Many Roman Catholics are disturbed by the renewal in their church. Behind their uneasiness often lies the fear that their church is becoming “Protestant.” As evidence, they point to the reform of the church, the growing humanism of its worship, its increasing simplicity, and its emphasis on the Bible.
The need for reform seemed superficial to a Catholic accustomed to the popular images of the church—the Bride of Jesus, and the Body of Christ. The Bride was spotless and pure. The Body of Christ was the Lord living in the world; and the Head, the Lord himself, gave a touch of the divine to the whole.
Any realistic Catholic knew the church was not perfect. But the imperfections were on the outer garment of the Bride, or in one of the less important organs of the Body.
Meanwhile, the “Protestant principle,” with its fear of absolutizing anything other than God and with its penchant for the “earthen vessels” figure, demanded continual church reform. And if the church leaders, preoccupied by the need to preserve and expand the organization, sometimes let ecclesia semper reformanda fade as a principle, theologians and philosophers never did.
But now, while not turning away from the images of Bride and Body, the Roman Catholic Church is calling for reform, for continual reform. “The Church is the Bride, true, but a Bride terribly in need of renovation. The Church is the Body of Christ, true; but while the Head may never need a reformation, we, the members, do.”
So the perspicacious Catholic sees in his church what he considers a move toward Protestantism. And if he continues his study, he finds that the reform extends to everything in his church.
In a former day, a Catholic, if he were feeling insecure, could turn to that central act of Catholic worship, “the Sacrifice of the Mass.” Wrapped in mystery, it demanded his faith, but little else. It was the Lord’s perfect sacrifice, enacted once again upon the altar by an ordained priest, with Jesus present through the wonder of “transubstantiation.” What more needed to be done to make this sacrifice pleasing to the Father in heaven? And the Catholic felt secure in his worship, even if not personally involved in it.
Meanwhile he felt sorry for Protestants. They did not have our Lord’s sacrifice to depend upon. It was up to them to make their worship pleasing to God and meaningful for themselves. They had to do it all—and what they had to do! There was responsive reading, hymn singing, praying from the heart, bearing witness to their faith in proclaiming the Word of God. Their worship was humanistic, and therefore for the Catholic it was rather non-mysterious and non-intriguing.
Now the Catholic is being told that he has a part to play in worship; that he cannot feel satisfied in merely viewing the mysterious sacrifice of the Bread and Wine; that he has to take this worship from the hands of the Lord and use his own hands as he offers it to the Father in heaven; that he has to make this worship significant not only for himself but for his neighbor.
Now when he comes into church, he does not climb into his pew to begin his private contemplation while the priest goes through the rite of worship. Instead, someone hands him a hymnal, and someone else tells him when to stand, sit, or kneel, and which prayers to read aloud or hymns to sing. The priest faces not away from but toward him during the service, which is referred to less frequently as “the Mass” than as “the Lord’s Supper” or “our worship.”
And the well-informed Catholic knows that other changes are yet to come. At times in the future, he, like the priest, will share in the Cup as well as in the Bread; he may hear the words of the institution of the sacrament read aloud in his own language, instead of whispered in Latin as they are now; and he may be shaking hands with the person next to him at worship as a greeting in Christian fellowship.
It is in his worship, too, that he sees illustrated a third factor leading him to conclude that his church is moving toward Protestantism: the growing simplicity of the church.
An emphasis on the “sacramental principle” led the Roman Catholic Church to a liturgical complexity that was the basis for mystical contemplation on the part of some and utter confusion on the part of others.
The use of titles and the importance of canon law were based on this same principle. No one argued for the necessity of something like “The Right Reverend Monsignor Henry Jones, Protonotary Apostolic.” But the title was used with the hope that it, like other material things, served in the work of the church. Likewise, the laws about Friday abstinence from meat, Sunday attendance at Mass, Lenten fasting, Easter communion—all followed a pattern derived from this same sacramental principle.
Meanwhile, for Protestants the rule of “faith alone” minimized the importance of material things in worship and church law. Protestant churches seemed empty and uninviting to the Catholic. He could not tell a Protestant minister from a layman and was uneasy to hear the latter call the former by his first name. If he knew anything about church law, he was distressed to see how much was left to the individual, how little prescribed.
