What can Catholics learn from Protestants? Quite a lot, according to one new book

St Patrick's Cathedral, New York (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Kreeft, Professor of Philosophy at Boston College is always worth reading for the energy and panache with which he writes about the Faith. Combative, stimulating and addressed to the common reader, his books are a treat. His latest, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? is no exception.

Kreeft is a convert from evangelical Christianity. He describes two anecdotes from his childhood which neatly encapsulate the essential differences between Catholics and Protestants. They come from Chapter 10: “My First Original Evangelical Thought and My First Original Catholic Thought.” He was driving home from church and Sunday School with his parents and remarked to his father that everything he had heard from their pastor “comes down to just one thing, doesn’t it?” Asked what he meant, Kreeft replied, “Well, we just have to ask Jesus what He wants us to do, and then do it. All the time.”

In other words, even as a child he had grasped the central point of being a Christian: having a living, personal relationship with Christ. As an adult Kreeft asks rhetorically, why are there so many ex-Catholics? His answer: “They never discovered Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church.”

Kreeft’s Catholic thought was when he and his parents, who lived not far from New York City, once visited St Patrick’s Cathedral. He writes that all the churches he had known were in a Protestant and Puritan style. Entering the Cathedral, he was “stunned to silence.” He recounts, “I turned to my father, “Dad, this is a Catholic church isn’t it?” “Yes, it is.” “The Catholics are wrong aren’t they?” “Oh yes. Very wrong.” “Then how come their churches are so beautiful?”

He had intuitively apprehended that that beauty is an aspect of Truth. Indeed, he goes on to say that three agnostic friends became convinced that God was real after listening to Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion. “They all said something like this: “That music only makes sense if God is real. In a world without God, that music isn’t real. But it is real. Therefore there must be a God.”

Just to clarify what he means by “Protestant”, Kreeft has a footnote on page 30 in which he explains that he is talking about Evangelical Protestantism, “the Protestantism of the Reformers, not of liberal or modernist Protestantism, which is simply shrinkage and hopeless heresy.” I suspect he would include the Anglican Church alongside the US Episcopalian church in this latter group.

For the author, ecumenism has nothing to do with a polite interchange of views where nothing actually changes. It means that “Catholics discover a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour” and Protestants discover Christ’s living Body “both as a living institution with teaching authority and as a real personal literal presence in the Eucharist.”

This only gives a taste of the book. I urge people to read it for themselves. Catholics so often think too smugly, as in “What do we have to learn from others when we have the fullness of Truth?” Well, one can know everything about Christ and about the Church’s teachings – but never know Christ as a Person; sacramentalised but not evangelised. We need both.