We Christians have our work cut-out for us in an increasingly secular, anti-Christian world. Our mission, at the most basic level is to save souls, starting with our own. We also work together in a wide array of worthy, charitable and political efforts. Many of us have signed the Manhattan Declaration, for instance.
While there are differences, we share core Christian beliefs. There is only one God who created everything, Jesus is His Son conceived by the Holy Spirit, heaven and hell exist, our sins condemn us to hell but we are saved through Jesus sacrifice.
In addition to our shared beliefs, we have shared problems too. We are all discouraged when our members leave the faith, either formally or by simply not coming to church. Another problem we share is ineffective catechesis, how many in our congregations and parishes really know and live the faith? Too many people are Christian “in name only.”
I think it is fair to say that we all seek to learn and correctly interpret Christ’s teaching. One of those teachings is that we are one Church. When we meet in heaven, we will all know the one truth.
From the Catholic point of view, all Christians are at least partially Catholic. The forefathers of Protestants, for example, were Catholic until the 1400s. Protestant theology borrows much from Catholic theology, adding a little and generally removing a lot. The specific degree of change varies widely between denominations and over time. We see non-Catholic Christians as simply not being in full communion with us. Not as outsiders, but as brothers and sisters in Christ.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 60’s, my extended family was solidly Protestant (although some were of different denominations). In all my Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, Catechism classes, etc. – comparative Christian beliefs was barely touched. There was some brief (and inaccurate) coverage of Catholics, but I remember no coverage of other Protestant denominations. I thought that we were all more-or-less the same. I think that many Protestants think that today!
The fact is, Protestant beliefs vary hugely: how and when one is saved, how are sins forgiven, is communion only symbolic, when to baptize, did Mary remain a virgin / was she immaculately conceived / her assumption, what is heaven and hell, did Jesus literally rise from the dead, is there original sin, will there be a “rapture” and so much more. Even agreeing on who is Protestant varies!
While they were all created by individual men sometime after 1,500 years of Christian history, the main thing Protestant denominations can claim in common is that they are not Catholic! I mean that only partly in jest. Ironically, some denominations are far closer to Catholic beliefs than they are to some other Protestants.
How many Protestant denominations are there? No one knows – really. I tend to think of a dozen larger ones by name but that really doesn’t cover it. If you define a denomination as people with formally shared beliefs, then the number is very large… in some cases arguably to the level of individual members. Much more conservative numbers place it anywhere between 5,000 to 30,000 denominations.
Even if you look only at the largest denominations such as Anglican, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians – you will find not only do they differ greatly from each other, but they are all also highly divided internally. Each of these has deepening, severe divisions between internal groups.
I think lack of theological authority is the root of the problem. Catholics believe strongly in Apostolic succession – that the Apostles were the first bishops, Peter was the first pope. Their succession has continued through today and will continue to the end of time. Faithful Catholics accept the teaching of our Magisterium (bishops) as led by the pope. This is how Jesus Himself structured the Church He protected by the Holy Spirit. It is not a democracy. The most important roles of the Magisterium are to teach and *protect* the faith (i.e. NOT change it). If it was true when Jesus taught it, it is true today.
Once men entered into schism with the Church in the 1400s, needless-to-say, they could no longer recognize that authority. I am no expert in this, but it appears that most Protestant denominations work as a democracy where matters of faith are decided by votes of delegates. For example, most Lutherans choose “voting members” to fit this formula:
Voting members of the Churchwide Assembly must be voting members of a congregation of this church. The rules governing the selection of voting members also direct that 60 percent of the voting members will be lay persons, half of whom are female and half of whom are male. At least 10 percent of the voting members are to be persons of color or whose primary language is other than English.
It seems politically correct and very democratic. To be perfectly honest, I just do not understand how the absolute truth can be arrived at democratically. The truth is the truth, period. It doesn’t change over time or need updating. Can a good democratic process – particularly of those not well educated in theology – somehow arrive at that truth? Apparently not if you look at how this continues to distance Protestants from each other. Often instead of focusing on the unchanging, revealed truth, such processes result only in adapting the faith to modern secular viewpoints.
Catholics often pray that we will once again be unified. We are saddened when that hope is made more difficult through continual change and splintering. Personally, I just do not have the mental horsepower to see a path to complete unification in the near term. Some trends are interesting however.
The biggest trend is the liberal vs. conservative, progressive vs. orthodox, modern vs. ancient — or whatever you wish to call it. As touched on above, it is unfolding in each Protestant denomination. As each “side” becomes more entrenched in their own belief, those strongly not agreeing flee. In other words, it is polarizing. As whole congregations re-evaluate their faith, some are drawn to the steadfast doggedness of Catholicism. This is the case (for example) in some parts of the Anglican union, where many of their bishops and priests asked Pope Benedict to facilitate conversions of entire congregations. Under his guidance, the extraordinary step of creating an Anglican Ordinariate was taken to maintain their Anglican traditions while also being 100% Catholic. This kind of step while rare, is not unprecedented. The Catholic Church has many rites in addition to the Latin Rite many in the West are familiar with.
The other trend in support of unification is simply by individuals converting. That was my case as it is many others too. My Protestant denomination was changing in a progressive direction that I could no longer ignore. I loved my local church and the members in it, but the veracity of my faith was simply more important. You will find a wide spectrum of folks in every RCIA class (those studying Catholicism on a path of conversion).
All Christians should work together – to spread the Good News, never denigrate each other and pray for our unification here on earth. Regardless of our differences here, we will be one in heaven.