If the Reformation's Over, Can We Dance?

Feb 02, 2000 |J. Budziszewski

After centuries of struggles, are Protestants and Catholics really all that different? The answer could affect your love life.

I was about to begin my lunch when someone plopped down at my table at the Edge of Night.

"Hi, Professor Theophilus. I wonder — hey, is that sauerkraut I see sticking out of your sandwich?"

"Hello, Don. Haven't you ever seen a Reuben sandwich?"

"Seen one? I haven't even heard of one. What is it?" He gave my plate a hungry look and ordered two large pizzas with double cheese and pepperoni.

"A Reuben sandwich, you gastronomical ignoramus, is corned beef and mild German sauerkraut on Jewish rye with Russian dressing."

"German sauerkraut on — yeah. That reminds me of what I wanted to talk to you about."

Knowing how Don's mind works, it wasn't hard to guess what he meant. "You're dating a girl, and she's either German, Russian, or Jewish."

"Close. She's Catholic, and I'm only thinking about it."

"That's not close."

"Close enough. But I'm Protestant. We met in a pro-life group. What do you think? Could a relationship between us — you know, work?"

I laughed. "Why don't you bring me a hard question some time, Don?"

"Sorry."

"I haven't even met her."

"She took your class last semester on — well, maybe I shouldn't say. But look here, I'm not asking whether she and I could get along."

"Good!"

"I'm just asking the theological question."

"What's 'the theological question'?"

He stalled. "Well, I know that believers should marry only other believers. Second Corinthians six-something."

"Six-fourteen."

"And I know that applies to dating too, because dating is for finding a suitable marriage partner."

"Glad to hear you say it. So what's your question?"

He looked embarrassed. "Are Catholics Christians?"

I winced. "Has someone been telling you that they can't be?"

"Yeah, my grandfather Smaczny. I figured he ought to know, because he used to be Catholic himself."

"What made him decide Catholics aren't Christians?"

"Old family story. When he was little in Poland, he was taught that you earn your way into heaven by being good. He tried to be good, but he was terrified that he wouldn't make the grade and would wind up in hell. When he moved here he lived with his aunt, and she showed him in the Bible where Paul says we're 'justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law." When he asked the priest about it, the priest got angry and threw him out. So his eyes were opened, and he converted."

When I didn't speak, Don waved his hand in front of my eyes. "Prof? You awake?"

"I was thinking about how to answer you."

"Don't worry, Professor T. I'm pretty hard to insult."

I laughed wryly. "That's the least of my worries."

"Well then?"

"All right, let's start from the beginning. Because of our age-old rebellion against God, we humans are in a desperate situation. Not only are we separated from Him, but nothing we can do by our own power can bridge the infinite gap. He Himself provides the bridge, in Jesus Christ. When we say Jesus is our 'Savior,' we mean He's our Rescuer. When He died on the Cross, what He was doing was putting Himself in our place — taking upon Himself the penalty that we deserved but couldn't pay. Do you understand all that?"

"Sure. That's just basic Christian stuff."

"Right. Now what it means to be a Christian is to be in a redeeming relationship with Jesus — to let the Rescuer rescue you. You have to put your whole faith and trust in Him as the one who bears your sins for you. He's the rope. Faith is holding onto it. Now do you see what that implies?"

"That rescue is a gift?"

"Right. You become acceptable to God not because He accepts something you do for Him, but because you accept something He does for you. Trustfully accepting it — that's what faith is. As theologians put it, we're 'justified by grace alone through faith alone' — we're made right with God by a pure gift which is accepted through pure trust."

"But what about the Catholics?" Don asked.

"I'm getting to that. A Catholic who trustingly accepts God's grace through Christ is justified in exactly the same way as a Protestant who trustingly accepts God's grace through Christ. Now your grandfather's charge was that a good Catholic can't do that. He said that the Catholic Church denies what we've just been saying — denies that justification is by grace alone through faith alone — teaches that we earn our way into heaven. Of course that's the same thing Martin Luther said back in the days when Protestants first broke away from Rome."

"Yeah, I hear about that every year on Reformation Sunday. Grampa loves that day. He feels about Reformation Sunday the way kids do about Christmas. So wasn't Luther right about the Catholic Church?"

"It's true that in 1563, at the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church did seem to confirm Luther's charge by declaring, 'If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone ... let him be anathema,' which means 'condemned.'"

"I know that too."

"But it's not so simple."

"What do you mean? What could be simpler that the Reformers saying 'Justification is by faith alone' and the Catholics saying 'No, it's not'?"

I sighed. "In the first place, Protestants and Catholics have sometimes used the word 'justification' in different senses. So when the Reformers said 'Yes' and the Trent said 'No,' it's not certain that Trent was denying precisely the same doctrine that the Reformers were affirming."

He thought a moment. "Then what about my grandfather? You don't think he was lying about what he was taught, do you?"

