Today my former evangelical church celebrated 500 years since the Reformation. My alma mater has made a whole semester of it. But even as a Protestant myself, I’m not so sure I want to be celebrating it.
Since moving to Denver (which is why I left my previous church), I’ve befriended a house of Catholic volunteers. A few months ago, I was volunteering alongside one of the folks doing this one year service program, and he invited me to their weekly mass and dinner. Now I’ve become a regular and call myself a friend of the house. I love going each week because it is such a place of peace.
And I’ve learned a lot about Catholicism since I became friends with them a couple months ago. But I realize that this might startle some of my family, so let me give some background.
I grew up with people who had “converted” from Catholicism to Protestantism, or evangelicalism more specifically. They saw and thus I heard of the dark side of the Catholic Church: the extreme focus on works over faith, where doing was all that mattered. To me, it seems like a hopeless task to reach the throne of God, coming from that perspective; just read Romans 3:23, 6:23, and John 3:16). I was taught that Catholics were not Christians, and indeed I knew several that were not.
I grew up in a pretty atheist state, although nominal Catholicism was prevalent as well, likely due to cultural ties and passed-down religion.
But when I went to college, I met Catholics who were Christians. These people believed in Jesus for their salvation. They were people with different traditions, more liturgical blessings instead of the freestyle prayers to which I was accustomed, but they were people who believed that Jesus is the Savior of the world and loved those around them as Jesus did.
Then, in a Social Change sociology class during my senior year, I read documents from both evangelical and Catholic leaders. The Catholic Church is well-organized and unified in its beliefs, whereas there is no one leader of the evangelical church making statements on doctrine. Thus, while is more difficult to define the global “evangelical” viewpoint on any issue, the papal encyclical for example, lays the Catholic stance out.
What I’ve noticed is that the Catholic Church does a lot better job of caring about social justice and for the earth than the evangelical church. It’s understood as a natural part of Christianity, although evangelicals in America generally have a harder time seeing that. I admire and agree with these things, however. I think the evangelical/Protestant church can learn a lot from the Catholic Church in these regards.
The Catholic Church also has a richer understanding of history and a lot more examples of faith since they do not skip the whole period between the early Church and the Reformation. Though all Christians are saints, the Church-ordained saints serve as examples of how to live holy lives. They’re not gods or idols, but they are examples in the faith.
(Now, the Catholic Church can also learn from the Protestant church, and we can both learn from the Orthodox Church as well. The Church is like a mixed media sculpture, and our diversity has the opportunity to strengthen and unify us as we are molded into the image of Christ.)
Because I’m friends with this house of volunteers, I’m now having conversations before dinner and hearing words at mass about Church unity. These Catholics in their twenties and the priests who are preaching have a heart for everyone who calls themselves Christian. As a Protestant Christian, I appreciate and agree with this too. And it is crucial to hear this as many celebrate the Reformation today, since the Reformation stands as a marker of division in Church history.
I’m still learning a lot. I don’t agree with everything Catholic, and I still call myself a Protestant. But I see a lot of shared beliefs in our diverse practices, and I don’t believe that we have to be exactly the same in order to have unity or worship together.
I’m also not ready to say that the Reformation was completely bad. Martin Luther called out some things that needed to be said in that day, such as paying for indulgences to save deceased relatives from their sins. It was a huge money making scam that hurt the poor and corrupted the truth back in the 1500s, and Luther was a prophetic voice in the Church to stop it. For what he did to restore the Gospel truth (that we are saved by grace through faith) and thus care for suffering communities in body and soul, I am grateful.
But I don’t want to glorify division in the church, as I fear is happening particularly at this 500 year marker of the Protestant Reformation. Today, countless Protestants are rejoicing at their Reformation from the Catholic Church, and many Catholics are looking on saying, “Are we not one Church?” Protestant Stanley Hauerwas writes an educated article about the Reformation, disunity, and sin here, which I encourage you to read.
We can have different practices, we can all celebrate truth and grace and the living out of our faith, and there is no getting around the fact that we do have different histories now, but are we not one Church with the same goal of building the Kingdom of God?