One evening in 1997, at a meeting of theologians from diverse Christian traditions, I happened to be seated at dinner between two Catholics: a priest and a nun. Both were good friends of mine, so I felt free to bring up my distress about a recent report in Newsweek that the Pope was considering issuing an official doctrinal document declaring that Mary is “Co-Redemptrix” with Christ in the work of salvation.
The priest addressed the nun: “I really don’t think that will happen. Do you?” She paused, and then she said, with a look of concern on her face: “I sure hope not.” He pressed her: “What would you do if they did it?” Now there was a longer pause, and then she replied, “I’d have to leave the Church.” Then, with a look of sadness that matched hers, he said, softly: “So would I.” Each of them had taken their vows decades before, and it was clearly extremely difficult for them to utter those words. I knew their willingness to utter them in my presence was a wonderful gift of candor and trust, and I simply said nothing, waiting until they were ready to take up another topic.
I am grateful that the Newsweek report turned out to be misleading. I am also deeply grateful that each of these Catholic friends is still exercising an important leadership role in the Catholic community.
I don’t see that gratitude as a betrayal of my Protestant commitments. I’m pleased that people like them choose to remain Catholics, even though I could never be one myself. And I can claim some measure of support for my gratitude from none other than John Calvin. It is an understatement to say that the great Swiss Reformer had little respect for the Catholic Church as such. He was so convinced that the authorities in Rome had done much to distort the proper patterns of the life and mission of the church that he was compelled to declare “that every one of their congregations and their whole body lack the lawful form of the church.” For all of that, though, he could not bring himself to “deprive the papists of those traces of the church which the Lord willed should among them survive the destruction.” Thus, he says, “the Lord wonderfully preserves” within the Catholic church “a remnant of his people [who], however woefully dispersed and scattered,” nonetheless possess “those marks whose effectiveness neither the devil’s wiles nor human depravity can destroy.”
I like that “wonderfully preserves” line. On the level of abstract theology, Calvin uses language that is a bit harsher than I am inclined to employ today. The Roman church, he says, “lack[s] the lawful form of the church.” But having said that, he can still look at specific Catholics, real human believers who profess faith in Christ, and he can proclaim that something is happening in those lives that “neither the devil’s wiles nor human depravity can destroy.” Calvin can rejoice that in these lives “the Lord wonderfully preserves” his redeeming and sanctifying purposes in the Catholic Church.
I got to know the late Richard Neuhaus in the early 1970; he was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor at the time. Over the next decade-and-a-half, he established himself—using First Things, the magazine he founded and edited—as a leading commentator on issues of faith and public life. It was big news, then, when he was received into the Catholic Church in 1990, soon to be ordained as a priest. Neuhaus insisted that he was doing a very Lutheran thing in moving back to Catholicism. The primary reason why Luther left the Roman church, Neuhaus argued, was that he was not allowed to preach justification by faith alone. Now that it is permissible to proclaim that doctrine as a Catholic, we Protestants are obligated to return to the church from which Luther had been forced to depart.
Along with other Protestant friends, I made it clear to Father Richard that his argument was not convincing. I much prefer Abraham Kuyper’s assessment, made when he spoke at Princeton Seminary in 1898, that there are still many topics on which “we are as unflinchingly opposed to Rome as our fathers were.” But Kuyper did not leave it there. He went on to say that we do need to be clear that these diverse doctrinal topics “are not now the points on which the struggle of the age is concentrated.” The big challenge of our time, he said, is the struggle between Christianity and pagan thought and practice. And in this struggle, “Rome is not an antagonist, but stands on our side.”
As I celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I will not ignore the significant matters on which I disagree with my Catholic friends. But I will also rejoice in the fact that “the Lord wonderfully preserves” the cause of the Gospel in Catholicism—in a way, and to a degree, that John Calvin could not have imagined in the sixteenth century.
I’m glad that my two friends—the nun and the priest—still have clear consciences about serving in the Catholic community. Indeed, I have good Calvinist reasons for thanking the Lord for their faithfulness—and the faithfulness of so many other Catholics—to the cause of the Gospel.