Ecumenically minded folks tend to talk a lot about common ground. I, on the other hand, though no less intent on effecting ecclesial unity and reconciliation, tend to focus mostly on what still divides us. That is because I believe that we cannot be truly one simply by plastering over our differences or sweeping them under the rug. That is false ecumenicism, in my view. Of course recognizing and declaring our common ground has been an important necessary step in even getting us to the ecumenical dialogue table during the past century. But a genuine ecumenical spirit is one that not only affirms our common ground both in truth and charity, but at the same time tenaciously and in tandem seeks out the most fundamental root causes and reasons for our disagreements and divisions.
It is easy to talk 'above' the root causes. For example, if you listen to Douglas Kelly's talk (now requires sign-in, which is free), notice how many times he quotes John Calvin. But the relevant meta-level questions behind the practice of quoting Calvin are these: What authority has Calvin? Who sent him, commissioned him, ordained him, or otherwise authorized him to speak on behalf of the Church? Or, why should we believe and receive the teaching of someone whom the Church has not authorized to teach or preach? (To understand better the Catholic paradigm about those questions, see St. Francis de Sales' The Catholic Controversy.) Unless and until we recognize and answer these meta-level questions, ecumenical dialogue will be an exercise in talking past each other. Genuine ecumenical dialogue cannot be only a presentation of our own particular tradition; it must zero-in on the meta-level questions, and seek out ways to reach agreement about the answers to those questions.
Last year I asked a Protestant the following question: "If Protestantism were a schism from the Catholic Church, and not the continuation of the Church, how would we know?" He replied, "Protestantism would be teaching a different gospel than the one it teaches." The problem with that reply is that any heretic from any heresy throughout history could have said the same thing about his own heretical sect. In short, that reply is obviously question-begging. In order to come to an agreement about "What is the true Church?", we have to find a non-question-begging way of distinguishing the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" from heresies and schisms. And that means that we have to look at the metal-level differences between the various paradigms.
So what are the meta-level differences that divide Protestants and Catholics? When we examine the differences between the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of the marks of the Church, as I did in Part 1, we find a methodological difference between Catholics and Protestants in the respective ways in which they seek out the natures of the marks of the Church. Protestants approach questions of theology and ecclesiology as though Scripture alone is the only authoritative determination of orthodoxy and heresy. Catholics, on the other hand, approach such questions under the inseparable authorities of Scripture, Tradition and the living Magisterium.
The "Scripture alone" way of thinking could also be characterized as "No living Magisterium". It is manifested in its essence at the birth of Protestantism, in Martin Luther's statement at the Diet of Worms:
"Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason -- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the Word of God."
Luther had made his conscience ultimately subject to his own interpretation of Scripture, not ultimately subject to the Church's decisions. This "No living Magisterium" way of approaching Scripture entails a practice wherein each person believes and does what is right in his own eyes, according to his own interpretation of Scripture. And the result is a manifold plurality of beliefs and practices.
Protestants and Catholics cannot ultimately resolve their disagreements by simply appealing to Scripture as if there is no Tradition and Magisterium, or by appealing to the Catholic Tradition and Magisterium. That would beg the question either way. Their disagreements all seem to depend on this more fundamental difference of Protestants not having, and Catholics having, Catholic Tradition and a living Magisterium. So that should be the point of focus for ecumenical dialogue. But this is tricky, because both sides can be tempted at this point to beg the question by seeking to resolve the difference according to their own paradigm: Catholics by appealing to Scripture as interpreted and understood within the Tradition and under the living Magisterium, and Protestants by appealing to Scripture apart from that Tradition and Magisterium.
Let me suggest that we step back and look at the origin of both positions from both paradigms. How was it, that the Catholic Church came to believe in, and Protestants came to deny, the authority of Tradition and a living Magisterium? According to the Catholic Church, the Gospel was handed on in two ways by the Apostles: orally, and in writing. (CCC 76, 78) In the writings of the early Church fathers we (from the viewpoint of the third millennium) find witness to this Tradition. Likewise, according to the Catholic Church, the living Magisterium has been with the Church since the day of Pentecost, first in the Apostles themselves, and then subsequently in the bishops whom they appointed. (CCC 77) So according to the Catholic Church, the Tradition and the living Magisterium have their origin in the Apostles.
