I am really deeply troubled.
I can’t entirely put my finger on why, but this is the same burden that has been dogging me all weekend.
It seems very wrong, very contrary to the will of God, that even in the decadence of modern secular society — a decadence that threatens even the Church — the Church of Christ remains deeply divided against itself. We are fighting among ourselves when we should be fighting for Christ.
This was the sentiment behind the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document drafted by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard Neuhaus in 1994. A number of prominent leaders in both evangelical churches and the Catholic Church agreed to it and signed it. More troubling, though, is the not insignificant number of leaders on both sides who attacked the document and refused to have anything to do with it.
500 years after the Reformation, there are still a large number of evangelicals who will offer no quarter to a Catholic, who will not even sit down at the table with one lest there be any appearance of compromise. They would separate themselves from all fellowship with Catholics, even deny them a place in the kingdom of God. These are not just fringe elements; these include major leaders and theologians such as R. C. Sproul. People like James White write whole books attacking Catholicism and denying that Catholics are Christian. I have run into quite a few of these people in just my short time in the blogosphere. Even my own best friends would rather fight me when it comes to discussing doctrine than seek common ground. And every time it happens I feel a burden of rejection and frustration and despair.
And I don’t understand it. There is a wide diversity of doctrine in Protestantism — yet not the same kind of unfathomable chasm. Calvinists and Arminians disagree sharply, but are willing to have conversations with each other. Baptists and Methodists can agree to disagree about infant baptism versus believer’s baptism. These are issues that go just as deeply into soteriology, the theology of salvation, as the divide between Catholics and Protestants, and yet many Protestants wouldn’t even consider a similar truce with a Catholic.
James White argues that Catholics and Protestants disagree fundamentally about what the Gospel even is. Having been both a Protestant and a Catholic, that argument is incomprehensible to me. Of course it’s the same Gospel. How can anyone deny that? I follow the same Christ I’ve followed all my life. I hope in the same salvation, the same forgiveness of sins, the same resurrection. My Protestant Baptism was acceptable to the Catholic Church; why can’t my Catholic justification be valid in the eyes of a Protestant?
Catholics and Protestants have deep disagreements about doctrine. I don’t deny that, and I don’t pretend it doesn’t matter. If we believe what we teach, then it necessarily means believing that the other side of the argument is wrong. But look at it this way: Regardless of which side is right, the other is not excluded from salvation. If it is true, as Catholics believe, that we are justified by the outpouring of God’s grace through faith, and sanctified over the course of our lives as we walk in that grace, then certainly many Protestants, who faithfully believe in Christ and from that faith follow Him and walk with Him, will be saved. Or if it is true, as Protestants believe, that we are justified by faith alone in Christ through His grace, then certainly many Catholics who have a genuine faith in Christ will be saved. The only way to exclude Catholics from salvation, as some Protestants are wont to do, is to believe that salvation is by faith in the five solas alone — that by confessing the Reformation we are saved.
I have no interest in attacking the Protestant faith. I will defend the Catholic faith, but it is deeply unpleasant to me to be forced to return polemic for polemic, as I’ve had to do in White’s case. I am glad to help any pilgrim who wishes to cross the Tiber, but even more deeply than that, I want to build a bridge, on which both sides might meet and resolve some of these rancorous disputes. I long for Christendom to be at peace.