We’re coming towards the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It has passed with less remark at the Vatican than it usually does, likely because of how much else is on the Church’s and the world’s plate right now: the wars in Ukraine and in Israel-Palestine, multiple natural disasters and refugee crises, the continuing Sturm und Drang over Fiducia supplicans, and a new focus from Pope Francis on the upcoming jubilee year, to name just a few things. Nevertheless, it is still a significant event in the Church’s year that I think calls for some comment.
Some Catholics to this day are uncomfortable with any kind of joint celebration with Protestants because it tends to imply that the Reformation was desirable and thus concede a major historical and theological point. I understand this discomfort but I don’t think we need to share it, because praying together (even across religions!) doesn’t necessarily indicate theological or moral validation, but also because the Reformation, desirable or not, did happen, and we can but live with it or not live with it. As Mike Lewis pointed out last week, Church leadership has a long history of backing down even on enforcement of doctrinal points if it’s necessary to avoid serious conflagrations.
Ought we to see this as a paternalistic practice, as if the Church were a parent letting a child try a cigarette or go to a party in order to realize it’s not what it’s cracked up to be? Maybe we ought to, especially in the sense that this kind of parenting shows a lot of trust in the child to learn from experience, but it’s not an ideal model for understanding this kind of permission or indulgence from the Church.
We need a via media, an middle path, between ratifying the fact of the separation—as if schism were a good thing in itself!—and treating Protestant ecclesial communities derisively as wayward heretics who just do not know what’s good for them. What a then-still-Anglican John Henry Newman called the “note of schism” in Protestantism exists to this day and is seriously problematic. Whatever else can be said about Catholic churchmen of the 1970s embarrassing themselves over whether Paul VI was a groovy enough sex educator, or Catholic academics of the 2020s embarrassing themselves over whether Francis is invasive enough about how much sex gay couples are having, at least people tend not to leave the Catholic Church en masse because of these things.
Yet, at the same time, Protestantism is there and has within it ample prayer tradition and theological tradition of its own; this is part of what the Personal Ordinariates exist to acknowledge. It is also, arguably, more transparent than Catholicism in its dealings with the secular world; I see this as commendable, since I don’t necessarily agree with J.R.R. Tolkien that we should avoid public criticism of the Church (at least on subjects like the abuse crisis in which society as a whole has a genuine interest). Christian unity should be based, at least in part, on what Benedict XVI might have called a spirit of mutual enrichment in this sense.
Image: “Portrait of Cardinal Newman in Choir Dress” by John Everett Millais, 1881. From Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.