By Tom Piatak
In writing on religious topics for myriad conservative publications through the past 20 years, my approach has been that of C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. I do not hide that I’m Catholic, but I think Benjamin Franklin’s advice on different circumstances applies to the plight we Christians face today: “If we don’t hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately.”
As my writings make clear, I am grateful to the Protestants who founded America, in awe of the music of Bach and Handel, love the peerless English choirs sponsored by the Anglican Church, and appreciate the historical advances associated with Protestantism, such as universal literacy. More to the point, as a Catholic who accepts all the documents approved at the most recent ecumenical council, Vatican II, I regard Protestants, first and foremost, as fellow Christians.
But sometimes, I regret to say, it is hard to regard some Protestants as fellow Christians, because they insist that even the holiest Catholics
are not Christians at all. One such is Canadian theologian Tim Challies, whom I ran across on YouTube. Challies, for instance, has quoted with approval Welsh theologian Martin Lloyd-Jones description of Catholicism as “Satan’s masterpiece,” and made numerous comments about my Faith, including some of my heroes in the Faith, consistent with that view. Such comments deserve fraternal correction.
But before answering Challies, I’d like to quote what two recent popes have said about sincere and well-meaning Protestants, such as those who have worked tirelessly alongdide Catholics in opposing unfettered abortion. Such Protestants know Church teaching better than our supposedly Catholic president, who just made the astonishing claim that the Church does not oppose legalized abortion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and Evangelium Vitae are apparently uncharted territory for Joe Biden.
“The daily Christian life of these brethren is nourished by their faith in Christ and strengthened by the grace of Baptism and by hearing the word of God,” Paul VI wrote in Unitatis Redintegratio:
This shows itself in their private prayer, their meditation on the Bible, in their Christian family life, and in the worship of a community gathered together to praise God. Moreover, their form of worship sometimes displays notable features of the liturgy which they shared with us of old. …
[Protestants] faith in Christ bears fruit in is a strong sense of justice and a true charity toward their neighbor. This active faith has been responsible for many organizations for the relief of spiritual and material distress, the furtherance of the education of youth, the improvement of the social conditions of life, and the promotion of peace throughout the world.
In Dominus Iesus, the future Benedict XVI wrote that “those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church.”
In other words, the Catholic Church recognizes the vast majority of Protestants to be Christians. So do I.
Indeed, I am far more worried about the eternal fate of Catholics who leave the Church than Protestants who, in good faith, never become Catholics. Of course, I am delighted when anyone crosses the Tiber, and I applaud their courage in following the path of truth to its only terminus. But I think God still saves many of those who come nowhere near the terminus, provided that they sincerely follow Him and do not repudiate the Truth once they fully understand It. Even before Vatican II, Catholic theologians recognized that faithful Protestants’ undoubted belief in Christ and earnest desire to follow his example would help them to work out their salvation “in fear and trembling,” just as St. Paul worked out his and Catholics work out theirs.
Proselytism, of the type advocated by Challies for Catholics and other unbelievers, can also be an ineffective if not offensive way to evangelize. The first time a born-again Christian tried to convert me, for instance, the emotions I felt radiating from this would-be evangelizer were arrogance and disdain, not love and joy. Far better for Protestants and Catholics alike to follow the advice of John Henry Newman’s contemporary, fellow convert, and sometime opponent, the gifted hymn writer Rev. Frederick Faber:
Faith of our Fathers! we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife:
And preach thee too, as love knows how
By kindly words and virtuous life:
Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith!
We will be true to thee till death.
Although welcoming Protestants following their conscience to Rome, the Catholic Church does not proselytize Protestants these days and most Protestant denominations return the favor. The reason for that in significant part is that Catholics and Protestants opposed to Nazism came to value each other as brothers in Christ.
Although my life circumstances have been nowhere near that dramatic, my far less eventful life has led me to the same conclusion. Certainly I have known few men who were more faithful followers of Jesus Christ than my late friend Aaron Wolf, the beloved longtime Associate Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. (In addition to being a dear friend, Aaron was instrumental in getting my tribute to another exemplary Christian of my acquaintance, Catholic theology teacher Jim Skerl, into Chronicles).
I have also enjoyed watching Protestant preachers on television for decades. As a kid, I regularly attended the Saturday vigil Mass with my parents and paternal grandparents, leaving me free, on Sunday morning, to watch Jerry Falwell preach from the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. I enjoyed Falwell’s sermons, and regarded him as a kindred spirit in many ways. I thanked him for his good work years later when I met him at a Pat Buchanan campaign event.
Such Protestants never get any grief from me. They are brothers and sisters in Christ.
Unfortunately, my longtime enjoyment of excellent Protestant preaching on television also exposed me to a darker side of a sliver of American Evangelicalism. These Protestants, like my would-be evangelizer of unhappy memory, view the Catholic Church as evil and Catholics as “unbelievers” unworthy of the name of “Christian.”
