posed for the rest of the nation.

As spokesman for his own people, Marty is incisively critical of the image that many Protestants still have of American Catholicism, which is “no longer an immigrant, ghetto, extension Church.” Its solidarity and organizational unity give it quasi-majority status in a land of weak and divided Protestant loyalties.

Equally criticized is the way Protestants often interpret history by a “hop, skip and jump” process. First to identify their denominational experience with the whole success of American culture then skip over several centuries to the time of the Reformation, when the light of the Gospel dawned after the Catholic Dark Ages. And finally jump back to the New Testament with no serious effort to find whether the spirit of Christianity may not have resided, however dimly, in the Church of Augustine and Ambrose and before Martin Luther.

By engaging in dialogue with Catholics, Protestants would awaken to the obsolescence of their imagery and be forced to examine (and confess) the essential discontinuity of their historical background. They might discover, with Paul Tillich, that the strength of Protestantism lies not in its history but in the freedom to pass judgment on “every man and every moment, every document and every impulse, to reveal the partiality of every apprehension of divine reality”; and therefore to condemn any human agency or institution which pretends to speak as the vicegerent of God.

Papal Authoritarianism

But while thus mildly critical of Protestantism, Marty responds to the purpose of his contribution by exposing what he considers the worst irritants, not in Roman Catholics, but in the religion they profess and in the Church to which they belong.

Like Winfred Garrison, his predecessor on The Christian Century, he isolates the Catholic notion of authority as most disconcerting to the Protestant mind. All other differences are secondary or merely corollary. Discussion is possible and perhaps fruitful—up to this point. “This is always the stalemate, the dead-end.” The first assertion of faith—in Jesus Christ—is not so divisive, but the second—acknowledging a human person as vested with divine authority—divides the two systems to the roots of their being:

That branch of Christendom which recognizes the Bishop of Rome as Pope, Vicar of Christ on earth, and the visible head of the Church, accepts a consolidated authoritarian entity which seems too Protestants to be heterogamous in character and thus no surety against perversion of validly religious ends. The Reformers of the sixteenth century were so disturbed by the office that they frequently identified it with the “mystery of iniquity” to which Paul refers in II Thessalonians 2:7. In our more genteel age, the sons of the Reformation use different terms, usually to the effect that conciliation always proceeds smoothly until the offense of the Roman consolidation of authority is brought up; frustration always follows.

This scandal of Roman solidarity is not academic. What disturbs Protestants is not the interior consequences of papal supremacy, which affects only those who believe in the Pope. Except the “harm” they cause to prospects for Christian unity or the “abuse” of Scripture they imply, such declarations as the dogma of Mary’s Assumption are “no more business of ours than were a dogma proclaimed that the moon henceforth must be regarded as being of blue cheese.” The question of papal authority looms so large because of the effects it has, or may have, on those who do not accept the Roman consolidation.

A Protestant Fear and Mr. Marty's “Dream”

Catholic conviction, Protestants fear, will reach the level of legislation. And then everyone, including Protestants, will have to obey. Thus Catholic zeal for manifesting the truth comes to impinge on Protestant liberties. “When it becomes my tax that is involved, my family and birth control information, my family and codes of ethics for hospitals, my choice of entertainment affected by boycott if not by censorship—then I become involved in the authoritarian question.”

No doubt Protestants had their share in the past in legislative intrusions on the liberties of others. But the Protestant principle of unconsolidated authority, or, rather, its lack of uniform doctrine and absence of juridical control, is no match for the power that Catholicism threatens to exert when given the political chance.

There is small comfort in the thought that Catholics may never attain majority status. Concentrated authority can make thirty million people, or fewer, more powerful than eighty millions whose energies are scattered. “It is the character of the aspiration, and not the numbers game of political statistics, that disturbs immediately.” If Protestants who are disunited can yet be so powerful, what may be expected of Catholics with whom obedience to the Pope is of the essence of their faith?

How deal with this danger to Protestant interests, arising from the steady growth of Catholic power in America? An organized dialogue between Catholic and Protestant leaders offers the best immediate, even long-range solution. “Were I to state a Protestant ‘dream’—my Protestant dream—for this chapter, it would be that out of this could come the invitation from a Roman Catholic bishop for such sanctioned exchange.” After such a two-way conversation, enough debris would be cleared away to permit more creative participation in the four-way discussion with Jews and secularist humanists in our free city.

Bias of an Immigrant Mentality

The first obstacle that such dialogue must face arises from the different historical perspective in the Catholic and Protestant attitude toward the United States, which Marty feels, colors their loyalty to American institutions and laws.

