My study of the Catholic faith started with a conversation I had with a fellow pastor. And one question that we both asked, and a question that all must ask, is whether Catholics can be viewed as Christian, or saved, from the Protestant scheme of things. This forced me to study their beliefs, particularly on justification and the cross. And while their beliefs are different, I accept Catholic baptism, as did John Calvin and many of the Reformers. Though we may disagree on some fundamental issues concerning the nature of salvation, what I have to affirm is that Jesus is able to save anyone, even when their theology is different from mine.
But another question that remains, is whether Catholics accept Protestants as Christian. In other words, are Protestants, who follow Jesus, saved in the eyes of Catholics? One might say that their sacramentalism prohibits them from accepting Protestants are being saved. What I mean is that for Catholics, baptism is necessary for forgiveness, and confession is necessary for the forgiveness of new sins. And, the eucharist is necessary for deeper and deeper union with Jesus. Could they possibly think we are saved if we don’t understand the sacraments in this manner?
Over my time reading about Catholicism, I have compiled some fascinating quotes from Catholic scholars. And here is the conclusion they draw: yes, Protestants are saved, but they are critically deformed in many matters of faith and practice. What I mean, is that while they can affirm that Protestants are saved, they cannot affirm that Protestants are healthy. Why? Because us Protestants lack many of the crucial practices of the Catholic church.
For instance, GK Chesterton says in his theodicy of the Catholic faith (source):
Protestants are Catholics gone wrong; that is what is really meant by saying they are Christians. Sometimes they have gone very wrong; but not often have they gone right ahead with their own particular wrong. Thus a Calvinist is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of the sovereignty of God. But when he makes it mean that God wishes particular people to be damned, we may say with all restraint that he has become a rather morbid Catholic. In point of fact he is a diseased Catholic; and the disease left to itself would be death or madness. But, as a matter of fact, the disease did not last long, and is itself now practically dead. But every step he takes back towards humanity is a step back towards Catholicism. Thus a Quaker is a Catholic obsessed with the Catholic idea of gentle simplicity and truth. But when he made it mean that it is a lie to say “you” and an act of idolatry to take off your hat to a lady, it is not too much to say that whether or not he had a hat off, he certainly had a tile loose. But as a matter of fact he himself found it necessary to dispense with the eccentricity (and the hat) and to leave the straight road that would have led him to a lunatic asylum. Only every step he takes back towards common sense is a step back towards Catholicism. In so far as he was right he was a Catholic; and in so far as he was wrong he has not himself been able to remain a Protestant.
To us, therefore, it is henceforth impossible to think of the Quaker as a figure at the beginning of a new Quaker history or the Calvinist as the founder of a new Calvinistic world. It is quite obvious to us that they are simply characters in our own Catholic history, only characters who caused a great deal of trouble by trying to do something that we could do better and that they did not really do at all.
Now what is Chesterton saying? Whatever Protestants have right, they have it right because it is in line with Catholicism. And, whatever they have wrong, it is a disease that must be corrected. Hence, Calvinists are obsessed withs sovereignty, and Quakers with simplicity.
Hans Urs von Balthasar says of Protestantism (source):
The more Christianity splinters, the more unrecognizable becomes that Church that has persisted, through the splintering process, as the original, straight tree-trunk from which the branches emerge. The phenomenology of religion sees this tree trunk as one splinter group among others, which, in order to distinguish itself from the other Christian denominations, has to give itself a complicated title: Roman Catholic.
But it is not only in phenomenology that the position becomes clouded: even theology is confused, because the branches contain much living sap from the original root-complex and trunk; thus they bear flowers and fruits that are undeniably part of the Christian totality. So we have a paradoxical situation: the Catholica finds that things that are fundamentally hers, but which she has somehow forgotten or inadequately realized, are exhibited—to her shame—by other Christian communities (Theo Drama IV, Part IV, C, 1).
Some interesting points here. First, Balthasar makes the point that Catholicism is “forced” to give itself a distinct title within Christendom. Why? Because of splintering (obviously speaking of the reformation) that has come about within Christianity. His obvious point is that Catholicism is not one among others, but is forced to call itself one among others, which muddles the “fact” that Catholicism is “the church”.
To me though, what is even more fascinating, is Balthasar’s reference to Catholicism as a “trunk”, or a “tree”. No doubt, he is thinking of Romans 11, where Paul calls Christianity an olive tree, where Gentiles are wild branches grafted in among natural Jews. What this means is that Balthasar sees Catholicism as that great trunk, that great foundation from which all “splintered” Christianity’s get their “sap”, or “fruit”. And Protestantism is connect only insofar as it borrows elements from Catholicism. Thus, Protestantism “takes what is hers”, and in some cases uses them better than the Catholic church, “to her shame”.
So then, Protestants are saved, but only insofar as they borrow elements from Catholicism. They are saved, but “on the fringe”. Protestants are “diseased Catholics”, as Chesterton says.
Now, to be fair here, I have to say that Catholics are saved, despite some erroneous (faith and works, venial/mortal sin, authority, etc) teaching on their end. And so, in a way, I would say the exact same thing!
With that, we are left with opposing opinions of one another. Protestants think Catholics are legalistic or religious, and Catholics think Protestants are diseased! Perhaps one day we will be able to be more generous to one another, or even more unified. Time will tell.