Finding our Way Back to Apostolic Christian Unity Amidst Diversity

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If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through.”  – C.S. Lewis

The ecumenical path to unity between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians winds around several doctrinal obstacles, however, because there are two undeniable cornerstones of the Christian Faith we share a common belief in – those being belief in the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit), and belief in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as our Redeemer, there are no barricades that would bar us from proceeding along this path to unity with one  another.  However, notwithstanding those  common beliefs, some doctrinal differences do arise.

That Which Separates Us

Based on scripture and tradition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter to the papacy, to which Protestants dissent.

This teaching implies that Christ transferred His function while on Earth, and authority over the church, to the Apostle Peter, who in turn transferred it to his successors, ending with the papacy (the succession of Popes in the Catholic Church).  This act of succession is viewed as the ongoing incarnation of Christ, and promulgates the belief that the church is necessary for salvation, apart from which, there is no salvation.

How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?  Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:  Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.   (Catechism of the Catholic Church – 846)

Protestantism (Evangelicalism) adheres to the belief that, based on scripture, salvation comes through Christ alone, by faith alone, and through grace alone, and that our own efforts or deeds are futile as a way to achieve salvation and eternal life.  Our ransom has already been paid on the cross by Jesus Christ, the sacramental Lamb of God – a gift to a  race of people (Adam’s race) born into sin, which includes every human being, both living and deceased, on this earth.  It is then a matter of acceptance and repentance by any individual who wishes eternal life with Him.

The Apostle Paul  gives summary to my experience in Romans 10:10, when he writes,  “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”

For in our age the temptation to presumption besets many, especially those who try with all their might to be just and good without knowing the righteousness of God, which is most bountifully and freely given us in Christ. They try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible.”  – Martin Luther

Although Martin Luther never intended to create a schism within Roman Catholic Church, intending instead, to proselytize theological reform within the church, the schism became the genesis of a Protestant movement that stretched across Europe, triggering a century of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, killing millions and devastating Europe.

As Protestantism spread, eventually other reformers picked up their mantle – one such reformer was John Wesley, who like Luther, sought reform within the church.  The 18th-Century movement started by Wesley, created a schism within the Church of England that eventually gave birth to Methodism.

Myself, a Methodist and Benedictine, I find a simple synopsis of my theology, embodied in these two verses from one of my favorite hymns, written by Horatio G. Spafford, more than three centuries after Luther’s Reformation began:

“My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul”

“And Lord, haste the day when the [my] faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.”

That Which Unites Us

So how can two religions, that for a century, were embattled in wars causing death and devastation, possibly co-exist – let alone find unity with each other?  It would seem that any possible bridge to that end, was blown-up centuries ago.

In “How Billy Graham shaped American Catholicism”, author Jon M. Sweeney describes the differences this way: 

“It is true that the way of becoming a Christian differs in Catholicism and Evangelicalism [Protestantism], and there are differences between how an evangelical [protestant] feels confident of eternal salvation following a “decision for Christ,” and what a Catholic reads in the Catechism about eternal security. Still, … there is something unmistakably important about unified Christians sharing an enthusiasm for faith in Christ across denominational lines.”   

The late Reverend Billy Graham began building bridges with Catholicism early in his ministry, in defiance of his core evangelical constituency at that time, and at significant risk to his ministry.  In his biography, “Just as I Am”, he said that the idea of Ecumenism began stirring in him when his ministry first began.

After meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1981, Graham recounted these words spoken to him by the Pope:  “We are brothers.”

Where relations between the two faiths had been distant and somewhat adversarial, the example set by these two leaders, resulted in the warming of relations between congregants of both faiths.

Unity of Spirit in the Midst of Diversity

During his imprisonment in Rome, the Apostle Paul exhorted the church to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

The “church” Paul is referring to in his exhortation, comes from the Greek word, “ekklesia”, meaning “a called-out assembly or congregation” – a congregation of believers in Jesus Christ.

Concern for achieving unity “involves the whole [universal] Church, faithful and clergy alike.   (Catechism of the Catholic Church – emphasis added

So together, let us put aside the past and our doctrinal differences, and stand in community with one another in unity of spirit – Catholic and Protestant lay men and women, priests and pastors – as a called-out congregation, sharing an enthusiasm for faith in Christ, and proclaiming His name to all the world, in the bond of peace, to the Glory of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “as always before, so now and evermore.