Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Protestant/Catholic Polemics: In Search of a Cease-Fire

After reading a biography of G.K. Chesterton recently, one thought has stayed with me most strongly, and it is this: I wish that Roman Catholics and Protestants would stop making such unjustified and uncharitable attacks on each other. I consider that we have enough to keep us busy if we stick to discussing actual theological differences, without compounding the problem with personal attacks, unjust charges, or general hostility.

Below I'll review divisive and unfair argumentation of types that are fairly common from both sides, first from the Chesterton biography and then from a zealous anti-Roman Catholic letter. I know that reading divisive material (as shown below) can be upsetting, even when offered as examples of what we want to avoid. I have to trust to the maturity of my readers not to rise to the bait shown in these examples, but to consider instead how each side baits the other, how this approach incites further division and confirms each side in its worst opinions about the other. My hope in posting such material is not to inflame the two sides against each other, but to show that the inflammatory remarks about the differences are themselves a very real part of the problem.

The Theft of Church Property?
The particular biography which I was reading, Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton, is by Dale Ahlquist and was published by Ignatius Press. Comments against Protestants range from the substantively unfair but mildly voiced:
Both the strength and weakness of Protestantism is that it has borrowed its truths from the Catholic Church, but not the whole truth. (pp. 196-197)
to those completely abandoning any pretense at fairness or brotherhood:
Chesterton also shows how those who attack the Catholic Faith steal from it at the same time. This is true not only of Protestantism, but also of the rest of the world. (p. 205)
From a Protestant view, of course, we haven't "borrowed" anything from Roman Catholicism, much less stolen from it; we simply share the same heritage up to a certain point in history. We consider that the heritage of the united church is as much our own as that of our estranged brothers and sisters; it is the common ground on which we ought to rebuild. Athanasius and Augustine belong to the whole of Christianity, not only to the church of Rome. Just from the standpoint of Mr. Ahlquist's arguments, it's interesting that, when the question comes up whether Rome has done any borrowing or stealing as some have accused, Ahlquist says that Rome neither borrowed nor stole from others such as pagans, but is so broad-minded as to incorporate and preserve whatever was good. It's disappointing that Ahlquist's generous spirit of interpretation was not also applied to Protestants in a similar situation.

But my main concern is not Ahlquist's personal animosity towards Protestants -- or Ignatius Press disseminating it. Not only do we have the same heritage up to a certain point, but even since the breach, as estranged brothers and sisters hoping for a reunion, we have something like a "creative commons" license for materials each side has produced since. What if Protestants could not quote Chesterton or Tolkien or listen to Mozart without being accused of theft, or Roman Catholics couldn't quote C.S. Lewis or Charles Dickens or listen to Bach without being subjected to similar divisive bullying? In practice in the divided church, our own actions acknowledge that not only do we strive for unity, but that we all recognize various people who have nearly enough achieved it on a small scale.

Ahlquist provides a few more examples of the divisive and polemical approach. Here he raises a criticism that can be leveled legitimately at certain individuals and applies it over-broadly as a group smear:
The bad memory of Protestants applies to their own history as well. (p. 204)
It's irksome, as a non-Roman Catholic, to know that whatever our approach to anything in the ancient or medieval church, it will be criticized mercilessly by some in Rome. When things from the united church still speak to us and we still admire and preserve these things, we're accused of "borrowing" (as if we did not share a heritage) or "stealing" (as if we had no right at all to our common history); but for those things that do not speak to us we're collectively smeared with the charge of "bad memory" (others would charge ignorance or selectivity). Ahlquist in particular criticizes on both of these two opposite fronts, so that regardless of whether or not we believe that some medieval teaching has passed the test of time, either way we can be sure of criticism from the spirit of partisanship.

What does it mean when a critic criticizes a thing on inconsistent grounds? When Ahlquist reviews the inconsistent criticisms lodged against his own church in Rome, he takes these inconsistencies as proof of her truth, her breadth, and her vitality, and in some measure as proof of the opposition mentality of the critics. It is again disappointing that Ahlquist does not apply the same type of reasoning when the group in question is Protestant rather than Roman Catholic.

