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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Plan For Christian Community

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Is it realistic to talk about Christian unity except in the broad, far-off sense of praying that someday the divided Christian world might come together again? After all, there have been divisions among Christians since the time of the Apostles; the great Eastern Schism which drew the Oriental churches away from Rome occurred 900 years ago and the Protestant Reformation took place in 1517. Humanly speaking, then, we should be pessimistic about the future and resign ourselves to disunity, that in spite of the will of Christ Who prayed “that they all may be one,” Christianity will remain dismembered and there is no prospect of changing the unchangeable.

But something revolutionary has happened. For the first time in centuries, Protestants and Orthodox are deeply conscious of disunity and anxious to remove what they call a crime against Christian charity.

For all practical purposes, this desire for unity among non-Catholics may be identified with the ecumenical movement, which began about 50 years ago and has since been organized as the World Council of Churches. Its present membership is about 230 million persons belonging to some 200 Protestant and Orthodox Churches throughout the world. Their last international assembly was held at New Delhi, India, in December 1961.

Nothing could be more informative than the self-appraisal made by the leaders of the World Council of Churches as they reflected on the divided state of their own churches:

There are divisions between the separate communions in which Christians are grouped. There are also divisions within each communion, sometimes no less sharp than those which divide one communion from another. At no point is this scandal of divisions more grievous in its consequences than in the Church's endeavor to proclaim the one hope of the Kingdom to all nations. All work of evangelization, however great its history and glorious results, remains crippled by the divided state of the Church.
This is no mere matter of Missionary tactics. Our sense of urgency in the task of overcoming our divisions is something more than a desire to combine in facing hostile forces or unsolved social and political problems. The mission of the Church aims at gathering all men into unity. The disunity of the Church contradicts that purpose.

Naturally we ask ourselves what kind of unity we want. Not to be clear on this point can result in sentimental clichés or in believing that reunion is only a matter of writing books or giving talks on the subject.

Between Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox there are many points of disagreement, sometimes on fundamental questions of faith and moral practice. For example the Orthodox believe in seven sacraments, and they have Mass and the priesthood; whereas Protestants accept only two sacraments, do not believe in the Mass and, while they ordain men and women to the ministry, do not recognize their ministers as priests. But in their attitude toward Christian reunion, the Orthodox and Protestant fairly agree on what this should be. Several distinct approaches dominate their thinking and writing in the ecumenical movement.

At one extreme are some, mostly Protestants, who believe in a unity of combination. Behind their idea is the supposition that no single denomination in Christendom, including the Catholic Church, has full possession of the Christian faith; that only by combining their partial insights into religious truth and sharing with others the portion they will the churches approach the unity that Christ desires.

From the Catholic viewpoint this kind of unity is impossible in theory and practice. It is impossible in theory because the Church believes in having received from Christ the fullness of divine revelation. It is impossible in practice because contradictories cannot be reconciled. There are contradictory positions on the nature of the Christian faith, on the divinity of Jesus Christ, on the unity and Trinity of God, the reality and meaning of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, the necessity of man's co-operation with grace on the road to salvation, on the very definition of the Church.

At the other extreme is the feeling there is strength in basic disagreements of faith. Those who support this theory believe the ecumenical movement should lead only to a practical coexistence among the churches with no ambition to organic unity. In their own words, they are "keenly sensitive to the gains in vitality" coming from different interpretations of the Gospel.

For the Catholic Church, this approach is also impossible. It cannot approve the notion that disunity is inevitable and unity an impossible ideal. The Church believes that what men have created, other men should overcome by resolving their religious differences according to the will of God.

Between these extremes are the majority of denominations within the ecumenical movement. They are either undecided on the nature of the Church or the kind of unity it is supposed to have. Some believe the Church is purely invisible, a community of the faithful known only to God. Its unity, therefore, is also known only to Him, and the task of Church leaders is to give better expression to this existing -- mostly invisible -- unity among the divided members. Others hold that the Church is visible, indeed, but without restricting limits and capable of embracing "all those who profess and call themselves Christians, however diverse their belief and practice," and with these disagreements the only workable solution is to co-operate in those areas where Christians can agree -- in education and the advancement of culture or the fine arts, in human welfare and promotion of international peace.

Catholics are the first to admit that co-operation among the churches is commendable, as I can testify from several years' experience in working with the National Council of Churches in the field of religion and public education. But while commendable, co-operation is not the end point of Christian unity envisioned by the Holy Father or projected by the Second Vatican Council.

If we would describe the kind of unity to which Catholics ideally aspire, we should say it was not combination or mere coexistence or even co-operation but conversion. In this sense, conversion is a turning to something that was not possessed before -- not in the sense of turning away from sin, but in the spiritual sense of turning to the fullness of truth.

