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Only Catholics can really be protestant


The recent Catholic-Lutheran accord on justification and the relation of faith and works, signed in Augsburg, Germany, on Oct. 31, Reformation Sunday, was for me an interesting confirmation of a long-standing contention.

For years, when teaching the Reformation era to mostly Protestant students, I have argued that there is not a fundamental difference between medieval Catholic tradition and the Lutheran on the relationship of faith and works. The apparent argument between Lutherans and Catholics on this matter was largely a misunderstanding.

When one looks at the medieval Catholic tradition as a whole, it is solidly Augustinian in its view that good works are a way of manifesting God’s grace, not a way of earning it. God’s grace, which we cannot earn, but which is given to us freely (which is the meaning of the term grace) is the framework in which we do good works. When one looks at the writings of Thomas Aquinas, for example, he is as strict in his views of the priority of grace and even limited election of the saved as Calvin.

Even the late medieval nominalists, who spoke of the ability of the sinner to repent through “doing what is in him,” that is, reclaiming an original “pure nature,” ultimately base this view of “pure nature” on grace, a free gift of God to grant us redeeming grace through good deeds which in themselves are not commensurate with redemption. This was pointed out to me 30 years ago when I took a course from the preeminent Dutch Calvinist scholar of late medieval theology, Heiko Oberman.

Luther rejected the theology of an accessible “pure nature” of late medieval nominalists who were his own teachers. While theoretically the nominalist view of “pure nature” rests on a framework of grace, psychologically it creates the experience of trying to turn to God and repent solely out of one’s own unsullied capacities for purity and goodness, an effort that Luther in his monastic life experienced as impossible. Thus Luther turned back to Augustine who held a more radical sense of God’s grace given to us even in the midst of our unworthiness.

Even though the medieval Catholic tradition remained rooted in the Augustinian tradition, rejecting all forms of Pelagianism (that is, that we can win redemption by our good works apart from grace), this has not been the perception of most Protestants. The typical way that Protestants have learned about medieval Catholicism (and by implication Catholicism as a whole) is that it was totally corrupt, oppressive and erred by teaching a doctrine of human good works as sufficient for salvation apart from grace.

These stereotypes of Catholicism have annoyed me from my under-graduate days. In 1955 I took my first course in medieval and Reformation church history at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. The teacher was a stern New England Calvinist who trashed the Middle Ages as a corrupt era from which we were all fortunately delivered by the Reformation. When we came to the Reformation, he sang the praises of the Protestant recovery of the doctrine of justification by grace alone without good works.

This position was clearly confusing to my fellow students who had grown up in a workaholic Protestantism that thought that Christianity was good works, non-stop. I challenged the professor, pointing out that in Luther’s key treatise on “The Freedom of the Christian” (1520), he doesn’t say one should not do good works, but that one should do good works gratuitously; that is, we should do all good works for our fellow humans to express our gratitude to God for God’s free choice of us regardless of our sins, rather than doings good works to win “Brownie points” from God. I regard this view of Luther as very sound spirituality.

Since I was an upstart 18-year-old, the professor attempted to crush me with withering contempt. But he confused the issue by claiming that the Catholics didn’t call for genuine good works, but merely ritual acts. This “clarification” satisfied the anti-Catholic bigotry and workaholic ethic of my fellow students, but it was wrong. The dispute was not just about ritual acts, but the status of morality in relationship to salvation.

In subsequent years I have encountered this same bigotry in the Protestant students I have taught. They come to a class on Reformation theology deeply convinced that Catholics teach a superficial legalism with no sense of grace. My efforts to correct this view with a fuller sense of the medieval Catholic tradition seem to fall on deaf ears.

On Oct. 31 Catholics and Lutherans formally declared that this conflict of false stereotypes is over. Although there may be differences of emphasis, both traditions are grounded in the same conviction of the priority of grace. Good works are called for as response to the gift of redemption, not as a means of earning it.

Yet one wonders if the stereotypes by which Protestants are socialized and which they take to be the core of what it means to be Protestant, will really change. It is hard to let go of a polemic that a group has taken to be the essence of their identity.

For Catholics, however, this accord does little to really relieve the conflicts we feel with the hierarchy today. Corruption, unjust and tyrannical use of power, lack of a polity that allows for mutual consultation are still with us. I suggest that these are the real issues that needed to be protested in the 16th century and still should be protested by Catholics today at the end of the 20th century.

To put it another way, only Catholics (in an ecumenical sense) can really be “protestants,” that is, those who protest corruption because they care deeply about the integrity of the whole church.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999