peterd82 asked a question about his Protestant-based concept of ecumenism on our old discussion forum and received an insightful answer from the Coming Home Network community. We’ve curated the topic for you here. Feel free to continue discussion in the comment box below.
“I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” – I’m seeking unity, but now I’m stuck!
I am new here and would like to get the thoughts of those who have a protestant background in how you tackled this issue. I’ll write a little about me, which provides context of the question, then I’ll outline the question. If you’re not interested in my bio bit, then skip down to the business end!
I’m about to complete a PhD in Theology. I am a practical theologian rather than a systematic one (I have researched the impact of Fatherlessness on the way that individuals relate to God as Father, and am currently looking at how theology shapes practice in faith based organisations that support families). In the course of my research I have had a bit to do with the local Diocese, including being allowed to speak in the Cathedral and interviewing the Bishop. Over this process I have had a growing unease about the disunity within Christendom. The most significant rift is obviously that of the Catholic church (in its various forms — those that are “in relationship with Peter (pope)”) and the multitude of protestant denominations. I know that I can’t personally heal that rift, but I hate the separation that I feel from my brothers and sisters within the Catholic church. I have resolved to do what I can personally to bridge that gap. That has looked like registering for an RCIA course and meeting regularly with a priest (who has a master’s in church law, which makes our conversations… robust! We both enjoy it to be honest.). In this process i have realized that a lot of the criticisms of the Catholic Church are unfounded. There are some criticisms that stick, but the same is true of my critique of the church that I am apart of too! We don’t have to agree on 100%, but we need to agree on the closed fist stuff and extend grace on the more peripheral issues. I am at the point that I am happy to stand up and confirm my faith, happy in the knowledge that I can have full fellowship with my brothers and sisters and that my children will get the benefit of Tradition (and tradition), rich liturgy, and the reverence and awe of God which are great strengths of the RC tradition. Finally, I feel some unity… but… Then the priest says, “And by the way, you will need to leave your church too.” Suddenly the unity that I have been pursuing is undone and I am left with fractured relationship with my brothers and sisters in Christ once again. “If you have sought the truth and that truth is that the one Holy Catholic Church is the RC church, then you have to submit to that truth” (or words to that effect). However, I have heard Pope Francis and also Catholic apologist Scott Hahn talking about the desire for unity with Protestant brethren. This approach isn’t unity. It’s a hostile take over. The same attitudes are probably prevalent within Protestantism I guess, but I am interested in my personal experience at the moment. One bridge at a time! It seems to me that the question is this:
“What is the Holy Catholic Church” (which Christ established).
In my experience, most of the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics relate to the way that various Scriptures are interpreted (and possibly the weight of Tradition in the interpretive process). I think that I have worked out a way to present this topic using simple logic and some commonly held positions of faith.
- Those who are in heaven already (have died) are part of the Church with 100% certainty. They are members of Christ’s body / his bride. (This isn’t the Invisible Church heresy… hang with me).
- There are members of the RC Church in heaven.
- There are people who were members of the RC Church who are NOT in heaven.
- There are Protestants (and probably those with no formal faith at all) who are in heaven.
- There are Protestants who are not in heaven.
- The Church is on earth, now, alive and real. (This is important because it distinguishes this line of reasoning from the invisible church heresy. The Church isn’t an invisible concept. It is real and is made up of both living people and the saints). Therefore…. (check that you agree with the premises above, because here comes the inference:)
- The “one holy Catholic Church” is not the RC Church or any particular Protestant “church”. It can’t be, because otherwise those who were not a part of it wouldn’t be in heaven, which is the ultimate evidence of belonging to Christ’s church.
Implications for me:
If this logic is correct, and I have heard the Pope and others correctly, then this should mean that I can have full fellowship with my Catholic brothers and sisters, but not be forced to leave my Protestant family (where I have made oaths before God to serve and pastor). Also, by merit of the fact that God is God, He must have allowed the Protestant Reformation. Why? I can’t believe that He would allow his Body to remain fractured forever. From my perspective, we have things to learn from each other, but not as “the other”, but as brothers and sisters.
If this stands, then I will continue to fellowship within my local RC Church (at a Saturday evening mass, which has become my families custom), and I will continue to be affirmed as their brother in Christ (as the priest intimates), and I will continue to be denied the right to be obedient to Christ’s instruction to partake in the Lord’s Supper each time we meet.
