Earlier this year, I wrote a CWR essay identifying a seriously harmful legacy of the Reformation: Luther’s emphasis on the individuality of conscience. There is another side of the story, however, as we evaluate the legacy of the Reformation. In the last five hundred years, numerous elements of the Protestant tradition have influenced the Catholic Church, shaping the practice of the faith for many Catholics. Increasingly, we see Protestants coming into the Catholic Church and bringing elements of their Christian practice with them.
Making room for the Protestant tradition
The Church has now officially accepted a Protestant patrimony within the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict’s groundbreaking Anglicanorum Coetibus allows an “Anglican patrimony” to be preserved within the Catholic Church. The Anglican Use ritual which has arisen since, Divine Worship: The Missal (2015), draws upon the Book of Common Prayer authored by the Catholic priest and bishop turned Protestant, Thomas Cranmer (who secretly married after coming under the influence of Protestants on the mainland). Cranmer was executed for heresy by Queen Mary. Ironically, the incorporation of an Anglican liturgical patrimony has been seen by many as a return to a more traditional liturgy.
The English Dominican, Fr. Aidan Nichols, speaks of how the Anglican ordinariates represent a recovery of lost experience on both sides. Nichols explains “the tendency of the Church of England, despite its Reformation origins, somehow never quite to be able to put behind it its Catholic past. Hence the sporadic, not continuous, and never definitive yet always unmistakable, resurgence of something of a Catholic ethos in the Church by law established, an ethos expressed in worship, in literature, in theology.” If Catholics are to re-evangelize England, Nicholas argues the Church must represent the nation and needs Anglo-Catholics to “represent its own missing centuries” of English history. This claim is true not only of England, but for reunion with Protestants more generally—the Church must present “herself as the natural form of the spirituality of our country, historically considered.” I would explain this more broadly as meaning the natural development and fulfillment of any legitimate spiritual, theological, and pastoral insights of the last five hundred years.
The movement to recognize and even embrace positive elements of Protestantism could be traced to Vatican II’s decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio: “Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church” (4). John Paul articulated this even more boldly in Ut Unum Sint by asserting the Church’s need to embrace and serve the positive reality and aspirations of all Christians: “I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”
Both Ut Unum Sint and Anglicanorum Coetibus can be seen as ways of trying to move beyond the deadlock that arose between Catholics and Protestants. The Church’s catholicity can enfold even traditions that arose in opposition to her authority, so long as they truly reflect the Gospel and not this opposition itself.
Evaluating the Reformation’s legacy
For five hundred years, civil war has raged in Christendom, to the point where there isn’t much of Christendom left. Much of this time, we have conceived an “us vs. them” mentality, between Catholics and Protestants. This attitude is not surprising, given martyrdoms on both sides and the fact that religious division fueled political unrest. After five hundred years, we can recognize other ways in which the religious experience of Protestants has come to effect Catholics. Some may be negative, but others are more positive.
We can look at Protestantism from two sides. First, its rejection of the central role of mediation in Christianity—the mediation of the authority of the Magisterium, the physical mediation of the sacraments, the mediation of the prayer of the saints and Our Lady, and even the role of our own nature and free will in salvation. This aspect of Protestantism we must reject, even as Catholics have been tempted to follow these trends the last five hundred years. Second, on the positive side there have been devotional practices and theological insights that can enrich our understanding and practice of our common Christian faith. The first example of Catholics responding to Protestant practice goes back to Luther’s popularization of the catechism format using the printing press. Luther wrote his first catechism in 1529 (drawing upon medieval precedents), with major Catholic catechisms not coming for a couple of decades, such as Canisius’ first catechism in 1555. Luther popularized a more traditional form of catechesis, but it took Catholics a little while to respond.
Fr. Louis Bouyer, himself a former Lutheran minister, points us to how the Church fulfills the genuine, positive principles of the Reformation in his The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (as opposed to the distortions of the faith it introduced), influenced in part by nominalism:
In reality, the real tenets of Catholicism, if seen as they are and not through a distorting lens, bring the Reformation principles the support refused to them by the structure actually made for them, and which it is bound to go on refusing so long as it is not itself reformed, that is, until the decision is made to return to those essentials of the Church it caused to be misconstrued and rejected. . . . We shall be led to conclude that complete allegiance would bring about in its full splendor the Reformation only begun, would bring in that way a reconciliation between the Protestant movement and the Church, in a Reformation at last achieved.
