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Respecting the Faith of Non-Catholic Christians

by Lonni Pratt

Every January your city or town probably has a little flurry of friendliness between churches. Pastors preach in one another's pulpits and congregations eat together. This happens between January 18 and 25, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

A flurry isn't enough. We need to communicate the year round.

I'm writing to help you understand what Christians hold in common, a helpful step toward being one family in Christ. I'll also explore what you can do in your relationships with Protestant Christians to develop mutual understanding and respect. This is in the spirit of ecumenism, a movement to promote unity and cooperation among Christians—for instance, between Luis and Albert.

Luis is Catholic and Albert is Presbyterian. Both 16, the boys are close friends. Recently they were together on a youth retreat for Catholic teens but open to all young people. They discussed how being friends has helped them understand one another's faith.

"I've heard Protestant kids say really dumb things about Catholics. For example, someone said they worship the pope and another said Catholics help the poor because they think it will get them to heaven. Once, someone even said Catholics aren't really Christians," Albert said.

"I never thought too much about it until I got to know Luis," he continued. "I heard him talk about going to youth group, working on mission projects, helping teach younger kids—it sounded like the kind of stuff we do in our youth group. Luis has been a good example for me too. He's seriously dedicated to God and to the Church."

Luis smiled, "Albert might sound like he thinks of me as his Catholic friend, but I don't think he does. I'm just his friend, Christian like him, but I go to a different church. Friendship doesn't mean ignoring our differences, but learning more about and respecting each other."

Chances are you have friends who aren't Catholic. Maybe they don't seem to believe much differently than you do. All your life, you will be encountering and often working with Protestant Christians. Future marriages in your family and among your friends could bring the issue even closer to your door.

Ecumenism doesn't mean giving up important convictions for the sake of peace. Ecumenism means moving toward unity among all Christians. It involves attitudes as well as actions. It means we cooperate with one another in talking about our differences and we celebrate our common heritage.

Before 1964, when the Second Vatican Council issued a document on ecumenism, many Catholics believed it was wrong to visit other Churches. This has changed.

A few of the smaller Protestant denominations have adopted the pre-1964 disposition that most Catholics have now abandoned. Their attitude is called a "separatist conviction," and, just as it sounds, they prefer to be separate and not to associate unnecessarily with those who have beliefs different from theirs. Most, however, are open to making links, just as we are.

Original Christians

Why are there so many Christian Churches? The earliest division between what are called the Eastern and the Western Churches began with the division of the Roman Empire between the two sons of Emperor Theodosius who died in 395 A.D. It was supposed to be like a state line—not such a great division in our country—but because it followed existing divisions between languages and cultures, it turned out to be more like a national border. This separation, over time, led to the separation of the Churches as well.

Although it is difficult to say when the disputes really took hold, the Eastern Churches (Greek, Middle Eastern, Slavic, Russian...) experienced disagreement with Western (Latin-speaking or West European) Christianity and split in the early 11th century.

Some Eastern Churches later reunited with the Roman Church and these are called Eastern-rite Catholic Churches. Even though Eastern-rite Catholics observe their own way of celebrating the sacraments, and their canon law and customs sometimes seem unfamiliar to Roman Catholics, they teach the same faith and morals. While the Eastern Orthodox Church remains separated from the Roman Catholic Church at this time, we share a great deal in common.

Just as some of the Eastern Churches were reuniting with the Western Church, it seems, other divisions began within the West. The word Protestant was given to those involved in a movement of protest begun in Germany by Martin Luther, a Catholic monk. He didn't intend to break from the Church. Nonetheless the movement to which he gave voice spread all over Europe.

It created many divisions in Western Christianity which was already divided from the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Forms of Protestantism multiplied as believers felt free to argue different aspects of faith. Protestantism couldn't be easily labeled or pinned down. It was, and still is, diverse and encompasses many expressions of faith.

Luther's basic disagreements still define some of the complexities that separate Christians, even in a post-Vatican II atmosphere of increased friendliness. Luther believed that human impurity from Original Sin remained after Baptism, making it impossible for us to please God.

