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I know it rankles, but I’m afraid it’s a fact, one we need to acknowledge if we’re to think clearly about our ecumenical commitments. Protestantism doesn’t figure in the way Catholics think about the future of Catholicism.

That’s what I found myself thinking on April 29th. I was in La Mirada, California to attend “The Future of Protestantism,” an event devoted to discussing Peter Leithart’s provocative claim that Protestantism’s historical role is ending and should give way to “Reformational Catholicism.”

Peter Liethart, Fred Sanders, and Carl Trueman gave forceful opening speeches, reminding me that Protestants know how to give real power to the spoken word. The discussion following was substantive. Classical Protestant themes of justification by faith, assurance of salvation, and sola scriptura came to the fore. It was quite an evening. Real theology. Really debated.

Very engaging, to say the least. But as a Catholic—probably the only one in attendance—I didn’t have a dog in this fight. So I found myself free to muse and reflect. What, I wondered, would Catholics talk about in a debate about the future of Catholicism?

Many things, I’m sure, but I don’t think we’d talk about Protestantism. That’s quite different from what happened at “The Future of Protestantism.” Catholicism was part of the discussion from the outset, either as the reality being fused together with Protestantism (Leithart) or as the compromised form of Christianity to be critiqued (Trueman).

As Leithart put it in the provocative column that spurred the folks at Biola to plan the event (“The End of Protestantism”), “Protestantism is a negative theology; a Protestant is a not-Catholic.” Protestants don’t let man-made traditions usurp the Word of God. They don’t worship idols, don’t make salvation depend on their own efforts, don’t let the Virgin Mary replace Christ as our mediator, and so on. There’s a need for negation in the DNA of Protestantism, so much so that they often aim their “don’ts” at each other.

Catholicism is different in this regard. The Church polices the boundaries of orthodoxy, of course. This requires negations, as the delicious denunciations of the Syllabus of Errors illustrate. But in the main Catholics tend to see the Church as self-sufficient, a world unto itself. Most Protestants sense this, and it can be very irritating to them.

I can imagine a speaker at a “Future of Catholicism” conference discussing the ways in which Pentecostalism in South America puts great pressure on the Church. Protestantism is obviously part of the world in which the Church finds herself. Moreover, the Church has an ecumenical vocation, and that requires engaging Protestantism. But on the whole when Catholics discuss or debate the future of Catholicism the issues are almost always intramural.

George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism illustrates. Weigel thoroughly endorses the Christ-centered approach that Protestantism, at its best, so clearly emphasizes. Moreover, I’m sure Weigel thinks evangelical Catholicism will be enriched if it draws upon the witness of Evangelical evangelicals. But by his accounting we should understand evangelical Catholicism as an evolution from within the life of the Church herself—not as something that depends upon an engagement with Protestantism.

By my reading the Second Vatican Council takes a similar approach. Without doubt Protestantism had a significant and positive influence on the Council. Worship in the vernacular and renewed emphasis on the Word of God—these are the most obvious examples. There are many others as well. But the documents of Vatican II mention no Protestant sources. For the bishops who gathered in Rome fifty years ago, the future of Catholicism was to emerge from within Holy Mother Church.

There’s a danger of complacency in the Catholic approach to the Church’s future. It’s very foolish indeed not to read deeply in Protestant theology and to draw upon its traditions of worship, hymnody, and piety. And the ecumenical imperative is just that—an imperative. When a Catholic’s sense of the encompassing reality of the Church dampens his ardor for Christian unity something has gone wrong.

But dangers aside, the Catholic presumption of self-sufficiency is for the best. The conviction that our future comes from within provides an important freedom. For when we’re too dependent on negation, we allow ourselves to be defined by changing winds of fashion. That’s because what we don’t do and believe depends on what others do do and believe.

Modern Catholicism can be tempted by this danger. I can only too easily imagine a Future of Catholicism conference in which we pay too much attention to the secular world. Liberal Catholicism has done so in the mode of affirmation. After Vatican II it became standard practice to denounce non-progressives as “anti-modern,” as if there weren’t aspects of modernity that any sane person, to say nothing of a faithful Christian, would reject. But it can run the other way as well. We can fix on a definition of being Catholic as anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, anti-individualist, anti-war, and so forth. Well, yes, but it depends on the kind of consumption, capitalism, individualism, and war-making.

“Your life is hid with Christ in God.” In him we find our future. Time unfolds from a primordial “Yes.” God said, “Let there be light,” rather than “ Let there be no darkness.” And the creative affirmation reaches toward the eternal “Yes” of God’s triune life. As Catholics, we need to orient ourselves with this encompassing “Yes.” The same goes for Protestantism, which has had so much vitality because the affirmations in its DNA are so much greater than the negations. Solus Christus, sola fide: Those are affirmations of the plenitude of divine grace that Catholics make in our own ways. In this plentitude we don’t transcend the need for saying “no.” Instead, we’ll find our way toward the proper, life-giving negations of sin and death.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous articles can be found here.

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