“It seems to me that at its root, Protestantism is a denial of the authority of the Church,” wrote a young Protestant friend (one apparently attracted to the Catholic Church) in an e-mail discussion. “I know that it’s couched in terms of ‘Sola Scriptura’ and so on, and that it would claim it’s the champion of the authority of the Bible (a positive claim) rather than denial of the Church’s authority (a negative claim); however, it still seems to me that it is a spirit that denies the unity and authority of any Church, whether Roman or no.”
A Calvinist friend in the same discussion responded: “In much the same fashion that orthodox Protestants believe that the Reformation was required because of a denial of the authority of God’s Word. If you read the confessions coming out of the Reformation it isn’t that there wasn’t a belief there in the authority of the Church. The question was one of relative authority.”
My Calvinist friend was right, for the most part, I think. The Reformers proposed what we might call an alternative paradigm. The Catholic may believe that this involved, as a matter of fact, a rejection of the Church, but then what is that Church — the matter of fact, so to speak — is one of the matters in dispute.
In any case, that’s an historical question that doesn’t really help us deal with the question of the present divisions. People are where they are, to a great extent, because they inherited the traditions of their fathers, and trying to ascribe blame or praise to those fathers doesn’t help us relate to each other now. The Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, dealt with the matter this way:
13. . . . Other divisions arose more than four centuries later in the West, stemming from the events which are usually referred to as “The Reformation.” As a result, many Communions, national or confessional, were separated from the Roman See. . . .
These various divisions differ greatly from one another not only by reason of their origin, place and time, but especially in the nature and seriousness of questions bearing on faith and the structure of the Church. Therefore, without minimizing the differences between the various Christian bodies, and without overlooking the bonds between them which exist in spite of divisions, this holy Council decides to propose the following considerations for prudent ecumenical action. . . .
19. In the great upheaval which began in the West toward the end of the Middle Ages, and in later times too, Churches and ecclesial Communities came to be separated from the Apostolic See of Rome. Yet they have retained a particularly close affinity with the Catholic Church as a result of the long centuries in which all Christendom lived together in ecclesiastical communion. . . .
It must however be admitted that in these Churches and ecclesial Communities there exist important differences from the Catholic Church, not only of an historical, sociological, psychological and cultural character, but especially in the interpretation of revealed truth. To make easier the ecumenical dialogue in spite of these differences, we wish to set down some considerations which can, and indeed should, serve as a basis and encouragement for such dialogue.
Notice that the bishops described the situation without ascribing motives or making any declarations about the causes or any judgments about the Reformers. The use of the passive voice is significant: “were separated.” And notice, here and in the rest of the passage that I did not quote, that the bishops admitted the differences but looked for every possible evidence of unity and convergence. That’s the more useful approach, now, when Christians need to be united in practice more than ever.