More recently Rodney Stark looked at the relationship of Catholicism and Protestantism from a different angle. His book Reformation Myths speaks of the unintended benefit of the Reformation for Catholicism, stemming from a healthy competition that broke the Church out of complacency: “The Catholic Church actually thrives on Protestant competition and is far more successful and effective when forced to confront it.” He looks at length at the decrepitude of the Catholic Church in Latin America before the arrival of American, Protestant missionaries and how they reawakened the Church. Actually, he says, the Church began imitating some of the methods and practices of the thriving Pentecostal communities.
Building on the insights of Bouyer and Stark, I suggest there are three major ways in which Protestantism has influenced the Catholic Church:
I. Some elements of the Catholic tradition have been picked up and often given more emphasis by Protestants.
II. Other elements reflect a more uniquely Protestant spirituality.
III. Finally, we can recognize a development of the Christian tradition that has happened independently of the events of the Reformation and conflicts with Catholics.
I. Catholic elements given more emphasis by Protestants
Scripture study: The Bible lay at the heart of the Protestant controversy. Luther ascribed authority to the Bible alone and spent his time in hiding translating the Bible into German. Luther’s translation was not even close to the first into German, but it is true that (as with his catechism) he used the printing press to popularize his translation in a novel way. Combined with his teaching on sola scriptura and individual interpretation, this created a much greater emphasis on personal reading and study of the Bible.
This Protestant emphasis combined with modern, secular methods of historical interpretation created longstanding misunderstandings on both sides that Catholics don’t take the Bible very seriously. Thankfully, this has been changing tremendously and has been given a huge impetus with a large influx of Protestant converts, especially pastors, into the Church. The average Catholic is now much more likely to read the Bible regularly and to participate in a Bible study.
Personal evangelization: At first, following the Reformation, Catholics were much likely to emphasize evangelization (except maybe compared to zealous Calvinists). Catholic evangelization, however, tended to focus on the missions, which were conducted largely by religious orders. The early modern period was an explosive time for the growth of Catholicism, but Protestantism tended to settle into local territories in Europe and did not tend to produce many converts even in the colonial period.
This began to change in the 19th century, and in the last hundred years Protestants have surpassed Catholics in their zeal for evangelization. Unlike the institutional focus of Catholic evangelization, Protestants have tended to emphasize the need for personal testimony and witness. This has placed evangelization more in the square of the everyday Christian life and as a duty for all Christians, not just the missionary. Paul VI, expanding upon Ad Gentes, sought to refocus Catholics on the duty of every Christian to evangelize (see Evangelii Nuntiandi), a call strengthened by John Paul II’s push for a New Evangelization.
II. Elements reflecting a more uniquely Protestant spirituality
Emphasizing a personal relationship with Jesus: It would be absurd to assert that Catholics have not emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus. Nonetheless, the Protestant rejection of mediation has led to a much more focused approach to relating to Christ in a personal, not just institutional, manner. It can be a temptation for Catholics to emphasize the visible aspects of the faith to the detriment of the interior, though the saints provide a constant reminder of the priority of holiness.
Luther emphasized the individual relationship with Jesus, rooted in faith, which serves as the foundation of Reformation theology. This idea was developed further in Lutheran pietism and the great revivals in America, which led to modern day evangelicalism. We are now seeing an increased emphasis on the need for a personal encounter with Christ in Catholic teaching. For instance, the first paragraph of Deus Caritas Est of Benedict XVI provides one of the most quoted lines from the Magisterium in recent literature: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” This line is quoted so often now, because we have not emphasized this as much as Protestants and are making a correction.
Person-centered liturgy: We’ve already seen how Anglican worship now finds a place within the Catholic tradition. Many would argue further that the Mass of Paul VI itself presents a meeting of the Catholic and Protestants traditions. Having taught Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars, detailing the forced imposition of liturgical change by the English crown, my students needed no direction in making connections to the liturgical changes following Vatican II (some made officially, others spontaneously). Catholics have experienced liturgical changes that mirror the Reformation in many ways.