Here is one final example from Ahlquist of a common misrepresentation of facts:
The Medieval Age was a time of united and devout faith. (p. 136)
"United" faith in the Medieval Age? Ahlquist is not alone in arguing as if Protestants are completely unaware of the schisms -- and continuing divisions in the church -- that began long before Martin Luther was born. I'm not sure that we could say in good faith that the whole church had been united since the days of Chalcedon back in the 400's, and certainly not since the break with the Eastern Orthodox some centuries before Luther. Ahlquist accuses Protestants of being historically ignorant -- but then himself offers arguments that do not stand up to historical scrutiny. The sad truth is that persistent, unhealed divisions in the church have been a fact of life since at least the 400's, not merely since the 1500's. I wonder very much how the Copts, Eastern Orthodox, etc. view Alhquist's and others' practice of speaking as if they did not exist. Myself, I am tired of the Roman Catholics charging that Protestants have the entire and unique fault of splitting the church when it's a demonstrable historical fact that the church had not been united for centuries before that.

Pride, hatred, arrogance, greed, impatience, injustice, indifference, wilfull foolishness -- these are the things that have ruined the church. If the church were to become the strong and united body of Christ that we could together make it, in keeping with Christ's teachings, then people could nail debating points and reform suggestions to church doors all day long without causing a schism. Those who have read Luther's writings know that he never set out to cause a schism; it never entered his mind that the church was such a fragile thing that something he could do could break it. And still the divided church, such as it is, produces a steady stream of universal figures that all sides admire: Bach, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Bonhoeffer, Barth -- these have shown that the church is not entirely broken, even as we are. Our friends to the east might mention Stravinsky and Dostoevsky and Nabokov ...

The "Whore of Babylon" Again?
Now that we've seen some examples of injustice and provocation from someone on Rome's side, here are some examples from the Protestant side, culled from an email I recently saw in a public discussion group. Like the other, it is simply the most recent example I have seen. Obviously, a letter does not have the same length or selection as a book. This one has no respected author behind it, but has all the marks of a personal rant. Still, it contains some memorable examples of petty partisanship.

The letter had the look of something often-forwarded, and contained a list of supposedly scandalous heresies and human traditions adopted and perpetuated by the Roman Catholic Church in the last 1600 years. After calling Rome "the Whore of Babylon", it started its list of outrages with this less-than-stunning man-made tradition:
Wax candles introduced in church.
Wax candles? The first supporting reason for calling a group the "Whore of Babylon" is wax candles? It is mind-boggling. No reason is given why wax candles are bad, or what exactly the early Christians were supposed to have used for light that would have been acceptable until the lightbulb came along, or why exactly some other form of light would be preferable to wax candles. But while this leading complaint -- candles, of all things -- strikes my funny bone, I do want to figure out what the original author's objection was to candles.

If I were to guess as to the problem with candles, I'd guess that the brief ritual of lighting and extinguishing them at the begin and end of the worship service might be seen as a needless ritual, a tradition of human origin rather than divine origin. But if candles are going to be used as a source of light -- and I don't see how candles in themselves could be a problem -- then how many choices are there for how to light them? There are only a few choices for how to do anything: carelessly, or according to a set pattern, or according to modern tastes, or according to individual preferences. If candles are going to be used at all, using a pre-set pattern of lighting and extinguishing seems like a reasonable option. Lighting them with respect shown at the altar easily becomes a ritual handed down by tradition. If Christians have freedom in worship so long as certain limits aren't passed, why not freedom to light candles with respect? I can't see a problem so long as we don't make the mistake of thinking that our own internally-developed show of respect is actually a God-given command. Following that human tradition, then, becomes more a matter of fellowship and community. Teachings initiated by man and handed down across generations are not evil of themselves; they become a problem only when they compete with or take the place of teachings initiated by God and handed down across generations, when they set aside or interfere with or claim equal status with the things of God.

The same list of shocking, stunning, horrific things perpetuated by Rome contains entries such as
The Mass, as a daily celebration, adopted.
Confession of sin to the priest at least once a year.
To be sure, the list does contain a few mentions of things that Protestants in general hope Rome would re-consider, but they are lost in a sea of misguided fault-finding and vague criticisms of practices such as daily mass. Then there's the general tone of the letter. Besides being called "the whore of Babylon", Rome is also called heretical, idolatrous and pagan. With lists like these floating around where the doctrinal points are sometimes triflingly silly but the rhetoric is hateful and abrasive, it will be nearly impossible to get to any discussion of real issues.

