I don’t understand why some Protestants are not Catholics. Just off New York’s Times Square is the attractive gray-stone church of St. Mary the Virgin. The visitor observes votive candles, Stations of the Cross, even confessionals, and on a plaque outside is listed a schedule of daily and Sunday Masses. St. Mary’s is a Protestant (Episcopal) church.
It’s a bit difficult for a Catholic to understand what keeps high-church Episcopalians from taking that one further step which would bring them back into full communion with the church their fathers left in the mid-sixteenth century. I know that some of these good folks do indeed think of themselves as Catholics already; yet within their church many oppose this view.
I don’t understand either why there is not a closer feeling of brotherhood between “fundamentalist” Protestants and Catholics. It seems to me we have a good bit in common, despite our many differences. We both believe in something outside ourselves, in any case. In contrast to Unitarians and other “modernists,” we both share a faith in many of the ancient tenets—the Divinity, the Heaven and Hell concept, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection—that set Christianity apart from all other religions of earth. A Catholic and a fundamentalist can meet on fairly common ground. But with folks such as the Unitarians, there just isn’t any common ground. Unhappily, the sharpest Protestant-Catholic friction continues to be generated between us and the fundamentalist Christians. Perhaps this is so because we both hold strong objective convictions, which can scarcely be said about the modernists.
Those who have read this far are possibly annoyed with me for my use of “Catholic” rather than “Roman Catholic” to identify myself and my church. I feel that “Roman Catholic,” in its common use, is a misnomer. The only really correct use of “Roman Catholic,” as I see it, is to identify Catholics of the “Roman” rite. While this is the largest of several rites of my church, it is not the only rite. My church has never decreed to call itself the “Roman” Catholic Church, and in the official prayer book of the Latin Mass (the Missal) there is not a single reference to “Roman Catholics.”
So far as I know, my church is the only one identified in telephone directories and in newspaper stories by a name which others have given it, rather than the name by which it knows itself. Yet I can easily understand why so many Protestants call us Roman Catholics, since many of us have fallen into this habit ourselves. Some Catholic pastors even permit an “R. C.” to be inscribed on their church bulletin boards. The whole thing, though, becomes a bit ridiculous—it seems to me—when we’re referred to as “Romans.” I wonder sometimes that Protestant children don’t half expect to see us dressed in togas.
I don’t understand how Protestants can be serious about some of the ideas they have concerning us. After all, Protestants and Catholics are all of us many-sided people with interests and outlooks that cross and recross in hundreds of ways. Although we disagree generally in religious matters, we are often united in other pursuits—politically, socially, professionally. A good many of us are drawn into close association, too, through Protestant-Catholic family ties. Yet, viewed as Catholics—rather than as neighbors, business associates, or relatives—we seem enigmas to many of our Protestant friends. Well-intentioned Protestants have asked why we “worship statues.” We do not, of course—any more than a visiting dignitary worships a stone monument shaped like George Washington. How can well-meaning Protestants possibly reconcile the sound judgment of Catholics they know and respect as neighbors with the utter superstition they ascribe to us as “statue worshipers”?
Catholic teaching on freedom of conscience is sometimes misunderstood and misinterpreted to the point where our actual position and our imagined position are 180 degrees apart. So many Protestants seem convinced the Catholic Church teaches that Protestants will wind up in Hell. Yet, my church has demonstrated the untruth of this contention many times—an example being a rather noted case of about fifteen years ago in which a Boston priest was excommunicated for preaching this very notion.
A Protestant clergyman explained to me recently that, in his view, the word “Protestant” really means “to stand for” certain convictions, rather than to be in protest against anything. In all deference to his viewpoint, this is a hard lump for Catholics to swallow. The Episcopalians are the only Protestants I know of who do not seem to react in almost a conditioned way against practices and trends associated with “Catholicism.” In colonial times, the Puritan aversion to anything Catholic was so strong that in parts of America observance of Christmas (“Christ Mass”) was banned.
In these times when worldly temptations press so hard upon us, even such a small thing as abstaining from eating meat on Fridays has some merit, it seems to me, as a bit of self-discipline and as a passing memorial of the first Good Friday. But very few Protestants today follow this ancient practice, and few Protestant churches encourage it. I cannot help feeling that a reason for this is that the custom is considered “too Catholic,” rather than not worthwhile spiritually. May not this be a factor, too, in the rather general neglect of the liturgical calendar among Protestant denominations? Beyond Christmas, Easter, and the days of Holy Week, there aren’t many of the great events of Christian history, or many of the saints either, that are still commemorated and recalled in Protestant worship services. Sometimes, it seems, a greater attention is given purely secular occasions—such as National Education Week—worthy as such occasions may be.
How else but on the basis of opposition to Catholic interests can one explain the enthusiastic moral support voiced by Protestant groups for the public schools? Our system of public education does merit our support, generally. But there are weaknesses—particularly in the area of moral and spiritual values—which to many Americans appear quite serious. We find our public schools rapidly becoming more and more secular. Even singing of Christmas carols is on the way out. One naturally looks to church leaders for ways to reverse this secularistic trend in the schools, or to help us find alternatives if this cannot be accomplished. The surprising thing to me is the strong support we see coming from Protestants for the public schools as they are—the seeming reluctance to acknowledge that there is any problem here at all.
One thing that has puzzled me longest about Protestants, I think, is the way so many of them have of switching about among denominations. It’s true that many Protestant churches have a common or similar heritage—the Dutch Reformed and the Presbyterian, for example. But others, such as the Episcopalians, have quite different origins. I find it difficult to understand that if the various religious concepts had meaning once, how it is that they do not have meaning now. Appearances indicate that in many instances they don’t. And where they are without meaning now, why don’t Protestants of these denominations reevaluate their break with the Catholic Church? I know that there are many other Protestants to whom the old “Reformist” concepts are as real and as valid today as they were in the time of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox. But to a great many Protestants—to nearly all that I know personally—the theological concepts of Reformation days have virtually no present meaning.
It does seem to me that a great many Protestants today feel it matters little what one believes, except in a rather general way. Is this “tolerance” or is it indifference? Most of my Protestant friends seem to believe, if I understand them correctly, that practice of the Golden Rule is pretty much the beginning and the end of the Christian faith. “Anything more than this is just icing on the cake,” was the way one of them explained it to me.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to account for Christianity’s unique hold upon the minds and hearts of men if the Christian faith is viewed as but a code of ethics. Many other religions have also given us codes of ethics, including some of the religions of ancient civilizations long gone to dust.
The faith of a Catholic may weaken too, or worse. But any Catholic who would publicly proclaim a doctrine directly opposed to the tenets of his church would surely find himself excommunicated. There are clear lines in the Catholic Church beyond which one may not go and still remain a Catholic in good standing. On the other hand, I have never heard of a Protestant’s being excommunicated—not even for denying the most basic of traditional Christian beliefs (the Divinity, for example). There seems a looseness today in many quarters of Protestantism which did not exist—or was certainly not so widespread—only a few years ago. How can a man take part in a Unitarian service one Sunday and in an Episcopal service the next—and not feel that he is being inconsistent?
Is Protestantism the “thinking man’s” religion? I know that some folks think so. It is not the purpose of this short article to express my own views on the subject, except to recall that some of the great “thinking men” of the Christian era have been Catholics. One was John Henry Newman, the English cardinal who earlier in life had been one of the great minds of the Anglican church. One finds it difficult to understand that few Anglicans today seem to know anything about him.
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