Since he believed Original Sin remained, he concluded that God puts us in right standing by our faith and that the good, loving things we do have no part in our redemption. This is known as justification (made worthy of salvation) by faith. Experts in both Lutheran and Roman Catholic teaching on this subject have come to new understandings that we might someday agree upon.

Martin Luther also emphasized the Scriptures as the primary source of Christian truth. He once said, "My conscience is captive to the word of God." Today, both Roman Catholics and Lutherans see that the word of God is interpreted by Church authorities—and by Christians themselves—in every Church. The debate is really over who has the authority to declare the meaning of the Bible. That debate continues but we are coming ever closer to a common understanding.

Community of Faith

Catholic spirituality tends to be less independent than American Protestantism. Catholicism places more emphasis on the life of the faith community than on the personal experience of the individual believer.

This difference struck me at a retreat I attended as a young teen. Youth from various Christian traditions had worked together to organize the event. We spent the weekend learning about leadership modeled after Jesus Christ.

During the closing ceremony one of the Protestant youth ministers suggested, "Shut your eyes and imagine Jesus talking to you about your life. No one else matters. Forget your pastor, your parents, your friends, like the song says, 'You and Jesus got your own thing going.' "

I didn't know why his words made me uncomfortable. Later, I talked to our parish priest about it. He helped me understand that a more private or personal religion seems foreign to most Catholics because Catholicism teaches that Christians are nurtured and grown in community—that "no one has their own thing going with Jesus; no one cuts any private deals." This is perhaps best expressed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which makes sorrow, forgiveness and penance part of its public ritual.

Catholics believe "It is through Christ's Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained" (Decree on Ecumenism, #3). This is not written in a spirit of excluding anyone, however, but in a spirit of inclusion. It also allows that "means of salvation" are to be found in many ways, if not in their fullness.

Catholic belief recognizes the crucial, unique role of the Church in the lives of the People of God. The Church, headed by the pope (the Bishop of Rome) united with other bishops, has been instituted by Christ through the apostle Peter to bring all human beings to reconciliation with God. For Catholics, the sacraments are the means by which Christ's grace comes to us as members of the Body of Christ. The grace received by the whole Church through these sacraments contributes to our unity as a body of believers.

Baptism is a sacramental bond that unites all who are baptized, whether Catholic or not. The faith of non-Catholic Christians is birthed and nurtured by the same Christ and strengthened in worship, at least some sacraments and the Scripture, just like the faith of Catholics.

Sacramental Mind

One of the most common differences I've noticed is what experts call the Catholic sacramental mind. This means that most Catholics view God as present in our world. God can use the things of creation to unite us with God.

Some Protestants whom you may meet view God as less active in the world. Why? They feel that sin has so influenced creation that it isn't really good in itself. They might say that while God might be discerned in events here and there, like splinters of light in the darkness, these are exceptions. Protestant belief concludes that division and conflict exist between God and creation because of Original Sin.

Years ago, as part of a Protestant youth group, I visited a large zoo. While walking around, I heard one teen say to her friends, "It's a shame that all this [world] has been so ruined. Animals are vicious; storms kill thousands; it's like creation gone nuts."

Someone agreed, "Goes to show just how bad the world is. Remember when the Sunday school teacher said that God is separated from us?"

I suspect you will be less likely to find this among your friends now. Many find the world to be basically a good place where it's easy to find evidence of God in the beauty of the earth.

Catholics take this attitude a bit further and use many objects they call sacramentals. Sacramentals are actions and signs understood to be holy because of the blessing of the Church. For instance, holy water, holy oils and candles have been blessed by a priest and Catholics treat them with reverence and use them as reminders of God.

In a related—and much more significant and powerful—way, Catholics believe that in Eucharist the substance of the bread and wine becomes the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ. Christ is present, giving himself as spiritual food to the People of God.

Most Protestants believe the bread and wine are only symbols of the Body and Blood of Christ. Many celebrate communion once a month, or even less often. Others—Lutherans, members of the Church begun by Martin Luther, for example—participate in Eucharist every Sunday. They believe that Christ is present in Communion but that the bread and wine are not actually changed into his body and blood.

