Faith Matters

Does the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism really matter?

It is almost 500 years since Christianity split into 'Catholic' and 'Protestant'. But, asks Martin Henry, what is the difference - and does it matter?

Fr Martin Henry

NOW that the 500th anniversary of the year 1517, traditionally taken to mark the start of the Reformation is not far off, it might be worth trying to think a little about what the difference really was and is - and whether it still matters - between 'Protestantism' and 'Catholicism'.

These were the two movements destined to develop in modern times in the aftermath of the turbulent events associated with the career of Martin Luther in the 16th century.

At its inception in the early 16th century, Protestantism saw itself as a purified, 'reformed' expression of the Christian faith.

In the eyes of the Protestant Reformers, Christianity had become corrupt in the hands of the Catholic Church and needed to be restored to the alleged purity of its pristine beginnings.

Whatever about the accuracy of the Reformers' perception of early 16th century Catholic Christianity, and whatever about the reservations one might have concerning the Reformed Churches' ability to deliver on their promise of a restored, purified Christianity, the Reformation does at least seem to have highlighted a fundamental, and perhaps irreconcilable, split in the way Christianity can be construed.

To try to put the matter in a nutshell, what the Reformation, more than earlier reform movements within Western Christianity, seems to have succeeded in clarifying is that Catholicism is primarily a religion of 'externals' and Protestantism a religion of 'internals'.

Admittedly, many may reject this contrast immediately as simplistic, needlessly provocative, even tendentious.

But it still looks plausible to argue that Catholicism, with its stress on material creation, the external world - for example, the sacraments, which are regarded as the "visible sign of invisible grace", the body, whether glorified in baroque art or castigated for "sins of the flesh", or on physically attending Mass - is inextricably wedded to a vision of Christianity as a visible, tangible, palpable, in a word 'external', reality.

Protestantism, on the other hand, with its emphasis on the individual's inner conviction and conscience, on his or her personal relationship with God, on the illumination of the Christian man or woman by the Holy Spirit, seems to be intimately wedded to a vision of Christianity as an essentially invisible, intangible, and, as far as human observation goes, imperceptible, in a word 'internal' or 'inward', reality.

In extreme cases, Catholicism can appear hypocritical to the point of being the very antithesis of Christianity, as the startling lines from a play by the Spanish dramatist Luis Vélez de Guevara (1579-1644) insinuate: "I can well be a bad Christian but a good Catholic."

Protestantism, on the other hand, by playing off, as philosopher Walter Kaufmann put it, "in Luther's words, 'the wisdom of our flesh' and 'the wisdom of the word of God'", can create a strained, bogus spirituality, repudiated by Protestantism's most uncompromising critic, Friedrich Nietzsche, in the trenchant aphorism: "Pure spirit is pure lie."

Could it be, then, that the Reformation was not at bottom about God at all - "How can I find a gracious God?" in Luther's anguished question - but about human beings, and the status of their material or bodily being?

This tentative conclusion seems to be supported by the observation that Christianity, especially in its Catholic variant, evokes such passionate antagonism when seeking to pinpoint the limits of what should be done with or to a human body, whereas debates about the human soul or even spirit tend now to be seen as arcane and relatively harmless pastimes.

Current, often ferociously conducted discussions on bioethical issues, for instance, possibly represent an unhappy convergence of the Protestant and Catholic streams within Western sensibilities.

Protestantism's yearning for clarity and purity in religion, and hence implicitly for the abolition of life's ambiguities, may have affected Catholicism's concentration on visible, tangible reality to the point where the latter's interpretation of appearances has become dangerously rigid.

While probably no-one would want to raise hypocrisy to the status of a virtue, at the same time is it really wise for Catholicism to downplay its traditional view of the body as a mask - 'persona' originally means 'mask' - not a mirror, of the soul?

Can it risk forgetting that human beings are God's permanently ambiguous creatures, and that God is the only authentic interpreter of humanity's masks?

As for Protestantism, its passionate defence of honesty might now be seen as over-ambitious and hence in possible need of adjustment.

::Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor

::Next week, a Church of Ireland minister responds

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