Shortly after Pope John XXIII announced a general council, he expressed what he hoped would be the outcome of this gathering. "After the council is over," he said, "we shall say to the people separated from us, Orthodox and Protestants, 'Come and take or resume your place in the Church of Christ, which for many of you is the home of your ancient fathers.' "In other words, the unity which the Vicar of Christ seeks and which we should foster must ultimately come from reuniting our separated Christian brothers with the Mystical Body, which on earth is the Catholic Church.

For a Catholic, promoting Christian unity is advancing an apostolate of conversion. But this is still not the same as saying that lay persons are to be active in the work of extending the Kingdom of Christ on earth.

We know that to be Catholic means to be apostolic. When Christ told the apostles to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them "all the things I have commanded you," He was speaking through them to all the faithful, not only to Bishops and priests. The name "Catholic," which means universal, is sham and hypocrisy unless we try to the best of our ability and use all the resources at our disposal to share with others the undeserved possession of Faith which God has given us.

True charity wants to communicate what it has and cannot rest until those who lack are supplied the things which they need. How much there is in the Church that other people do not enjoy: complete certainty about the purpose of life, the Real Presence of Christ among us and the privilege of union with Him in the Eucharist, forgiveness after we become estranged from God, a sense of mystical union with 500 million people in every nation and a clear vision of our goal in the possession of God.

A generous Catholic knows that his love of God is manifested in his love for others, in trying to share with them what he has received. He wants to know what to do.

The answer covers the whole spectrum of effort that we make to meet people who are not Catholic, but whom we desire to be one with us in the unity of the Faith. We can summarize the whole apostolate of conversion in four terms: witness, education, propaganda and action. Each one is a potential atomic nucleus that has only to be split open to release an outpouring of grace that would bring others into the Mystical Body of Christ.

Witness by Responsible Living.It is not pious twaddle to say there is no more effective way of reuniting a dismembered Christian world than by being true to our Faith in what we do. As the history of the Protestant Reformation tells us, one of the main causes for that tragedy was the irresponsible conduct of the clergy, religious and laity who professed to be Catholics but denied that profession by their lives. To reverse history the opposite must take place.

We believe that God loves us, that everything we have and hope to possess comes only from His generosity. We believe He made us out of nothing only because He loves us, and wants to share with us the joy that He has. How do we react to this article of faith? How often do we speak of God and the things of God? I do not mean sprinkling holy water on conversation or putting on a pious front. I mean talking easily and spontaneously about religion because it is in the marrow of our spiritual bones. Of course we shall not talk about God unless we think about Him, and learn to talk easily and spontaneously with Him. If we try to keep in His presence, often discussing with Him the things that are on our minds; if we make Him our first confidant in trouble and first object of our love -- this will show itself in our speech and comportment and attract others to want something of the secret that we have.

We believe that kindness is a virtue. Do we live by this truth and try to act kindly to everyone who enters our lives and crosses our path? In the early Church, the Greeks and Romans were impressed by the followers of Christ through the charity they displayed. "See how they love one another,” was their crisp but meaningful description of what they saw. What was the result? By the year 313, the year of the Edict of Milan, the majority of the Mediterranean world had become Christian.

Education in Truth. If those who are not Catholic are ever to turn to the true Faith, it will be because we have helped to educate them in the reasons for doing so and have explained to them the meaning of what we believe.

The means at our disposal for teaching others are innumerable and cover every means of communication, from a passing remark to an exposition of the meaning of the Sacrifice of the Mass to a non-Catholic friend.

We will be effective in teaching others only if we ourselves understand what we believe. The years we spend in the classroom studying religion, memorizing names, places and dates, learning about grace and the supernatural life, the Incarnation and the sacraments, marriage and the moral law -- are all part of the training to become more effective apostles of the Word, among friends and acquaintances now and on a larger scale and with more impact later.

Much of this impact is the influence of mind upon mind: the mind of a layman who knows what he believes and why, upon the mind of another person who is baptized and perhaps believes in Christ as a great man, but who is hungry for more and would be satisfied with nothing less than "the whole truth," if only there were someone to explain the truth to him intelligently.

Propaganda and Public Relations. The word "propaganda" has a bad reputation, mostly because of the unscrupulous use made of it by certain pressure groups and on a massive scale by world communism. But when you think about it, you find it is the backbone of our whole system of advertising, without which modern, and certainly American, economy could not survive.

As commonly understood, propaganda means any concentrated group effort or movement to spread particular doctrines or information. If the method is legitimate and the doctrine or idea good, the propaganda is good.

