This year commemorates the Five Hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther's sending of the Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz. The Vatican has issued a stamp commemorating the event, with Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon kneeling penitently at the foot of our crucified Lord. I think it is also around the Seventeen Hundredth anniversary of Arius' proclamation of the creation of the Son from nothing. It seems to make logical sense to commemorate that ecumenical effort as well, after all, there were lots of Arians for a very long time.
In any event, I would like to look at what I suppose I will call the organic place of Protestantism in the life of Salvation.
I'm realizing that a lot of what I have been writing does have an organic focus, with the meaning of examining a living organism. As the Church is the Body of Christ, and we celebrate communion with the Real Body of Christ in the Eucharist, and I would say we have our organic root in the priesthood established by God in ancient Israel, then the whole Life of Salvation is that organism which is the movement of God through history. I'm not quite articulating as well as I would like the massive extent of what I want to refer to, but it encompasses no more, and no less, than the Church, all the saints, all the ideas, all the movements of the Holy Spirit, that characterize God's True Presence in human history. St. Paul's referring to this as the Body of Christ was much better said, but I don't have that gift of conciseness and, at this late stage in history, I want to try to paint the panorama, albeit not with such a broad brush as to include areas of falsehood, but only truth. When God separates the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats, on Judgment Day, then He will accomplish this very thing, the inclusion of those men who loved Him and the exclusion of those who hated Him. Since the stakes are that high, eternal salvation versus eternal damnation, it is very important that we give the most serious possible thought to who it is that will fall on the side of the sheep and who on the side of the goats.
Now this is the great and grand debate that has sprung from the "Reformation". Instead of continuing to use quotes, I will call it the Protestant Revolution, since it was a revolution from the Catholic Church. There is no other way to describe it accurately. Were it not a revolution, people would not have rejected the authority of the papacy. Rejection of authority is the purpose of a revolution. By rejecting the office of the papacy, the Seat of St. Peter, Protestants turned their backs on the Church established by Jesus Christ to anoint the successors of the Apostles, the Bishops, from the ranks of the priests with the Sacramental Holy Orders necessary to consecrate the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. To be more to the point, they really have turned their backs on the authority of Jesus Christ to establish His Church. Not exactly a small thing. The Church is an edifice with a Sacramental purpose. Even those Protestants who maintain the Liturgy, High Anglicans and Lutherans, at best can be characterized as joining the ranks of those Orthodox churches which went into schism, although that is not the Catholic interpretation, since the Church does recognize the Orthodox as having valid holy orders, whereas those of the former are not recognized.
So, this being the case, what are we as Catholics to think of the Protestants. This is the biggest dilemma I see since coming into the Church in 2009, even bigger than the changes of the post-Vatican II era. This has gone on longer, and is more devastating from a human standpoint. Let's start with the most plain way of looking at this, from the Catholic point of view. There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church. One must be a believing Catholic, in a state of grace, up until the moment of death, to be saved. This by definition makes one a practicing Catholic, since it is a mortal sin to miss Mass, and we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. We must take Communion at least once a year. We must make a good confession at least once a year. These requirements to stay in a state of grace keep us in good practice as well. So right away, we eliminate ALL non-Catholics. That's it, case closed. And let me say, before I embark on my mental journey, that I believe this, it is one reason I became, and remain, Catholic. Those of you who are very traditionalist will probably say, "Let's just stop there and not continue, because to continue will be to equivocate." I understand, but let me make my case. I want to write as if no Protestant will read this and be influenced to think, by understanding only half my meaning at times, that it is legitimate to remain non-Catholic. This is only for Catholics. Protestants, stop reading. (Come on, a little reverse psychology never hurt anyone.)