How then did Protestants come to deny the authority of Tradition and a living Magisterium? That is a more complicated story, but the short of it is that Luther and other early Reformers saw certain abuses and corruption (e.g. the selling of indulgences) in the Church, and appeared to discover a different gospel in the New Testament Scriptures than the one taught by the Catholic Church. This led them to call into question both the Tradition and the living Magisterium, and call for a return to Scripture as the norm for faith and practice. From the Protestant point of view, the Catholic Church had fallen into apostasy, and the Protestants were the true Christians, the continuing Church, the ones carrying on the Apostles' doctrine. The Protestant justification for departing in various respects from the doctrines, practices, and communion of the Catholic Church of the early 16th century was that Protestantism was recovering things that had been lost in the first century, and abandoning things that had been unjustifiably added since the first century. From the Catholic point of view, the [early] Protestants were both heretics and schismatics, having departed from the Catholic Church and from the apostolic doctrine which she had guarded and preserved for one and half millennia.
How do we determine whether (1) the Catholic Church was apostate and the Protestants were the true Christians carrying on the Apostolic doctrine, or (2) the Catholic Church was not apostate and the Protestants were heretics and schismatics? How do we even begin to answer that question? One possible way to answer it is by searching the Scriptures. But, as I have pointed out above, this approach simply begs the question against Catholics, just as appealing to Pope Leo X's papal bull excommunicating Luther would beg the question against Protestants. It implicitly assumes the truth of the Protestant paradigm, that there is no Magisterium under which Scripture should be interpreted.
Another way of looking at this disagreement is to examine together the history of the Church from its infancy to the 16th century, and see if that helps us determine whether the Protestants were the continuation of the Catholic Church or a schism from the Catholic Church. Obviously such an historical survey is beyond the scope of a blog post! But perhaps we can note a few things. There is no real dispute, I think, concerning whether the Apostles appointed bishops, and whether these bishops appointed successors, etc., and whether this was essential to the Nicene understanding of apostolicity. Nor is there any real dispute, in my opinion, concerning whether the Apostles spoke and practiced no more than what was written in the New Testament. So there is no real dispute, in my view, about the *origin* of the Magisterium and Tradition. The dispute between Protestants and Catholics had to do with the manner in which these changed over the next 1500 years. The Catholic Church viewed itself as preserving the apostolic deposit, developing it, and not corrupting it. The Protestants viewed that 'development' more suspiciously as, in various respects, a corruption of and departure from the original Apostolic deposit. This is how Protestants justified proposing novelties such as sola scriptura and sola fide, as a way of countering what they saw as unjustified additions to and corruptions of the gospel. (To see that these two Protestant principles were novel, see Dave Armstrong's excellent work here and here. He quotes Protestant theologian Alister McGrath as pointing out that sola fide was unknown from the time of St. Paul to the Reformation.)
Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is indefectible; she can neither perish from the world nor depart from "her teaching, her constitution and her liturgy". (Ott, p. 296) See, for example, what St. Irenaeus says at the end of the second century about the Church's indefectibility here. Likewise, St. Augustine says, "The Church will totter when her foundation totters. But how shall Christ totter? ... as long as Christ does not totter, neither shall the Church totter in eternity." (Enarr. in Ps. 103, 2, 5) Elsewhere, writing about Psalm 48:9 (which is Psalm 48:8 in Protestant Bibles) St. Augustine says:
Let not heretics insult, divided into parties, let them not exalt themselves who say, "Lo, here is Christ, or lo, there." (Matt 24:23) Whoso says, "Lo, here is Christ, or lo, there," invites to parties. Unity God promised. The kings are gathered together in one, not dissipated through schisms. But haply that city which has held the world, shall sometime be overthrown? Far be the thought! "God has founded it forever." If then God has founded it forever, why fearest thou lest the firmament should fall?"
And in his Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed (1:6), St. Augustine writes:
The same is the holy Church, the one Church, the true Church, the catholic Church, fighting against all heresies: fight, it can; be fought down, it cannot. As for heresies, they all went out of it, like unprofitable branches pruned from the vine: but itself abides in its root, in its Vine, in its charity.
In contrast to the Catholic notion of indefectibility, Protestants affirm ecclesial indefectibility by applying it to an "invisible Church" or some hidden remnant perduring invisibly through the middle ages of the Church. But the notion of an "invisible Church" is itself a 16th century novelty, as Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof points out. Either way, there seems to be no practical or visible difference between an "invisible Church" being indefectible and the [visible] Church being defectible.
