Monday, April 13, 2015

The Reformation is over. Catholics 0, Protestants 1

I'm going to transcribe an article that Jerry Walls wrote when he was a grad student at Notre Dame:


I am nearing the end of three very happy (with a brief interlude) years as a graduate student in the philosophy department at Notre Dame. The philosophy department is quite lively and stimulating and I have learned a great deal about my discipline.

Along the way, I have also acquired an education of another sort–namely in the ways of the Roman Catholic Church. My education in this regard has been informal and piecemeal, to be sure. My insights have been gathered from diverse sources: from lectures, from letters to the Observer, from articles in the conservative magazine Fidelity, from interaction with undergraduates I have taught. But most of all, I have learned from numerous conversations with students and faculty in the philosophy and theology departments, many of which have involved a friend who is a former Roman Catholic seminarian. While my informal education in these matters hardly qualifies me to speak as an authority, Roman Catholics may find interesting how one Protestant in their midst has come to perceive them. I can communicate my perceptions most clearly, I think, by briefly describing three types of Catholics I have encountered. 

First, I have met a fair number of conservative Catholics. Those who belong to this group like to characterize themselves as thoroughly Catholic. They stress the teaching authority of the Church and are quick to defend the official Catholic position on all points. For such persons, papal encyclicals are not to be debated; they are to be accepted and obeyed. Many conservative Catholics, I suspect, hold their views out of a sense of loyalty to their upbringing. Others, however, defend their views with learning, intelligence, and at times, intensity.

At the other end of the spectrum of course, are the liberal Catholics. These persons are openly skeptical not only about distinctively Roman doctrines such as papal infallibility, but also about basic Christian doctrine as embodied in the ecumenical creeds. It is not clear in what sense such persons would even be called Christians. Nevertheless, if asked their religious preference, on a college application say, they would identify themselves as Catholics. I have no idea how many Catholics are liberals of this stripe, but I have met only a few here at Notre Dame.

It is the third type of Catholic, I am inclined to think, which represents the majority. Certainly most of the Catholics I have met are of this type. I call this group "functional protestants."

Many Catholics, no doubt, will find this designation offensive, so let me hasten to explain what I mean by it. One of the fundamental lines of difference between Catholics and Protestants, going back to the Reformation, concerns the issue of doctrinal authority. The traditional Roman Catholic view, as I understand it, is that its official teachings are guaranteed to be infallible, particularly when the pope or an ecumenical council exercises "extraordinary magisterium" when making doctrinal or moral pronouncements. Protestants have traditionally rejected this claim in favor of the view that Scripture alone is infallible in matters doctrinal and moral. This was the conviction MartinLuther came to hold after he arrived at the conclusion that both popes and church councils have erred. After this, his excommunication was all but inevitable.

When I say most Catholics are functional Protestants I simply mean that most Catholics do not accept the authority claims of their Church. In actual belief and practice, they are much closer to the Protestant view.

This is apparent from the fact that many Catholics do not accept explicitly defined dogmas of their Church. For example, I have talked with several Catholics who are doubtful, at best, about the Marian dogmas, even though these have the status of infallible doctrine in their church. Such Catholics have often made it clear to me that they believe the basic Christian doctrine as defined in the creeds. But they frankly admit that they think their Church has taken some wrong turns in her recent history. Where this is the case, they do not feel compelled to follow. As one of my functional Protestant friends put it: "I am a Roman Catholic, but I am more concerned about being Catholic than about being Roman."

That many Catholics are functionally Protestant is also evident in their attitude toward the distinctive moral teachings of their Church. The obvious example here is the Roman Catholic teaching that all forms of "artificial" birth control are immoral. The official view was reaffirmed explicitly by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, and has been reiterated again and again by Pope John Paul II. Nevertheless, as the article on Humanae Vitae in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion noted, "the papal ban is simply being ignored," and "a concrete authority crisis has thus emerged."

I attended the recent debate on abortion between Fr. James Burtchaell and Daniel Maguire. It is interesting to me that Fr. Burtchaell who eloquently defended the conservative view on abortion, admitted to a questioner that he rejects his Church's teaching on birth control. I could not help but wonder: is Fr. Burtchaell, Catholic statesman though he is, also among the functional Protestants?

This raises, of course, the deeper issue here: to what extent can a member of the Roman Catholic Church disagree with the official teachings of his Church and still be a faithful Catholic? Can one reject the teaching of a papal encyclical while remaining a faithful Catholic? If so, can he also reject a doctrine which the pope has declared infallible?

I have put these questions to several Catholics. Conservative have assured me that the answer to both the latter questions is no. Others insist the answer is yes.

This brings me to a final point concerning functional Protestants: they do consider themselves faithful Catholics. I have  often pointed out in conversation with such Catholics that their views differ little from mine. Why then remain Catholic I ask. In response, these Catholics make it clear to me that they love their Church and intend to remain loyal to it. More than one has compared the Church to his family. One's family makes mistakes, but one does not therefore choose to join another family.

I am not sure what to make of this response. It is not clear to me that one can line up behind Luther in holding that the Popes and councils have erred in their doctrinal and moral pronouncements, and still be a faithful Catholic.  But on the other hand, things have changed since the 16C. It is no longer the case that a Catholic will be excommunicated for holding what Luther held. Perhaps this is just another sign that the Reformation is–despite the pope's best efforts–finally taking hold within the Roman Church. 

Jerry Walls, "Reformational Theology found in Catholicism," The Observer, Thursday, April 23, 1978, p8.


  1. This is the exact sort of Catholicism the rad-trads object to, yet in doing so also reject their magisterium in favor of private judgment - and are thus considered Protestant by traditional Catholics. Delightful irony, this.

    1. True. and which i have seen expressed. For a faithful RC is not to ascertain the veracity of RC teaching by examination of evidences (for that reason). For to do so would be to doubt the claims of Rome to be the assuredly infallible magisterium by which a RC obtains assurance of Truth.

      "It follows that the Church is essentially an unequal society, that is, a society comprising two categories of per sons, the Pastors and the flock...the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and, like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors." (VEHEMENTER NOS, an Encyclical of Pope Pius X promulgated on February 11, 1906),

      The Vicar of Christ is the Vicar of God; to us the voice of the Pope is the voice of God. This, too, is why Catholics would never dream of calling in question the utterance of a priest in expounding Christian doctrine according to the teaching of the Church;” “He is as sure of a truth when declared by the Catholic Church as he would be if he saw Jesus Christ standing before him and heard Him declaring it with His Own Divine lips.” —“Henry G. Graham, "What Faith Really Means"

  2. I have found friends who now belong to Orthodox High Church of Eng. churches in the USA to be proto-RC's and not reformed in any way. Yet they all love NT. Wright. One wonders if Jesus just shakes his head as instead of serving and loving and showing His grace and salvation, we are still dealing with jots.............

  3. This article saw many responses at FR. Thank God for your providing it.