First, let me say, that if it were true that one did not *need* to be Catholic, but that it were *best* to be Catholic, then I would still be Catholic. I really, honestly love being Catholic. I love Jesus in the Eucharist, and I love our Mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I go to Adoration once a week and I pray the rosary *almost* every day (trying to be honest). This is the first thing that Protestants *don't get* about faithful Catholics. I didn't get this before joining the Church. It made no sense to me how anyone could *want* to be Catholic and be forced to sit through long, repetitive liturgical services. Catholics *had* to be going only out of fear of hell. What is at the root of this opinion, or any opinion even remotely like it, on the part of Protestants, is a misunderstanding, or rejection, of the doctrine of the Real Presence. *Either* a Protestant must think that the Eucharist is a symbol, because obviously it's a symbol, what else could it be?, *or* she must know that Catholics believe it to be the real body and blood, but that is so outrageous to her that she rejects it. And these both boil down to one thing, too- both are based on skepticism that Christ has the power to Be in that Eucharist. I will say it again. Whether misunderstanding, i.e., thinking that Catholics think the Eucharist is a symbol, or understanding that Catholics do not think the Eucharist is symbol and therefore rejecting it, i.e., still thinking the Eucharist to be a symbol, the Protestant is demonstrating her inability to have the faith that Jesus Christ can or would be Truly Present in what appears to be bread. Why am I saying this so emphatically? Because any good Bible-believing Protestant has read John chapter 6, and has read the words of consecration spoken by Jesus in the accounts of the Last Supper. It is easy to say you believe that 2000 years ago Jesus walked on the water, because there is no burden of proof. Of course, 2000 years ago, God said it, I believe it. But to believe that God, today, every day, performs a miracle by transubstantiating bread and wine into the Body and Blood of His Son, is to confront Heaven itself, and Protestants *don't have it in them* to handle that Truth.
If that sounds melodramatic, tell one of your Protestant friends that you believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, and their reaction will be incredulity. They can't believe it, they won't believe it. Think about what you're saying, to someone who doesn't share your belief. A piece of bread has become Jesus. To the world, that's nothing but crazy. This is why the True Christ is such a stumbling block.
There are plenty of Catholic books and websites that point out the errors of Protestant theology. To me, sola scriptura wraps it up in a nutshell. There is no good reason to accept the Bible alone, and the Bible not only does not declare itself sole witness, it is evidence against it. We have the much cited, "But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written [John 21:25]", but there is even more than that. Jesus spent 40 days with the Apostles following His Resurrection. We know from repeated statements in the Gospels that there were some things the disciples couldn't understand until after His Passion and Resurrection. Now that He was Resurrected, He would have instructed them. What was that instruction? St. Paul calls Jesus the High Priest. If Jesus is the High Priest, it implies there are priests lower than He. St. Paul writes, "For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come. [1 Corinthians 11:26]", echoing the words of Christ at the Last Supper, "And taking bread, he gave thanks, and brake; and gave to them, saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me [Luke 22:19]". What we don't have in the Bible is the instruction on how to do this. It was a Passover meal. Do we eat it only on Passover? Can we eat leavened bread? What do we mean when we read that Jesus said, "This is My body" and then we eat the bread? The vast majority of Protestants believe that the bread is a symbol. Of what is it a symbol? A symbol of eating Jesus' body? But no one ever ate Jesus' earthly body, so what does the symbol point to? If a man was eaten by cannibals, then a case could be made that a piece of bread could be a symbol of his body. But if the man was not eaten by cannibals, if rather he was crucified and then entombed and the story came out that his body was resurrected from the dead and that it ascended into heaven, then how in any possible framework of intelligible logic can it be said that eating bread is symbolic of eating his body? Some Protestants will answer that Jesus is the Word, and then point to the Bible as the "Word of God" and from that they will say that the symbolic eating of Jesus' body is consuming the word of God through hearing the Bible preached. Even if we accept this outrageous flexibility in the definitions of words, we must go back to the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel, where Jesus explicitly says to His disciples that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood or they have no life in them. There IS NO MENTION of words or scriptures or anything else in the "bread of life discourse".