Now the Catholic layman is surprised to see his own church placing the emphasis on simplicity, on faith, on personal responsibility. He sees his worship becoming more plain and clear, and, as a result, contemporary church buildings becoming more like their Protestant counterparts—often without statues, votive lights, or those other objects of devotion he had come to take for granted.
He still uses titles. But he is told that the difference between himself and the persons he addresses with these titles is not so great, that all Christians share in the priesthood of Christ, that there is a basic equality of the People of God.
He reads in the newspapers about the criticism some of the Council Fathers from Vatican II have leveled against church laws, and about the Pope’s liberalization of the Lenten fasting and abstinence rules to simplify matters, to do away with legalism, and to leave more to the individual.
Because his church now seems to be placing less emphasis on the sacramental principle (at least in its effects), to be clearing away the complexities of legalism, and to be stressing personal faith and responsibility, the thoughtful Catholic observer sees a drift of his church toward Protestantism.
Another factor convincing him that this drift exists is the new emphasis on the Bible. It is a truism that Catholics generally are not familiar with the Bible. Catechetical programs formerly considered it in a fringe way, perhaps in a class called “Bible History.” Little stress was placed on regular reading of and meditation on Scripture. Often enough the outlook of the layman was that such reading was useless (“After all, we have the church as our living teacher”) and perhaps even dangerous (some papal pronouncements of the past did warn of such a danger).
Meanwhile Protestants were, in the eyes of many Catholics, basing their entire religion on the Scripture. The importance of the sola scriptura rule during the Reformation was well known.
Now Catholics are being told that they must not only respect the Bible as the Word of God but also read it and grow to know and love it. It is to be used more and more in worship and is to provide the pattern and spirit of church renewal. At the same time, Catholic theologians are announcing that they are taking a new look at the sola scriptura rule. And they are saying, in effect, that there is something to it.
It is clear from our brief survey that both in some external, superficial ways and in some internal, profound ways the Roman Catholic Church is indeed assuming characteristics ordinarily associated with Protestantism. There is some truth, then, in the statement that this church is becoming Protestant.
But in a larger sense this statement is profoundly unfortunate, because it is superficial, it harms the ecumenical movement, it obscures an insight of great value, and it is the worst kind of platitude.
This statement is superficial. It seems to be an attempt to describe the great movements in the Catholic Church today as endeavors to ape the old enemy. It completely overlooks, by implication, the dynamism of the renewal. And yet the practical results of this dynamism are ever more apparent. In the face of church reform, the overly defensive attitude of the Council of Trent has faded. Gone is the fear that rites would be robbed of reverence if they were easily understood, or that unity would be harmed if there were not a language of worship common to all and proper to none. Oriental pomp is being replaced by that plainness apparently so characteristic of the Lord and his early followers. And the language and patterns of thought inspired by the Greek philosophers are being set aside in favor of the spirit, expression, and outlook of the New Testament.
To attempt to describe this dynamic vitality with the statement that the Roman Catholic Church is becoming Protestant is superficial indeed.
Moreover, this statement does harm to the ecumenical movement. For it implies that the aim of this movement is not that full, mysterious unity for which Christ prayed, but rather a “lowest common denominator” Christianity in which no one finds anything objectionable. It implies that this unity will come about, not by a progressive dialectic guided by the Spirit, but by a neighborly bartering of pleasant elements. And Roman Catholics could not be blamed for not being enthusiastic about the ecumenical movement if it brought with it the prospect of a bland Christianity that did not offend any taste.
Again, the statement that the Catholic Church is becoming Protestant obscures an insight that is particularly valuable now: that in the similarities that exist, or will come to exist, among the different Christian bodies, there is manifested the providential care of God. If, in the quest for a more authentic Christian life, these groups see themselves growing in similarity (whether superficial or profound), one cannot doubt that the power of the Spirit has been at work. If the effort of ecumenism is to be understood at all, it must be understood in this providential aspect.
Finally, to say that Catholics are becoming like Protestants, or that Protestants are becoming like Catholics, is the worst kind of platitude, since it overlooks the obvious: Catholics and Protestants are like each other, because they profoundly share a common heritage.
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