A Protestant Looks at Catholics

From the May 8, 1953, Issue

THOUGH the Catholic may find the practice dubious, every  discussion of the Catholic Church, at least in America, is bound to begin  with the issue of the relation of the Church to a "free society." Such a discussion almost always contains more or less prejudiced views of the resources and defects of the Catholic Church for the achievement and preservation of "democracy." The Catholic may find this American habit dubious because it probably involves an idolatrous estimate of democracy, which lifts a democratic society into the position of an ultimate criterion of value and truth.

Although I share these misgivings, I shall start this non-Catholic estimate of American Catholicism in the same way, first because I regard the preservation of a free society as important, and secondly because all the judgments about the Church by outsiders have, as a matter of fact, this implied or explicit yardstick.

A sympathetic critic of the Church would be bound to begin with this theme, if for no other reason than because he is bound to dispel misconceptions general among his fellow-Americans about the relation of the Church to democracy. The Church is thought to be anti-democratic, partly because it is authoritarian, and partly because its religious unity appears, at least from the perspective of the multicolored Protestant and secular life, to be politically monolithic.

Partly the misconception rests on stereotypes which identify Catholicism with the political structure of Spain, let us say, rather than with France or the German Rhineland. I must admit that these misconceptions have the one grain of truth that they prove that forces other than those in the Church operated to transmute medieval social structures into modern ones. But they are misconceptions nevertheless because they underestimate the resources of Catholicism for preserving justice and stability in a free society, once established. They are misconceptions because they do not do justice to the role of Catholicism in the free societies in America, France, Germany, and Western Europe. They do not realize, for instance, what a contribution the Catholic conception of the superiority of political authority over the economic process made in avoiding the aberrations of both doctrinaire "free enterprise" economics and contrasting Marxist aberrations.  Nor do these criticisms take account of the practical effects of the Church's ability to qualify the class antagonisms in an industrial society by holding the loyalty of the industrial classes and allowing their viewpoints to color the political positions of Catholic political parties. It was this achievement, together with a Christian check on extreme nationalism, which gave Catholicism such a stabilizing influence in an otherwise unstable Weimar Republic, and which determines the creative force of the Catholic parties in modern France and Western Germany.

I say this, though I am grateful that Anglo-Saxon democracy has avoided religious parties, and grateful that Catholic viewpoints have expressed themselves in American life in the voices of such men as the late Philip Murray and the present Secretary of Labor, without the organization of a Catholic party. I believe, in short, that American non-Catholics do not appreciate the tremendous difference between the Church in an unreconstructed medieval social setting and the Church finding a creative place in the moral and political reconstruction of a modern industrial society.

An appreciation of this creative role does not eliminate some of the difficulties which even a friendly critic must experience with the role of the Church in modem society. The Catholic belief that error does not have the  same right as the truth, and its con­ sequent impatience with those democratic practices which seem to arbitrate matters of truth and value by counting noses, is a point of friction between the Church and a democratic society. It can be partly resolved if a distinction is made between matters of truth and morals and between matters of detailed application and the technical details involved in the application of moral principles.

I frankly cannot find, in some modern Catholic theory, an adequate consideration of Aquinas' warning that matters of application become increasingly hazardous the further they are removed from principle and involved in adjustment to historical contingency.  In this, modem Catholic theory seems to me comparable to modem social science, which does not heed Aristotle's warning that a field of inquiry embodying the historically contingent is not a proper realm for NOUS but rather for PHRONESIS or "practical wisdom."


BEYOND these possible misunderstandings between Catholicism and the ethos of a democracy, there remains the profound difference that democracy, while not determining the truth by the count of noses, is of course relativist in the sense that it would take a chance with error rather than give anyone the absolute authority to define the truth. I think this tension could be overcome if it were understood that no democratic political authority can challenge the authority of the Church to define the ultimate truth in its sphere while it was also understood that the state, that is the democratic state, was at least provisionally relativist in not permitting any definition of the truth to infringe upon the "rule of the majority."