The book of the Acts of the Apostles is another case. We have a short history of the missions of the Apostles. At the beginning, Peter is emphasized, but the book transitions to Paul, and ends with him. Peter is summarily dismissed from the narrative. The other Apostles have limited mentions. Protestant scholars who seek to understand the letters of Paul match his letters to events in the book of Acts, and they supplement their understanding with history. A familiarity with history is essential to understanding the book of Acts, and that history is not given to us in Scripture. So Protestant scholars must admit that they need to go outside "the Bible alone" to find the right context. It takes a map to locate Phrygia and Galatia, to know where Paul was when the Holy Spirit forbade him to go to Asia. We need some historical context to understand the Christian community in Corinth and the challenges of a bustling port city which traded in not only goods but also sinful and worldly practices. A good scholar may have her "Bible alone" prominently displayed, but behind it will be shelves of commentaries, concordances, lexicons, etc. Whose traditions are you really following but those of academia? From whence does their authority spring?
Hopefully such scholarly libraries would include the writings of the Church fathers. Irenaeus is an essential source for understanding Christian apologetics. The Didache is an important early account of Christian community. St. Justin Martyr writes an account of the liturgical Mass that is very close to the liturgy of today. The problem with just about all Christian writers prior to Protestantism coming on the scene is they were, alas, very Catholic.
One frustration I had during the early years following my baptism was that I spoke to a lot of Protestants and they all a) insisted that they could read the Bible on their own, and b) were clearly improvising most of the answers. I knew Protestants who said that nothing Jesus said during His earthly ministry was important, because it was all said before the Crucifixion, and so only the epistles were important. I knew Protestants (and still do) who said with a straight face that God inspired the King James Version because that's the translation we have and that means that's the one He meant us to have. But I also credit the many Protestants whom I ran into when I went hitchhiking twice across the country, who witnessed to me. As a Jewish kid growing up in New Jersey, I grew up in a community composed mainly of Jews and Catholics. The Catholic kids didn't evangelize. Only when I got out on the road and started meeting people across the country did I come across evangelical Christians, those who went out of their way to talk to me about Jesus. It happened a lot. I have no choice but to credit these people, mostly young men, with encouraging me into the faith, to eventually become baptized and consider myself Christian. If any of them were Catholic, they did not tell me so. So here is where I must throw the curve ball to Catholics:
And John, answering, said: Master, we saw a certain man casting out devils in thy name, and we forbade him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said to him: Forbid him not; for he that is not against you, is for you. [Luke 9:49-50]
John answered him, saying: Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, who followeth not us, and we forbade him. But Jesus said: Do not forbid him. For there is no man that doth a miracle in my name, and can soon speak ill of me. For he that is not against you, is for you. For whosoever shall give you to drink a cup of water in my name, because you belong to Christ: amen I say to you, he shall not lose his reward. [Mark 9:37-40]
In this example, a man is performing miracles in Jesus' name. Jesus takes him as example, and generalizes to say that a man who is not against them is for them, and that all he needs to do is give them a cup of water in Jesus' name to have his reward, which we must presume is Heaven, because there is no other reward.
So let's say I use my own story as an example. I was Jewish, and agnostic. I had a nascent Christianity forming within me, one that at the time I could not understand or explain. These men preached Jesus to me. Some gave me rides on the highway, got me through what might have been dangerous stretches of road, I am dramatizing, but let's just say they helped me on my road that eventually led me to the Catholic faith. Let's say, and this isn't to make me some shining example, it is just a thought experiment, let's say that Jesus on Judgment Day accepts me as a Catholic, and He looks to see who helped me along the way, and some of those were Protestants who never took Communion. Can they lose their reward? I have to answer no, based on the above sayings of Jesus Himself.
Hold that thought, while we approach this from the stricter side.
Many Protestants are "on fire" for Jesus! They dedicate their lives to Him. They go to their services, they are better men and women because of it. Their faith in Jesus makes them more honest and more honorable. Can they really be lost, just because they are not Catholic?