Centered on Jesus

Julie attended Catholic school until two years ago when she entered the public high school, her only choice. She began attending a Bible study at school and discovered that most of the kids were Protestant.

She smiles when she says, "I was something of an oddity. They really jumped on asking me all those questions they thought they'd never be able to ask without offending someone.

"It surprised me how much they talked about the pope. It was like they thought every Catholic home has a direct line to the pope and we receive daily instructions or something."

Julie says her Protestant friends were a little surprised when she explained that the pope isn't the center of her faith and "I don't think all that much about him. Yes, we respect him and recognize that he represents Christ to us. But the center of my faith is Jesus Christ, not the pope."

Keenan, 15, remembers discussing religious beliefs in a small group setting at an event to which people from different Churches came. "We seemed to get stuck on how we're different from each other. Finally, the group leader helped us focus on what we have in common. When we did that, the atmosphere changed. You could feel everyone take a deep breath and relax," he said.

Personal Ecumenism

A striking facet of Vatican II's groundbreaking 1964 statement on ecumenism is the concern expressed by the leaders of the Council that the sin of disunity among Christians finds its cause in all of us—not just Protestants, not just Catholics.

In his 1995 encyclical (letter to the whole Church), Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), Pope John Paul II strongly encouraged all people to pray for religious unity. He wrote that "...through prayer the quest for unity, far from being limited to a group of specialists, comes to be shared by all the baptized."

The Second Vatican Council's Decree On Ecumenism encourages Catholics to bridge gaps between different Christian traditions. It suggests these guidelines:
  • Understand your own faith clearly. Look for answers to your questions. Learning will increase your faith and sense of identity as a Catholic Christian.
  • Be willing to interpret the faith of others in a positive light. Keep an open mind. Remember they are communicating their faith in God in ways they believe correct.

  • Develop respect for the way others experience God. Learn about the culture and heritage from which their convictions have formed.

The Second Vatican Council opened the doors of the Roman Catholic Church to let in fresh air and the breeze still blows. You can catch the power of that wind and move us all toward greater friendship, cooperation and shared faith.

Lonni Collins Pratt is a free-lance writer from Michigan. Although raised in a Catholic family, she spent 20 years as a Protestant, eventually returning to the Catholic Church as an adult.


Top 5 Topics When Friends Talk About Faith

Scripture: What does it mean and how do we learn that meaning?

Eucharist: How is it linked to Christ's sacrifice on the cross?

Priesthood: Who is to be ordained? How? What does ordination mean?

Pope: What is the role of pope as teacher and as leader?

Mary: What do we know and believe about her?

Adapted From Pope John Paul II's encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), #79.

Christi Boeckman (16), Kristy Brockman (17) and Ryan Bruggeman (14), all involved with the St. Peter/St. Joseph CCD program, responded to Coordinator of Religious Education Ginny Fortkamp's invitation to discuss this issue at St. Peter's in Fort Recovery, Ohio. While they didn't know the word ecumenism, they felt close to its principles and were willing to think more about it.

Why does Vatican II come up a lot in discussions about Church unity?

Vatican II (1962-1965) was vital in helping Catholic Christians understand the universal call of all Christians to unity. Defensive attitudes were common before that time, partly because Catholics had experienced prejudice and discrimination because of their faith. Vatican II was the great call to Catholics to join a movement toward Church unity in this century. Love of others—and respect for them—is a clear expression of the gospel message.

How close are we to having one Church?

The reality of one Church is a spiritual one and exists in a way too expansive for our human minds to understand fully. The Christian response to this unity in Christ has not always looked like we have understood it at all! I think that sharing our faith and talking about beliefs and practices in our individual churches is very healthy and helps to bring one Church a little closer. I have only talked about Christian Churches—because I know them better—but we also need to understand, appreciate and share faith with Churches that are not based on the teachings of Jesus. The last 30 years have brought us all much closer, so the next century might well be the century of becoming one.

Why should I care about ecumenism?

Recognizing the strengths of other Christian traditions helps strengthen relationships and moves all Christians toward the ultimate state of unity which Christ offers to the Church. It is the task of all Christians to encourage and support unity because Jesus wanted us to be one.


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