Princeton professor Robert P. George is a Catholic formed by three different Christian traditions. His father’s father was an Antiochian Orthodox who came to America fleeing religious oppression in Syria. His mother’s father was a southern Italian Catholic who came here to escape poverty. And he grew up in West Virginia among Evangelicals, including a Southern Baptist best friend whose mother took them to Billy Graham movies. Here he reflects on Catholics’ relation to their Protestant brethren.
Something profound has happened. Catholics generally don’t refer these days to Protestants as “errant” brothers, much less “heretics.” We acknowledge that we have things to learn and not just things to teach. What Catholic, for example, would claim not to have something to learn from the thought and witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Any Catholic who said that would be foolish. As would any Protestant who said he didn’t have something to learn from the work and witness of St. John Paul II or St. Teresa of Calcutta.
We’ve had divergent paths. We’ve been separated for too long, but in our separation both Catholics and Protestants have learned things, and have built things. We have acquired spiritual treasures we need to make available to each other.
For example, Catholics have nurtured a tradition of philosophical reflection that goes all the way back to pre-Christian thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle and the Roman jurists. That is a gift Catholics can bring to Protestants. Protestants have nurtured a love for the word of God in Scripture and a depth of understanding the Bible, and using it in devotional practice, which is not common among lay Catholics. This is a gift that they have to share with their Catholic brothers.
Barriers Came Down
For several decades, we have seen the barriers coming down and increasing cooperation and friendship between Catholics and Protestants. This did not begin with scholarly theological discussions and formal retractions of some of the anathemas used against each other in the past. It began in a more practical way. It began in the trenches of the pro-life movement where Catholics and Protestants found themselves together because of shared devotion to the sanctity of human life. It strengthened in the struggle to protect marriage and now in the struggle to defend religious liberty.
The logic of secular liberalism’s embrace of the sexual revolution is playing itself out in all three areas. It has religious believers of all sorts — not just Christians but Jews and Muslims as well — as it target.
If there’s one thing that is given priority among secular liberals, it is sexual revolutionary ideology. It’s that conception of freedom we got from people like Margaret Sanger and Wilhelm Reich, that was given scientific credibility by that old fraud Alfred Kinsey, glamorized and mainstreamed in the form of soft-core pornography by Hugh Hefner, and ideologized by Herbert Marcuse, a prominent thinker in the sixties who had a great impact on contemporary academic leftism.
That ideology is now dominant. You can see in the debate over transgenderism how it is prioritized over everything, including feminism. It’s telling that when feminist heroes like Germaine Greer criticize transgenderism as undermining the tenets of feminism, she is suddenly “canceled” and even “unpersoned.”
Very soon after the pro-life movement began, Catholics and Protestants found themselves united by shared principles and values. They soon came to understand that they are not strangers or foreigners to each other, but that they had a lot of misconceptions about each other, and misunderstandings of what they thought the other side believed. Obviously there are still differences, but the differences turn out to be far narrower and more capable of being engaged—indeed, engaged fruitfully—than either side believed.
That is a great good God brought out of the evil of the efforts of contemporary secularism to undermine the pro-life cause, the institution of marriage, and religious liberty. What began as a marriage of convenience between Catholics and Protestants became genuine spiritual brotherhood.
Our Mixed Records
And it’s a brotherhood that Catholics like me deeply appreciate. The record of Protestantism is mixed, just as the record of Catholicism is mixed. But there have been some great achievements. If the mission of the Reformation was to reform the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church, especially where corruption of various sorts had set in, it has done important reforming from a Catholic point of view.
Protestantism made valuable contributions to thinking about freedom. The robust conception of religious liberty embraced by the Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council in the declaration Dignitatis Humanae, and championed by modern popes, is a conception that, broadly speaking, Baptists and some other Protestants got to first. Differences remain but they are narrow. Indeed, the developed Catholic understanding of religious freedom was worked out in no small measure in the engagement with Protestant thought.
The Protestant Reformation has taught us all to read and value Scripture, not simply to leave it to the priests. Our Evangelical Protestant friends in particular have encouraged us to use the Scripture in our own devotional practice, and to encounter Jesus in the Gospel as a written text. What could be more important than that? There again, the Reformation reformed.
I could point out other areas where the Reformation had a positive impact. On the more negative side, however, what Luther, Calvin, and others unleashed has led not only to the fragmentation of Christianity, but to more and more division within the Protestant world itself. Putting us back together again is a job for the Holy Spirit, but we’ve made the Holy Spirit’s job harder.
One thing in the philosophical and doctrinal area I think has been a loss. If I could talk my Protestant brethren into one important philosophical and doctrinal position, it would be the need to affirm robustly the freedom of the will. Because of their laudable desire to preserve a powerful sense of God’s sovereignty and the fact that our salvation is fundamentally His work and not our own, Calvinists in particular effectively deny the freedom of the will and embrace one or another form of determinism. This undermines the theoretical foundations of ethics and of personal responsibility.
I invite my Protestant friends to go back to the wonderful debate between Erasmus and Luther. It seems to me that Erasmus has the better case, and the Catholic Church was right to hold to the doctrine of the freedom of the will. We do that without compromising the important belief in the ultimate sovereignty of God. Here is a place the Catholic Church can reform the Reformation.
Protestantism’s Successful Reform
My late beloved friend Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister most of his life, having said that he would never do such a thing on his own, became a Catholic, and a couple of years later was ordained as a priest. He did not think that, properly understood, Lutherans and Catholics were badly divided on the actual theological issues. (He did think that the Catholics actually had the better argument on the freedom of the will.)
What changed, he told me, was a judgment of his, not theological, but sociological. He had always believed that the purpose of the Reformation and the Reformed traditions was to reform the Church and then fold themselves back into the Catholic Church, so that there would again be a united Church, at least in the West. Lutheranism had largely accomplished its intended reform, but the largest Lutheran denominations had also become very liberal in their moral teachings, and had done things that made it impossible for them to integrate themselves back into the Catholic Church. Since there would not be the corporate reunion he had long hoped and prayed for, he would enter by himself.
I half-jokingly — but only half — say to my Protestant friends that the Reformation has accomplished what it can accomplish in reforming the Catholic Church from the outside. Perhaps, following the example of Fr Neuhaus, it’s time to “declare victory and come home.” Believe me, we Catholics could use your help.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. This article is adapted from an interview conducted by Peter Lillback of Westminster Seminary.