Roman Catholic - Protestant dialogue

   Protestantism originated as a schism within the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the 16th century, and the two communities struggled, often violently, for two centuries. Even when Christians in a particular country agreed to disagree, tension remained high wherever the two communities lived in close proximity, such as in Ireland, where Anglican rulers attempted to govern a largely Catholic population, and France, where a Protestant minority sought to survive in a Catholic country.
   The spread of religious freedom in the 19th and 20th centuries gradually converted conflict between the two communities into a war of words, though pockets of physical violence occasionally flared up. In the United States, the Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s included an anti-Roman Catholic element; Roman Catholics there responded by developing an openness to democratic structures and a willingness to participate in the wider society, unlike many of their coreligionists in Europe.
   Until the 1960s, however, Roman Catholic-Protestant relations, though no longer violent, tended to perpetuate the hostility of the Reformation era. Each camp published large amounts of material condemning the other, theologically and behaviorally. Protestants were upset that Catholics did not recognize them as fellow believers destined to the same heavenly home. They also condemned the Catholic Church for holding onto what they considered un-Christian beliefs and practices, including the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints, purgatory, and indulgences. The designation of papal infallibility in 1871 provided another issue between Catholics and Protestants. At the same time, Catholics chided Protestants for leaving the one true church established by Christ, for splitting into hundreds of denominations, and for being naïve about the authority of the church's tradition.
   The possibilities of any reconciliation appeared gloomy as late as the mid-20th century Vatican offices continue to oppose participation by local Catholics in ecumenical discussions. However, voices began to rise in the Catholic Church calling for some rapprochement. The emerging Protestant Ecumenical movement that culminated in the formation of the World Council of Churches provided a context in which Protestant voices eager to heal the Catholic breech found a forum.
   The real change occurred with the election of Pope John XXIII (1958). His first pastoral letter (encyclical), Ad Patri Cathedram (1959), addressed Protestants as "separated brethren," a phrase that was a significant step in recognizing Protestants as legitimate partners in future dialogue. In 1960, he created the Secretariat of Christian unity in the Vatican. in 1961, he formally received the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher (1887-1972), and sent official observers to the World Council of Churches assembly in New Delhi. These initial actions presaged the dramatic events of Vatican II (1961-65). To begin with, official Protestant observers were given access to council leadership. The council went on to reject forced conversion of non-Christians and non-Catholic Christians and revised earlier directives concerning dialogue. The council declared that Catholics are united with both Protestants and Orthodox by a common baptism and a common faith in Jesus Christ and the Gospel message.
   After Vatican II, the whole atmosphere changed between Catholics and Protestants, and believers at every level of church life now engaged with one another. Groups gathered to share worship and music, to talk about commonalities, to discover mutual humanity, and to talk openly about the differences that remained. on the more formal level, Vatican officials at the Secretariat on Christian unity and church leaders at the national and regional level began a series of dialogues with Protestants and orthodox aimed at a future return to a unified Christianity Working groups were established between the Vatican and the World Council of Churches and several of the larger global Protestant denominational families (Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, and Methodist), which became institutionalized, as Catholics and Protestants now commonly sit together on ecumenical councils at the local and national level around the world.
   Although little progress has been made toward organic unity between the Roman Catholic Church and specific Protestant communities, the changed relationship has had a marked effect upon the relationships between church members, especially in places where a high level of tension had persisted, notably Northern Ireland. Protestant-Catholic dialogue there was a key toward reducing the high level of violence in the 1980s and 1990s.
   Fundamentalist Protestants have been the most reluctant to engage Roman Catholics; the last pockets of Protestant anti-Catholic literature emanate from their publishing houses. Evangelical Protestants, though less enthusiastic about dialogue with Catholics than mainline Protestants, have initiated conversations and report real progress in dealing with continuing points of misunderstanding and disagreement.
   Further reading:
   ■ John Armstrong, ed., Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994)
   ■ Robert McAfee Brown, Observer in Rome: A Protestant Report on the Vatican Council (London: Methuen, 1964)
   ■ Karl Lehmann, Michael Root, and William Rusch, eds. Justification by Faith: Do the Sixteenth-Century Condemnations Still Apply? (New York: Continuum, 1997)
   ■ Peter Toon, Protestants and Catholics (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1983)
   ■ Lukas Vischer and Harding Meyer, eds., Growth in Agreement Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1984)
   ■ Joseph W. Witmer and J. Robert Wright, eds., Called to Full Unity: Documents on Anglican-Roman Catholic Relations 1966-1983 (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1986).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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