Ultimately then, it seems to me, the fundamental underlying difference between Protestants and Catholics is not doctrinal or even methodological; the doctrinal and methological differences are results of a more fundamental difference. The fundamental difference, I think, is dispositional. We might more properly call it an attitude or stance of the will toward Christ's relation to His Church. Catholics trust that Christ is providentially guiding and protecting His Church through all time, until He returns, even when we see sinfulness and error in her leaders. In that trusting, open stance, the development of the Church, particularly with respect to doctrine and practice, is viewed as an organic and Spirit-guided blossoming of the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church by Christ through the Apostles. The does not mean that the Church never needs reforming. But under this stance or disposition, reforming the Church never involves a rejection of what has been laid down as dogma, and never involves leaving the Church or forming a schism.
The opposing attitude or disposition is one of suspicion and distrust; I have called it "ecclesial deism". It can be seen in the Montanists, the Novatians, the Donatists, Joachim of Fiore, the Cathars, the Reformers, the Jansenists, and the Mormons. Conceiving of the Church in a gnostic, de-materialized way as something invisible is, I think, a result of an underlying ecclesial deism. Such a person adopts a gnostic de-materialized notion of the Church in opposition to what the Church believes and teaches about herself, because of some kind of ecclesial deism that is at least implicitly held.
Is there any relation between faith in Christ, and believing the Church? Traditionally, these were seen as inseparable. In the faith itself, spelled out in the Creed, is the line: "Credo ... et unam, sanctum, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam". "I believe ... one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". We believe "in God the Father", and "in Jesus Christ His only Son", and "in the Holy Spirit". But we don't merely believe in the Church -- we believe the Church. Clearly it does not make sense to believe an invisible Church. St. Augustine treated recognition and acceptance of the authority of the Church as the ground on which to believe the Gospel. Hence he could say:
"For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."
Trusting Christ was inseparably bound up with trusting the Church, for one had to trust that Christ was guiding and protecting His Church and operating through her, in order to know anything about Christ through the testimony of the Church. (See my post "Church and Jesus are Inseparable".)
When we take up a hermeneutic of suspicion toward the Church, there is virtually no possibility of growing in our faith in Christ. We become cynical and disengaged. We are left with no option but trying to find and grow closer to Jesus on long walks in the forest or in the mountains or under the stars. We are reduced to the individualist/gnostic that we know can't be right, and even despise. (If it sounds like I've been there, that's because I have.)
If the Church cannot be trusted, then of what use is a verse like the following:
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)
If the Church cannot be trusted then we would not be able to distinguish those who "went out" from those who "remained with us". (The corollary of this verse is that those who return to us were really "of us", in some sense.) Douglas Kelly says that Calvin makes it clear that he and the other Reformers "didn't purposely leave the organized Church in schismatic fashion, but they felt they had been forced out." (That is at 1:02:00 in the audio recording of his talk.) I have heard that same kind of claim many times, i.e. that the Reformers did not intend to form a schism or start a new Church, but were forced out by the Catholic Church. What is relevant is not the words 'intend' or 'force', but rather the word 'out'. I have never heard or read any Catholic say that Catholics were forced out of the Church by Protestants excommunicating them. Protestants justify their claim that they (and not the Catholics) are the continuation of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" by treating the Church as essentially invisible.
When I was a Protestant, I thought that Protestants had only been forced out of a mere institution (an institution made only by mere men), not the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church", which in my mind was essentially invisible. But couldn't any heretical sect of the previous 1500 years have claimed the same thing about itself? How does redefining the Church as essentially invisible not entirely nullify the penalty of excommunication? (Matt 18:17-18) These are challenging and even painful questions, I understand, but I see no other way of reconciling Protestants and the Catholic Church than by facing head-on what exactly happened in this 16th century separation. If we do not have a principled distinction between the sort of division that occurred between Protestants and the Catholic Church, and the sort of division that occurred between all the heresies and schisms of the first 1500 years and the Catholic Church, then how can we non-arbitrarily affirm the former and reject the latter? They too were following Scripture, according to their own interpretations (see here and here).
Let us continue to focus on the *fundamental* points of disagreement, the ones that stand under and behind all the others, the ones that ultimately distinguish the Protestant and Catholic paradigms.
Lord Jesus, we pray for the reunion of all Christians in full visible unity, that the world may know that the Father sent You and loves us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.