"No, I don't. But you know, Don, your family isn't the only one that hands down old stories. A couple of weeks ago a Catholic student of mine told me a story her family had handed down. Her grandfather had grown up Protestant. One day when he was a young man — it was a weekday — he walked into the church unexpectedly and found the deacon in the arms of a young woman who wasn't his wife. When he confronted the man, he replied, 'You can't judge me. So long as I believe in Jesus, I'm acceptable to God.' She ended her story just as you ended yours: 'So his eyes were opened, and he converted'."

Don was horrified. "But 'justification by grace alone through faith alone' doesn't mean that it doesn't matter what you do!"

"That's just my point. Huge gaps can open up between what a doctrine really means, and what filters down to the people in the pews. That happens in both Protestant and Catholic churches. In the name of Catholic doctrine, your grandfather was taught that God makes us earn our way into heaven; in the name of Protestant doctrine, her grandfather was taught that just because God doesn't make us earn our way into heaven, it doesn't matter how we live. Yet the former isn't authentic Catholic doctrine any more than the latter is authentic Protestant doctrine."

"It isn't Catholic doctrine?"

"At least not now, Don, not today."

"How do you know that?"

"Because in recent times, the Catholic Church has officially declared that justification is by grace alone, through faith alone."

"Really?"

"Sure. For example, have you ever heard of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification?"

"No. Is it something new?"

"Yes and no. It was signed only recently, but it's been in the works for years."

"Who signed it?"

"Representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church. Guess when it was signed."

"I haven't a clue."

"October 31, 1999 — Reformation Day."

"No kidding! What does it say?"

I laughed. "It's pretty long, Don. I'll show you where to read it for yourself on the internet. But the key point is this. Both sides agreed that 'By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not by any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.' Although they still disagreed about the details, they agreed about the essentials and declared that the mutual condemnations of the Reformation era no longer apply to the partners in the discussion."

Don gaped. "Then is the Reformation over?"

His question was so good-hearted, yet so nave, that for a few moments I couldn't answer; I was trying to hold in both laughter and tears. "I'm sorry, Don," I said finally. "That's going to take somewhat longer."

"Why?"

"In the first place, the Lutheran World Federation can't even speak for all Lutherans, much less all Protestants. Much more work is necessary before everyone can be brought to agreement. In the second, the Joint Declaration concerns only the biggest of the issues that divide Catholics and Protestants — there are still lots of others."

"Then what does the Declaration accomplish? Anything?"

"Yes! Yes! It accomplishes an answer to the question you asked me at the beginning."

Don looked sheepish. "What question was that? I forgot."

"You asked whether Catholics can be Christians."

"And the answer is — ?"

"It's 'Yes!' Of course there may be a good many Catholics who misunderstand Catholic doctrine and put their trust in their own efforts instead of in the sacrifice of Christ — just as there may be a good many Protestants who misunderstand Protestant doctrine and do the same thing. Because people so easily become confused, it's probably a good idea to regard the church itself as a mission field. But if we consider what the two sides officially teach, the problem is gone."

"I understand that."

"And it's gone on both sides, Don, which is very important."

"On both sides? Now you're losing me again."

"Think of it this way. Protestants need assurance that the Catholic Church understands that we can't earn our way into heaven, and that our reconciliation with God is a pure gift accepted by pure faith. I think the Declaration gives them that. But don't forget that Catholics also need a certain assurance about Protestants."

"They do?"

"Sure. They need assurance that Protestants understand that a 'faith' unaccompanied by a reformation of life isn't genuine faith at all, and that there can't be any advance in holiness without Christian discipline. I think the Declaration gives them that, too."

Don's eyes lit up. "If Catholics can be Christians — then the Catholic girl I told you about — well, I'd have to see if she really gets it about faith — and I guess she's have to find out if I really get it about reformation of life — but if we did that — and we happened to get serious about each other — then we could make a marriage work."

"I didn't say that you could make a marriage work!"

"You mean we couldn't?"

"I didn't say that either! Who am I to tell you that? It's just that it's not easy to make a marriage work even between a Presbyterian and a Pentecostal, and they're both Protestants! Besides, it isn't fair to the children for the parents to disagree over religious questions; they're likely to grow up agnostics."

"So where does that leave us?"

"I think you and the girl have a lot of things to talk about. You're going to have to find out what you can agree about and what you can't."

Don pondered. "Well, Prof," he said finally, "Don't be surprised if I show up again asking you to explain Purgatory or Saints or Sacraments or something."

"Okay," I grinned. Don popped the last bit of pizza into his mouth, swallowed, waved, and shot out the door.

Just as I was returning to my long-forgotten Reuben sandwich, I sensed someone at my shoulder. Looking up I recognized a tall young woman I had taught before. "Professor Theophilus?"

"That's me."

"I was in your Comparative Religion class last semester."

"I remember. You're Theresa. We talked about some Christian things during office hours one day. Hello. What's up?"

She plopped down exactly the way Don does. A suspicion stole into my mind.

"Well, it's like this. I'm Catholic, but I met this nice Protestant boy in the pro-life group, and I think he's interested in me. So what I'm wondering is —"

My suspicion turned into foreboding.

"— Are Protestants Christians?"

Copyright 2000 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.

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