Protestant Amnesia

Over at the webpage, Called to Communion, Catholic convert from Protestantism, Bryan Cross, has written a a very kind and thought provoking assessment of my comments on Roman Catholicism over recent years.  

Bryan picks up on a point I have made numerous times, both in print and in the classroom, that Protestants need a positive reason not to be Catholic.  This is a conviction I share with Catholics such as Francis Beckwith and, apparently, Bryan Cross.  I cannot speak for them, but my conviction on this point derives from a number of conclusions I have drawn as a result of my academic research in sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestantism.  First, it was clearly inconceivable to the typical theologian at the start of the sixteenth century that the church in western Europe would not be one.  It had been so for centuries and, when the great rifts of the sixteenth century happened, it was truly something which shattered the established categories for thinking about the church.  This is why both Protestants and Catholics spent much time and effort, at least until the Council of Trent, in trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.  Anyone who has ever read Martin Bucer will know of the pain he felt at the breach with Rome and then at the subsequent rifts in Protestantism.

Second, those familiar with recent scholarship on the development of Protestant thinking, Lutheran or Reformed, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, know that Protestant theologians were careful readers and appropriators of Catholic theology, exegesis, philosophy, and casuistry.  For some years now, I have considered that it would be not only academically nonsensical but also an act of a curmudgeonly ingrate to refuse to acknowledge such debts.  This is not to say that there were not -- and are not -- fundamental differences in key areas, not least those of authority, justification, and sacraments; but it is to point to a heritage which both orthodox Catholicism and orthodox Protestantism holds in common.  I would not go so far as to say that the Catholic Church is my church, as Bryan argues, but I would say that the true catholic tradition is my tradition -- essentially Calvin's point in his reply to Cardinal Sadoleto.  Yes, yes, I know that that raises a whole set of Newman-style questions about how one recognises the true tradition, but that is a discussion for another time.  My point here is simply that I repudiate the kind of Protestantism that claims it has no connection to past tradition.  Pace such claims, only heretics reinvent the faith every Sunday.

Third, and deriving from this latter point, as a churchman in the contemporary context, I am aware, often embarrassingly aware, of how much of my theology is closer to that of orthodox Catholic friends, particularly in the area of the doctrine of God, than to many of those with whom I am supposed to have an affinity -- open theists, emergents, radical anabaptists, to name but three -- because somebody, somewhere has decided that there is such a thing as `evangelicalism' in the abstract -- a point which I dispute, at least from the perspective of doctrine, regarding it now rather as a merely institutional phenomenon. 

The issue here is that there is a difference between evangelicalism, broadly considered, and a Protestantism defined along more narrow, confession, ecclesiastical lines.  Credit where credit is due: that is an insight which I owe to the provocative writings of D G Hart; it is also an insight which could have made some influential analyses of evangelicalism, both in its historical development and in its contemporary relationship to Rome, much more satisfactory; and it could have set ecumenism on a much firmer footing, at least in terms of the avoidance of trying to compare and contrast apples and oranges.  As it stands, Catholic-Evangelical dialogue of the ECT variety is a nonsense, given that it involves a fundamental category mistake, i.e., the notion that one can have a significant dialogue and consequent resolutions between an ecclesiastical body, the Catholic Church, and an amorphous parachurch coalition of non-Catholics united solely by a kind of mere Christianity.  OK, Protestants often lack a doctrine of the church and their failure in this regard was thus understandable; but Fr. Richard Neuhaus should have known better.

What Bryan has done is brought to my attention that today's evangelical Protestantism is, on the whole, suffering from amnesia, not simply a lazy indifference to, or ill-conceived relativisation of, the Reformation.  That is what mere Christianity evangelicalism is: a movement of ecclesiastical, historical, and theological amnesia. It lacks any real appreciation of the the church and of doctrine, so crucial in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as is often evident from worship services which make no attempt to stand in continuity with the past, or from theology that is formulated with barely a nod in the direction of the creedal and confessional paths which the church has trodden for these many years.  This amnesia makes the question of Catholicism irrelevant, since even to ask such a question would require some understanding of how historic Protestantism regarded institutional church unity, creedal tradition, biblical exegesis, and doctrinal formulation.

Yet, while appreciating Bryan's comments, I wonder if the grass is really any greener on the other side.  His criticism is essentially one of Protestant culture, not theology, so I offer a response in kind. Most of my Catholic friends are not Catholics because they have convictions about the unity of the church, or the preservation, delineation, and development of dogma over time, or even the sacramental authority of the priesthood and the primacy of Rome. Their Catholicism is a merely cultural thing.  In short, they have no more reason for being Catholic than most Protestants have for not being so.   They are Catholics because they were born that way and, providing they can get to Mass at Christmas and Easter, their Catholicism does not really interfere theologically with their daily lives in any significant way.  The modest size of the families of most of my Catholic friends is something of a poker tell on how far the Pope's encyclicals have really penetrated their daily lives.

Now, in an increasingly secular world, where unbelief is becoming the default position, Catholics may well need to start clambering out of bed in the morning and asking themselves if they have sufficient reason to remain Catholic; and at that moment, they might find that they too are suffering from ecclesiastical and theological amnesia, and no better off in reality than the poor old Protestants.  If all that keeps you Catholic is the fact that a priest baptised you at some point in the past, and now your son runs track for the CYO, you might have a problem. In short, I suspect that Catholic converts like Bryan are no more typical of the Catholic Church as a whole than pointy-headed historians like myself are of Protestantism.    And, of course, the truth or superiority of neither Catholicism or Protestantism is to be determined by the parlous levels of ignorance, historical, ecclesiastical, and theological, prevalent among their respective adherents.  That Protestants are generally amnesiacs and Catholics generally cultural rather than committed, is sad; but it is not relevant to the question of whether the Pope or Luther was right or wrong.  After all, Erasmus was hung up over the Pope's morals; but Luther was concerned as to whether the Pope's doctrine was true.

Having said that, Bryan's article should be read and reflected upon.  He makes an important contribution which offers naught for our Protestant comfort.  I am grateful for his kind words and for the provocation to thought and reflection which he has offered with such a generous spirit.  I offer these words of response in the same spirit.