In an article for the New Oxford Review, David Mills recounts the offense caused to a few of his conservative Protestant friends when he drew attention to the fact that they were in agreement with liberal Catholics against conservative Catholics on the matters of priestly celibacy, divorce after remarriage, and contraception. Only on the matter of homosexuality were they in agreement with conservative Catholics.
In fact, Mills could have gone further. Protestants like myself may agree with conservative Catholics in our conclusions on the moral status of homosexual acts but we still assume the legitimate separability of the unitive and the procreative aspects of sexual intercourse. Conservative Catholics not only deny that but see it as a foundational element in their understanding of sexual ethics.
What is more interesting is the hostility which resulted from Mills’s statement of what seems to be an unexceptionable matter of fact. While Mills tactfully hides the identity of his friends by avoiding any reference to their ecclesiastical affiliations, I would hazard a guess that they are either high church people of a Lutheran or Anglican variety, or evangelicals of a more generic sort.
There are likely to be three things which have contributed to the phenomenon Mills describes. First, there is a subordination of doctrinal confession to aesthetics. Particularly in American evangelicalism, there is a tendency to treat doctrinal difference with chosen heroes as something to be ignored or wished away rather than addressed. Thus, C. S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have become American evangelicals as a result of posthumous virtual baptisms into the faith, the brash boldness of which would surely have made even Brigham Young blush.
Now, Lewis and Bonhoeffer both said nice things about Jesus. One wrote exceptionally well. The other died opposing Hitler. They were decent, admirable Christian fellows from whom we should all learn. But they were most definitely not conservative American evangelicals. That they have been made into such indicates how significant doctrinal differences have given way to a desire to recruit them to the chosen cause. It is a triumph of aesthetics and consumer taste over doctrinal confession.
Second, there is surely a faulty understanding of the catholicity of theological discussion. Orthodox Christian theology has not developed over time by slowly watering itself down so that anyone and everyone is seen to stand on the same ground, with any differences being by definition marginal to the heart of the faith. In fact, Christian theology has developed through vigorous engagement between differing positions. Such engagement can only take place if we are prepared to acknowledge the existence of serious differences.
One my favorite theological writers is John Henry Newman—and he is my favorite precisely because he offers different answers to the most fundamental questions and thereby demands that I refine and sharpen my own thinking. If I read Newman and remain unchanged, I know something is not right.
Third, while it is very useful in the civic sphere for those who share common cause on matters such as abortion and homosexuality to stand together, if we ignore the different reasons which lie behind this common front, we risk reducing Christianity to a mere social ethic. For myself, I am pro-life because I am a conservative Protestant. The latter is the foundation of the former, not vice versa. And for that same reason, I am compelled to disagree with my Catholic friends on a whole host of things that are also of great importance to both sides.
It is not surprising that Mills’s perfectly mundane observation—that on key issues we conservative Protestants have more in common with liberal Catholics—has caused some consternation. He has exposed the confessional, theological weakness in so much conservative Christian discussion. In doing so, he has reminded us all that important differences between Catholics and Protestants do exist. Only those who lack conviction in their own confession should be disturbed by the facts of the case.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. His previous posts can be found here.