In this Christmas season, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians celebrate the incarnation or coming to earth of God as a human baby, born like all of us, more humbly and marginal than many of us. Let’s pause the story of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Revival to review the similarities between Protestants and Catholics, even in ideas hotly disputed in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Up to this point in our review of the 16th century, we have seen that more happened within this one century to change the circumstances of the Christian faith than in the preceding thousand years. There were a series of Protestant breaks in church allegiance in Germany, Switzerland, England and the Low Countries, along with a Catholic Revival that occurred mostly in Spain and the new Spanish colonies.
What we haven’t seen is how new theological positions were taken that echo to this day, nor how they affected practice. Even more important, looking only at how the breaks came about tells us little about the semantic and social misunderstandings that undergirded the religious disputes.
Justification: Faith versus Works
Few Catholic-Protestant quarrels better demonstrate how the battle royal between the two confessional camps was sparked by differences that weren’t all that significant after all than the split over whether we are saved by faith or works.
Stereotypically and a little simplistically, Catholics are thought to believe that Christians earn an eternal afterlife in heaven by doing good deeds, receiving the sacraments and abiding by Church law. Conversely, Protestants are popularly seen as proclaiming that heaven is given freely and unconditionally to anyone who assents to faith in Christ, regardless of deeds, rites or Church law.
Actually, there is more to it.
The Gospels introduce the idea of an afterlife as a matter of faith, an idea that was and is ambiguous in Judaism. Jesus speaks of punishment and eternal reward. The path to reward (or salvation) in the Gospels involves a turning toward belief—being born again (John 3:1-21). But conversion also means a new way of life (Matthew 25:31-46) that involves feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked and visiting those who are sick and in prison. Modern Protestants emphasize being born again, modern Catholics loving charity: faith versus works. Neither is necessarily more faithful or charitable than the other; what they profess, however, is different.
However, Catholicism does emphasize faith and Protestantism does demand good behavior.
Fully orthodox Catholic teaching and theological thought never denied that salvation is the work of God alone. God created us and saw us wander from the original creature-creator relationship. God then became a man and suffered on the cross in an effort to restore that bond. Faith is a gift that allows us to join in God’s creative and loving work; without it, we cannot be saved. Preparing for and accepting justification by personal consent is an effect of grace, not the product of exclusively human effort.
That’s the essence of Catholic teaching, and it doesn’t veer that far from at least the Lutheran understanding. And since Luther’s Sola Fide (only faith) is the foundational stone of Protestantism, it’s not so different from broad Protestant belief.
The problem arises not at the moment people become Christians, but after. Even the most sincere continue to sin after conversion, whether conversion is the moment of “accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” as some Protestants describe it, or at baptism, as Catholics do. Protestants and Catholics agree on this.
In the Protestant view, the enslaving power of sin is broken by the merit of Christ. Christians may commit acts that are sinful, or contrary to divine will and ordinance, but may return daily to conversion. Thus, new sin no longer brings damnation and eternal death.
Catholic teaching holds that when we voluntarily separate ourselves from God, by giving in to our natural tendency to sin, it is not enough to go back to following the commandments. Christians must receive pardon and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) “through the word of forgiveness imparted to them in virtue of God’s reconciling work in Christ.”
However, when Catholic teachers and theologians are pushed to the wall with various examples, it always comes down to individual conscience and God. If you are in the wilds of Mongolia far from any opportunity to go to Confession, can you be pardoned? Of course you can; God is not limited by Church rules. It may not have the reassurance of the spoken words of absolution, but God forgives.
These are subtle and highly intellectual points about the moral state of humanity and the genuine demands of faith in Jesus Christ on sincere believers. Protestants do not believe that you can be “saved” by conversion and then live an orgiastic life; in fact, the usual Protestant response is to question whether there was a sincere conversion in the first place. Similarly, Catholics do not believe that, absent confession in a booth, all Protestants will go to hell.
In modern times the differences have been tackled by people more learned than I, in the official Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification approved by The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church in 1999. It is available from the Vatican or from The Lutheran World Federation. The quote three paragraphs above, about the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is from this document, paragraph 30.
To my mind, the most inspiring treatment of this matter, which is recommended for all Christians, is The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous and courageous Lutheran pastor killed by the Nazis. It would make a good gift for anyone during this Christmas season.