For these Protestants, the scandal is not when the Catholic Church behaves badly and produces obvious reprobates. For them, the scandal is when the Catholic Church behaves well and produces obvious saints. Thus, “Christianity” is advanced only after authentic goodness, grounded in a sincere belief in Jesus Christ, has been ignored, diminished, or dismissed, simply because that goodness was produced by the Catholic Church or by a Catholic.
A prime example of this Protestant archetype was the Rev. Charles McEwan Hyde, a Presbyterian clergyman living comfortably in Honolulu while Father Damien was living—and dying—with the lepers on Molokai. Unfortunately for Hyde, his unflattering letter to a Presbyterian clergyman in Australia, Rev. H.B. Gage, came to the attention of Robert Louis Stevenson, who had just visited Molokai and talked at length to many of the people who knew Damien. The result was a thoroughly effective rhetorical dissection of Hyde and a sure guide to identifying the Hydes of today.
Which brings me to Tim Challies, who is one of them. I had never heard of him until recently, again, when I watched a YouTube video. He was discussing his book about his son, who, sadly, died in his early 20s (Eternal rest grant unto him, Lord, and let perpetual shine upon him).
With Challies was a talented, intelligent, and engaging Protestant preacher, whose sermons I have long enjoyed … except when they deal with Catholicism. Challies and this pastor were asked about Protestantism’s theology of suffering, which, their interlocutor observed, is seen as underdeveloped. I thought the pastor or Challies might refer to Catholic theology. They didn’t.
My curiosity piqued, I dove into Challies’ online writing, where I found a portrait of Hyde. Those acting in the name of the Catholic Church have committed many grievous sins, not least in my lifetime, but Challies focused on two heroes of mine and on a great, if troubled, Catholic artist. Challies reminded me not only of Hyde but also of Christopher Hitchens, who memorably said of Mother Teresa, “I wish there was a hell for the bitch to go to.” The difference between Challies and Hitchens is that Challies is confident that there is a Hell, and seems pretty confident that “the bitch” is there.
White, once again, says what I am too timid to say. … “I wonder … how many evangelical leaders will honor God rather than men and say what needs to be said? ‘Unless the Pope believed the gospel, he, like any other person on the planet, died under the wrath of God, outside of the only way of salvation God has provided in Jesus Christ!’”
By “the gospel,” Challies and White mean biblical exegesis rejected by every Church that traces its history to Apostolic times, including churches not founded by the Apostles.
In another piece, Challies quoted White’s advice on responding to John Paul’s death:
[T]he passing of John Paul II opens up a tremendous opportunitty for dialogue. Are you prepared? Can you address the issue of the Papacy, the sufficiency of Scripture, and the reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ and how Rome does not possess that gospel (but instead dogmatically denies it)?…..
Please remember that many Roman Catholics today have known no Pope but John Paul II. They have a very, very strong attachment to him on a personal level. Your task is to be gentle yet direct in your seeking to proclaim God’s truth to Roman Catholics.
As in April 2005, the world is now responding to the death of a longtime, beloved leader, Queen Elizabeth II. Imagine the reaction if a group had encouraged its members, right after she died, to “dialogue” with ordinary Englishmen about the intrinsic evil of the monarchy. Worse still, imagine the reaction if a Catholic spokesman speculated about her damnation. Such persons would rightly be written off as insensitive clods, if not hateful fanatics. Yet, in the strange mental universe that White and Challies inhabit, comparable actions woud have been perfectly acceptable in the case of John Paul II.
Challies’ deep hatred of the Catholic Church also causes him to make some odd allies. He so strongly objected to Mel Gibson’s Catholicism that he recommended The New Yorker’s hit piece on Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a hit piece largely based on the work of leftist Biblical scholars of the type whose reading of the Bible could not be more different from Challies’. Later, Challies opined that The Passion of the Christ was roughly as accurate a depiction of the last hours of Jesus as The Da Vinci Code. Of course, in Challies’ eyes, Gibson’s real sin is that he is a Catholic who directed a movie that many evangelicals found moving and still do.
Another such Catholic sinner was Mother Teresa, whose offenses were such that Challies fully embraced criticisms from British atheist Christopher Hitchens and Indian atheist Aroup Chatterjee. Amazingly enough, Challies offered these writers’ atheism as proof of their neutrality about the diminutive Albanian saint: “Like Hitchens, Chatterjee is an atheist and his dislike of Mother Teresa has little to do with a religious bias. Like Hitchens, he has found that the reality of the woman and her work is a far cry from the legend.”
