Today marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Mark Brumley explains why that description is imprecise but that is the conventional wisdom. And the conventional wisdom is causing my newsfeed to get quite punchy this morning.
And why not? As Protestants understand it, today’s anniversary marks a glorious turn in history, when a courageous monk rescued the true Gospel from a corrupt church, saving the faith and putting Western Civilization on the path toward the great advances of the last 500 years. Shouldn’t they be punchy about it?
Except none of the punchiness in my newsfeed is coming from Protestants. It’s coming entirely from Catholics, eager to set their separated brethren straight and to restore them to the fullness of the Faith.
I am entirely of one mind with my Catholic brethren on the theological issues. In fact, I also agree with the one punchy Protestant I read this week, at least in his underlying point.
Co-belligerence in the culture war should not mean theological indifferentism. Our differences do make a difference. Those differences ought to be engaged, not ignored.
We ought not to claim, for instance, (as one Catholic scholar did) that Vatican II was essentially “Luther’s Council.” Good grief. I can just imagine every member of the SSPX nodding in agreement.
Could any description of Vatican II do more to accomplish the exact opposite of the Christian unity that its author seeks than to call it “Luther’s Council”? Call it Newman’s Council if you like, or Escrivá’s Council. But don’t call it that.
Nevertheless, Catholics should use this anniversary to reflect more deeply than they have about our alliance with Protestants in the fight to restore respect for life, family and religious liberty in American society. For as some have said for nearly 25 years, our co-belligerency does have theological implications.
In a paradox that might have made Chesterton smile, Evangelical Protestants are the Catholic Church’s best friend in the United States precisely because they kept their Protestant faith. Mainline Protestants are little more than chaplains to the culture of death precisely because they lost theirs.
Despite our differences – and they are still many – Evangelical Protestants stand with Catholics in the fight for life and the family because they share with us a belief in the objective reality of Jesus Christ and the truth of Scripture.
As the authors of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) first said, that is a firm basis not just for co-belligerency, but for deepening what we have in common and for evangelizing an unbelieving world together.
I have seen this in my ten years as executive director of Family Institute of Connecticut (FIC), an ecumenical organization loosely associated with Focus on the Family. And I saw it even before then.
As I’ve written elsewhere, even though I am a lifelong Catholic, it was a Church of the Nazarene Sunday School that taught me as a child what I then knew about Our Lord.
In my late 20s, my wife and I participated in a regular discussion group organized by Regeneration Quarterly, a now-defunct magazine intended for “the rising generation of orthodox Christians,” Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox. The group, made up mostly of theologically conservative Yale graduate students, was always irenic, always gently probing our differences and the need for greater unity.
As the head of FIC, I have been covered by the goodwill and spiritual support of Evangelical Protestants more times than I can count. My Catholicity has been no barrier.
In fact, I am sometimes introduced that way. “And now, we shall hear a word from our Catholic brother,” said a Pentecostal minister, before inviting me to speak from his pulpit. The difference is recognized but so too are the commonalities. Were it otherwise, I would not have been invited to speak.
I have known the love of our Evangelical brethren in the weekly prayer calls they hold for FIC’s intentions. I have seen the special relationship Catholics and Evangelicals have in Connecticut, especially in the pleasant surprise of Evangelical figures on the national stage who comment on it when speaking here. I like to think FIC itself has something to do with it.
But these connections are happening all over the country. Why are they not reflected on the Catholic side of my newsfeed today?
I think the reason has less to do with Protestants in 1517 and more with Catholics in 2017. There is a great churning within the Church right now. An increasing number of the faithful are now in agreement with views that were once held by only the most traditionalist of Catholics.
It is more common now than it was just five years ago to hear Catholics say that the Church’s present challenges are the result not just of a mis-implementation of Vatican II, but of the Council itself; that Pope Benedict’s hope for a “Reform of the Reform” Mass has failed; that flaws in the American Founding itself are responsible for the war on faith and family; and that we would be better off in something like Medieval France.
These concerns are about as far removed from those that inspired the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement as it gets. And, granted, some of it is an understandable reaction to things happening in the Church and in society right now.
But it would be an error to allow our concern over those things to obscure the good work that has been accomplished by Evangelicals and Catholics together these past few decades—and not just in our culture war co-belligerency.
A world grown dark by unbelief needs more than ever to see the light of Christ being shined by the two Christian bodies best-positioned to make all things new.
Even as we engage our Protestant brethren in theological debate, my prayer on this anniversary is that we Catholics not lose sight of what we can and should accomplish together.
And, as Jesus prayed to His Father, that we “may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:21)