Monday 15 January 2007

The question of Catholicism

“I would like to ask in all seriousness whether Protestantism can be a real answer to anyone for whom Catholicism has never been a real question – whether we still have any real business with the church of the Reformation if in the meantime we have left alone the counterpart with which it struggled. And I would like to issue a warning of the unhappy awakening which might some day follow such detachment. Those who know Catholicism even a little know how deceptive its remoteness and strangeness are, how uncannily close to us it really is, how urgent and vital the questions it puts to us are, and how inherently impossible is the possibility of not listening seriously to those questions once they have been heard.”

—Karl Barth,“Der römische Katholizismus als Frage an die Protestantische Kirche,” in Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten 1925-1930, ed. Hermann Schmidt (Zurich: TVZ, 1994), p. 313.


Anonymous said...

A timely quote, Ben, as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins on Thursday.

And do you know Stanley Hauerwas' sermon "Reformation Is Sin", preached on Reformation Sunday 1995 and included in Sanctify Them in the Truth (1998)?

"Reformation Sunday," Hauerwas begins, "does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure . . .

"Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make the Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name 'Protestantism' is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations of America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church's division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday."

Hauerwas is particularly scathing about the way "we Protestants have not been able to resist nationalistic identifications." Though, interestingly, the same thing might be said about the Orthodox Church in Russia - and indeed the Catholic Church in, for example, Franco's Spain.

kc bob said...

Sad how Luther's reformation ended up looking so much like Catholicism ... Protestantism is more like RCism than not. I think that religion and religious activity are really attractive to the unredeemed ... reformation is very unattractive to most people because it involves change.

PamBG said...

Can someone please explain the original post? God wants us all to be Catholics? Why? And if he does, what sort of Catholic? (Capital C is being used which means something different to me than 'catholic')

I'm serious. Theology is useless to anyone if people just stay in their little circles knowing what they are talking about and speaking some sort of "in-group" speak.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Pam. Thanks for your query -- sorry, I didn't mean to create any confusion!

Barth isn't saying that we should all become Roman Catholics (and of course Barth himself was a Protestant in the Reformed tradition). Rather, he is saying that Protestants must always take Catholicism seriously as an urgent and challenging dialogue-partner. When Protestant theology gets "detached" from the conversation with Catholicism, it loses its own distinctively "Protestant" identity. (And thus, ironically, Barth warns that a failure to engage seriously with Catholicism may eventually lead to the unexpected catholicising of Protestantism!)

So Barth doesn't think that Protestants should become Catholic -- but he thinks that we haven't yet really become authentically Protestant until we've been confronted and grasped by the "question of Catholicism".

Anyway, I hope that helps a little!

Fred said...

Here's an event to kick off the week:
Lindbeck, Burrell, and Hauerwas: a conversation among friends (moderated by Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete)

Anonymous said...

From the Eastern Orthodox perspective, Protestantism is completely dependent upon and tied up in Roman Catholicism, the way a rebellious child is dependent upon and tied up with his parents.

Both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism focus too shortsightedly on the legal aspects of the Gospel. The Gospel is so much more than a legal transaction.

T.B. Vick said...


You declared, "Actually, I have always thought that American Baptist denominations look a great deal more like the Catholic Church than the mainliners do today."

I was raised Baptist and spent the first 28 years of my life in a Baptist church here in America. Moroever, I have have spent the last two years in the mainline denominations. I'm a bit confused by your comment because American Baptist denominations are the furthest thing from RC that I have experienced.

Do you mean theological, liturgically, what exactly do you mean by your comment?

Aric Clark said...

What a beautifully messy little can of worms you have opened up Ben, or rather Barth. This area is rife with potential for misunderstanding (which is already evident in the comments) so I will strive to untangle a few threads to the best of my ability and see what others think.

Protestantism, which is where Barth is talking from and what he is talking about, is problematic because it is basically an identity created within something "the catholic (meaning universal) church" defined as opposed to something "particular aspects of the Roman Catholic church".

Because people naturally are defensive about their sense of identity to many protestants the word catholic connotes "wrong" as in, "not protestant". This is an erroneous way of looking at it because it sets up the two things as dualistic not recognizing that protestantism is firstly within the catholic church.

It is complicated by the two senses of catholic, but the confusion isn't cleared up by just distinguishing between little c and big c, because of course for the protestants historically unity with the church catholic means first and foremost dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church from whom we split originally.

Because Catholic refers to a specific political/historical body it also can refer to forms of liturgy and theology. So T.B. Vick here can be confused about whether Chris means the Baptists are similar to the Roman Catholics in a variety of different senses.

What's more is we have in recent times had many right thinkers like Hauerwas and Fabricius who urge protestants to recover the catholicity of their heritage, giving catholicism a positive connotation, but of course in the practical application this also means engagement with the Roman Catholic Church as Barth was suggesting.

Aric Clark said...

If I may actually throw in my own opinion on this matter. I think Jeff, speaking for the orthodox point of view puts it in right perspective. Protestants tend to think that we are branch directly off the main trunk when in reality we are a collection of twigs off a branch from a limb on the main trunk. Barth is right that most protestants today have very little meaningful interaction with our mother, the Roman Catholic Church which means protestantism as a whole is very diluted and self-absorbed. With Hauerwas we ought to morn the divisions in the church and understand that church to be much bigger and more diverse than we generally do. A proper reformed emphasis now would not be merely to keep flogging the same themes as though they were still meaningful, but to ask how the WHOLE church can better fulfill it's vocation together.

Anonymous said...

Oliver O'Donovan's recent sermons posted on Fulcrum (, there are seven sermons in total)
on unity, Scripture, homosexuality and the Anglican communion are brilliant. Especially, related to this post, his comments on division and disagreement (I think in sermon 3). Have a look!

PamBG said...

So Barth doesn't think that Protestants should become Catholic -- but he thinks that we haven't yet really become authentically Protestant until we've been confronted and grasped by the "question of Catholicism".

Anyway, I hope that helps a little!

Yep, it helps me to understand you meant, thank you for that. I’ll have to think about how essential I think it is to be theologically “Protestant” – being as I’m not Reformed. I value Protestant ecclesiology (which is why I’m not Roman). I value Protestant traditions such as taking Scripture seriously and salvation by faith. I value the “universal”[1] aspect of catholic doctrine and I value the fact that catholic theology takes ‘works’ seriously rather than pietistically denigrating them.

I think I’d rather take catholic theology seriously qua catholic theology rather than taking it seriously so that I can be “more Protestant”.

[1]I’m not talking universal salvation – I know you know that but just in case someone else starts screaming.

Dave Belcher said...

Hi Ben. Thanks for this post, and a wonderful site that I have stumbled on from time to time. Is this your own translation of the Barth passage, or is it in English somewhere perhaps?

Another great place for Barth on "church untiy"--and what he calls "the essence" of the Church--is a short essay called "The Church: The Living Congregation of the Living Lord Jesus Christ" in Barth: God Here and Now, trans. Paul M. VanBuren (London: Blackwell, 2003), 75-104. The translator notes: "This is substantially the address which Barth made in 1948 at the Amsterdam Assembly in which the World Council of Churches was established" (75n.1). I will be posting some thoughts on that essay probably this week or next at my blog, along with some thoughts this afternoon of the conference that "Deep Furrows" linked to with Lindbeck, Hauerwas, and Burrell on the question "Is the Reformation Over?" Peace.

Dave Belcher said...

Sorry, my blog is:

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