Generally speaking, we could list a few characteristics of Protestant liturgy that have influenced the way Catholics now worship. For Protestants, worship is instructive, focused more on preaching and congregational singing. It emphasizes clarity and simplicity over mystery and complex ritual. It is celebrated in the vernacular, which furthers emphasizes clarity and the instructive nature of worship. It also emphasizes the experience of the community over the transcendent, which is why ministers face the people, rather than engaging in a common orientation to the Cross. Catholic worship had tended to emphasize the interior, mystical union with the sacrifice of Christ over these elements. Because Protestantism has shaped the modern West, liturgical inculturation has taken a Protestant direction.
III. Developments independent of the Reformation and conflicts with Catholics
Charismatic gifts: Other than the Anglican Ordinariates, the influence of Pentecostalism represents the fullest entrance of a Protestant tradition into the Catholic Church through the charismatic renewal. This falls into the third category, because it does not relate to the Reformation directly, but to an offshoot movement begun around 1900. Nevertheless, Pentecostalism grew out of the holiness movements and evangelical revivals of the previous centuries. Though some would argue that the reemergence of these gifts simply presents a recovery of the tradition (and there are no doubt biblical precedents), it is clear that the charismatic renewal draws upon a unique manifestation and expression of these gifts that emerged within the Pentecostal movement.
The elements of the charismatic renewal include particular ways of prayer and the manifestation of spiritual gifts. Some of these characteristics would include praise and worship, speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing. Although these gifts manifested to Catholics only in the 1960s (at Duquesne University in 1966), the Church and especially the Popes since have been strongly supportive of this movement and the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services was approved as an association of the faithful in 1993. Numbering now over 120,000,000, charismatic Catholics just celebrated a golden jubilee of the renewal this year with Pope Francis. In 1975, Paul VI asked “How could this ‘spiritual renewal’ not be a chance for the Church and the world?” Four years later John Paul II added: “I am convinced that this movement is a very important component of the entire renewal of the Church.”
Personal discipleship: Even though discipleship is a common expression of the Christian tradition and clearly expressed in the Bible, as an evangelical method of mentorship it represents a new development. A greater focus on discipleship came along with the emphasis on evangelization. Once again, Catholics have relied on structures, such as the parish, schools, and sacramental preparation and have not been as quick to embrace the need for small group formation and mentorship. Many ministries and parish programs now look to discipleship as the future for growth and renewal.
Catholics have looked directly to evangelicals for methods on how to disciple. Curtis Martin spoke of FOCUS as a Catholic response to CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), Navigators, and Intervarsity. Shery Weddell’s popular book, Forming Intentional Disciples, adapted the thresholds of conversion from Everts and Schaupp’s I Once Was Lost. Also, I asked a friend who is an expert on the methods of discipleship what the best book on the topic is and he recommended the work of an evangelical pastor, LeRoy Eim’s The Lost Art of Disciple Making.
The fifth centennial of the beginning of the Reformation provides an opportunity not just to emphasize the real and serious errors of Luther and other reformers, but also to ponder a new, shared tradition which has developed over the course of the course of the last five hundred years. Christopher Dawson pointed to a greater shared life of Catholics and Protestants within contemporary society (especially the United States). He opens The Dividing of Christendom by speaking of a new opportunity for unity that this shared culture represents:
The movement of history, which for Christians in some way reflects the action of divine providence, has put an end to the social division of Christendom which followed the religious revolution of the 16th century. Hence it is now our business to see that the inner division in our culture should also be overcome by a progressive movement of intellectual understanding, the reconstitution of a common world of discourse and of a new dialogue between Catholics and Protestants.
Dawson points to the need for shared experience to create new Christian unity. Even if the Reformation was founded upon the erroneous conscience and teachings of Martin Luther, the lived experience of Protestants has created points of contact that can be embraced by Catholics. God may be preparing us for unity through the shared practices I’ve mentioned. In His providence, He may lead us to work through the theological divisions through greater sympathy and cooperation. It may be that more elements of Protestantism will find a home in the Catholic Church. Through the Anglican ordinariates and broader influences, we face the prospect, at least in some measure, of a shared tradition and culture.