Protestantism as Ecclesial Idealism

When St Augustine first converted to Catholic Christianity, he went through a phase of intense polemical writings against his previous school of thought, Manichaeism. I have not yet been officially received into communion with the today’s Roman Catholic Church (RCC), but I am currently seeking to be. I have found that, having essentially turned away from the Protestantism of my past, I can be overly polemical towards fellow Protestants. In an attempt to balance my (often excessive) tendency to criticize Protestantism, I would like to write an Ode to Protestants.

In a manner of speaking, Protestants are really ecclesial idealists. (“Ecclesial” means “relating to the church”.) When people like Luther and Calvin saw the incredible level of moral corruption in the governance of the RCC, they became simply unable to believe that it was still truly the “holy catholic church” proclaimed by the Nicene Creed.

I believe that modern Roman Catholics should perceive an essentially correct impulse behind Luther and Calvin’s decisions to oppose the RCC’s hierarchy. What motivated Luther and Calvin was a fundamental idealism that the church should be functionally holy. They were completely correct to desire moral purity among the clergy.

However, we should cautiously note that they were driven from ecclesial idealism to some remarkably extreme positions. Luther rejected not only the authority of the Pope (which actually was not terribly uncommon in his day), but also “Conciliarism” (the authority of Oecumenical Councils), which was quite radical. (If it were not for Luther having a few friends in high places — that is, friends with substantial loads of money — he probably would have been burned to the stake like other Reformers, including John Huss (1415 A. D.).) Calvin, following Zwingli’s influence, renounced belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, something that even Luther refused to do. Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, derived from Augustine’s dark exposition of predestination during his anti-Pelagian stage, is often criticized as being contrary to the grace and love that characterizes our understanding of Christ. Even some major Calvinist theologians, including Karl Barth, reject Calvin’s understanding of predestination.

What we see in Luther and Calvin is something like the moral outrage that drives some people to reject belief in a God of omnipotent love. To me, “How could the true church possibly have such a corrupt governmental hierarchy?” sounds rather like “How could an all-powerful and all-loving God possibly let this [insert tragic event] happen?” Common to both of these questions is a precious — and indeed, noble — idealism. The true church should not be governed by incorrigibly wicked Popes, Bishops, and priests. A good and loving God should not be silent in the face of evil. I believe that this kind of idealism is praiseworthy.

On the other hand, this sort of moral idealism is one-sided. The wicked clergy of the Renaissance era were a scandal to the idea that the church could be “holy” (Nicene Creed); but the Protestant Reformers have made a scandal of the idea that the church could be “one” (also in the Nicene Creed). In trying to make the church holy, they failed (I think) to keep it “one”. Furthermore, there is no legitimate precedence for the actions taken by the Protestant Reformers (for example, in their rejection of Conciliarism, Eucharistic Real Presence, Iconography, and Purgatory). In order to embrace the Protestant side of the Reformation, one must practically believe that the structure of the early church — even in the Ante-Nicene period — was entirely a mistake, or an accident of history. In either case, it is probably true that the idea of the Holy Spirit actually guiding the church and protecting her from fundamental error is badly damaged.

In response to these thoughts, my suggestion is that Protestant-Catholic dialogue could be strengthened by attempts to recognize the best in our respective traditions. In particular, Catholics should recognize — and praise — the ecclesial idealism of Protestants. We would do well to embrace that idealism ourselves, especially today.