I realized what it is I’ve been trying to do, through my constant, ecumenical assertions that “all who call on Christ’s name are Christians.” I truly believe — I have to believe — that Jesus saves those on both sides of this divide, if they faithfully follow Him and serve Him. I do not believe that He would abandon those who have fallen away from the Church and its sacraments, just as He didn’t abandon the Samaritans (John 4). I have no doubt whatsoever that my grandparents are among the saints, along with many other dearly beloved kin and ancestors. And I don’t want to abandon my heritage, the milieu I’ve been steeped in and that has shaped me. My homeland, my people, are so closely and so inextricably tied to Protestantism — and I don’t want to let go of that. I’ve been trying to bridge the gap between the two, between Catholicism and Protestantism; that by denying any difference between the two, by affirming their sameness, I can somehow remain both.
And I’m not sure I can do it. This recent, hostile conflict has caused me to reconsider some things. I think I am always going to maintain an ecumenical perspective and hope — a belief that in His infinite mercy, Christ saves all who call on His name, even those sheep who have wandered away with misguided shepherds — but I cannot insist that all churches are exactly the same. The faults in my own logic became glaringly clear as I wrote that last entry, and more and more so the more times I read it. My argument wore the thinnest, I think, in my suggestion that Protestant ministers, just by their virtue of having read the Bible, are just as much the successors of the Apostles as the Catholic bishops, whom the Apostles willfully and thoughtfully appointed.
Pope Benedict XVI has commented that Protestant churches are “not true churches” — a widely-quoted statement that deeply bothered me, and in fact turned me off from Catholicism for several years. But I hadn’t actually (and I guess, still haven’t, since this is only a news brief) read the full context of the statement until tonight:
Noting that churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church “suffer from defects,” the doctrinal congregation acknowledged that “elements of sanctification and truth” may be present in them.
“It follows that these separated churches and communities … are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation,” the congregation said. “In fact, the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church.”
Yet, Christian communities “born out of the Reformation” do not share that union as they “do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of orders,” the Vatican congregation said.
“These ecclesial communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called churches in the proper sense,” it said.
I agree with these comments, and find them much more caring than I believed them to have been — though I think the “not proper churches” phrase was a bit careless and probably ill-advised. (The moral of the story: read more than Wikipedia when you’re examining something of such import.)
It’s history, as much as anything, that has brought me to this point. And even if my American ancestors and the people I study were by and large Protestants, in rejecting that faith for myself, I in no way want to reject theirs, or reject them. There are, without a doubt, many strands and elements of Protestant Christianity, in fact some that I’ve grown up with, that I do not hesitate to distance and dissociate myself from. I can’t, and don’t want to, hold on to everything.
It’s the core message of the Gospel, the love of God, that is universal; it’s the divine mercy of God that saves, not anything that any of us do by our own power. Even if I let go of Protestantism, I will maintain that Protestants are Christians and that many are held by God’s saving grace. I will continue to strive to bridge the gap: not by being on both sides of it, but by teaching my Protestant brethren about the Catholic faith, dispelling their misconceptions, and encouraging acceptance and reconciliation in whatever way I can.