“Catholic Spirit” deals with the “peculiar love which we owe to those that love God.” Wesley claims that this “peculiar love” is due even to those who differ in “opinion or modes of worship.” Christians are not to concern themselves, he claims, with the doctrinal opinions or worship preferences of others, who also are following their consciences on how best to serve God. Christians should neither begrudge those who believe and practice differently than them nor seek to impose on them. In this view of Christian love, “Catholic Spirit” makes largely the same point as “A Caution Against Bigotry,” though in greater.
“Catholic Spirit” goes on to discuss how unity and diversity can coexist. Regarding religious freedom, Wesley cautions that “there is scarce any expression that is so grossly misunderstood and more dangerously misapplied than this.” He gives cautions of what this “catholic spirit” is not. “A catholic spirit is not … an indifference to all opinions.” This spirit of unity in the midst of diversity means for Wesley that actual differences of opinion can and should exist. “This unsettledness of thought, this ‘being driven to and fro, and tossed about by every wind of doctrine’ is not a blessing, but a great curse,” he says, quoting from Ephesians 4:14. “[A person with a catholic spirit] does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend the two into one.” These two related concerns underscore for Wesley the necessary conditions for a people to be both unified and diverse: actual diversity must be both respected and allowed.
One might rightfully question the relevance of Wesley’s thoughts on religious diversity, given that he was writing within a generally Christian framework about showing love to Christians who think differently than us. Does this mean that Wesley’s sermons lack relevance to our multi-religious culture? I don’t believe so, especially if Wesley was being deliberately provocative with his use of the word “Catholic.” For Wesley’s original audience, Roman Catholicism was a different religion than Christianity. If Wesley was encouraging his hearers to extend common love, courtesy, and respect to Roman Catholics, he was, in their ears, encouraging them to show these things to followers of a different religion. But even if Wesley was specifically speaking about theological and doxological diversity among Christian groups, his suggestions are still of immense help to 21st century America.
Diversity, Not Indifference
Sermons like “A Caution Against Bigotry” and “Catholic Spirit” demonstrate Wesley’s advice to a culture experiencing profound changes. Wesley is a bridge between the old world of state churches and official religions and the religious tolerance through disestablishment that the United States and Europe know today. Wesley was trying to deal with a profoundly difficult problem: how to manage personal religious liberty in a pluralistic society. How does the belief system of one person affect his or her neighbor, and how should society handle potential conflicts? This was one of the questions that the great preacher-theologian sought to answer.