Catholic/Protestant debate in an age of Liberal ascendancy

I’m a big fan of religious intolerance.  Whenever I see the brethren hurling accusations of heresy at each other, I feel a warm glow inside, as if there were a little stake in my heart and I were roasting Hans Kung on it.  Nevertheless, I often find myself acting against type and condemning acts of interreligious hostility.  I know some of my readers have been troubled by what often seems like my soft spot for Islam.  Am I a hypocrite, one who preaches discord and practices open-mindedness?  Not at all!  I quite approve of Christians criticizing Islam or (and this will be the main topic of this post) Catholics and Protestants arguing with each other.  I just don’t approve of the way it’s often done.  The fact is, most of the time we don’t fault other religions for sinning against truth; we fault them for sinning against Liberalism.

In the case of Islam, this is particularly obvious, and I’ve discussed it elsewhere.  In the field of Catholic-Protestant polemic, it’s also pretty obvious.  I used to think that this was primarily a Protestant thing.  It’s true that many Protestants make arguments against Catholicism that come down to the latter being incompatible with “American freedom” and individualist secularism, for being too sexually restrictive, for being patriarchal, or for being preoccupied with sin and redemption rather than “social justice”.  The problem here is not that the argument is anti-Catholic, but that it’s not really Protestant–one making such arguments would have to reject John Calvin for the same reasons.  Indeed, I wonder if sometimes people attack other but similar religions as a way of rejecting their own faith without having to face the discomfort of conscious apostasy.

However, I’ve come to see that Catholic writers tend to be at least as bad in this regard.  One can see this from the mindless way some Catholic bloggers throw around words like “Calvinistic”, “Puritan”, “fundamentalist”, or “Victorian”.  Even the great Chesterton was not above some silly Puritan bashing:  blaming Calvin for discrediting Christianity with his idea of Predestination (while forgetting that Catholics believe in this doctrine too) and painting English Puritans as proto-capitalist money gluttons.  Of course, boorish popularizers of the Theology of the Body, like Christopher West, are particularly bad about this.  What is one to say when one hears a self-professed Christian excoriate the Puritans for their modesty and continence while praising pornographers?  (Lechery is, as John Paul II never actually said, a striving for transcendence, while fidelity in marriage and avoidance of temptation are presumably not.)  It’s sickening.  I can’t help seeing it as a cowardly attempt to ingratiate oneself with a liberal culture that despises all holiness, and doing so by attacking one’s fellow Christians for their striving to live moral lives.

This is one example of a general phenomenon.  Members of one traditionalist group know that the stereotypes of them put out by the liberal media are false, but they always tend to assume that the stereotypes of other traditionalist groups fed to them by this same liberal media must be reliable.  When they hear the MSM accuse them of being motivated by “hate”, they know that they’re being slandered.  When the same news source–which these people should then know to be unreliable–tells them that some other group’s illiberalism is based on irrational hatred and fear, they accept it uncritically.  This must stop.  If you know the Liberals are lying about you, you should assume until you know differently that they’re lying about everybody else too.

In conclusion, there’s a right way and a wrong way for Catholics and Protestants to attack each other.  It’s always tempting to attack your opponent for being out of step with Liberalism, because it makes you seem “moderate” and wins you sympathy with outsiders.  This temptation must be avoided, not just because it’s a dirty trick, but primarily for the damage it will do to your own denomination.  Liberal respectability is like the Ring of Power–it will corrupt and destroy you.  For example, a Protestant may wish to criticize the Catholic belief on the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.  He should not do so on the grounds that sacrifice to God is a “primitive” idea, or that we’ve “outgrown” the ideas of sin and atonement.  Such claims would invalidate the whole economy of salvation.  Far better would it be to make the classical Protestant objection:  accept the need for sacrifice but accuse Catholic doctrine of devaluing the one on Calvary.  Of course, the Catholic has a response to this–that the Eucharist communicates rather than supplements this one sacrifice.  Now the Protestant and Catholic can argue about which understanding of the Eucharist is more coherent and which has more warrant in Scripture or Tradition.  Such arguments can be, and have been, theologically productive.  Most importantly, by ruling out the appeal to Liberal sentiment, we take away the danger that one of the disputants will argue his way into atheism.

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