The Ministry of Reconciliation
So long as we treat each other in ways calculated to create raw nerves, things can only get worse. Here's one thing the Roman Catholics and the Protestants have in common: both are home to some partisan spirits who would gleefully exacerbate the differences and widen the divide. In our willingness to tolerate spite, our own side suffers as well as the other. The Chesterton biography would have done Chesterton a better service without the occasionally bitter anti-Protestant rhetoric. The letter's list of doctrinal points of disagreement with Rome might conceivably have been a helpful list for discussion, if only it were ever intended as such. Instead, the author trotted out every imaginable complaint against Rome, with a result that seemed more damaging to its author than to Rome.

So long as we each allow our own side to treat the other badly, each side loses from its own hatred, and both sides lose some measure of brotherhood with each other. More importantly still, Christ himself is made to look bad by the horrid behavior of his ambassadors.
He gave us the ministry of reconciliation. ... He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. (I Cor 5:18-20)
When we cannnot even reconcile amongst ourselves, we have damaged our own credibility and effectiveness with the message of reconciliation. As Paul says, Christ gave us the ministry of reconciliation.

Related Reading: They're My Fathers Too.

More on inter-Christian rivalries and reconciliation coming soon.


Zachary B said...

Christ also gave us the message of grace and mercy. A challange to live it out, no doubt, but one for which Christians are called. It's time's like these that Wynonna Judd's Song, "Love can build a bridge" should be playing in the backgroud. A very insightful post.

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Very good post. It goes well with your posting of 1/11/2007 which was written with a spirit of trying to find Christian Love within disagreements.

I was posting earlier (3/16/2006, 3/17/2006, 6/15/2006) about something similar, but looking at it another way. I was trying to get at logical thinking and logical argument methods and hope that people wouldn't stoop to some of the argument devices that undermine their credibility.

Some of the things that are said by one church group about another don't stand the test of logical thinking, never mind if the content is based in reality or history.

I've read that if a group sees the viewpoints of another group as "wrong" rather than just "different," then the first group can see the second group as lesser. Which, in some people's minds, becomes bad which becomes evil. And then there can be no compromise. Black and White thinking.
Taking this way of thinking to its logical conclusion brings one to the underlying assumption, usually not stated or even thought about, is that I am right because I know more than other people and I read the Bible better than other people and I think better than other people. And maybe even, God spoke to me.

Sometimes a person may be called a Moderate or even a Liberal if he has the ability to step back and see that each side might have some valid points. Or the Moderate may be interested in learning more about various viewpoints. The conservative person, as I defined it above, then sees the Moderate as wishy washy rather than trying to look at issues with the spirit of God's love, as you posted on 1/11/2007.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thanks, both of you.

Zachary: Good song. I'm very interested in building bridges. Start the music!

P.S.: I'm building up to something, which will be more obvious in the next week.

I'm very interested in exploring better grounds for unity.

I'm really surprised at a definition that looks like this: liberals are those with the ability to see others' points, moderates are those interested in whether others have a point, and conservatives by contrast are those with neither the ability nor the interest in seeing whether others have a point; am I understanding you correctly?

By most standards, I'm generally but not always conservative (which I use in the way I'm used to the words, as reflecting views on certain political issues); and a good number of people on my blogroll are also conservative in that sense of the word, and yet they don't fit a view of conservatives which aligns people politically by their interest in fairness rather than their stand on various issues.

Take care & God bless

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Quite frankly, I don't want to see Conservatives as not willing to listen and look and Liberals as those that do. I'd like to see each group as people who have come to their positions after listening, looking and thinking. That would be my ideal. So, I'm not defining each group by being closed minded or open minded.

HOWEVER, I've been searching for more knowledge of why certain people hold the beliefs they do and especially why the more conservative Christians are against some of the newer trends in the American Church. What I've found, and admittedly I can't follow all thought and all links, is a trend in the conservative blog writers to not be willing to see that others might have a valid reason for their beliefs. And, I've found lots of shutting off of comments from people who are un-conservative, as well as name calling, etc.

Ditto if you watch some of the conservative political commentators on TV.

I am also influenced in my thinking on this by a study I heard quoted on the radio having to do with politically conservative people having a mind set of following a Father Figure and more liberal people of questioning and open minded attitude.

A couple of the blog writers I read are in churches that are more toward the conservative end of things, but these particular writers express appreciation for certain parts of other traditions. And they don't go around automatically putting down GROUPS that they may disagree with over some particular ideas or theology.

I hope that helps. I know I want to know more than just following exactly what my denomination teaches without just assuming it is RIGHT in all respects.

Weekend Fisher said...

