Protestantism and Catholicism, whither the twain?
Could it be that the Reformation was not about God at all, but about human beings?
Friedrich Nietzsche: “Pure spirit is pure lie.” Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
With the approach of the 500th anniversary of the year traditionally taken to mark the start of the Reformation (1517), it might be worth reflecting a little on what the difference really was and is – and whether it still matters – between “Protestantism” and “Catholicism”.
These were the two movements destined to develop in the aftermath of the turbulent events associated with the career of Martin Luther in the 16th century.
At its inception in the early 16th century, Protestantism saw itself as a purified, “reformed” expression of the Christian faith. In the eyes of Protestant reformers, Christianity had become corrupt in the hands of the Catholic Church and needed to be restored to the alleged purity of its pristine beginnings.
Whatever about the accuracy of the reformers’ perception of early 16th-century Catholic Christianity, and whatever about the reservations one might have concerning the Reformed Churches’ ability to deliver on their promise of a restored, purified Christianity, the Reformation does at least seem to have highlighted a fundamental, and perhaps irreconcilable split, in the way Christianity can be construed.
More than earlier reform movements within Western Christianity, what the Reformation seems to have succeeded in clarifying is that Catholicism is primarily a religion of “externals” and Protestantism a religion of “internals”.
Admittedly, many may reject this contrast as simplistic, needlessly provocative, even tendentious. But Catholicism stresses material creation, the external world, the sacraments (the “visible sign of invisible grace”), the body (whether glorified in baroque art or castigated for “sins of the flesh”), or on physically attending Mass on Sundays, for example.
So it still looks plausible to argue that Catholicism is inextricably wedded to a vision of Christianity as a visible, tangible, palpable – in a word, “external” – reality.
In extreme cases, Catholicism can appear hypocritical to the point of being the very antithesis of Christianity, as the startling lines from a play by the Spanish dramatist Luis Vélez de Guevara (1579-1644) insinuate: “I can well be a bad Christian but a good Catholic.”
Protestantism, on the other hand, by playing off, in Luther’s words, “the wisdom of our flesh” and “the wisdom of the word of God” (Walter Kaufmann), can create a strained, bogus spirituality. This is repudiated by Protestantism’s most uncompromising critic, Friedrich Nietzsche, in the trenchant aphorism: “Pure spirit is pure lie.”
This tentative conclusion seems to be supported by the observation that Christianity, especially in its Catholic variant, evokes such passionate antagonism when seeking to pinpoint the limits of what should be done with or to a human body. Whereas debates about the human soul or even spirit tend now to be seen as arcane and relatively harmless pastimes.
Current, often ferociously conducted discussions on bioethical issues, for instance, possibly represent an unhappy convergence of the Protestant and Catholic streams within western sensibilities.
Protestantism’s yearning for clarity and purity in religion, and hence implicitly for the abolition of life’s ambiguities, may have affected Catholicism’s concentration on visible, tangible reality to the point where the latter’s interpretation of appearances has become dangerously rigid.
Mask of the soul
Can it risk forgetting that human beings are God’s permanently ambiguous creatures, and that God is the only authentic interpreter of humanity’s masks?
As for Protestantism, its passionate defence of honesty might now be seen as over- ambitious and hence in possible need of adjustment.
Rev Dr Martin Henry is a sometime lecturer in theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare, and a priest of Down and Connor diocese