Very near the heart of effective propaganda is the principle that if you want to get an idea across to many people you must keep repeating the same idea over and over again, from different angles, under various forms, but always substantially the same. Soon enough people will believe what you say, if for no other reason than because it has been so deeply impressed on their minds. To be unaware of this principle is to be ignorant of a basic law of human psychology, and therefore of an effective means of influence upon those with whom we want to share the truth of Christ's Church.

Christ told us the children of this world are often wiser in their generation than the children of light. By His mercy we are the children of light, but how much we can learn from the wisdom of the children of this world.

Take the Communist propaganda. Communists know that if they want something accepted without question, they must say it, say it, and say it again. So they are repeating day in and day out, by radio, television, by literature of every kind, two simple lies: that wherever communism is in power, the people are prosperous, healthy, happy and free; that America is vile and evil beyond description, a land of hunger, depression, exploitation, poverty and fear and a desperate threat to the peace of the world. As a result of such constant barrage of one-sided, slanted propaganda, the Communists are projecting this picture of America into the minds of the people of the world.

Where Communists are repeating two lies, and getting millions to believe them, we can repeat two truths, and have millions believe us: that where Catholicism is believed and faithfully practiced, the people are happy and at peace with themselves and God.

For example, I remember giving a laymen's retreat some time ago in Cleveland. After one of the conferences a young physics professor came in to see me. He said he was not a Catholic but decided to enter the Church because his friend, Kelly, had been telling him what security in married life comes to husband and wife who believe their marriage is permanent until death. Perhaps without realizing it, Kelly was influencing the teacher by his quiet stress on a simple fact of Catholic experience.

Organized Activity. Some kind of organized activity is the final stage of promoting Christian unity in terms of the apostolate of conversion. When we consider how much personal influence can do, what could we expect if individual efforts were organized?

The ways and means at our disposal to collaborate with others in the interests of the Church are as numerous and varied as different schools and parishes and different situations in which people find themselves. To illustrate one course of action, let me give you a run-down on what a group of lay people is doing in is Pomona, New York. Most of the workers in the program are adults, but students also participate as apprentices to learn the method.

It is called the Parish Lay Apostolate and is geared to make a complete coverage of the parish, visiting families of five types of persons: lax Catholics, those who have fallen away from the Church, people with no church affiliation, mixed-marriage families, and non-Catholics, whether Christians or Jews.

Teams of two are organized and given preliminary training over a period of several months. Visits to families are made one evening a week, weather permitting. No visit lasts more than fifteen minutes, with time carefully distributed to do five things: make a friendly greeting at the door; if admitted, talk for two minutes on some prepared topic like communism; then continue the conversation on some subject which non-Catholics misunderstand; question-and-answer period; courteous departure.

The same plan, with variations, is used in other cities, and always with marked improvement in Catholic-Protestant relations, return of lax Catholics to the practice of their religion -- and a new tone in the life of the parish.

Is there some idea that puts into a nutshell the response we ought to make to the ecumenical movement and to the Holy Father's plea for Christian unity as the fruit of the Vatican Council? The idea is, "Unity comes through love." In order to be united, we must love one another; in order to love one another, we must know one another; in order to know one another, we must meet one another.

The meeting of persons in this sense means more than bumping into someone at a ball game or engaging in conversation about the latest style of clothes. The kind of meeting we want is a spiritual encounter, which has all the challenge of a heart on fire with the love of God trying to prove its love by communicating to others what God's love has given.

Instead of being active we have been passive, allowing countless occasions to pass by for telling others the Good News. If we suppose that the world is not interested, we are wrong. It is not only interested but eager in many cases, as the following statement by a leading American Protestant will show. As one of the officials of the World Council of Churches, he wrote to Pope John XXIII:

By God's grace, Your Holiness has been called to the See of Rome at a time when Christians of every communion are notably sensitive to division and ardently desirous of unity. And your own actions and pronouncements have raised the hopes of many who long for the healing of the wounds in the Body of Christ. A spirit of true charity is expressed in your Encyclical (in which you say), "They will cease to be our brethren only when they shall cease to say the Our Father."
We believe that love and truth and unity belong together as one perfect expression of the Divine Will, no one of which may be opposed to the other. Love does not need to wait until truth is wholly agreed upon and unity made manifest. So as Christians, whether Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, our first duty towards one Another is to express the love of Christ which constrains us.

The remarkable thing about this letter is the friendliness toward the Catholic Church, of which many Catholics have not the slightest idea. Perhaps, too, it raises the question: will we fail the Holy Spirit during this season of grace, when He is pouring out His charity on those who, like us, have been baptized, but who, unlike ourselves, do not fully possess the Faith nor enjoy blessings that only membership in the Mystical Body confers?

November, 1962

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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