More progress toward unity in the Church has been made in the past half century between Catholics and Protestants than in the past 500 years, according to Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft.
And God is working especially hard to unify His people in light of how society is crumbling; a new reformation is underway, he says.
In his new book, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? Kreeft, a longtime professor at Boston College, explores the theological divisions that have historically separated the two groups with the aim of fostering greater togetherness. Although differences undoubtedly remain he is optimistic nonetheless.
"Both in terms of attitude and motivation and in terms of understanding each other," Kreeft said in a phone interview with The Christian Post, "much more ecumenical progress has been made in the last 50 years than in the last 500."
Yet it does not serve anyone to paper over deep differences as though they really are not present, he said. The oneness of the Church, however, is not optional from God's perspective; it is His will. To wit, Jesus really meant it when he prayed for this in John 17.
And that means some hard conversations are in order, and there is a right and wrong way to have them.
Kreeft said that anyone involved in ecumenical relations, whether on an individual level or through various conferences and institutions, knows that nothing ever happens when both sides try to be nice and refrain from talking about the difficult things and will not criticize each other.
"Strength of conviction and open-mindedness don't need to be either-or. They're both necessary," he maintained.
In Chapter 8 titled, "Coming Home: A Protestant-Catholic Dialogue," Kreeft deftly demonstrates his familiarity with the contentious back-and-forth debates between Catholics and Protestant when both sides are making strong arguments, recreating the kind of bitter banter he implores Catholic and Protestant Christians alike to reject.
CP asked Kreeft what advice he would give to Christians who share his desire for unity and want to resist the impulse toward those kinds contentious religious squabbles that seem inevitable but never really go anywhere and edify no one.
"The first thing to say is that the impulse to fight is not in itself wrong, to fight for the truth, to fight against error. That's necessary," Kreeft replied. "But to fight for your particular take on the truth and to close your heart and mind to others, that's foolish. "
"That's like two scientists having opposite theories, each of them being much more concerned about his triumphs in the press and in the popular mind than that the truth be found."
The very search for unity must be ecumenical, based on universal truth rather than on the triumph of one particular insight over another, he said.
In each chapter of Catholics and Protestants, Kreeft unpacks significant distinctions between the groups in accessible, forthright prose. He does not tiptoe around the disagreements, but deliberately emphasizes where both do, in fact, agree. For far more unites than divides.
Kreeft, who is 80 year old, was raised in a Dutch Reformed Protestant home and used to view the Catholic Church with suspicion. He was fully received into the Catholic Church after his senior year at Calvin College to the horror of his parents who only gradually came to understand he had not lost his soul.
Today, he is one of the most beloved Catholic thinkers among evangelicals. Kreeft is the scholar who investigative journalist Lee Strobel interviewed for his book, The Case for Faith in the chapter surveying the objection many have to Christianity: "Since Evil and Suffering Exist, a Loving God Cannot." Last year, Kreeft showcased some of his own thinking on that very subject on conservative radio host Dennis Prager's popular YouTube channel Prager University.
Kreeft is an indisputably enthusiastic Catholic but does not shy away from admitting where Catholics have fallen short.
He recounts in Chapter 6 of the book that a few years ago he realized the Catholic Church's use of the phrase "new evangelization" was not a comforting public relations slogan but the "greatest confession of failure in Church history."
Kreeft has been on the faculty in the philosophy department at Boston College since 1965 and describes to readers his "greatest trauma" in his teaching life. He frequently gives his students a questionnaire at the beginning of a philosophy course to become better acquainted with them. He asks them about various aspects of their life, their views on morality, and about their religious identification, including the following question: "If you were to die tonight and meet God, and God asked you why He should let you into Heaven, what would you answer Him?"
To that specific inquiry he receives all kinds of answers, such as "I'm a good person," "I've tried to be kind," and "I've done my best."
But the theologically correct response, "Jesus Christ," is given by nearly every student who identifies as an evangelical. Between 0 and 5 percent of self-identified Catholic students reportedly give that answer.