Some of us are frankly a little puzzled to know why it was thought necessary, in such books as Ryan and Boland's Catholic Principles of Politics, to disavow the early position expounded by the late Cardinal Gibbons and the late Archbishop Ireland, which came to terms with our practical democratic presuppositions, and to insist instead that it was the duty of the state to teach not only religion but the "true religion." This position seems to threaten our nation with the prospects of an established religion, though the fears of non-Catholics are probably unrealistic in view of the qualifications in the Catholic theory.

Some of us hope that the theory will gain ground in the Catholic Church that the state is responsible for the general welfare but not for the salvation of souls. We don't know how respectable or orthodox it is, though it has good parentage. It would eliminate a point of friction between the Church and the traditions of our nation without sacrificing any important claims of the Church.


NEXT to the problem of the relation of the Church to the state, the problem of the relation of Catholicism to the Protestant Churches is of great moment to us. I am not anxious to apportion degrees of guilt for a deplorable situation for which the blame must probably be divided fairly evenly; but the relations between Catholics and Protestants in this country are a scandal and an offense against Christian charity.

Last year I was visited by a German Lutheran pastor from the Rhineland, here on a study tour to acquaint himself with our life. The presupposition of the visit was that the victors could instruct the vanquished in every aspect of "democratic" life, including the relations of the various religious groups. The German visitor was amazed to find the Catholic-Protestant relations were on the level of professional "love feasts" in which members of the various traditions exhorted a common audience in the values of cooperation and of mutual tolerance. But there was nowhere an honest and searching interchange of thought either on questions which have traditionally separated Catholics and Protestants or on current issues which are sore points between them in practical politics.

The German pastor contrasted this condition with the community which existed between Protestants and Catholics in the Rhineland, where he had only recently attended a joint retreat under the leadership of the Bishop of Mainz. He was naturally somewhat amused by the assumption that he could learn from American ecumenical practices, which seemed from his perspective to be "primitive." The fact is that there is very much mutual mistrust and fear between the two groups, partly derived from general causes and partly from conditions which are uniquely American.

It should be recognized on both Protestant and Catholic sides that religion can be a complicating factor in ethnic and racial rivalries. An ethnically heterogeneous nation, such as our own, will therefore be impatient with religious prejudices which aggravate ordinary points of tension. The tension between Catholicism and Protestantism is largely a tension between the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons in Boston, and between earlier and later migrations in the rest of the country, or sometimes between the Nordic and the Slav or Latin. Our religious institutions can assuage, rather than aggravate, these tensions only if there is knowledge of the peculiar force of the religious factor; and commerce rather than hostility between the religious communities.

Beyond this obvious cause there are other points of friction between us. To the Protestant the Catholic Church will seem to be a political power rather than a religious community; and to the Catholic the Protestant Churches will seem to be Christianity in various states of dissolution into secularism rather than as related to Christian communities. There is no full justice in either impression, but these impressions are bound to grow in a situation of hostility. Naturally one wonders why we could not establish methods of intercourse through which Protestants might learn to appreciate the Catholic Church as a religious community with a treasure of graces of the spirit, and Catholics might know Protestant Churches as religious communities with a common treasury of faith rather than merely as rival political groups.


WHILE the blame for a deplorable condition must be assessed fairly evenly between the two sides, I feel that Catholicism has a special blame on at least one point of friction between us. This point has to do with the effort to apply the standards of Natural Law to the life of the community. There is something ironic in the fact that the concept of Natural Law is regarded by Catholics as a meeting ground for Catholics and non-Catholics, and for Christians and non-Christians, whereas, as a matter of fact, it is really a source of tension between the Catholics and non-Catholics. Marital and family standards, on questions both of divorce and birth control, are the chief points at issue.

I remember participating in one of those formal symposia between Catholics, Jews, and Protestants which pass for serious discussion in America in which the Catholic speaker blandly made the Reformation responsible for the moral relativism and nihilism which ends in "modern sexual promiscuity." It is one of the hazards of Catholic-Protestant relations (which require much more frank discussion to eliminate) that those of us who believe that rigid Natural Law concepts represent the intrusion of stoic or Aristotelian rationalism into the more dynamic ethic of Biblical religion are unqualifiedly accused of "moral relativism" or even moral nihilism: our motives in rejecting the thesis that a rigid legalism is the only cure for relativism are impugned; and we are given no credit for wrestling with the moral problems of such historical creatures as human beings who exhibit  both a basic structure and endlessly unique elaborations of that structure. This in our opinion makes a rigid rational formula inapplicable while there is no situation in which the double love commandment is not applicable.

