Five Hundred Years of Schism Isn’t A Cause for Celebration For Anyone

The start of the 2nd Great Schism

This is the first in a series of posts around the five hundred year anniversary of the Protestant-Catholic schism.

Disunity is a Scandal to Jesus

As someone who sojourned for many year in Protestant denominations before returning across the Tiber to Rome, I know the love of Jesus and his gospel that exists in these communities. I’ve seen the passion to live out the Great Commission, and I discount none of that love. In fact, I in many ways feel compelled to write this even more so because of that love.

We, as Christians, need to be honest with ourselves that regardless of what denomination we call home that it is a scandal of the highest order that for the last five hundred years that Christianity has split into thousands of individual groups separated from each other.

Even if one believes in Luther’s critique of the Church, the goal was reforming the Church in its whole, not the schism that erupted and has consumed much of Western Christianity since its inception.

The witness of our faith is seriously impaired by the disunity and division of the Reformation, and we should not paper over that problem. We owe it to each other to thoughtfully engage on the causes of the schism and a path towards reunification, because reunification is a biblical imperative.

“I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose” 1 Corinthians 1:10
The Council of Trent responding to the Schism

The Main Immediate Cause of the Reformation Is Over

Tremendous strides have been made in the last fifty years. In fact, while likely news to most, the Catholic Church and the denomination birthed by Luther signed a document in 1999 declaring “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine on the Declaration of Justification is an amazing read and I highly recommend it for Catholics and Protestants alike.

Since 1999 the Methodists and the World Communion of Reformed Churches have also signed onto the same statement. This isn’t the sort of cheap ecumenicalism that tries to paper over our differences, but it was a decades long effort that resulted in substantial and meaningful theological agreements on one of the core issues of the reformation. We should celebrate this milestone. It is not enough to end five hundred years of division in the body of Christ, but it is a start.

The Nature of the Schism

Too often the heart of the division between Rome and the Protestant West is boiled down to either justification or Papal authority, but this is not a fair reading of the divisions between us.

The truth is as noted above is that on justification much of the difference has largely been theologically resolved. However, the issue of Papal authority requires more work, but it is too often overblown as a theological issue. To see this in practice one need only to look to the first schism between east and west, and how even though the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic church remain divided that due to the shared belief that both Churches have valid sacraments the division is not nearly as much of a gulf as the 2nd schism. A Catholic in urgent need can indeed receive the sacraments licitly (from a Catholic perspective) from an Orthodox priest.

Ultimately, while the Orthodox and Catholics have some disagreements, they are of the same nature as apostolic, sacramental Churches. Neither feature exists in the Protestant churches which is highly problematic for moving forward. While one can imagine a real chance at reunion of East and West in our lifetimes, no such hope lies between Catholics and Protestants.

What is the Church?

A Difference in Understanding of the Church

It is ironic that what unites the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, an understanding of the Church, divides the Catholic and Protestant West. We have to be honest about the chasm that exists if there is ever any hope of breaching it.

The Protestant understanding of church revolves primarily around an enlightenment individualism that progressively privatized faith practices. Prior to the enlightenment such division was unthinkable and would have made little sense to early Christians. The belief that the Church is the invisible body of all believers which is divided from the physical Church organization was a necessary theological position for the early Reformers to rebut the Catholic Church’s counter argument, but it was a wholly modern concept.

This division between the Catholic understanding of the Church being the physical church of the Bishops, Presbyters (Priests), Deacons, and congregations and the Protestant metaphysical church is a chasm.

The Source and Summit of the Church

A Sacramental Church

The second aspect that fundamentally separates us is the sacraments. It is worth reading the Catholic Church’s main teaching document, the Catechism, and what it says on the sacraments.

The whole liturgical life of the Church revolves around the Eucharistic sacrifice and the sacraments. There are seven sacraments in the Church: Baptism, Confirmation or Chrismation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. — The Catechism of the Catholic Church

The vast majority of Protestantism rejects the Catholic understanding on all seven sacraments, but will confess some form of belief in the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism, but their understanding of both differ widely from the catholic belief.

Ironically, Catholics view any trinitarian Protestant church as likely having two valid sacraments: baptism and marriage. This is because neither sacraments require any priestly office. Catholics believe that essentially any baptism done in the triune name is valid and the Church teaches that any marriage between two sacramentally baptized people is valid as marriage.

The ultimate and inescapable difference revolves around the Eucharist. The teaching of both Orthodox and Orthodox churches for 1500 years unanimously agreed on the real presence of the Christ in the Eucharist and the importance of the sacrament to the life of the Church.

I’ve covered this more in depth in other pieces but it is worth repeating St. Ignatius of Antioch’s view on the matter that was written around 110AD.

“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God…They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” — St Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Smyrna

And Saint Justin Martyr writing around 151AD similarly affirms the ancient nature of this belief.

“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus”

As I wrote previously, it was exactly the teaching on the Eucharist that ultimately caused me to leave Protestantism. If I came to believe, as I did, that the Church was right on teaching the Real Presence then I had no business remaining separated from Rome any longer.

It is the definitive issue of the schism and it divides millions of Christians from each other. If the Catholic Church is right on the Real Presence than whatever other error it might have (not that I am saying it does but just as a hypothetical exercise) pales in comparison to the false denial of the Real Presence.

A Call to Unity

The divisions are real and meaningful and any cheap ecumenicalism that papers over the fundamentally different view of the Church that Protestants and Catholics hold does no one any good. We can any should work together on issues we agree with, and on matters of charity, but we also all are called to mourn the schism.

As we approach five hundred years of this schism with no end in sight, it is important we understand the magnitude of the scandal in that division and that there are no easy answers moving forward.