By Gordon L. Heath
After years of defeats in World War Two, Winston Churchill quipped in response to positive news of British advances: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”1 Recent events within Western Christianity have led me to think that, perhaps, in similar fashion, the “end of the beginning” of Protestant-Catholic tensions is upon us.
It is a truism that Protestant and Roman Catholics have waged an oftentimes brutal rhetorical – and even physical – war against one another since the sixteenth-century Reformation. Over the past five centuries, both sides have condemned the other, both sides have committed crimes against each other, and both sides have continued on as if they did not need the other.
But that is changing. Just consider a few recent news bulletins:
Pope Francis praised Martin Luther during a trip to Sweden (historically a Lutheran nation).2
Canadian Council of Bishops published an irenic document explaining evangelicalism to their Catholic parishioners.3
These recent events are just part of a larger ecumenical trajectory that was initiated by Vatican Two in the 1960s.4 Since that time there have been numerous official dialogues between Catholics and Protestants that are attempts to develop some type of ecumenical relationship that avoids the rancour of the past.5
Some have looked upon such recent events more positively, while others less so.6 In Latin America, tensions are still quite high between communions because of evangelical inroads into Catholic parishes. Nevertheless, the reality is that things are changing. Catholics and Protestants are far from any formal union, but the commitment is growing to at least be charitable and to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ despite theological differences.
A noteworthy motivating factor for this shift in attitudes in Canada and much of the West is the post-Christendom reality. Ironically, the demise of Christendom – in many ways precipitated by the fractious sixteenth-century Reformation7 – is actually now a catalyst for Protestant-Catholic reconciliation. Christendom – and the concomitant Christian privilege that it provided – is increasingly a thing of the past. There are now looming threats that make Protestant-Catholic differences look pretty insignificant by comparison. Increasingly, neither tradition has the “luxury” of seeing the other as the enemy. Protestants and Catholics are beginning to look at one another not as “the Other” but as “an Us.” As a result, we are – I hope – witnessing “the end of the beginning” of tensions that have violently divided Christians for far too long.
1. Winston Churchill, 10 November 1942.
4. For the official Vatican Two statement Decree on Ecumenism, see http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_unitatis-redintegratio_en.html
5. For an summary and analysis of those efforts, see Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Baker, 2008).
6. For instance, see Thaddeus D. Horgan, Walking Together: Roman Catholics and Ecumenism Twenty-Five Years after Vatican II (Eerdmans, 1990); Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Baker, 2012); Gregg Allison and Christopher A. Castaldo, The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years (Zondervan, 2016); Peter J. Leithart, The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church (Brazos, 2016).
7. For instance, see Mark Greengrass, Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517-1648 (Penguin, 2014).
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*