P.S. said: << a study I heard quoted on the radio having to do with politically conservative people having a mind set of following a Father Figure ... >>

Y'know, if God is seen as a Father Figure by Christians, then that works out to saying "politically conservative people are more likely to be Christian" (and liberals are less likely to be Christian). Which is true, but (being a Christian myself) I'm not convinced that it's a bad thing instead of a good thing.

<< and more liberal people of questioning and open minded attitude. >>

Which, when translated, could just as easily mean "liberals are more likely to be skeptics or non-religious or anti-Christian" but painted in a good light.

Idiocy is in the eye of the beholder, lots of times.

DugALug said...


This is a great post. I got nothing to add, but thanks for sharing and I wanted you to know I read it. ;)

As a former Catholic, I know a lot of protestants who resent what wasn't taught in the Catholic church. I know that my priests never taught a cohesive message on salvation, though I know that they knew and believed in it. It was like some unspoken secret: that makes it tough for reconciliation, but I know God is bigger than this or any other squabble. Dialog is a great start, but in the end, it will be issues of the heart that matter most.

God Bless

Jerry Heath said...

The issue seems to be that folks associate ideas with people. In other words "if you have such and such an idea that is who you are."

Recently, I was at a Catholic church because that is where we vote. I picked up a copy of their parish newsletter just to see what was going on there.

Like any such newsletter it was pretty boring stuff, especially since I did not know any of the people.

But I saw that a lot of the articles were on one subject: "Just what does it mean to be a Catholic." I know some Protestant churches spend time on what it means to be a Methodist, or Lutheran, or whatever.

When we focus on just who or what we realy are we are doing it because we are vulnerable. We don't want to be left in a place where we are not recognizable for who or what we are. But we don't want to be polarized either. Or we shouldn't. If we are giving time and money to this organization we want to know it is reasonable to do that.

We do need to define who and what our group is so we can work together and accomplish something. The something is actually part of that self definition.

If any group does not define itself it will evaporate. The problem is that in the past that definition has been about who we are not more than who we are.

Dale Ahlquist said...

Your comments on my book are certainly fair. Your comments about me are not. I have no animosity toward Protestants. I can, of course, deny that I am being uncharitable, but if you feel no charity from me, I suppose it does no good to deny it. It simply means I have failed at charity, and I'm sorry. And so, taking a tip from Chesterton, I will try to defend not what I wrote but I what I meant. First of all, I am trying in this book to represent Chesterton's ideas (even if I do agree with them). You seem to like Chesterton, and so I hasten to point out that what I have written is building off his line "The world is living off its Catholic capital." While there were certainly a few patches of heresy in the Middle Ages, it was, I insist, a time of Christian unity, the like of which the world has never seen since, especially since the Protestant splintering. It cannot be seriously maintained that 20,000 plus denominations is a sign of Christian unity, since each of these denominations split off from another, each doing so because it claimed to have the sole possession of divine revelation. Chesterton's point is that while each new group began by claiming to have the whole truth, it has since softened its position to the idea that nobody has the whole truth. Most Protestant reformers would not recognize their churches today.

Again borrowing from Chesterton, I would say that the problem today is not that the Catholics and Protestants argue, but that they don't argue. They don't present their positions to each other in a meaningful and honest way. They avoid each other or they pretend the differences don't matter. Certainly a Protestant is my brother when Christianity is being attacked by atheists, agnostics, Muslims or Hittites or Hollywood. But if I am convinced that there is only one Holy Catholic and Apolistolic Church, with a leader whose lineage can be traced back to the Apostle to whom Jesus said, "Upon this rock (Peter) I will build my Church," then of course I am going to mention to my Protestant brother that he is separated from that Church. As a former Baptist, I know what it was like to be separated. I am also painfully aware as a convert that Catholics often say the wrong thing to Protestants and send them exactly in the opposite direction. I am truly sorry if that's what I've done.
-Dale Ahlquist

Weekend Fisher said...

Mr. Ahlquist:

I'm honored that you'd stop by to leave a comment here, and glad that you did. I have no idea whether you've had the time or inclination to read the neighboring posts that I've written, but it's definitely on my mind that Protestants and Roman Catholics (and other Christians as well) should be talking to each other. That's why I'm trying to get a Christian Reconciliation Carnival off the ground.

