The last Sunday in October is typically recognized by many Protestant denominations as “Reformation Sunday”. Obviously, this is to commemorate the beginning of the Protestant reformation, the event from which sprang all current Protestant denominations. Just as obviously, if you are Catholic, you will not be commemorating this in your local parish church. Nonetheless, it is important, if only for ecumenical understanding, that we take a moment to think about the divergence in the faith experience between Catholics and Protestants wrought by the seismic revolution that was the Protestant Reformation. Both Catholics and Protestants can benefit from such an examination. Typically the texts for Reformation Sunday are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, and John 8:31-36. These are the same for all three cycle years.
It will be helpful, therefore, to consider some nuances between Catholics and Protestants. I am speaking specifically of the distinction between faith and works. This distinction drove much of the theological conflict of the Reformation. Now there is likely much more in common regarding this issue than either many Catholics or Protestants realize, as can be seen by perusing any number of Catholic web sites and resources. Indeed The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification issued in 1999 and overseen by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict the XVI speaks of a great deal of consensus on this issue. Yet there is a difference in that at some level Catholics hold that works are necessary for justification/salvation. One need only consider that under Catholic dogma one can lose one’s salvation by committing a mortal sin (a work) and that often physical works are required as a part of forgiveness (the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic tradition). Whereas Protestants, especially the Lutheran tradition of which I am a part of “hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” (Romans 3:28). Now I don’t suppose to reunify all of Christianity in one post. I am simply acknowledging the differences and hoping to explain them in a colloquial manner that may help people to better understand the implication of the different perspectives. To this end I turn to an examination of our household pets to help us better understand one another.
What follows will likely seem flippant to many. Sorry, not sorry. This is one of the better ways that I know how to communicate the distinction between Catholic theology and Protestant theology. If it seems flippant it is because I think the differences are much less than they have been made to seem. This is especially true considering the aforementioned Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which stands as a most beautiful expression of ecumenical love that I have seen.
I am a self-admitted dog person. Not the kind of dog person that was on display in the hilarious movie Best in Show, but a dog person, nonetheless. It is not that I particularly dislike cats, I simply prefer dogs. None of what I am about to say should be taken as a rebuke of cats. Nor should this be taken as a rebuke of Catholics. As someone, born, baptized raised and educated Catholic I may say what I will about the Church of Rome. That being said, I am not trying to be harsh, just pointing out some theological foibles via an examination of some of our pets. So, with tongue in cheek, but not too firmly, I am simply proposing to use dogs and cats to explain the Reformation. Nothing ambitious about that! Simply put, dogs are Protestants and cats are Catholic.
Dog owners especially will understand this about canines. Dog owners do what they do for dogs because dogs love their “owners” unconditionally. I have owners in quotes because anyone with dogs knows full well the reality of this situation; we do not really own dogs; they have simply collected us as one of their humans. But to the point: dogs give you complete love, loyalty and attention without hesitation or reservation. They do not care how long you have been gone or where you have been, they are just ecstatic when you arrive. They are certainly curious if they smell another dog on you because that could constitute a property rights violation; but that is between them and the other dog, not between dogs and their humans. In any event dogs are simply the embodiment of love.
This is why we do what we do for the dogs in our life. We will go through the hassle of training them to go potty outdoors and then get up in the middle of the night to let them do so. We will spend untold amounts of treasure to keep them fit and healthy, we will mortgage the house if expensive surgery is needed and we will pamper them more than our own families (the reasons why this is true should be obvious to all who reflect on their families). There is little within our power that we will not do on behalf of the well being of our dogs. All because they love us unconditionally. We know that dogs expect nothing in return and that they will love us no matter what, which is exactly why we do so much for the dogs in our life. Hmmm…who else loves us without condition?
There you have the Protestant insight as elucidated by among others Martin Luther. We do what we do because we are owned by a God who loves us without condition or reservation. We know there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love and He is not asking us to try…really, He is not asking us to try!!! The response to God’s gift of this unconditional love is to do everything we can to serve Him and His children in this life. All very comparable to what we do for dogs.
Now, let us turn to cats, the prototypical Catholics. You do for cats in order to earn their toleration for your existence. Even cat owners and lovers know that you do what you do for cats because if you do not, they will shank you in the middle of the lawn, prison yard style. You know damn well that if you do not feed them cats will turn on you, if you do not pamper them, they will hurt you. If you have both a dog and a cat and you piss off the cat you may very well wake up the next morning to the dog’s head in your bed Godfather style. Cat owners literally live in fear. If you talk to one with the cat in the room, you will think they have an ocular problem until you realize they are blinking out an SOS for help. Cats live and exist on the fear of revenge. The evolved from large predatory cats in the wild and have not really changed, except that they are now smart enough to have found prey that will keep on providing for them without the need to kill them (although they will if need be, you can count on it). Dogs on the other hand evolved from wolves but did so expressly to occupy the suck up niche on the food chain. Loyalty or domination; love or fear these are the key differences between dogs and cats.
This remains a key part of Catholic dogma. Yes, you need faith but then they tell you that you need works, as outlined above. This is just what a cat demands; loads and loads of works. Protestants will tell you that you only need to accept God’s unconditional love and the works will flow from wanting to respond to that love, such is our relationships with dogs.
There you have it. Protestants believe we do what we do because we have been given the love of God (dogs). Catholics believe that we do what we do in order to receive God’s gifts (cats). So, we need look no further than our relationships with our household cohabitors to glean the essential difference between Protestant and Catholic theology.
This does not mean that we are not all brothers and sisters working for the same goal; bringing souls to Christ. It just means we have a different perspective on how to do so. I, as a Lutheran simply hold that the weight of Scriptural evidence weighs more heavily toward the Protestant understanding, but that is not in any way to wish to reject the help of the Catholic faithful in proclaiming the Good News.
So, if you still insist on being a cat person, that’s fine. Be the best cat person you can be. God will love you all the same (so will dogs). As for me I cannot help but notice that dog is an anadrome for God and cats are well…animals you should never turn your back on.
Praise Be to God