In regard to the problem of divorce, we do not, of course, challenge the right of the Church to preserve the Scriptural standard of the indissolubility of marriage in its community. But we believe it unwise to enforce this standard upon a semi-pagan or semi-secular community by law, when as a matter of fact the preservation of marriage requires real grace and not merely the force of law. We believe that the secular state must do what Moses did "because of the hardness of your hearts," and we do not find the marital records of nations which prohibit divorce rigorously too impressive. They contain too many instances of clandestine arrangements outside of marriage.

The prohibition of birth control becomes a problem among us when Bishops threaten long-established "Community Chest" forms of communal cooperation because one of the charities included in the Chest may happen to harbor a birth-control clinic. The prohibition of contraception is regarded by some of us as an illustration of the fact that the Christian abhorrence of naturalism does not prevent "Natural Law" theories in this instance from sinking to a naturalistic dimension. Nothing is more obvious than the assertion that "nature" intends the end of procreation in sexual relations; but we believe also that the freedom of the human person rises indeterminately above the primary ends of nature. We believe that the temptation to abuse the new freedom which contraception makes possible is in no different category than the temptations and abuses in the whole of modern technical civilization.


THE problem of religious education in our nation is a potent source of friction and misunderstanding between the Church on the one hand and Protestantism and the general community on the other.  Catholics may well be aggrieved to find Protestants and secularists making common cause on this issue and doing so upon the basis of a rigorous interpretation of the historic principle of the separation of church and state which allegedly prohibits even the granting of auxiliary services such as luncheons and bus rides to Catholic children.

Catholics know, and others ought to know, that this conception of an "absolute wall of separation" is not a sine qua non of democracy as their opponents claim, because some very healthy democracies in Europe do not observe a principle which our American "liberals" profess to regard as the cornerstone of democracy. Catholics have accepted the situation which forces them to pay double for their children's education with fairly good grace, knowing that whatever may be the traditions in other nations, the "secular" universal public school is a unique American institution which cannot be successfully challenged, not only because hallowed national traditions have a special potency but because the religious pluralism of our nation would make any other solution impossible. They are naturally baffled, and sometimes alarmed, when a nation which extols freedom endlessly seems to envisage the possibility of coercing attendance at the public school in the interest of national unity.

While causes of friction on this issue would seem to lie primarily on the Protestant side, and the Catholics rightly feel the force of a secularist-Protestant alliance against them, they probably do not appreciate the fact that their criticism of the secular character of the secular school is resented, particularly in view of the fact that they could not, in the light of their own principles, support a general religious instruction in the public schools. This resentment is hardly justified, however, since there could not be religious instruction in the public schools even without this complication.

Some of us who would like to see the state grant auxiliary services to Catholic children feel that the failure of Catholics to assure the nation that such a grant would not mean the opening wedge for further claims upon the state for support of parochial schools, has a tendency to stiffen opposition to policies which seem to Catholics to represent simple justice. But our expectation of such promises are probably unreasonable, and indeed the promises might prove ineffective in dissipating Protestant opposition to such measures.


I MUST apologize for considering the problem of Catholic-Protestant relations in this article rather than the exact theme which the editor assigned to me. This was done because of a pressing personal concern about the absence of any genuine community between us and the conviction that the inevitable frictions between religious groups and Churches will breed mistrust fear and even hatred if there is no effort to eliminate misunderstandings. We owe it to our common Lord to heal the breach between us and to eliminate the scandal of our enmities, which threaten the common decencies and the good or­ der of our country. We would be well advised to remember that the secularism which we pretend to abhor has at least one resource necessary for the health of a democratic community. It knows how to make pragmatic compromises in order to achieve harmony between seemingly incompatible positions, and Christian charity would accomplish the same end if Christians were humble enough to achieve the necessary charity.

About the Author

Dr. Niebuhr, author of Moral Man and Immoral Society, is a professor at Union Theological Seminary. 

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