Protestantism in the Catholic Church: The emergence of a shared tradition?

Here are three major ways in which Protestantism has influenced the Catholic Church.

Bishop Steven J. Lopes raises the chalice during his Feb. 2 episcopal ordination Mass at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Galveston-Houston. Bishop Lopes is the first bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter: which serves former Anglicans living in full communion with the Catholic Church. (CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr.)

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.

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About Dr. R. Jared Staudt 65 Articles
R. Jared Staudt PhD, serves as Director of Content for Exodus 90 and as an instructor for the lay division of St. John Vianney Seminary. He is author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option (Angelico Press), as well as editor of Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age (Catholic Education Press). He and his wife Anne have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.


  1. By virtue of being Christians, Protestants in an imperfect way have some participation in the life of the Church. Hence there are some things that Catholics will share with them, and a few aspects of our Catholic faith that we may come to understand anew after reflecting on Protestant practices.

    But great care must be taken in shifting through the great bulk of religious practices that have poured out in the wake of Luther’s rebellion. Dr. Staudt never clearly defines what he counts as Protestantism, so beyond Anglicans, and presumably Lutherans, and perhaps other “main stream” groups (whatever those may be), we have conundrum. Especially given the American religious experience — with all sorts of Shakers, Mary Baker Eddy and her Christian Scientists, Jehovahs Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and even Mormons, etc. — all of whom have roots in the Protestantism of their time and place, this “learning from the Protestants” gets a lot more complicated and perilous for the Catholic-in-the-pew than Dr. Staudt avers. Best to not go in too much for this stuff, but keep to the faith of our fathers as Hiliare Belloc said.

  2. “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.”

    Sed contra, “the lived experience of Protestants” over the past 500 years has irrefutably shown as a matter of objective, historical reality that instead of creating “points of contact” the sects have not only themselves degenerated into thousands of contradictory sub-sects but also that their belief and praxis have progressively discarded divine dogmas (the Immaculate Conception, Virgin Birth, Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God, Resurrection, Assumption, the existence of Purgatory and Hell) and contradicted the natural law (indissolubility of marriage, pre-marital and extra-marital sex, contraception, in vitro fertilization and surrogacy, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality/gay “marriage”). The article’s argument is fallacious in presenting Protestant “points of contact” as if they were somehow Protestant “practices,” “emphases,” creations, or traditions when in fact all of them, each and every, are nothing but bleeding fragments that have been torn violently from the Mystical Body of Christ that is the Roman Catholic Catholic Church and have been invariably twisted and distorted by their Protestant adaptations (viz., to give but one example of myriads, the “once saved, always saved” Protestant heresy deriving from “a personal relationship with Jesus”).

    A “shared tradition and culture” between Protestants and Catholics will be never be created by a syncretism of flawed and inadequate “points of contact” sprung and nurtured from a foundation of heretical dogmatic and moral deviations but only by the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, as Pope Pius XI has stated eloquently in Mortalium Animos:

    “So, Venerable Brethren, it is clear why this Apostolic See has never allowed its subjects to take part in the assemblies of non-Catholics: for the union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it. To the one true Church of Christ, we say, which is visible to all, and which is to remain, according to the will of its Author, exactly the same as He instituted it. During the lapse of centuries, the mystical Spouse of Christ has never been contaminated, nor can she ever in the future be contaminated, as Cyprian bears witness: “The Bride of Christ cannot be made false to her Spouse: she is incorrupt and modest. She knows but one dwelling, she guards the sanctity of the nuptial chamber chastely and modestly.” The same holy Martyr with good reason marveled exceedingly that anyone could believe that “this unity in the Church which arises from a divine foundation, and which is knit together by heavenly sacraments, could be rent and torn asunder by the force of contrary wills.” For since the mystical body of Christ, in the same manner as His physical body, is one, compacted and fitly joined together, it were foolish and out of place to say that the mystical body is made up of members which are disunited and scattered abroad: whosoever therefore is not united with the body is no member of it, neither is he in communion with Christ its head.”

  3. As a convert to Catholicism, let me assure you that as I look around at my cradle Catholic friends, I sometimes wonder why I bothered to convert at all. They have become more Protestant than Catholic. The music in my parish is more often than not strictly Protestant. When you hear “The Old Rugged Cross” sung as a communion meditation it can be rather jarring. I walk into a Catholic friend’s home or place of business and I find the TV on with Joyce Meyers or Pat Robertson preaching. If the radio is playing the music is cute choruses and current groups with a rock band sound (not even the great OLD classic Protestant hymns. In the 25 (nearly) years since I have become a Catholic, mass has gone from being a beautiful and reverent hour to a “let’s get this over with and get out of here event”. The Protestant tradition is I am afraid already firmly established in our church, and more importantly, in the minds of the people in the pew.

    • You owe to to yourself to find a parish where the traditional Latin Mass (now referred to as the “Extraodinary Form”) is offered and make it your own. On behalf of 2,000 years of Catholic saints, doctors of the Church, mystics, scholars, musical and artistic geniuses, and generations of your own ancestors, I guarantee unreservedly that you will find that for which you have long been searching.

      • You should point out that the parish still has to be under the authority of the local bishop. Those Latin Masses that are done by those who left as a result of Vatican II are not valid.

        • They are valid in almost all cases and certainly so if done by the SSPX, but they are illicit without the permission of the local bishop.

        • Those Masses are “valid,” but not licit. Although the bishops ordained by Archbishop LeFebvre were excommunicated (excommunications which were revoked by Pop Benedict), lay-people following these Masses were never excommunicated. The extremes of these congregations are no greater than those of an average Protestantized Catholic parish today.

