Sunday morning as I sat with my wife and daughter at Mass I was filled with both pride and sadness. I was very proud of all three of my children. My daughter had just graduated from college with a degree in social work; my oldest son was a youth minister; and my youngest son was nearing graduation from a Christian college. All three children, along with my sons’ wives, were committed and loving Christians. And we had the entire family together for the weekend—what a blessing.
Sadly, however, as we sat at Mass, my oldest son and his wife were worshiping at a non-denominational church. My youngest son and his wife were at a nearby Nazarene church. Of our three children, only our daughter had remained Catholic. Many factors contributed to our sons’ departure from the Catholic Church. I had to concede my own Christian witness had been sorely lacking at times, not to mention my limited knowledge of the faith. Also, our parish life had not always offered our kids much opportunity for Catholic fellowship and growth.
My thoughts went to our Lord’s high priestly prayer, when he prayed to his Father: “And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22–23). Although one of our Lord’s last prayers on earth was for unity, our family—committed Christians all—were not worshiping together on the Lord’s Day.
If one of Christ’s last acts on earth was to pray for unity, then all Christians are bound by obedience to Christ to strive for it. It is true all Christians are united invisibly through baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ. Yet Christ was clearly speaking of a visible unity, “that the world may know that thou hast sent me.” How do Protestants approach this question—what is their “doctrine of unity”?
Even though a few Fundamentalist denominations are isolationist in their relationship with Catholics and even other Christians, I believe most Protestants want unity and strive for it as best they can. Lutherans recently reunited two of their main branches. There are organizations like the Christian Coalition and Promise Keepers which try to work toward common Christian goals. Many Protestants pray for unity and study Scripture looking for common ground.
The one thing they reject, though, is any binding authority outside the Bible. As a result, each time a new survey of Christian denominations comes out, there is more division, not less. Today there are more than 26,000 different denominations, sects, and independent churches throughout the world. They have split over issues as central as the Lord’s Supper and as trivial as what musical instruments may be used at church. Each Christian, Bible in hand, must find his own Christian truths. He may choose to rely on the teachings of his local pastor, a television evangelist, or the formal teachings of his denomination, but he is not bound by any of these teachings. There is ultimately no binding doctrinal authority in his life outside his personal interpretation of Scripture (sola scriptura).
Not only does this lead to denominational divisions, it divides families. A husband may be a Jehovah’s Witness whose religion tells him he can no longer live with his Lutheran wife, or a child may become a Fundamentalist who believes his Catholic parents are going to hell. I have met people whose marriages have ended in divorce and family members who have stopped talking to one another.
Other families like mine have found some middle ground, but not before many angry words were spoken and deep hurts inflicted on all sides. Despite Christ’s fervent desire for unity, our family has not resolved our religious differences. In fact, we seldom discuss what divides us. We have declared a doctrinal “cease-fire.” We each study Scripture, read Christian books, pray, attend conferences, and help our respective churches to teach and evangelize—then on Sundays we go our separate ways.
If “the church” is merely an invisible bond between those who are baptized, then how does each Christian arrive at the truths of the faith? Most Protestants claim the Holy Spirit, through private interpretation of Scripture, guides each Christian “to all the truth” (John 16:13). If so, some in my family are not being guided by the Holy Spirit, and we have been led to untruths. Yet if you met my family you would be hard-pressed to say they do not have the Spirit of God within them. (“You will know them by their fruits” [Matt. 7:16].) And no matter which church one may attend, why isn’t the Holy Spirit doing a better job in the other 25,999?
It used to bother me when Protestants who were clearly better educated, holier, and wiser than I held doctrines diametrically opposed to what I believed as a Catholic. What arrogance on my part to be so sure of certain truths! After all, these people had studied Scripture in great depth and had concluded just the opposite. Then I realized these folks not only disagreed with me, they disagreed with each other. I believe the reason people like John Calvin and John Wesley got some of the truths of the faith wrong is not because they lacked intelligence, holiness, or wisdom; it was because they had separated themselves from the “mind of the Church.”
Brilliant men can arrive at brilliant hypotheses as they study Scripture. But apart from the ancient traditions of the Church, there is no anchor. Besides, if one has to be a theologian or Bible scholar to find the truth, where does that leave average folks like myself, or illiterate peasants in South America, or even people in the Middle Ages who could not afford a Bible or an education? Must we each study all these differing scholars in order to determine the truth? What if, God forbid, we never discover the teacher or denomination that has it right? Worse yet, if Martin Luther was right and the fullness of the truths of salvation was not known until the sixteenth century, what about those born before the Reformation?
The Eucharist is a prime example of this need for ultimate truth. Christ said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you” (John 6:53). What did he mean? Our eternal souls hang in the balance. The Catholic Church has always taught that the bread and wine at the consecration become the real Body and Blood of Christ (transubstantiation). Martin Luther believed Christ becomes truly present in, around, and through the bread and wine, but that the elements of the bread and wine remain (consubstantiation). John Calvin taught Christ is present in the Eucharist only spiritually and only to the believer. Finally, Ulrich Zwingli insisted the Lord’s Supper is a mere symbol. How could an illiterate, uneducated, sixteenth-century peasant sort through all these theories and come to the truth?
