Protestants & the Catholic Church

by Susan Peterson

The name "Protestant" comes from the protest against the Roman Catholic Church. The supporters of the two branches of Christianity have had disagreements and conflicts since the Protestants separated both organizationally and doctrinally from the Catholic Church during the 15th and 16th centuries. It was not until the 20th century that the two sat down together to look at what they held in common.

The Split

The 16th century split between the Catholic and Protestant churches is commonly known as the Reformation. The leaders of this Reformation were typically church leaders. They believed that in breaking away from Rome they were freeing the people in their churches from Rome's moneygrubbing and from doctrines and superstitions that had no biblical backing. The Reformers also wanted to put the Bible into the hands of the common people, not just the clergy. By contrast, the Catholic Church of the time saw the Reformation as the destruction of the unity of the faith. They believed that the Reformers were cutting millions of people off from the sacraments of the Catholic Church. These sacraments, they believed, held the only hope of eternal salvation. The result of this fundamental difference of perspective was enmity. Martin Luther, father of the German Reformation, railed against the Catholic Church in his 1545 "Against the Papacy at Rome, Founded by the Devil." The Catholic Church, in turn, burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake.

Religious Wars

What followed the Reformation were hundreds of years of warfare. In France the Catholics fought the Protestant Huguenots from 1562 to 1589. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Protestants fought the Spanish until 1648. Protestant England fought Catholic Spain. The Thirty Years War between the Protestant and Catholic states ravaged Europe, destroying more than half the population of some regions before ending with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The Treaty of Westphalia, which was actually a series of treaties and agreements, gave each prince the right to decide the religion of his own state. It also granted Christians of minority denominations the right to practice their faith in private. Though religious wars continued after 1648, the Peace of Westphalia stopped the worst of the carnage.

The Eighteenth Through Early Twentieth Centuries

Pope Pius XI, in his 1927 encyclical letter "Mortalium animos," expressed the mainstream attitude toward Protestants from Westphalia through the early twentieth century: "The union of Christians cannot be fostered otherwise than by promoting the return of the dissidents to the one true Church of Christ." Similarly, Protestant missionaries in Catholic countries attempted to convert Catholics to what they believed was true Christianity. Catholics and Protestants doubted each other's salvation. They were not allowed to attend each others ceremonies.

Vatican II

Vatican II, a Catholic reforming council, was held during the 1960s. During the three years of the council, the Catholic leadership addressed the place of the Church in the modern world. In 1964, the council issued "Unitatis Redintegratio," a decree on Ecumenism. In it they said, "The Sacred Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism." Since then Catholics and Protestants have been able to meet and discuss their commonalities and to work together on common projects. In 2011, in the Erfurt church where Martin Luther began his Reformation, Pope Benedict met with representatives of Germany's Protestant churches to pray and talk. Though the two churches still cannot formally take communion together, they can worship, pray and talk within each other's churches.

About the Author

Susan Peterson is the author of five books, including "Western Herbs for Martial Artists and Contact Athletes" and "Clare: A Novel." She holds a Ph.D. in text theory from the University of Texas at Arlington and is an avid cook and gardener.

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