The Reformation isn’t over. But Protestantism is, or should be.
When I studied at Cambridge, I discovered that English Evangelicals define themselves over against the Church of England. Whatever the C of E is, they ain’t. What I’m calling “Protestantism” does the same with Roman Catholicism. Protestantism is a negative theology; a Protestant is a not-Catholic. Whatever Catholics say or do, the Protestant does and says as close to the opposite as he can.
Mainline churches are nearly bereft of “Protestants.” If you want to spot one these days, your best bet is to visit the local Baptist or Bible church, though you can find plenty of Protestants among conservative Presbyterians too.
Protestantism ought to give way to Reformational catholicism. Like a Protestant, a Reformational catholic rejects papal claims, refuses to venerate the Host, and doesn’t pray to Mary or the saints; he insists that salvation is a sheer gift of God received by faith and confesses that all tradition must be judged by Scripture, the Spirit’s voice in the conversation that is the Church.
Though it agrees with the original Protestant protest, Reformational catholicism is defined as much by the things it shares with Roman Catholicism as by its differences. Its existence is not bound up with finding flaws in Roman Catholicism. While he’s at it, the Reformational catholic might as well claim the upper-case “C.” Why should the Roman see have a monopoly on capitalization?
A Protestant exaggerates his distance from Roman Catholicism on every point of theology and practice, and is skeptical of Roman Catholics who say that they believe in salvation by grace. A Reformational Catholic cheerfully acknowledges that he shares creeds with Roman Catholics, and he welcomes reforms and reformulations as hopeful signs that we might at last stake out common ground beyond the barricades. (Protestants also exaggerate differences from one another, but that’s a story for another day.)
A Protestant believes (old-fashioned) Roman Catholic claims about its changeless stability. A Reformational Catholic knows that the Roman Catholicism has changed and is changing.
Some Protestants don’t view Roman Catholics as Christians, and won’t acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church as a true church. A Reformational Catholic regards Catholics as brothers, and regrets the need to modify that brotherhood as “separated.” To a Reformational Catholic, it’s blindingly obvious that there’s a billion-member Church of Jesus Christ centered in Rome. Because it regards the Roman Catholic Church as barely Christian, Protestantism leaves Roman Catholicism to its own devices. “They” had a pedophilia scandal, and “they” have a controversial pope. A Reformational Catholic recognizes that turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church is turmoil in his own family.
A Protestant views the Church as an instrument for individual salvation. A Reformational Catholic believes salvation is inherently social.
A Protestant’s heroes are Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and their heirs. If he acknowledges any ancestry before the Reformation, they are proto-Protestants like Hus and Wycliffe. A Reformational Catholic gratefully receives the history of the entire Church as his history, and, along with the Reformers, he honors Augustine and Gregory the Great and the Cappadocians, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus, Thomas and Bonaventure, Dominic and Francis and Dante, Ignatius and Teresa of Avila, Chesterton, de Lubac and Congar as fathers, brothers, and sisters. A Reformational Catholic knows some of his ancestors were deeply flawed but won’t delete them from the family tree. He knows every family has its embarrassments.
Protestants are suspicious of a public, “Constantinian” church. While acknowledging the temptations of power, a Reformational Catholic views public witness as an expression of the Church’s mission to the nations.
A Protestant mocks patristic and medieval biblical interpretation and finds safety in grammatical-historical exegesis. A Reformational Catholic revels in the riches, even while he puzzles over the oddities, of Augustine and Origen, Bernard and Bede. He knows there are unplumbed depths in Scripture, never dreamt of by Luther and Calvin.
A Protestant is indifferent or hostile to liturgical forms, ornamentation in worship, and sacraments, because that’s what Catholics do. Reformational Catholicism’s piety is communal and sacramental, and its worship follows historic liturgical patterns. A Protestant wears a jacket and tie, or a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, to lead worship; a Reformational Catholic is vested in cassock and stole. To a Protestant, a sacrament is an aid to memory. A Reformational Catholic believes that Jesus baptizes and gives himself as food to the faithful, and doesn’t avoid speaking of “Eucharist” or “Mass” just because Roman Catholics use those words.
Reformational Catholicism meets George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism coming from the direction of Rome, and gives it a hearty handshake.
Protestantism has had a good run. It remade Europe and made America. It inspired global missions, soup kitchens, church plants, and colleges in the four corners of the earth. But the world and the Church have changed, and Protestantism isn’t what the Church, including Protestants themselves, needs today. It’s time to turn the protest against Protestantism and to envision a new way of being heirs of the Reformation, a new way that happens to conform to the original Catholic vision of the Reformers.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History, forthcoming from Baylor University Press. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.