Is it better to be a good Protestant than a bad Catholic?
Updated: Aug 28, 2019
Edward R. Benet
August 27th 2019
Sometimes the debate between Catholics and Protestants is based on the issue of righteousness or justification. What is needed for a person to be justified before God? Is faith alone needed? Or are good works also necessary? This essay is not concerned with that angle on the subject. Instead, the intention here is to summarize a debate that I have been having these days with a Protestant friend, a good man whose sincere faith in Jesus would put many a Catholic to shame, myself included. His point is this: if we can all agree that adhesion to Jesus is the key thing, then why bother trying to discern which “denomination” is the correct one? That would just lead to endless debate on a matter than cannot be empirically decided to everyone’s satisfaction.
Recently, I made him a reply that is largely reproduced here below. The intention behind this reply is to acknowledge that which is genuine and authentic in the Protestant approach to faith, without dismissing or undervaluing what is essential in the Catholic way. Somtimes we go at loggerheads with Protestants and fail to make clear that we do indeed appreciate their immense strengths. Perhaps the best way to show them the riches of Catholicism is to begin by clarifying what we consider good and legitimate in their spirituality?
We could put it this way (the percentages that follow are just illustrative and are not to be taken too seriously): in the life of faith, we can say confidently that personal adherence to Christ is ninety five percent of everything that matters. But then there is a further five percent that is also essential. What is that further five percent? It is adherence to the Church founded by Christ. This involves acceptance of the apostolic traditions - Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle (2 Thess 2,15); submission to the authority of the Church to mediate disputes and clarify doctrine (as shown, for example, by the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15); and respect for the way in which the unbroken liturgical life of the Church from the beginning sheds light on the meaning of passages of Scripture (for example, we can trace an unbroken and uniform understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist right through the Apostolic Fathers to the present day).
So let us accept for the moment this rather crude view that the correct Christian life involves ninety five percent adherence to Christ and five percent adherence to the Church. Of course, this division is a bit arbitrary, because for the Catholic at least it doesn't feel like any sort of a division. But a non-Catholic might justifiably ask: if adherence to Christ is ninety five percent of what matters, why not just focus on getting that right instead of wasting time worrying about which "denomination" is "right"?
But the five percent is significant too. If the five percent is wrong, then we can end up with images of Christ, salvation history, an account of the sacraments, the nature of humanity, the resurrection of Christ in the flesh, etc., that are very distorted. It is essential to have both the ninety five percent and the five percent in order.
To illustrate: take a committed Jehovah's witness (who holds that the Holy Spirit is not a divine person, and rejects other apostolic teachings), a committed Anglican (who rejects the Petrine ministry, and other apostolic teachings), and a lukewarm Catholic (who intellectually assents to the entire spectrum of apostolic teachings but lives a life of abject materialism). The Jehovah's Witness and the Anglican have ninety five percent of what is needed for full discipleship (adherence to Jesus); whilst the Catholic has five percent of what is required (assent to the content of the apostolic faith) but is missing the ninety five percent!
Which of the three is least righteous before God? The answer is clear – the materialistic Catholic. But this doesn't mean that the five percent is irrelevant! In fact, if this five percent isn't right, then we can end up far from the faith that was handed on by the apostles. A simple look at history bears this out.
In the first fifteen centuries (if we exclude for a moment the great schism between east and west), the authority of the successors of Peter and the apostles largely prevailed. And this had the effect that Christ intended when he instituted the Church, which was the preservation and transmission of the apostolic faith. The best examples of this are the Christological heresies. Without the great councils of the Church (Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Ephesus), under the successors of Peter and the apostles, the faith and the Christian community would have been fragmented into multiple sects all holding to different views of Christ, his relationship to the other members of the Trinity, the incarnation, the passion and the resurrection. The faith would have been decimated, the understanding of Christ distorted, his divinity trivialised, his true humanity questioned, the Holy Spirit denied, the reality of the three persons in the Trinity obscured, the absolute gratuity of salvation rejected, etc., etc.. “Christians” with drastically wrong views of Christ - for example, many sincere Arians in the fourth century - were still genuinely committed to Jesus, but it would be a mistake to claim that such fine commitment rendered their aberrant understanding of Christ irrelevant.
There are many other examples, but perhaps the saddest has been the rejection of the reformed churches of the belief of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This belief was held unbroken by the Church from apostolic times right up to the reformation. St Ignatius of Antioch (writing before 110AD), Justin Martyr (about 150AD), Irenaeus soon afterwards, and a steady stream of other writers, have testified to this belief in a strikingly uniform way. Catholics have never needed John 6 to justify the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. It was already implicit in the worship of the Church before John 6 was written, and the successors of the apostles (including those in the Orthodox church) have held to the belief unwaveringly. This belief is part of the “five percent”, part of what is essential if the truths of the apostolic faith are to be conserved integrally and passed on.
To summarize: what my good Protestant friend emphasizes is what every follower of Jesus should emphasize: the need for personal abandonment to Christ. But Jesus did not leave us alone as orphans or individuals before him. He established a community founded upon the apostles and under Peter. We may appear to relate to Christ as individuals much of the time, but we do so always as a body, which has various members with different roles. Some of those roles involve positions of authority to teach and interpret, positions that were effectively established by Christ himself when he conferred authority on Peter and the apostles.
Sure, when I read Scripture for my own edification (which is ninety five percent of the time) then I do so in a personal way, guided by the Holy Spirit. But there is also that “five percent” which is not my domain for interpretation. In this, I must bow before legitimate authority and with respect to the apostolic traditions handed on and conserved by the Church. John 6, to take one example, is a “hard teaching”, as Jesus’ own listeners complained. Should I walk away from the more literal interpretation that has been conserved faithfully by the Church and apply my own symbolic interpretation that is more easy to swallow (no pun intended)? If I walk away though, am I walking away from Christ? To paraphrase Peter "To whom shall I go if I walk away from your teaching and apply my own interpretation? You have the message of eternal life".