Spring Books
This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Mark A. Noll and
Carolyn Nystrom
Baker Academic, 272 pages, $24.99
The triumph of Luther?

The dwindling divide between Catholics and Protestants


Catholics will find the title of this book either shocking or reassuring depending on their view of the ultimate goal of ecumenism. Is the Reformation Over? is a well-informed and respectful overview of the recent and growing rapprochement between Catholics and evangelicals, who far outnumber members of mainline Protestant denominations. The authors -- Mark Noll is a professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College, and Carolyn Nystrom is a freelance writer -- state that their intention is to assess the contemporary Catholic church based on the “classic ideals of the Protestant Reformation”: sola fide (salvation by faith alone), sola scriptura (the Bible as supreme authority), and the priesthood of all believers.

They review the antagonistic history between Protestants and Catholics in our country, resting primarily on the belief (or rationalization) among the former that Catholics were unfit for democracy, with its ideal of the freedom of the individual, because we were seen to be content being “enslaved” to the pope and our bishops. In fact, the authors note, nearly all the anti-slavery societies that preceded the Civil War were also anti-Catholic, as Catholicism was regarded by American Protestants as a system of slavery. Dr. Noll and Ms. Nystrom note various anomalous thaws in this chilly relationship, but they understandably focus on the period since Vatican II when the Catholic church eliminated most of the practices and beliefs that the evangelicals consider irrational, idolatrous and just plain non-Christian, as well as intensifying Catholic engagement with the Bible. These Protestant-leaning changes in Catholicism have caused many, but not all, evangelicals to revise their negative views of us. They are further encouraged by a 1996 survey of evangelical belief in the United States in which 50 percent of American Catholics agreed with three of the four evangelical “markers”: belief in the literal truth of the Bible, or that the Bible is God’s word; a life committed to Christ as a converted Christian; the need to convert non-Christians; and belief that God has provided “a way for the forgiveness of my sins” through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Today the interaction between Catholics and evangelicals is more extensive than most people realize. Catholic cardinals have recommended to Catholics the evangelical Alpha study program. The “staunchly evangelical” American Tract Society issued a tract in 2003 titled “The Road to Heaven: According to Catholic Sources,” using citations only from the New American Bible. Catholics may now read the Living Bible and the Good News Bible, both produced under Protestant auspices but with the imprimatur and nihil obstat. The film titled “Jesus” that was produced by the Campus Crusade for Christ International was shown at the Roman Catholic World Youth Day in Rome in August 2000 and has been used in Catholic retreats. Evangelical hymnals now include post-Vatican II Catholic hymns while Catholic hymnals include many traditional Protestant hymns. In addition, there is a significant crossover readership between the evangelical and the Catholic presses and publishers. Twenty percent of the sales of a new series of books initiated in 2004 by the evangelical InterVarsity Press are to Catholics.

The official denominational dialogues between the Vatican’s envoys and the mainline Protestant churches in the decades since Vatican II were not of interest to evangelicals because of their “historical aversion to ecumenism.” However, in what might be called kitchen-table ecumenism, thousands of evangelical women met with Catholic women in their homes in the 1970s and 1980s to teach the Catholics how to make the study of scripture a personal practice, based on the evangelical perception that the Bible is “a personal letter from God to each individual.” This view was urged on Catholic biblical scholars at a congress at Castel Gandolfo in September 2005. Following the pope’s address, Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, asserted that the Bible is not about “supernatural reality” but is “person-to-person communication” from God.

In 1992 a group of evangelical and Catholic leaders, male, were convened by two members of the Christian right, the Rev. Charles Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (a convert to Catholicism), to create a joint statement that might soften Protestant-Catholic tensions in Latin America. Meeting periodically since then, the group -- called Evangelicals and Catholics Together -- has produced four documents. “The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” published in 1994, notes differences but agrees on “cobelligerency,” Christian responsibility for “the right order of society.” “The Gift of Salvation,” issued in 1997, followed the “firestorm” among evangelicals that greeted the first document because many felt the document was too Catholic, in particular because the all-important word “alone” was missing when “justification” was discussed (that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone); this omission was corrected in the second document. “Your Word Is Truth,” issued in 2002, asserts that “all that is necessary for salvation” is in the Bible, to which “the entire teaching, worship, ministry, life and mission of Christ’s church is to be held accountable.” The 2003 “Communion of Saints” mostly outlines differences but affirms the communion sanctorum, minimally defined as solidarity with “the faithful who had gone before.”

For Catholics, having recently marked the 40th anniversary of the completion of Vatican II, all this is either music to your ears or sounds like fingernails screeching across a blackboard. There seems to be a foundational consensus in ecumenical dialogues that traditional Catholicism was quite obviously inferior to the more streamlined, rational Protestantism and needed to “purify” itself, a process not yet completed. Any substantive change, it seems to be agreed, must move toward Protestantism.