This is that toughest of questions. What I want to say is, No, of course not. God is merciful. But it is not my choice, not my will. Heaven is God's dwelling place. And Jesus is Heaven. We know that, because that is the purpose of Communion with Him. Will Jesus allow into bodily Communion with Himself those who never in life had that Communion? Earthly pity says yes, but the words of Jesus say no. He said, "not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter heaven, but he who does the will of my Father". So I'm going to answer this question with a similar one.
There are Catholics today, even teachers, who say that "we have a reasonable hope that all men are saved". As part of that debate, they will cite that the Catholic Church does not formally declare any person as being in hell. Not even Judas. And so the question arises, is Judas in hell? Couldn't God, Who is the author of Salvation, not save someone even at the very moment of death, or even give them another chance after death? And, since we acknowledge the Sovereignty of our Creator, we must say yes. So, then, can't we imagine even Judas in Heaven? And the answer is, yes, we can imagine it. But is it reasonable? Jesus said "none of them warned us, as recorded in the Bible, which we as Catholics are bound to believe in, that people do go to hell. It may fall within God's purview to pardon any sinner, but that is His prerogative, and not ours. Every indication is that Judas is in hell. Jesus said, "Those whom thou gavest me have I kept; and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition, that the scripture may be fulfilled [John 17:12]" . And therefore, whatever we may personally think God would do, it is our evangelical imperative to preach what we can know from Scripture, and that is that Judas is in hell. Why is that important? Because we risk allowing souls to have a false hope in a prerogative that God will not avail Himself of in their case. As I said in a previous essay, God does not do what He wants, He does what He wills. His will is not a caprice. And He is Just, so if He applies a rule for one person in a particular circumstance, He must apply it to all. We know what we must do to avoid the legitimate punishment of our sins, and that is to believe in Christ and Him crucified, and to be part of His Body by following the teachings of His Church. That is the only way we know of and have any evidence for that we can be saved. So it is incumbent on us to say, to avoid error on the part of those outside the Church, that hell is a real danger, so that in hearing this they will ammend their lives and come into the Church. In fact, saying that "we have a reasonable hope that all men are saved" is a dereliction of duty on our part.
So I keep coming back around to the same question. Is every Protestant who dies outside the Church going to go to hell? The most honest answer that I can give, and that you or anyone else can give, is "I don't know." But. Neither does any Protestant know that they have the special exemption, known only to God, that will allow them to be admitted to Heaven. And so it is incumbent on everyone, every Protestant, to do the one thing that can tell them more than all the debating in the world whether or not the Catholic Church is right, and that is to go to a Catholic Church and visit what Catholics believe is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
Now, how do we reconcile the two conclusions? One, that Jesus would look at those who have given a cup of water, or in my case a ride on the highway, and not refrain from giving them their just reward. Two, that as Catholics we are bound to speak the truth as taught by the Church, that more theologically rigorous truth, that one must receive the Sacraments, Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Reconciliation, Holy Unction, and die in a state of grace, in order to be saved. Between these two is charity. Charity is love of our neighbor springing from our love of God. There are two aspects of our faith. One is love of God, and to that purpose we want to do His will, as taught by His Church. Two is love of neighbor, helping the man beaten by robbers as the Samaritan did, giving someone a cup of cold water in Jesus' name, visiting the prisoners, and the sick, and showing mercy to widows and orphans. These two must be done together. As Catholics it is incumbent on us to do this. If we are showing charity to Protestants, we should do it in the name of Jesus Christ the Head of the Catholic Church. There are ways to do that. One is to just say it. Engage in conversation. There are also ways to identify ourselves as Catholics. Wearing a crucifix, carrying a rosary, having a statue of Mary, or a picture of the Sacred Heart. And finally, we can speak to those who are, as nearly as we can tell, unrepentant sinners. We can tell them that Mary is the help of sinners. Even the worst sinner, the one who despairs of approaching Jesus out of fear or anger, can throw himself at Mary's feet. There he can say, If you are listening, help me to know the truth. Mary will not deny that sinner.