Protestantism, he believes, sees itself as the religion of the emigrant, Catholicism as the religion of the immigrant. While the difference is relative and does find exceptions, by and large the emigrant regards himself as repudiating his past and starting life anew in the land to which he or his ancestors came. Protestant migrants from Europe came to America as to another Sion, where religious and political liberty were not luxuries but belonged by divine right to these chosen people of God.

Catholics, on the other hand, were neither so strongly moved to seek liberty nor found on arrival in the New World that their ties with the Old had been lost. Indeed their spiritual allegiance to a foreign power in Rome precluded either breaking with the past or placing the center of their mission and affections in the States.

Within limits this neat distinction helps to clarify some of the tensions between the two religious cultures. No doubt the majority of immigrants in the past century were Catholic, and correspondingly the old stock of Anglo-Saxon residents was mostly Protestant. Also Catholics were less eager to repudiate the “old country” which had given them birth and their faith, and where parents and relatives remained. Most Protestants are too far removed from their European ancestors to feel any special bond of affection for Europe or sense of unity with its people and institutions.

But Marty intends something more profound. He suggests that Catholics, otherwise than Protestants, are bound to Europe by stronger ties than blood; or, more exactly, they are subject to Rome in a way that arouses Protestant suspicions about their loyalty to America. The situation may be compared to a person at the end of a line like a fish. He may swim far and wide, but, if he swims too far or too widely, a “twitch upon the thread” brings him back. According to the parable, Protestants regard Catholics as at the end of such a line, swimming quite freely, but always remaining subject to the twitch upon the thread. In one theory of grace, man is like the fish, and God holds the pole. In this case, not God but the Roman authority holds the line. “This is true not only of the ignorant or the men and women on the street. It is true of reflective Protestants who are, and would like to be ever more, the reconcilers and re-unitive agents. In this field, curiously, the more one studies history and dogma, the less secure he feels.” And when theologians cannot provide assurances, ordinary people cannot be blamed for distrusting those who live in America but take their orders from Rome.

“Myth” of Historical Continuity

Comparable to the immigrant mentality, with the seat of its affections in Rome, is the myth of a continuous history that needs to be dissolved before fruitful dialogue can be made. Where Protestants tend to jump over the embarrassing pages of history, Catholics go to the opposite extreme. Their penchant is to trace the Church’s faith and practice and the line of its juridical structure, without break, down through the centuries even to Christ Himself. They “operate dogmatically, and on the surface of things historically, with a view of the continuity of the Christian tradition which complicates the dialogue.”

Every piece of Catholic literature, most radio messages from Catholic sources stress one theme: “the continuity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in its Roman and Western custodianship.” This is the appeal of “The Rock” and of tradition in an age of mass anxiety. It seems at the heart of the Catholic intellectual renascence and a frequent motive for conversions.

Thus Ross J. S. Hoffman, as a historian, was repelled by “denatured, modernized, elusive Protestantism.” and found his anchor in the spiritual heritage of more Christian times. “He came to see Catholicism as an organic whole springing from the germinal seed of the Incarnation.” From Trent through Constance and the Fourth Lateran “back to Nicea and the apostolic documents he found the Church to be a constant conservator of doctrine,’ a careful guardian of the whole treasure of revelation.” In Marty’s judgment, “there has been something ersatz, unhistorical, and even dilettantish about much of this recall of a continuous line heightened in the Middle Ages at the expense of the modern development.”

Then to support his thesis, a legitimate Catholic criticism is quoted out of context. Catholic intellectuals who plead with their co-religionists “to stand on their own feet,” and not be slavishly dependent on Europe or lost in static admiration of the Renascence, are used by Marty to lend authority to his claim that Catholic less-than-intellectuals indulge in “mytho-poesy to develop a view of continuity” that has no more foundation in fact than the Protestant myth of discontinuous history.

Critical Evaluation

Needless to say, this is anti-Catholicism at its best: clear, unemotional, and coming to grips with fundamentals. If it served no other purpose than to send priests (through the laity) to reexamine their treatise De Ecclesia, it would still he worth reading. But I think it is objectively important as illustrative of the American Protestant mind which we must understand if the Church’s interests are to be saved and her apostolate extended to millions who need what she has to offer them spiritually, psychologically, and intellectually.

Another book could be written, just to take up the issues that Marty raises and to answer the charges they contain. We can touch only on a few.

