There is a golden key! His name is Jesus Christ. We can’t do it. And He can. We must be very clear about those two truths. The main reason it hasn’t happened is that we do not fully believe both those two truths.
Christ Himself is the most powerful source of reunion in the world because it comes not from the world but from Heaven. And He will have His way with us sooner or later, one way or another. We don’t know whether it’s going to be sooner or later, and we don’t know if it will come by one way or by another. But we do know that it will come because it is his will. We don’t know when and we don’t know how, but we know who.
Pope John Paul II has voiced the bold hope that as the first thousand years of Christian history were the millennium of Christian unity, and the second thousand years were the millennium of Christian disunity, 1054, 1517, and the over twenty-thousand denominations that came from 1517, so the third thousand years may be the millennium of Christian re-unity, reunification.
But how? The deepest division is obviously between Catholics and Protestants, for the Eastern Orthodox Churches have all remained one, not split into twenty-thousand in creed, code, or cult. They have preserved the fullness of Catholic faith. Except for universal papal authority, but that has changed its form quite a bit throughout Christian history, though not its reality, and it can change again. The pope himself explicitly said that in Ut Unum Sint. But how can Catholics and Protestants achieve reunion? I will prescind entirely from the question whether Anglicans are Catholics, Protestants, both, or neither. Well it cannot be by yielding or weakening or compromising one iota of divinely revealed truth!
All the serious differences between Protestants and Catholics concern how much territory this category of divinely revealed truth covers. For instance, the Church’s doctrines about Mary, and the saints, and the seven Sacraments, and Transubstantiation, and purgatory, Catholics accept them because they believe they are true and divinely revealed. Protestants reject them because they believe they are not true and not divinely revealed. Protestants say Catholics believe too much. Catholics say Protestants believe too little. Protestants say the Church added to Christ’s original, pure and simple revelation in the New Testament. Protestantism is thus Catholicism stripped down: the Catholic Ark with what Protestants claim are the non-scriptural barnacles scraped off of it.
When I was at Calvin College and investigating things Catholic and falling in love with them and feeling guilty about it, because this was the wrong church, I took a course in church history to try to get things clear. And the very first day of the course, the wise-old professor said, “What is the Church?” And we were all just freshman, we didn’t know for nothing so nobody answered. So he said, “Well, you’re going to meet a Roman Catholic someday and he’s going to say, ‘You’re in the wrong church! You’re a Calvinist, you’re in the church John Calvin founded 500 years ago. We’re in the church Jesus Christ founded 2000 years ago.’ What do you say to him?” Nobody had an answer. I said to myself, “I’m in the right class.”
He said, “Well, here’s what the Catholics will say: the church today is a great big thing and it looks very different from the simple thing you read about in the New Testament, but it’s the same just as that oak tree is the same organism as that little acorn. What’s wrong with that picture? The Catholic will say that Luther and Calvin broke off some branches of the church because it was really rotten and they tried to start a new one, but that can’t be done cause there’s only one Jesus. And therefore, only one church. What’s your answer to that? What’s wrong with that picture?” And nobody had an answer. I said to myself, “I’m in the right class!”
And he said, “Well, here’s what’s wrong with that pictures, here’s what happened: Jesus founded one church indeed and it is the church described in the New Testament, and it’s like Noah’s Ark, and it did get rotten, and Luther and Calvin and Knox and others said, ‘Gee, this Ark is sinking! We gotta scrape the barnacles off!’ So they scraped the barnacles off and restored it to its simple, pure, primitive, New Testament essence. So we’re in the right church! It’s the Catholics who are the upstarts. They’re the ones who added all those pagan barnacles.” I said, “Oh that makes me feel good.” I remember asking a question, I said, “Professor, do you mean to tell me that, if my Catholic neighbor and I both found a time machine and went back to the first century,” I still remember his look, “What’s this guy, a weirdo? Science fiction?” “…and worshipped together, that I as a Protestant would feel more at home in that church than he as a Catholic would?” And then he smiled. He said, “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” I said to myself, “Good, that means that I don’t have to be a great theologian to figure out who’s right. All I have to do is read the Church Fathers to prove to myself that they were all Calvinists.” Well, I read the Church Fathers and proved to myself they were all Catholics, so that’s why I’m here.
But the very word “Protestant” means protesting, refusing some of the Catholic whole because they think it’s anti-scriptural and unscriptural barnacles added to what Christ gave us. While the very word “Catholic” means universal, or whole. The whole deal. So this has a problem, apparently without a possible solution because no faithful Catholic could dream of unity with Protestants except on Catholic grounds. For to be a Catholic is to believe that those grounds are holy grounds, divinely revealed. It is the Protestants who must remove their shoes. Catholics cannot negotiate away any of the deposit of faith because it is not theirs, it is Christ’s! The divinely appointed mail carriers may not edit God’s mail.