In this post, I take a look at Catholic-Protestant relations in light of the Catholic Church’s organization of her own Catechism.
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IV. Structure of this Catechism
13 The plan of this catechism is inspired by the great tradition of catechisms which build catechesis on four pillars: the baptismal profession of faith (the Creed), the sacraments of faith, the life of faith (the Commandments), and the prayer of the believer (the Lord’s Prayer).
Part One: the Profession of Faith
14 Those who belong to Christ through faith and Baptism must confess their baptismal faith before men. (Mt 10:32; Rom 10:9) First therefore the Catechism expounds revelation, by which God addresses and gives himself to man, and the faith by which man responds to God (Section One). [T]he profession of faith summarizes the gifts that God gives man: as the Author of all that is good; as Redeemer; and as Sanctifier. It develops these in the three chapters on our baptismal faith in the one God: the almighty Father, the Creator; his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour; and the Holy Spirit, the Sanctifier, in the Holy Church (Section Two).
Part Two: the Sacraments of Faith
15 The second part of the Catechism explains how God’s salvation, accomplished once for all through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is made present in the sacred actions of the Church’s liturgy (Section One), especially in the seven sacraments (Section Two).
Part Three: the Life of Faith
16 The third part of the Catechism deals with the final end of man created in the image of God: beatitude, and the ways of reaching it – through right conduct freely chosen, with the help of God’s law and grace (Section One), and through conduct that fulfils [sic] the twofold commandment of charity, specified in God’s Ten Commandments (Section Two).
Part Four: Prayer in the Life of Faith
17 The last part of the Catechism deals with the meaning and importance of prayer in the life of believers (Section One). It concludes with a brief commentary on the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Section Two), for indeed we find in these the sum of all the good things which we must hope for, and which our heavenly Father wants to grant us.
In this passage, the Church explains the four pillars around which it organized the Catechism. In light of the predominant anti-Catholic sentiment of my evangelical youth, I found how much of this is unobjectionable to the evangelical mind surprising.
The First Pillar
The baptismal profession of faith to which the Catechism refers is the Apostle’s Creed. With the small exception of the Creed’s reference to Christ’s descent into hell, there is little objectionable to the evangelical Protestant.
The Creed affirms the lordship of Christ, the virgin birth, the death, burial, and resurrection, and the second coming, fundamentals of any orthodox Christian faith.
The Second Pillar
The only real potential source of objection in many Protestant faiths would be the emphasis on the sacraments. There is something uniquely Catholic about this that finds parallels only in Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy.
Even those Protestants that affirm the existence of sacraments—physical means by which God bestows his grace—rarely claim more than two.
Many evangelical Protestants reject the idea of sacraments at all, choosing instead to affirm two ordinances: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. (In my opinion, this reflects an affirmation of an unfortunately enduring strand of Gnostic thought, but I’ll save that discussion for another time.)
The Third and Fourth Pillars
The third pillar revolves around right living with particular attention given to the Ten Commandments.
The fourth pillar, too, is steeped in Scripture, relying heavily upon the Lord’s prayer.
Three of the four pillars around which the Catholic Church has defined its faith are, therefore, unproblematic for the Protestant, which should be very telling for all those evangelicals who wish to maintain an anti-Catholic posture.
I think much of the problems that have plagued Catholic-Protestant relations is the desire of one side to see in another something that is not there and then interpret the other side’s statements accordingly.
While I am sure this happens on the Catholic side as well, I am most familiar with the Protestant version of this mistake and can, therefore, speak most freely about it.
Catholic-Protestant Relations and Works
So, for example, if you come to the table with the assumption that the Catholic Church affirms a works-based salvation, then paragraph sixteen reinforces that mistaken presupposition.
You could read it to say that man can reach his “final end…through conduct freely chosen…and through conduct that fulfils [sic] the twofold commandment of charity, specified in God’s Ten Commandments.”
From this prejudice can come the idea that man can, through his own effort, reach his final goal and therefore earn heaven.
This, however, misses the point. The Catechism already defined Catholicism as a grace-based faith. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
The Catholic, however, emphasizes the importance of obedience to God in bringing us into the state that God desires for us. That is, God does not pull people kicking and screaming toward their final destination. He guides us along the way by his grace only if we are willing to cooperate with him in his efforts. He forces himself upon no one.
Cooperating with God
God desires us to be holy and a perfect reflection of the image of his son. Cooperation with God’s efforts to transform us into that image requires obedience to him and his commandments.
This does not mean that people must achieve a sufficient number of good works to earn heaven, merely that people cannot maintain fellowship with God while simultaneously frustrating God in his efforts within them. It is an act of faith, not an act of work, to cooperate with God’s grace.
One way that we cooperate is through the keeping of the commandments. There is no keeping enough to earn our way. There is no rigid mathematical formula providing us a limited number of mulligans.
It doesn’t work like that. It is instead an act of faith to submit ourselves to God over and over again, though we may repeatedly fail.
For the Calvinist types who insist that God chooses individuals for salvation, whether they like it or not, this will be unsatisfactory. For most other Protestants, however, I don’t see anything particularly objectionable here.
Catholic-Protestant Relations & Sacraments
The sacraments will merit many more posts, I’m sure. That will be the biggest hang-up, as the parallels to most Protestant practice are not easy to draw, and they rely more on tradition than the Scriptures—though Catholics believe they flow from Scripture nonetheless. So, I will save my comments on them for a future post.
At the very least, however, anyone reading this should come away with the belief that Catholics value Scripture highly and, above all, the words of Jesus Christ, in defining their faith.