There is only one answer that makes any sense: Christ must have left behind a teaching Church to sort through it for us. Without such a Church, we really do not even have assurance of which books belong in the Bible, let alone what any specific verse might mean. After all, Martin Luther thought the Book of James should be excluded from the New Testament and 1 and 2 Maccabees should be excluded from the Old Testament. Augustine, on the other hand, thought these books should be included. If these two giants of Christian thought could differ over the canon of Scripture, how can a Protestant have absolute assurance that James should be included and Maccabees should not? Without an infallible Church, the canon is truly just a “tradition of men.”
But Scripture and history bear witness to the fact Christ did establish such a Church. Peter was called the Rock upon whom Christ would build his Church, and was given the keys of the Kingdom (Matt. 16:18-19). Peter and the other apostles were given the authority to bind and loose, to forgive and retain sins (Matt. 16:19, Matt. 18:18, John 20:22–23). Christ said to the apostles, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). And the Church, not the Bible, is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The Fathers of the Church also speak of a visible, hierarchical church. Clement, the third successor of Peter as bishop of Rome, wrote in a letter to the Corinthians in A.D. 80, “Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers.” Ignatius, the martyred bishop of Antioch, writing thirty years later, said, “Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me.”
It is this visible Church with visible leaders (especially the bishop of Rome) that is the source of visible unity. The third-century bishop Cyprian of Carthage said, “[Jesus] founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. . . . If someone [today] does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”
Augustine, near the end of the fourth century, was so bold as to say, “Indeed, I would not believe in the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.” And Tertullian, a third-century theologian, referred to apostolic succession when he said of heretics, “Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men.”
How do Protestants resolve doctrinal disputes among themselves? Take the hypothetical case of a Lutheran wife and a Baptist husband whose first child has just been born. For the wife, it would be a sin not to baptize the child; for the father, it would be a sin if they did. According to Scripture, after taking it to two or three others, they should “tell the church” (Matt. 18:17). But which church—the Lutheran Church (which will say baptize the baby), the Baptist Church (which will say don’t baptize the baby), or some third-party church with no pre-existing opinion on infant baptism? Ultimately, Protestants don’t “tell the church,” they “take it to the Bible.” Varying interpretations of the Bible, unfortunately, created the conflict to begin with. There is no final arbiter—no final court of appeal. Did Christ really give us a Bible without a Church to interpret it?
Think about Paul’s letters. They were mostly written to communities he established and taught, yet he had to continually re-teach, correct, and rebuke authoritatively. (Catholics call this the magisterium of the Church.) When writing to Timothy, one of the first bishops of the Church, Paul didn’t say, “Hold on as best you can—the New Testament should be out in about fifty years.” Rather he said, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
Vincent of Lerins, a fifth-century priest and monk, addressed this need for the Church to interpret Scripture: “[W]e must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways: first, by the authority of the divine law [Scripture] and then by the Tradition of the Catholic Church. But here someone perhaps will ask, ‘Since the canon of Scripture is complete and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation?’ For this reason: Because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another, so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are men. . . . Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various errors, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation” (Notebooks, 2:1).
For Christianity ever to be reunited in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, both Catholics and Protestants must seek unity with an open heart and an open mind. This is the task of ecumenism. We must thank God for the beliefs we do hold in common, but we must never reduce Christianity to the lowest common denominator. Doctrine does matter. There are differences that cannot be ignored. The nature of the Church, the meaning of baptism, and the significance of the Lord’s Supper are not unimportant questions.
If you are a Protestant, I ask two questions. First, are you scandalized by the divisions within Christendom? Second, are you beginning to doubt the pieces of Protestantism can ever be put back together? If your answers are “yes,” perhaps you should investigate the ancient and historic church—the Catholic Church. If you find some of its doctrines problematic, first make sure what the Church really teaches, since misconceptions—even among Catholics—abound. Then at least consider the possibility it might be you who are wrong, you who have misunderstood scripture. Maybe Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Augustine got it right. Buy a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writings of the Early Fathers, and other good books on Catholic apologetics (there are some in the back pages of this magazine). Read them prayerfully and with an open mind.
As Catholics, though, we must never be triumphalistic in our approach to our separated brethren. We must respect our Protestant brothers and sisters. We must admit they can bring valuable insights to our own understanding of Scripture and the Christian life. My two sons have often given me deeper insights into Scripture, and the witness of their lives continually challenges me better to love and serve our Lord.
From time to time we have attended our sons’ church services, and they in turn have attended ours. But real unity involves more than an occasional concession by family members to attend the others’ worship services. Our Protestant children, while sitting at Mass, do not believe a real sacrifice is being offered on the altar or the real Body and Blood of Christ is present in the Eucharist. I in turn would be troubled if their pastor were to speak of being “saved” by faith alone, if he offered the Lord’s Supper as a mere symbol, or if he re-baptized a former Catholic. No, true unity must include a unity of belief and worship. Anything less, however well-intentioned, is not what our Lord prayed for. We must get our families worshiping together again.