I think in your reply you touch on one of the main points of disagreement between Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, etc.: whether the "one holy catholic and apostolic church" which we all confess means you in Rome but not those in Wittenberg or Geneva, not those in Alexandria or Constantinople, etc. I'd respectfully submit that until we're all re-unified, it means none of us alone and apart from the others; that while we're divided, there is no one group that can justly claim to be the "one holy catholic and apostolic church" by itself.

Re: the infinite bickering/splintering and whether any faction contains the whole truth. It's almost like those overused plot lines about a person being split into two halves and each by itself tending towards the bizarre and imbalanced. I really think each group has lost something vital from disfellowship with the others. As a case in point, the conservative/liberal divide is too often similar to the "speak the truth in love" divide. One side prefers truth over love and wants to think it hasn't compromised love, but it has; one side prefers love over truth and wants to think it hasn't compromised truth, but it has. Which is to say that until we're re-unified, none of us is quite what we're meant to be.

In your comment, I thought the most insightful part of all was this: << They (Protestants and Roman Catholics) don't present their positions to each other in a meaningful and honest way. >>

As a show of good faith from me to you, and an earnest that your apology is accepted (assuming it was needed; it may not have been, if I'd misread your tone), then I'd be glad to link to you (or host a post from you, if you don't blog) for the upcoming Christian Reconciliation Carnival. This is purely an offer of opportunity for reconciliation, and show of brotherhood/sisterhood in hope of future reconciliation, not any wish to obligate you beyond your interest or purposes here. So, that much said, if you would like to contribute towards the first edition of the Christian Reconciliation Carnival, I'd be glad to host your post. I know it's probably beneath the dignity of an academic (not to mention outside the schedule), and no explanation is necessary if you choose not to do so. If I could be so bold as to suggest a topic, how about "10 things I wish every Protestant knew G.K. Chesterton said", by Dale Ahlquist? Of course I know Chesterton is capable of polarization as well as unification, so I'd have to trust to your good taste on the selection of quotes.

Again, first and foremost: thank you for taking the time to respond re: the search for a cease-fire in Protestant/Catholic polemics.

Take care & God bless

Dale Ahlquist said...

The truth/love dichotomy is of course explained by Chesterton in "Orthodoxy": truth that is pitiless vs. pity that is untruthful - a line it seems that I end up quoting everyday. But note that he says these "virtues gone wild" are a result of the breakup of Christendom.

Thanks for your kind invitation. I'm afraid that right now, the most I can offer are some lines from a little known Chesterton poem called "A Party Question." In it he refers to the corrupt Church officials at the time of the Reformation as "Bad men who had no right to their right reason," and to the Reformers as "Good men who had good reason to be wrong." It would be difficult to find a more succinct reading of Chesterton's views of the tragic breakup of European Christendom. He condemns the hierarchy and sympathizes with the reformers, but still defends the doctrine of the Church.

Beyond that, I will happily join you in prayer for Christian unity. ("that they all may be one..."John 17:21)
-dale ahlquist

teci said...

I'm an evangelical/Protestant who was raised in a Catholic elementary in a predominantly Catholic nation. Hence I often find myself sharing salvation by faith alone and not by works, and sola scriptura, and Jesus as the One Way to God: some of the main issues in the Catholic/Protestant split.

Here are some blog entries of mine regarding this (especially the series on "teci talks to a Catholic friend":

I'm very thankful to have come across your blog. I know in my head that personal attacks never help in any dialog and only widens the divide between any two parties, and yet I still lack grace in sharing my faith especially with those closest to me. :( still i put my trust in God who is faithful...

Thanks for being a very appropriate reminder of what we do (sharing about God and being His ambassadors) and why we do it. God bless! :)

La Mama Loca said...

You wrote in your comment:
"I'd respectfully submit that until we're all re-unified, it means none of us alone and apart from the others; that while we're divided, there is no one group that can justly claim to be the "one holy catholic and apostolic church" by itself."

And yet the Catholic Church has claimed this label for itself from the beginning, and is simply not going to change this definition. You certainly do not believe that the one holy catholic and apostolic church subsists in the Catholic Church (of which the "Roman" Church is only a part), but I wouldn't expect you to do so, as you are not Catholic. Every Catholic ought to believe this, however.

BJ said...

Hi! I thought you and your readers might be interested in some post-Easter news about Pope Benedict XVI...
The Pope's car is being auctioned off to raise money for Habitat for Humanity:
The bidding is already more than $200,000! Personally, I think this is a really fun and creative way to raise
money. The auction goes until April 14th if you and your readers want to check it out.

Nicole C said...
This comment has been removed by the author.