Several years ago, I received a strange envelope from a penitentiary in the east. Enclosed was a long handwritten letter from a man identifying himself as a former priest who was now serving time in prison for an undisclosed crime. He wrote to me in response to a religious article of mine, which he had come across. One could hardly miss his deep grief, as reflected in the furious cursive of his pen. His writing betrayed a longing to be accepted again, and to regain that lost connection to the Church. This former priest viewed himself as an outcast from the Church and the community due to his acts of grave sin. After all, sin, by its nature, separates not only man from God (and man from the Church), but also man from man.
The letter brought home the image of the Christian body as a single family, united in its belief in Christ, and yet gravely separated. This separation originated in the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Their choices made sin a reality in the world. Sin, by its very nature, pushes us towards disunity. In Mary, we clearly see Eve’s opposite. Where Eve’s disobedience opened the world to sin, Mary’s obedience and cooperation paved the way to its redemption. Perhaps we should see the history of the Church in the simpler terms of a family in crisis? One of the early examples of the broken unity within this family concerns the actions of Martin Luther. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes in the section entitled “Wounds to Unity”, Martin Luther raised many important concerns that deserved substantive dialogue—from corruption in the sale of indulgences, to the allegations of misuse of the church’s mounting wealth.
Many saints of the past have also spent their lives struggling to change attitudes or practices within the Church they loved. Several centuries earlier, Saint Francis worked tirelessly for the poor, and Saint Thomas Aquinas labored to remind us that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. The difference between the endeavors of the saints and those of Martin Luther hinges, in part, on the nature of pride, and the sin of separation. The saints paid as little attention as possible to self, or “brother ass”, as Saint Francis called his own body in jest. Instead, the saints always worked to place the good of others ahead of themselves, and to promote unity at every turn. Martin Luther, on the other hand, concluded that starting anew was better than laboring to correct the problems present within the Catholic Church. When pride creeps into our minds, it transforms otherwise laudable goals into a dishonorable agenda, or even a personal crusade. Those demanding reform within the church lost touch with the vital place unity holds within the Christian family, and failed to see unity itself as a reflection of God’s loving plan. Martin Luther moved ahead against the Catholic Church, bringing profound separation to bear against the faithful. Turning his back on biblical passages calling us to unity, such as 1 Corinthians 3:1-23 and John 17:11, he pressed harder and harder until the very fabric of the Christian family tore. It continues to tear today.
While it is true, in a sense, that the sin of pride continues to echo afresh with each new denomination, it is also important to keep things in their perspective. It was that initial split from the Catholic Church which Catholics find particularly egregious—after all, it was separation from the one true Church. The new denominations springing up constantly are simply the logical consequence of churches struggling for moral direction. We can’t necessarily fault each Protestant denomination for breaking with its parent church. In fact, we might find their motivations to be nearly above reproach. Take, for instance, the Free Methodist Church. This denomination broke from the Methodist Church over such issues as slavery and the sale and renting of pews. The founders wanted a place that welcomed everyone—poor or rich, slave or free.
When asked to comment on the nature of Christian unity, a Free Methodist pastor from north Seattle, Mark Nordvedt, shared the following. “Jesus called for unity but not at the expense of biblical truth and biblical morality. If one compromises on the authority of the Scriptures, the Bible, you are lost on a sea of subjectivity and relativism and lose any basis of belief or action upon which to be united.” Whether he realizes it, or not, this pastor’s simple observation highlights our similarities more than it exposes our differences. Despite the doctrinal challenges that keep us apart, the desire to fervently follow Scriptures is shared by Catholics and Protestants alike. If more Catholics could simply articulate the beauty and fullness of our faith and traditions, and demonstrate God’s love within their own lives, our churches would be overflowing at each Mass. If we are like members of a broken family, then perhaps what is needed is the calm love of an older brother or sister to convey what the Catholic Church is all about. Our separated brethren already have that passion for Jesus, and He certainly wants them to come into the Catholic Church, to learn to know Him better.
It should come as no surprise that the broken family of Christ often carries over to affect the family life found within many of our homes, sin begetting sin. The separation of family members on the grounds of religious intolerance mirrors the broken unity of the Christian faithful worldwide. If the Christian church is seen as the “Body of Christ” as explained in verses such as 1 Corinthians 12:27 and Ephesians 1:22-23, then how can this separation be the better choice? As if there were any doubt as to the answer, we have the beautiful message of John 17:22-23. 22 The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. The very triune nature of God points to the fundamental unity of the Trinity. We simply need to offer ourselves humbly before Christ in an effort to discern what we can contribute towards the reconciliation of our spiritual family.