There is much to admire in his estimate of the Catholic Church. His analysis of religious tensions reminds us of Newman’s observation that Catholics have no idea of the dread of Rome and its power that dominates the non-Catholic spirit. His frank admission that the Church is feared because her citizens may legislate against other people’s liberties should be seriously weighed in the exercise of political action. Under the emotion of fear, even when purely subjective, men are liable to lose their heads. In a desperate effort to ward off impending danger, they become destructive, recklessly fighting not only the real or apparent evil, but everything that stands in their way.

When Protestants Unite

Likewise, the comparison of Protestant weakness in sectarianism with Catholic strength in unity is substantially accurate and should be taken into account when dealing with Catholic-Protestant relations in the United States. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that because Protestants are disunited in religious faith, they cannot be united in other ways. In fact, one major criticism of Marty is that he practically leaves this impression. Always he stresses the Catholic threat to Protestant welfare coming from Catholic union under authority; but scarcely a hint that Catholic life and institutions may be more seriously threatened, or now are positively injured, by powerful combines in which Protestant influence is active. Without dipping into past history with its American Protective Associations, present organized opposition to the Catholic Church has reached an all-time high. The violent methods of time A.P.A. are missing, but only because experience has shown that more can be done by a steady pressure through mass media of communication.

Within weeks of the Everson decision by the Supreme Court (1947) favoring public transportation to parochial schools, all the major denominations had voiced their official protests, and within months they had formed the well-known P.O.A.U. with the avowed purpose of separating Catholic citizens from the common benefits of the nation.

As reported by the December, 1959 issue of The New Age (circulation 500,000), a national Committee on Education has been formed by the mainly Protestant Scottish Jurisdiction to expose “the divisive impact of a sectarian school,” ‘to correct, by legal instruments, “the lack of public control over sectarian schools, their teachers, school books and what is taught,” and to restrain “the insatiable appetite of some of those who conduct sectarian schools for expansion at public expense.”

Silence about these and similar Protestant efforts to inhibit Catholic life and progress, while expressing grave concern over the Catholic threat to American liberty (as defined by Protestant standards), is so common that we are not surprised to find it in Marty’s critique of Catholicism.

Mr. Marty's “Dream” an Old Reality

Yet his recommended dialogue between Catholic and Protestant leaders is desirable and, indeed, necessary if the two religions are ever to cooperate in safeguarding Christian principles from subversion by a growing secularism in education, literature, and public morality. This type of dialogue has been fully sanctioned by the Church’s longstanding tradition and frequently encouraged by the Roman Pontiff s.

Even intercreedal congresses and theological colloquies are approved by the Holy See, if the Catholic representatives are qualified and the meetings cleared through the local ordinary. Not only are such meetings permitted, but they are being held, and not only in Europe but in America. So that Marty’s Protestant “dream” and urgent plea for “an invitation from a Roman Catholic bishop for such sanctioned exchange” are quite superfluous. On an informal basis they are available, among others, to several thousand members of the Religious Education Association. And if formal colloquies are more rare, the reason is not, as Marty says, that “when discussion in seminars comes near to vital points, comes tantalizingly close to significance, it is frustrating to be told that the Catholics present are not there to discuss theology. They are under orders to discuss social issues or the free society, but must exclude basic religious issues.” The most charitable construction on this statement is to say that its source is misinformed.

If anything, the situation is the other way around. At a recent national meeting of mixed religious leaders in Chicago, the subject of marriage was dropped from the program, although desired by Catholic participants, because it was “too controversial.” In the same way, the resolution of the 1957 world congress of Lutherans (at Minneapolis) to establish liaison meetings with Catholic theologians proved a stalemate not for lack of Catholic interest and, still less, permission, but because the Lutheran contingent lost heart once the preliminary agenda got under way.

Catholic's Role in “Dialogue” is Clear

As much as we hear nowadays about the need for a Catholic-Protestant dialogue, seldom is anything said about the divergent purpose, which the two sides have in approaching these “conversations,” if they are truly theological. For a Catholic this purpose is clear from the nature of his faith and the mandate he has from Christ to share this faith with others. But how many Protestant theologians are willing to take such formal steps to hear the case for Catholicism, when (as all the evidence seems to indicate) they do not use the ordinary means to learn what Catholics have to say? The three latest issues of the Princeton quarterly Theology Today carry full-length reviews of thirty-seven publications in current religious thought, without a single Catholic title among them.

This oblivion of the “Roman position” is commonplace in Protestant circles. If the dialogue could break down this barrier of indifference, at least to stimulate curiosity about an alien creed, then, perhaps, from the Protestant point of view, “as we talk there is hope, if we listen there can be more understanding.”

[1] American Catholics: A Protestant-Jewish View (Sheed & Ward, New York, 1959).

Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Vol. 60 - #7, April 1960, pp. 621-627

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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