"Can you possibly imagine a greater scandal in 'Catholic education' than that?" Kreeft writes. "The most educated Catholics in America don't even know how to get to Heaven! That is like the most educated mathematicians in America not knowing the multiplication table."
The "new evangelization," about which recent popes have spoken is not a new "evangel," meaning a new Gospel message, but a new "ization," a new audience. And the most spiritually dark places, Kreeft argues, are Catholic college campuses.
The reason there are so many ex-Catholics today is that, quite simply, "they never discovered Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church," he said. "If they had, they would have never left."
Good Protestants, however, will return to the Catholic Church only when Catholics learn what caused Luther to leave in the first place, he asserts in Chapter 27. Luther wanted to reform the Church, not start a new one, he says, and Luther's reformation was really God's reformation.
Catholics during Luther's day were much like Kreeft's students at Boston College in that they knew about Jesus Christ but did not know Him, he recounts in the book with regret.
"The Protestant Reformation will succeed when Catholics remember their center, their essence, their 'first love' (see Rev. 2:4). When more than just a minority of Catholics remember their first love, more than just a minority of Protestants will come home. And then both 'sides' will 'win,'" he writes, adding that he believes that the tide has already turned.
But perhaps nowhere is the disagreement and misunderstanding more profound than when it comes to the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which he carefully unpacks in Chapter 28.
Protestants will not be able to get over the various theological hurdles they have with Mary — for instance, the Catholic claim that she was sinless, also known as the immaculate conception — until they step back and look at the larger picture, Kreeft told CP. Their questions are not just doctrinal ones but about Mary's role more broadly.
"Most strong evangelical Protestants find Mary the biggest obstacle," Kreeft said.
"But if and when they become Catholics eventually they fall in love with Mary and realize the beauty of Catholic teachings about Mary and then, once they become Catholics for enough years to imbibe that big picture, they look back on their previous Protestant selves and say, 'You know, I don't understand why I was so worried about Mary.'"
He added: "That's been my experience too."
Kreeft recalled once talking to an audience of Catholics and Protestants, where many questions were being asked about Mary and greater understanding and excitement between the two groups seemed to be taking place. But when Kreeft raised the point about what Mary might be doing actively in the here and now the room fell silent and the questions ceased, as though this was the ultimate forbidden discourse.
"Might it be that this deepest obstacle in most people's minds to Protestant-Catholic unity might be the solution to our disunity because she might be working more powerfully and effectively for unity — mothers always hate to see their children fight with each other — than we possibly could," Kreeft said.
The book covers significant theological ground in just 204 pages, exploring other substantive differences Catholics and Protestants have on matters of evangelism, the sacraments, the nature of the Church, and who has the "full Gospel." Interspersed with all of the theology he graciously sifts through the stereotypes associated with each group that have calcified in the minds of many people over the centuries.
Catholic and Protestants learning from each other "is just an inherently important subject," Kreeft said, noting that when he undertook the project he did not even realize the timing of the book's release would coincide with the year of Protestantism's 500th birthday.
When asked what the writing process was like for this book and what he learned after finishing it, he replied that the main thought that he had was "Keep it simple, stupid."
"To try to be a clever philosopher and try to say things other people haven't said and contribute to theological progress, that's very good and honorable," Kreeft said.
But he opted to write a simple book where he was unafraid to express what was on his heart and mind, one where he did not worry about people disagreeing with or misunderstanding him.
"Keep[ing] it straight, simple, and honest," is best, he noted, "because those are the words in conversation and in writing that people listen to."
Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? is sure to be a conversation starter particularly among thoughtful Christians of all denominations in an increasingly secularized West.
Given the onslaught of the sexual revolution, the disintegration of the family, and the rising numbers people who identify religiously as "nones," the hope many Christians have for unity has arguably never been more palpable.
"It's a double-edged sword," Kreeft said of what he sees the Spirit of God doing today.
"It's wonderful that God is working, but on the other hand He is working hard because the need is so great and our culture is rapidly swirling down the garbage drain."