Though mankind today may view itself as the perfected result of thousands of years of evolution, the sobering reality is that it has been falling towards moral entropy since the Fall of Man. This descent is a frightening thing to witness. Just as the sin of Adam, separated man from God and man from man, the sin of separation, as well as pride, has made the chasm between God and man just that much wider and deeper. Like the profound truth reflected in Michelangelo’s famous painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God continues to stretch out His arm across the gulf to reach man below. Sadly, man too often ignores the hand of his savior. Even non-Catholic writers seem to recognize that something is missing. C.S Lewis wrote the following on November 10, 1952, as it appears in Letters to an American Lady: "Though you have taken a way which is not for me I nevertheless can congratulate you -- I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you, but . . . I believe we are very near to one another . . . In the present divided state of Christendom, those who are at the heart of each division are all closer to one another than those who are at the fringes . . . Let us by all means pray for one another: it is perhaps the only form of "work for reunion" which never does anything but good. God bless you". © William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
A good place to begin in the dismantling of the fences between Catholics and Protestants might be avoidance of terms that polarize rather than unite—especially when the terms themselves offer little in the way of illumination. Generalizations and labels are not the way to build dialogue. The key to communication is to build upon our commonalties and not accentuate our differences. If Catholics are properly catechized, they should have no problem explaining how our traditions have grown closer over issues like the profound gift of sanctifying grace. They might also mention how Catholics often work together with Protestants to battle such cultural tragedies as abortion and pornography. It’s also worth noting that some of the present divisive issues were of little or no concern to Martin Luther—for example, infant baptism or Mary’s place of honor within the Catholic Church.
One illustrative example of an area of frequent confusion between Catholics and Protestants might be the debate concerning faith (or grace) and works. The Protestant is likely to confuse the Catholic position (perhaps on account of never having heard it clearly articulated) and incorrectly assert that the Catholic believes in earning his way to heaven through works. While the Catholic believes no such thing, the Protestant may point to traditions and rituals which, when not understood in their historical and religious context, may confuse non-Catholics. The reason I selected this particular example, however, is because the truth is so easily reached by a careful reading of Scripture, as well as an application of both common sense and logic.
As Saint James makes abundantly clear in his second chapter, works are a reflection of the grace within. Many subscribe to a false and misleading dichotomy regarding faith and works; they’re as inseparable as the flame is from the candle. If faith doesn’t have an effect upon works, it’s not a real or substantive faith. Paragraph 2001 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it in the following way, The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what He has begun, since he who completes His work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it: Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for His mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.
In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, there’s an enlightening account of Christ’s miraculous curing of an epileptic boy after His disciples were unable to do so. When privately questioned later, Christ explains to his disciples that their inability to cure the child was because of the need for serious prayer. It’s interesting to note that the King James version refers to “prayer and fasting.” This is an example of our cooperation with God requiring a commitment of time and energy (works) before the desired result can be achieved through Christ. It doesn’t mean, of course, that the prayer and/or fasting brings about the cause of the change; God remains the mover, but we should understand the critical part that our actions play within our own spiritual and prayer life. Saint Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the Colossians (1:24-27). Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
As a recent convert from the Evangelical tradition, I urge Catholics to take a fresh look at both evangelization and the studying of their own faith to help them bring Protestants back home. Whether it is explaining the simple differences in vocabulary, which often raise barriers to effective communication, or simply taking the time to thoughtfully discuss our positions, this will accomplish much for unity. It was Pope John Paul II’s tireless ecumenical work that first caught our attention years ago. Slowly, it dawned on my Protestant family that the Pope was indeed right. In the same loving spirit so evident in this great Pope’s book entitled Crossing the Threshold of Hope, we must do everything in our power to encourage our separated brethren to return home, and we should demonstrate that there is less separating us today than they may guess. We need to bring the message to them and pray for Christ to work upon their hearts. In the name of Christ, let us do everything we can to facilitate a reunion of our broken family at Christ’s table. Whether Protestant or Catholic, we all follow the same Good Shepherd, and it’s time this separated family came back to the house of their fathers.