I doubt that Challies finds Bart Ehrman’s agnosticism a reason to agree with his assault on the accuracy, coherence, and consistency of the Bible. But for Challies, any club, even an atheist club, is good enough to beat a Catholic. (My favorite answer to Mother Teresa’s critics like Challies and his atheist friends, by the way, comes from Indian writer Mari Thaekela: “I cannot in conscience criticise a woman who picked people off filthy pavements to allow them to die in dignity. To my knowledge, there’s still no one else doing that.”)
But again, Challies’ primary Catholic bugbear was Pope John Paul II. In 2004, Challies criticized President George W. Bush for awarding the Polish pope the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Challies quotes the citation thusly:
A devoted servant of God, His Holiness Pope John Paul II has championed the cause of the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the outcast. He has defended the unique dignity of every life, and the goodness of all life. … The United States honors this son of Poland who became the Bishop of Rome and a hero of our time.
But like a modern-day Rev. Hyde, Challies omitted this:
Through his faith and moral conviction, he has given courage to others to be not afraid in overcoming injustice and oppression. His principled stand for peace and freedom has inspired millions and helped to topple communism and tyranny. (Emphasis added).
Soviet Communism’s collapse and the resulting religious freedom for all Christians behind the Iron Curtain are a mere detail of history, hardly worth mentioning when considering the life of John Paul II.
Fortunately, just as Stevenson listened to those who actually knew Fr. Damien to assess Rev. Hyde’s scurrilous attack, we can listen to Protestants who experienced life under Soviet tyranny to assess Challies’ assessment of John Paul II.
Hungarian President Viktor Orban, a Calvinist and perhaps the world’s leading Christian statesman, is an unabashed admirer of John Paul II, whom he forthrightly credits with the collapse of Soviet Communism and Hungary’s liberation. And the Polish Pope, whom Orban regarded as the world’s principal defender of Central Europeans while the Soviet Union still looked impregnable, seems to have had a sense of what was to come. In 2004, John Paul made the Protestant Orban a papal knight. The Pope said the award anticipated what Orban would do, not what he had already done.
We can also listen to the Hungarian Reformed Church, which described John Paul II “an exceptional instrument in God’s hands.”
Or we can listen to the Lutheran Archbishop of Riga, in Latvia describe the close bond of friendship between his church and the Catholic Church in Latvia. Those bonds were forged under Communist oppression, when Latvian Lutheran pastors were often imprisoned alongside Latvian Catholic priests. In the Gulag, these men came to see each other as brothers in Christ. They still do, the Archbishop made clear during Pope Francis’ Apostolic visit to Latvia:
[It was] a great event for our Catholic friends and partners because their shepherd is visiting so we are glad and rejoice with them.
Indeed, so deep has the friendship between Lutherans and Catholics in Latvia become that, in 2001, the Catholic Archbishop of Riga was consecrated in the Lutheran cathedral.
Needless to say, neither Lutherans nor Catholics in Latvia regard the other as “unbelievers” or even prime targets for conversion. Neither do they engage in formal ecumenical “dialogue.” They just meet each other, and help each other, as friends and brothers in Christ.
This does not mean they are liberals. The Lutheran Archbishop reversed his church’s previous acceptance of women’s ordination, and the Catholic Archbishop of Riga recently recently described how Latvian Christians are united in using John Paul II’s arguments against abortion and “gender” ideology.
The Lutheran Archbishop’s wise words offer something for all Christians to consider, as secularists, Islamists, and anti-Western nationalists increasingly target all Christians for persecution. Isn’t it better to forge bonds of friendship before the Enemy (and his allies) use our divisions to bring about Soviet-style persecution throughout what was once Christendom?
Of course, good fruit still comes from Gibson’s film, John Paul II’s many good works, and Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity, including work done behind the former Iron Curtain by Christians now free to practice their faith, something no one thought possible when Karol Jozef Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in October 1978.
Let Mother Teresa and her devoted sisters have the last word. In 2016, in Yemen, Islamic terrorists brutally murdered four Indian nuns in the Missionaries of Charity. Warned of impending danger, they didn’t abandon the destitute and disabled Yemenis for whom they cared. Ironically, the Islamists then demonstrated their hatred for all forms of Christianity the same way Challies’ Calvinist heroes in the Reformation demonstrated their hatred of Catholicism. They smashed all the religious images they could find, albeit generally without the shedding of blood.
Challies didn’t say a word about them on his website. I pray that if he were to examine how these women lived and died, he would abandon Hydeism and come to see that, whatever the theological differences, these women lived and died for Jesus Christ. I also pray that Challies, and those who think of Catholicism the way he does, consider the wise words of the Lutheran Archbishop of Riga.
But if what it takes to be considered a “Christian” in Challies’ eyes is to regard Catholics as unbelievers and the Catholic Church as the major enemy of true Christianity, count me out. I’ll stay a Catholic instead, and hope that my bunkmate in the Gulag is a Lutheran Latvian.
Martyrs of Yemen, pray for us!