Stuart Reid: When Protestants were ‘Separated Brethren’

Even in the 1950s we were taught that Luther’s followers should be respected (CNS)

You can’t ignore the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and it would be insane (and ill-mannered) to try to. All the same, you don’t have to put on your party dress. The Reformation was bad for all of us, not least for Protestants, and its emotional, intellectual and spiritual shortcomings are now to be seen in the United States – the richest and most powerful Protestant country on earth – where the shabbiest, the most oafish, the most embarrassing, the most barbaric presidential election in living memory is drawing to its shameful close.

In an American context the word “Protestant” often refers to those who adhere, consciously or not, to “Americanism”, a heresy defined by Pope Leo XIII in 1898. Americanists, wrote Leo, were those who believed that “the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions”. Many of those in the United States who call themselves Christian, Catholic as well as Protestant, are in fact Americanist. The religion of America is America.

This is rather the line taken by the Most Rev Charles Chaput, archbishop of the beautiful city of Philadelphia and one of America’s finest and most orthodox prelates (who, naturally, has enemies on the Right and the Left). In a recent speech at Notre Dame University he said:

The 2016 election is one of those rare moments when the repellent nature of both presidential candidates allows the rest of us to see our nation’s pastoral terrain as it really is. And the view is unpleasant…GK Chesterton once quipped that America is a nation that thinks it’s a Church. And he was right. In fact, he was more accurate than he could have guessed. Catholics came to this country to build a new life … They’ve done so well that by now many of us Catholics are largely assimilated to, and digested by, a culture that bleaches out strong religious convictions in the name of liberal tolerance and dulls our longings for the supernatural with a river of practical atheism in the form of consumer goods.

Everything was so much simpler – not to say kinder and gentler – when Archbishop Chaput and I were growing up in the 1950s; in other words, before it became a mortal sin not to perform at least one act of ecumenical outreach every day. Protestantism was a heresy, the monks taught us in the 1950s, but at the same time Protestants were our Separated Brethren and therefore to be loved and respected, and in some cases – CS Lewis, for example – to be consulted and revered, to be seen as spiritual guides. (It was not until well after Vatican II that I encountered a Catholic who believed that Lewis might be in hell.)

Nor were Protestants necessarily to blame for their heresy. They were for the most part “invincibly ignorant”. Those among them who obeyed their consciences and led good (if incomplete) Christian lives would surely be saved. The monks were not angry or paranoid (about religion at any rate). They were calm and confident. We boys did not feel any the less English for being Roman Catholic. On the contrary, we felt more English than our Protestant friends. Serving Mass in the crypt of a summer morning, you could smell the freshly mown grass and – as I now choose to remember – linseed oil on willow. In those days English Catholics were wholly English and wholly Roman.

Now, however, as Archbishop Chaput suggests, we are too accommodating to the prevailing culture. We must be markedly less accommodating. That’s not to say that we must withdraw entirely from society or walk about frowning and kicking cats, but that we must reject the liberal assumptions – on the Right as much as on the Left – that underpin society. It means, alas, that we must sometimes risk becoming an embarrassment to ourselves and to others, as, for example, when conversation at that intimate little Clapham dinner party turns to gay marriage or to embryonic stem-cell research. We must speak out. Silence is consent.

Pope Francis is always ready to speak out, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say when he flies to Lund in Sweden on Monday to take part in an ecumenical prayer service. The service is being held to mark the start of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s rebellion – a year ahead of the anniversary proper, which falls on October 31, 2017. Francis has made it clear that he wants no proselytising. Many of us are therefore waiting anxiously on his words, and it is not unreasonable to expect a flurry of furious blogging on All Saints Day. My advice: leave the blogs until after you’ve been to Mass.

In the meantime, let us turn to Our Lady: “Intercede for our separated brethren, that with us in the one true fold they may be united to the supreme Shepherd, the Vicar of thy Son. Pray for us all, dear Mother, that by faith fruitful in good works we may all deserve to see and praise God, together with thee, in our heavenly home. Amen.”