To engage with Protestantism, however, one should be well-informed about its origins and its role in the emergence of modernity, a cultural transformation that was largely positive but also problematic. The Reformation was the second of four foundational movements that created the modern mentality. (Ironically, evangelicals position themselves against modernity, but Protestantism was one of the parents of modernity.) First, Renaissance humanism broke from the medieval holism and declared that man is the measure of all things. Second, the Reformation established a new focus in the West on the individual set apart (nothing matters but the individual’s direct relationship with God), which became the secularized concept of the Autonomous Individual by the 18th century. The Reformers also replaced sacred ritual with a more “rational” emphasis on a text. Third, the Scientific Revolution established the post-organic, mechanistic worldview. Lastly, the Enlightenment applied the rationalist, mechanistic worldview to all our institutions and emphasized the supposedly Autonomous Individual, obscuring the fact that humans exist in a web of ecological, biological, social and spiritual relationship.

It is to be expected that a modern version of Christianity would emerge during that transitional era, one that was newly rational because it focused strictly on a text and was hostile to mystical, symbolic, cosmological communion with the Incarnation. Religious acts such as the Eucharist were viewed by the Reformers, after Luther, in the modern, semiotic manner: reduced to a mere sign that reminds us of, or signifies, something, rather than the more ancient sense of spiritual participation in the field of meaning of a symbol. In that unbroken field, perceived in Catholicism, however, Christ is actually present in the Eucharist.

In addition, Luther added some particulars to Protestantism that are not linked to the birth of modernity. It is not hard to imagine that he, or anyone, might have determined that the corrupt Vatican and priesthood of his time could not be reformed, only seceded from, and also to have emphasized the importance of the Bible -- all without jettisoning the entire sacramental orientation of Catholicism. Luther, however, shaped his new religion around his formative experiences. As a boy, he was routinely beaten severely by his father, and occasionally by his mother, so grew to believe, like most abused children, that he was an unlovable person. Later he joined an Augustinian order of friars because of St. Augustine’s emphasis on our sinful nature, our state of fallenness and possible redemption. Luther was known to spend hours in the confessional, only to emerge feeling that he was so bad and unworthy that he had failed to enter a state of grace because he suspected he had not been sufficiently sincere; he would say his penance and then go right back into the confessional. In short, the sacrament of confession (reconciliation) never worked for him, and he was known in the monastery for his gripping fear that he would never be worthy of salvation.

Once Luther decided to make his break from the Catholic church, even Protestant biographers are somewhat embarrassed by the crude, vulgar language with which he described and addressed the pope and his envoys. Clearly, he was making a powerful, energizing strike against the “bad father.” Once that was accomplished, Luther returned to his original concern: his inherent unworthiness before the “good father,” or God. His new version of Christianity emphasized the “radical sinfulness” of humans, the inconsequential nature of the sacraments (except baptism and ordination, called by Protestants “ordinances”), the “radical sovereignty” of a distant God (no more co-unfolding with divine presence of the organisms in Creation, as St. Thomas Aquinas had perceived), and the reactive sweeping away of nearly everything except the Bible, the one touchstone needed for faith in God.

As for the representation of Catholicism in the ecumenical dialogues reported in Is the Reformation Over? what is missing is a full explanation of our sacramental orientation as a worshipful response to the Incarnation and the Resurrection. Lacking that information, the evangelicals see today an array of puzzling and disappointing vestiges from “un-Reformed” Catholicism: not all of the statues have been cleared out of Catholic churches; the “irrational” concept of transubstantiation has not been replaced by “transignification” (a more Protestant version that emerged as a contender after Vatican II); some Catholics still say the rosary with its unbiblical honoring of Mary; Catholics still follow “empty, prescribed forms” in their worship; and they seem to fail to “take Jesus as their personal Savior.” Most important, according to Dr. Noll and Ms. Nystrom, evangelicals find unfathomable, as well as distasteful, the Catholic acquiescence to the central role of an institutionalized church (Catholic lay rebellions against corruption notwithstanding).

The authors diligently search the official Catholic documents from and since Vatican II. Yet -- with the exception of a lovely Catholic commentary on the third document put out by Evangelicals and Catholics Together in which Francis Martin explains the Catholic sense of private contemplation of scripture (lectio divina) as a continuation of communal prayer, music and sacred ritual -- the authors do not encounter an explanation, let alone a celebration, of our full sacramental orientation, which constitutes the very heart of Catholicism. (Although they include Fr. Andrew Greeley’s books on the subject, such as The Catholic Imagination, in their lists for further reading, they make no mention of that perspective in their own text.)