  4. Christopher Dawson is a favorite historian. He likely hadn’t envisioned today’s effort by the Vatican to catapult the Church into the world without retaining its doctrinal attire. Naked and afraid many are staggered. Kay Larsen who just came into the Church has misgivings and points out the disparity of faith especially among those of us born Catholic. Yet the Church I’m convinced will increasingly depend more on Catholics who have left Protestantism, who have left for what Catholicism really stands for and are the vanguard of spiritual renewal if not for all at least for those destined for salvation. Evident in the few faithful voices of Catholic websites. My sense is reconciliation will not occur thru ecumenical dialogue. It will occur per force. Due to the exigencies of life or death circumstances I experienced in Africa, when what we had in common with each other Catholic, Dutch Reformed Church, Seventh day Adventists, Anglicans brought us together as believers in Christ. Catholics should realize that viable Biblical criticism, access to scriptures, emphasis on the significance of the Holy Spirit was prompted by Protestants. And a simplicity of practice based on goodness. If we are at present in the last throes of the Old Order a new order of faith and reason, practice in Spirit and Truth will replace, and prepare us to meet Christ appearing to all at the right hand of the Father.

  5. ” we see Protestants coming into the Catholic Church and bringing elements of their Christian practice with them.”

    coming into the Patriarchate of Rome…

  6. “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.”

    Healing of the Western divisions will more likely happen when the Patriarchate of Rome fully embraces a Patristic renewal.

  7. Modern day protestantism has nothing to do with the genuine, magisterial Reformation (Luther/Calvin). 90% of modern day ”evangelicals” share the same theology with Roman Catholicism but they don’t know it. They think the differences have to do only with Mary, Saints etc. No! Luther was a Monergist against Synergists. 90% of ”evangelicals” are Synergists and that’s the reason why Catholics find a common ground with them. Modern Protestantism is not genuine Protestantism. It’ s not Protestantism at all.

  8. Yes, quite right, most Catholics do indeed participate in a Protestant, man-centered liturgy which makes our priests gatherers-of-the-assembly-round-the-table and in many cases, religious entertainers, rather than offerers of the Holy Sacrifice. And we in the pews, and the priesthood itself, has paid dearly for this innovation.

  9. And facing the people instead of the Cross…the people thought the Mass was about them and walked when the performance wasn’t exciting enough…

  10. When I was in High School my close friend Phil an I entertined with our guitars. We would also try to perform at each other’s church functions. We could play at my Holy Name church, but not his Protestant Methodist church. In those years it was considered a sin to enter a Protestant church. This article has it all wrong… it is not the Catholic church who should be accepting of Protestantism. Someone ahead of me wrote a real doozy of a ecumenical rejection saying Martin Luther’s objections to church selling absolution was FALSE! WOW.

  11. >A “shared tradition and culture” between Protestants and Catholics will be never be created by a syncretism of flawed and inadequate “points of contact”

    No one is suggesting ‘syncretism’. What is being suggested is what the Church has ALWAYS done: take the meat and spit out the bones from any cultural system. This was true of pagan Rome, where the church took her festivals and Christianized them; it is true of the Protestant movement. We can take what is good from these practices and ‘reclaim’ ‘re-Catholicize’ them.

    I wonder how some folks believe the Church is to be unified again: by treating Protestants uncharitably? Ignoring their existence? Or by evangelizing them using points of commonality as a starting basis to help bring them back into the Church.

    Other than the Counter-Reformation, who made significant progress winning back souls, the 500 years of ‘hiding in a Catholic ghetto and hoping they go away’ method hasn’t worked.

  12. I don’t like forcing points of contact. How about we just provide the world with absolute truth, absolute beauty, and participate in this faith in a steadfast way. That promotes and evangelizes better than faking seeking a newest point of contact. You do not have to play rock music at mass or have coffee in the pews for people to see Christ in the Eucharist or the truths in the dogma,doctrine, and discipline of the faith. It just needs to be practiced.

    Plus, the Church has practiced the new lutheran looking mass of the novus ordo with music of those eras for the past 30-40 years and this supposed “springtime” of the council has never happened. People understand the language of the mass but do not know what participating with the mass means. There are hymns galore but no one wants to sing. Stop trying to make the mass and theology protestant. Be faithful to the faith and bring back the transcendent beauty that is our birthright. Those traditional movements are growing fast by not trying to be what the world looks like, but being Christ to the world.

  13. After reading this article severals times, I’ve come to conclusion that personal experience is the driving force behind much of what has developed. The great weakness is that truth is reduced to the individual and his experiences, which is the fruit of Luther’s sowing, making truth relative to the individual, not objectively true regardless of personal experience. I cannot see any ecumenical movement as anything other than Roman Catholic tradition submitting to and assimilating Protestantism. I continue to see modern efforts as a way of saying, “We Catholics got it wrong and Protestants have it right.” In fact, when I first engaged in the RCIA, I was told exactly that.

  14. First one we do not like that term protestant can you please use the term evangelical or reformationist also attacking luther or other reformation fathers is not nice to do and martin luther did not have erroneous teachings most catholic scholars today would say alot of the reform he called for in the church was correct the abuses of indulgences and purgatory and a few other changes were done at vatican 2 so if the catholic church had implemented some of his suggestions the lutheran church would have never started and if the pope would have given henry the 8th a annulment the episcopalin anglican church would have never started either making over 100 million less non catholics in the world

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