The noble posture of a Protestant
I have known true Protestants. I will tell you my image of one. In the evenings, he sat in his chair in the living room with a book, usually the Bible, but sometimes a work in speculative theology. Sometimes he held a journal also and took notes. There was no television in the room; no smart phones, of course, which did not exist. Sometimes he would play music -- not very loudly -- some kind of classical music.
His posture in that chair was an invitation for others to join him. Throughout the evening, his wife might sit alongside him, to read her novel; or his children might come in to finish their homework, sitting on the carpeted floor at the coffee table.
What he did in that chair was a mixture of thinking and prayer. It is a presupposition of Protestantism that each person is bound to discover through his own resourcefulness, by the study of Scripture, the truth about God, Christ, and the Church. He is "bound" in the sense that, he thinks, there is simply no alternative. Scripture alone, he believes, is the norm of Christian faith. In his study of Scripture, he receives the assistance of the Holy Spirit. But he must remain open to the Spirit to receive this assistance. Thus, his attitude is like prayer as well as study.
Thus, he "searches the Scriptures." Maybe, in Vacation Bible School as a child, he memorized Scripture. He might conceive of his study as an adult, then, as for him a return to childhood. He is familiar with serious Christians. Whatever one thinks of the theology of Karl Barth or Reinhold Niebuhr, these were serious men. They had integrity. They pondered deeply. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer they weighed up "the cost of discipleship" and wondered whether they were worthy of it. Each was definitely what used to be called in the sociologist David Riesman's phrase an "inner directed" person.
This Protestant whom I knew loved the truth, as shown in the fact that he made sacrifices for it. This love of truth -- but he might not put it that way, or even admit that he had it -- showed up too in his character, at work, and in his community. He was notably soft-spoken but firm in the cause of right. He was in general very fair-minded. He was balanced. At the same time, he had a heart, and his righteous anger at injustice might flare out at times, or you might catch him crying in pity at another's suffering, or in sorrow for his own failings.
This Protestant I have in mind stands for several decades of the effect of "mainline Protestantism" on American culture. Sometimes the decline of many of our institutions, many of our great private universities for instance, with originally religious foundations, is traced to the decline away from historic Christianity of this "mainline Protestantism." See the books of George Marsden, such as "The Soul of the American University" and "The Twilight of the American Enlightenment." But it is not often acknowledged that this decline, although real, was matched by a corresponding change in the American character. Ask yourself: what happened when our evenings became increasingly occupied by frivolous shows and sports on television? How ever would that "inner directed" personality be formed? Whence that characteristic balance and fair-mindedness?
A Catholic, in contrast, believes that there is an objective deposit of faith which the "magisterium" of the Church has expounded over time. It is accessible in creeds, the teachings of councils and popes, and the writings of the saints. There is a handbook or "Enchiridion" originally edited by Heinrich Denzinger, which priests used to know. But now one need simply open the great Catechism. It has been quipped that Protestants who have professed salvation by faith alone have often seemed to work more for their salvation than Catholics: the same rule applies for our grasp of the faith. Catholics do not need to search for the truth about the faith. However, they do need to live it, which implies understanding it, and which is not possible without contemplating it.
When this mainline Protestantism had so changed that it became indistinguishable from the background culture, some Catholics, many of them converts -- buttressed by a certain enthusiasm then, springing from the Second Vatican Council -- spoke of a "Catholic moment," where now Catholicism would take the central place in American culture once occupied by the historic Protestant faiths. Again, the analysis tended towards the institutional, especially civil society and "intermediary" institutions. I would want to ask, where is the "noble posture of the post-conciliar Catholic," corresponding to that once seen in an old-time mainline Protestant?
How is Catholicism forming the national character the way mainline Protestantism used to do?
This will not happen without deliberate choice, as now such an endeavor would definitely require swimming against not a stream but a torrent of hundreds of channels and streaming services, machines in our pockets which distract us endlessly, snark and hostility which have replaced reflection, and our positive love of crises and conspiracies (which obsess us too much, even if some of them are real.)
I see no hope, humanly speaking. But then again, the noble posture of a Protestant was not strictly a human creation. Homeschooling and the new agrarianism seem a good start, and then renewal in the Eucharist: "the source and summit of the Christian life."
- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.