For Christians who focus solely on scripture as their engagement with the Divine, it is perhaps problematic that Christianity flourished for the first 300 years with no centralized text. Rather, there were dozens of accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. (See Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development by the distinguished New Testament scholar Helmut Koester.) Only in the fourth century were the four Gospels we know, which had been preferred by Irenaeus 150 years earlier, declared to be the only orthodox accounts for reasons related to internal politics following Emperor Constantine’s conversion.

The text is not the Incarnation. It is an account, albeit divinely inspired, of the Incarnation. Because Catholics regard the Incarnation and the Resurrection as divine mysteries that exceed human comprehension, we enter into them through worship in ways that bring us into the sacred space where we may commune most deeply and are held by the mystery of Christ, whose presence we perceive as a cosmological wonder. Hence the multivalent responses to the mystery -- the luminous stained-glass windows, the poetic prayers, the enrapturing music, the enveloping incense, the evocative sculptures, and, at the center of it all, the Eucharist as a sacred time/space, a ritual in which the individual-in-relationship (with everyone present, with the entire church, with Mary and all the saints, and with everyone who ever walked into this sacred space) receives bodily the living presence of Christ.

For these reasons, Catholic churches traditionally looked very different from Protestant churches. As Richard Kieckhefer puts it in Theology in Stone, the interior of a “classic evangelical church” is an auditorium with the pulpit as its focal point, while a “classic sacramental church” (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican) is designed with a coherent vision meant to evoke the immanence of God and the possibility of transcending ordinary consciousness. A “modern [Catholic] sacramental church” intentionally has less symbolic resonance and emphasizes the gathering of people around the altar, often with seating on three sides of it.

Some post-Vatican II Catholic churches eschew nearly all sacramental ornamentation and look much like Protestant churches, including an empty cross behind the altar. Our great liturgical music -- now called “unsingable” by fellow progressives I have queried -- has been almost entirely replaced with “relevant,” post-Vatican II hymns that often feature Broadway chord progressions or banal compositions that sound rather like a sit-com soundtrack -- with exceptions, such as Marty Haugen’s liturgical music. In addition, we often now sing thumpety-bumpety Protestant hymns about God as a fortress and such. Worst of all, the holiest of moments -- the deeply contemplative approach to, receiving of, and return from holy Communion -- is now shattered by noise, that is, group singing. It has been explained to me that this change is a progressive victory in a power struggle, allowing the people in the Communion ritual to be active, rather than passive, participants along with the priest. Alas, that modern line of reasoning sees only dominance-and-submission, failing to grasp that all persons in a ritual participate and that the more fortunate ones are those who do not have to steer their consciousness to the requirements of giving service (that is, leading the ritual) but, rather, are free to enter deeply into the expanded consciousness of the sacred space/time, step by step as we move closer to the Host.

So, is the Reformation over? Not yet, the authors conclude. Too many pesky differences remain. In truth, however, the collapse of sacramental Catholicism into a far more Protestant version is further along than authors Noll and Nystrom perceive. In the annual survey of Catholics published in the Sept. 30 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, only 38 percent of young Catholics born after 1978 feel that “the sacraments are very important” and only 15 percent attend Mass weekly. Of those, I would guess that only a minority has any idea what is meant by the Catholic sacramental culture. Why would we expect otherwise, since their spiritual formation took place in Catholic “vacation Bible school” and text-based catechism classes, replacing the immersion into a rich sacramental sense of religion and life? Moreover, the section of the NCR survey about the sacraments is framed in terms that Luther himself would have used: the Catholic church as a “mediator.” One type of Christianity is supposedly direct while the other is “mediated.” The survey found that “belief in the church as mediator” has slipped. A mediator? Christ and Mary are the mediators; the church is the blessed holder of sacred space.

The music director in our parish, who knows me from various social-change actions, refers to me, with a sigh, as “one of the Latins” because I used to ask her if we might sing something beautiful once in a while. As the NCR survey demonstrates, the sacramental consciousness of Catholicism is dying off. In 30 years or so, all those of us who were fortunate enough to have experienced in our formative years the Catholic sacramental culture -- a world filled with grace! -- will be gone, and the stripped-down, text-based version of Christianity will probably be triumphant. Clearly, it works well for millions of Christians, and I honor that. I deeply appreciate all the ecumenical and interfaith dialogues that have lessened old tensions and built new understanding. But I also honor the integrity and the profound differences between the two types of Christianity: the sacramental (Roman Catholic and Orthodox) and the postsacramental (Protestant).

Forty years after the ecumenical dimension of Vatican II pushed drastic changes in our liturgy and theology, the genius of the Catholic sacramental culture has been so deemphasized that it hangs by mere threads. Will it ever be restored, not necessarily in the 1950s version, to its full radiance? As a liberal/Green/progressive Catholic who came of age before Vatican II, I am predisposed to hold out hope for miraculous healings.

Charlene Spretnak is author of Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church, which was published in paperback in September by Palgrave Macmillan.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org