Where are the holes in this logic? I feel like I have made so much progress only to be side-swiped at the point I thought I was getting somewhere.
David W. Emery:
I can see that you have worked on this question in some depth, including speaking on the subject with a Catholic priest. Having viewed this question of Christian unity from both sides (I was raised Methodist, now Catholic) and, over the years, also researched and discussed the subject with a number of other Christians, I am aware that there are numerous issues concerning the Catholic Church that are not properly understood from the Protestant point of view. To help you see that there are major misunderstandings that will have to be bridged, I will need to list a few of them here.
1) The primary misunderstanding is that a Protestant cannot approach Christian unity with Catholics solely from a Protestant viewpoint. The Catholic viewpoint must also be considered.
In what you have outlined here, I see no effective comprehension of the Catholic viewpoint toward Christian unity. Since you clearly have manifested goodwill, I must assume that this failure is due to ignorance. You will have to study the Catholic Church — and the Catholic attitude and approach to unity — much more deeply and in detail in order to have a basis for Catholic–Protestant unity. To begin your research, I can suggest the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the document Unitatis Redintegratio (Link).
As you express it, one of the major difficulties you face is this: “I feel some unity… but… Then the priest says ‘and by the way, you will need to leave your church too.’ Suddenly the unity that I have been pursuing is undone and I am left with fractured relationship with my brothers and sisters in Christ once again. ‘if you have sought the truth and that truth is that the one Holy Catholic Church is the RC Church, then you have to submit to that truth’ (or words to that effect).”
One thing that you are missing here is that, from your own Protestant viewpoint, Catholics seeking unity will have to leave their Church and become Protestant. The blade cuts both ways. I realize that you also state, “The ‘one holy Catholic Church’ is not the RC Church or any particular Protestant ‘church’.” But that is precisely what the Catholic will contest: “The ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ (to quote the fourth century Nicene Creed) is, in fact, the Catholic Church, which has existed from the beginning of Christianity and still exists, essentially unchanged, today.”
The Christian body that you list in your profile was founded in the 19th century by Samuel Heinrich Froehlich, a native of Switzerland, under the name of Evangelical Baptist Church. The denomination’s name was changed in 1917 to Apostolic Christian Church. A Catholic would immediately have to question the accuracy of the nomenclature “Apostolic,” considering that the original and true Apostles lived in the first century, not 18 centuries later. Then there is the issue of the existence of five different bodies which split from the original 19th century denomination, the latest split occurring in 2012 between the Apostolic Christian Church of America and the Apostolic Christian Faith Church. If that denomination cannot maintain unity within itself, how can it establish unity with other bodies as diverse as the Catholic Church?
Yes, you seek to establish a new “ecumenical” body, based on your understanding of the Communion of Saints. But this is, in effect, just another church split on earth, throwing away the existing bodies to found a new one. It is not establishing unity.
2) Under your system, what do you do with the Catholic sacramental system? Its hierarchical organization? Its body of doctrine? Do you expect the 2,000 year old Catholic Church to abandon these doctrinal points, dating back to the beginning of Christianity, in order to work out a compromise with your vision of a Protestant-style ecumenical body?
3) Have you considered that the Catholic viewpoint on the Communion of Saints does not coincide what you have laid out in your ecumenical vision? Because a Catholic will tell you that those outside the institutional Catholic Church are not in full communion; they are on the fringes — a twig receiving a bare minimum of sap (grace) from the roots and main trunk (compare John 15:1–7). This makes their salvation much more difficult. Possible, yes, but not on equal terms with the rest of the tree. Such a union is fragile at best.
At this point, you should be able to see why the priest you spoke with told you that you would have to leave your Protestant body in order to accomplish, according to your vision, any kind of ecumenical body. For you to be truly united to the Catholic Church and yet remain in your current separated Protestant affiliation is simply impossible. It would be self-contradiction.
OK, then, I have provided you with a short and non-exhaustive list of difficulties. Yes, we can call each others brothers in Christ. But so long as we are affiliated with bodies which are not wholly united with each other, we will remain disjointed. One of those bodies (even if it is a “denomination” consisting of a single individual) will have to come into full communion with the other in order for true unity to happen.