The Collegian’s Jan. 16 article, “Core and conversation inspire Catholic conversion at Hillsdale,” has acquired much attention from both Catholics and Protestants alike.
In Assistant Professor of History Korey Maas’ letter to the editor on Jan. 30, he noted, in agreement with many of my own Protestant friends, that there were present in the article “traces of condescension and triumphalism.” It is not my place to determine who, if any, might be deemed responsible for divisive sentiments either in the article or in the Hillsdale religious community at large.
I do, however, think that it is my place to exhort both Catholics and Protestants to seek understanding before condemnation and unity before division.
Accusations of “condescension” and “triumphalism” are nothing new to the Catholic Church. Such accusations are often grounded in reality, as some Catholics seem to take pride in the fact that they know the truth (as they understand it) which others lack, preferring to exult in themselves rather than to grieve at the Church’s division.
Many other Catholics are far from such pride, but are not necessarily exempt from these same accusations.
The Catholic Church believes that it possesses a certain authenticity that Protestant denominations lack. While this assertion may be communicated in pride, pride is not its essence. An essential doctrine of the Catholic Church is that Christ, through the institution of the magisterium, preserves the Catholic Church from error so that the fullness of revelation which was given to the apostles is maintained to this day in perfect purity.
One may sincerely believe this claim, thereby asserting that the Catholic Church is right where Protestant denominations are wrong. This does not mean that the Catholic faith is founded on pride, condescension, or triumphalism. Instead, it means that Catholicism includes a claim about the nature of God’s revelation which excludes the full affirmation of any other Christian teaching that is not fully aligned with the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Protestants ought to realize that a Catholic, with sincerity of faith and devotion, is not necessarily condemnable on account of pride for maintaining that the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of revelation and that Protestants are wrong. One may, of course, argue whether or not Catholics are right, but the Catholic conviction ought not to be dismissed out of hand with an accusation of odious pride.
Catholics, however, must be especially careful that their sincere faith is not corrupted by the pride of which they are often accused. This is an especially prevalent temptation at Hillsdale, where we labor daily to discover truth. Knowledge and love must always coincide because truth (the object of knowledge) and goodness (the object of love) always coincide.
If knowledge is separated from love, it is in vain. For this reason, St. Paul writes that if I “understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
Our desire to know the truth ought always to lead us into deeper charity. If we fail to allow knowledge to give way to love, and instead pervert knowledge so that it provides an occasion for exulting oneself and harboring resentment for other Christians, then we are as condemnable as the Pharisees, who best understood doctrine in their day.
Because Protestant denominations affirm the absoluteness of their own doctrine as strongly as the Catholic Church does, Catholics and Protestants alike are liable to fall into the pharisaical temptation, and both should therefore take the utmost care that they do not thereby become Satan’s greatest delight.
Protestants, too, may at times be found guilty of pride in their not being Romanists, perhaps founded on a belief that the Catholic Church is fundamentally not Christ-centered. Regardless, any Christian, no matter the sect, who believes that he knows the truth ought always keep in mind, “To whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48), and keep their hearts firmly fixed on charity and humility.
Theology is not a game in which we attempt to accumulate as much knowledge as we can and are thereby declared victorious over others who know less. Theology seeks knowledge of a personal God so that our ideas properly reflect the nature of the One with whom the Christian seeks a relationship. Thus, any Christian who claims to know true doctrine must put his knowledge at the service of loving God and neighbor. A Protestant who pridefully denounces the Catholic Church and a Catholic who takes pride in not being a Protestant both abuse their theology.
One may be glad to belong to his specific denomination without taking pride that he does not belong to another; this latter pride must not be indulged, lest discord reign over the Church.
Over the last century, the Catholic Church has become more aware of her need to promote unity in the larger Christian body. In the Catholic Church’s decree on ecumenism from Vatican II, she proclaimed, while simultaneously grieving the division that prevents “the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her,” that “Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ.”
Protestants, too, might benefit from the same exhortation. No Catholic should deprecate a Protestant’s sincere faith, and no Protestant should dismiss the genuine presence of Christ in the Catholic Church, both at Hillsdale College and throughout the world.
Unity will never be perfect between Catholics and Protestants while doctrinal disagreements persist. But even substantial theological differences should not be the cause for pride, condescension, triumphalism, prejudice, suspicion, or animosity. Our account of God should always cause a desire for unity amongst all Christians and for charity — especially for those members of Christ’s Body with whom we most differ.
Nate Messiter is a senior studying philosophy and religion.