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The “Protestant” Catholics

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My favorite religious writer is John Henry Newman (1801-90), whom I first discovered in my mid-twenties when I read his The Idea of a University. Every so often I go back to Newman and binge-read him for a few weeks.  I am currently in the midst of one of those binges.

Newman wrote and delivered an immense number of sermons in both the Protestant half of his life and the Catholic half.  The other day I happened to read one of his Catholic sermons, titled “Faith and Private Judgment.”  He argued there that Protestants don’t have faith in the sense in which Catholics have faith.

Catholics, he said, are docile.  They receive the doctrines of the Church as true, without reserving the right to judge these doctrines; without reserving the right to decide for themselves whether or not these doctrines are true.

This is not to say that Catholics exercise no judgment.  No, they have to decide for themselves whether or not the Catholic Church (that is, the Roman Church headed by the pope) is the true Church originally created nearly two millennia ago by Jesus Christ.  But once they decide, as Newman himself decided when he was in his mid-forties, that the Church of Rome is the true Church, they renounce any right to judge the doctrines of the Church. From that point on, they listen and receive.

Protestants, on the other hand, believe they have the right to judge the doctrines of Christianity; the right to decide if these doctrines are true or false.  This is the famous Protestant principle of Private Judgment, a principle that appeared in the Christian world at the time of the Reformation.

Protestantism had rejected the teaching authority of the pope and his bishops, replacing this rejected authority with the authority of the Bible – “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible,” as somebody later put it.  But this gave rise to a new difficulty.  Granted that the Bible is an infallible teacher, who is to decide authoritatively what the Bible actually says?

It cannot be, as it was for Catholics, the pope and bishops, for Protestants had rejected them.

Theoretically, the authoritative interpreter of the Bible might be a future Church Council.  But in practice there would never again be a Council that Protestants could accept.  Trent was an all-Catholic Council, no Protestants in attendance.  And there has never been an all-Protestant Council. How could there be, given the fragmentation of Protestantism?

Perhaps kings and other rulers could give the authoritative interpretation of the Bible?  But this was too obvious an absurdity for anybody really to believe it. For how could a king be expected to know the meaning of the Bible better than any sincere minister or layman?

In the end, Protestantism had no choice but to allow individual persons to decide for themselves what the Bible says.  Catholic critics pointed out an obvious problem that would arise from this principle of Private Judgment: if twenty people read the Bible, they might well come up with twenty different interpretations.  This principle of Private Judgment would lead to the fragmentation of Christianity – as indeed it has.

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Over the centuries, efforts have been made by Protestantism to prevent or hinder or mitigate or correct this fragmentation. In particular, three strategies have been tried.

Persecution:  For example, in Geneva, Calvin burned Michael Servetus.  In England, Queen Elizabeth persecuted Catholics and Puritans.  In New England, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay persecuted Roger Williams, Ann Hutchinson, and the Quakers.

Ecumenism:  Denominations toned down their hostility toward one another; or co-operated in various ways; or actually merged.

Christian morality:  Doctrine was downplayed in order to emphasize what all Protestants agreed on, morally; and it was held that morality is the essence of Christianity while doctrine is of secondary, if not merely ornamental, importance.

None of these strategies worked, including the last, the collapse of which we have witnessed in our lifetime.  In the Protestant world of the USA today, there is some universal agreement on morality.  But not much.

For instance, all Protestants agree that it is wrong to rob banks or to hit your grandmother with a baseball bat.  But when it comes to sexual morality and abortion, liberal Protestants and conservative Protestants are in radical disagreement.  They couldn’t be further apart.

Conservatives still adhere to the ancient Christian teachings that, e.g., fornication, unmarried cohabitation, homosexual sodomy, and abortion are grave sins.  Liberals, by contrast, hold that (at least in many circumstances) none of these is sinful.

But when conservatives accuse liberals of disregarding the Bible, liberals reply: “Not at all.  As good Protestants we have the right of Private Judgment, just as surely as Luther, Calvin, John Knox, and Cotton Mather had that right.  As we interpret the Bible, we understand that the great New Testament injunctions ‘love your neighbor’ and ‘judge not’ nullify all the old taboos.  Jesus is saying that today’s Christians should endorse abortion and same-sex marriage. Jesus is up-to-date, and so are we – and you poor conservatives are not.”

If Private Judgment is the distinctive characteristic of a Protestant, then most American Catholics today are de facto Protestants.  It is the increasingly rare Catholic who receives the teachings of the Church the way Newman held to be the correct way, the way of faith, the way of docile reception.

Just like non-Catholic Americans, Catholics claim the right to think for themselves about all things – including religious truth. Hence tens of millions of American Catholics, practicing that good old Protestant thing, Private Judgment, disagree with the Church when it comes to contraception, premarital sex, abortion, and same-sex marriage – and (I’d guess, but I’m not quite sure) the Divinity of Christ, the Real Presence of the Eucharist, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection.

To a very great extent, American Catholicism has become a form of Protestantism.  And worse still, a form of liberal Protestantism.

*Image: The Apostle Paul explains the tenets of faith in the presence of King Agrippa, his sister Berenice, and the proconsul Festus by Vasily Surikov, 1875 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

David Carlin

David Carlin

David Carlin is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.