The Protestant/Catholic false dichotomy

Bishops of the Anglican Communion, the global communion of churches in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition.

It probably was not wise to spend much of my summer watching DVDs of the HBO series, “The Tudors,” just after my ordination in the Episcopal Church and just before beginning a Ph.D. at Fordham University (a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition). I was very familiar with the actual history from my ten years of Catholic religious education and the four church history courses I took in seminary. But it was disturbing to watch the graphic depiction of violent, hateful struggles between Catholics and Protestants in Reformation Europe, to see how people were unable to tolerate differences in worship and belief, and how they demonized and persecuted those who differed.

The Catholic/Protestant bifurcation of Christianity has always felt like a false dichotomy to me. This may be because I have moved across that divide and experienced no jarring shifts in my fundamental Christian beliefs. In fact, I experienced a great clarification and deepening of my Christian beliefs and practice. Also, I moved from the Roman Catholic Church to the Episcopal (a.k.a. Anglo-Catholic) Church, a church that often calls itself the Middle Way (via media) between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. So I find a great deal of mingling and interchange between these two bodies of Christianity.

I call this Protestant/Catholic division a false dichotomy because these two bodies are not mutually exclusive, and there’s more variety than just two bodies of Christianity. I’m not saying that we’re very alike and we should all just be one happy family. There are significant differences. Rather, I am saying there are more than two sides, and the suppositions implied by this simple division into two groups are often wrong. Just in the Roman Catholic Church alone, there is tremendous diversity of practice, belief, theology, culture, and so on. On the so-called Protestant side, many of us consider ourselves part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” as we proclaim in the same Nicene Creed used by Roman Catholics.

In addition, I sometimes object to the word “Protestant”. The many Protestant denominations are not easily lumped together. Also, I don’t experience my belief system as being in protest of anyone or anything. I experience it as Christianity, and I experience what Roman Catholics believe (and what I believed as a Roman Catholic) as Christianity, too.

I was astounded when I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sacramento, which has a Bible Belt community, and a child asked my daughter in my presence whether we were “Christian” or “Catholic.” At the time, we were Roman Catholic, and I responded, “Catholics ARE Christian.”

“My mom said they’re not,” the girl replied.

Sigh. Yes, they are. Yes, WE are.

Sometimes I wonder whether this false dichotomy causes problems such as the kerfluffle at the installation of the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco. Whatever happened (an intentional snubbing, a misunderstanding, a mishandling), it happened between two prelates (an Episcopal bishop, a Roman Catholic archbishop) who share many faith commitments and agree on some major social initiatives; they also disagree on some key social issues, and each has to pastor his flock in the way he believes best.

Church conflict is part of an authentic Christian faith. Just think of the very first Christians, who also disagreed on key social issues (circumcision, marriage vs. virginity, political affiliations). We are in fine company.

And how fitting that this kerfluffle happened in the city of St. Francis on the Feast of St. Francis. St. Francis of Assisi was  deeply disturbed when his order started to experience serious internal conflict near the end of his life. He would urge us to be peacemakers, but he himself resisted and fought fellow friars who wanted to make his Franciscan rule more lenient. Like many Franciscans, he found advocating peacemaking a lot easier than actually doing it.

I like to think of peacemaking as moving toward peace, which seems more reachable. We can move toward peace by avoiding  simplistic, false assumptions and divisions that cloud actual areas of agreement and obscure the details of our disagreements. We need illumination, not avoidance. We need epiphany. That way, we can see the wondrous variety in our intersections and divergences with a spirit of appreciation and humility.

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