In a recent article at Catholic Answers, Devin Rose drew attention to the fact that many of the saints recognised as such by Protestants were, if judged according to Protestant criteria, believers in and preachers of a corrupted gospel. Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Thomas Aquinas (just to name a few of the more ‘ecumenical’ saints) all believed in things that would be unconscionable for most Protestants – the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Purgatory, the infallible authority of the Church (and of the Pope), the special place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the economy of salvation, and the belief that we can ask the saints in heaven to intercede for us.
This brought me back to a question I have pondered many times, and which I think any non-Catholic should ask themselves: if any of the saints (it works best if the saint in question is a personal favourite) walked into your church today and heard the sermon, read the material at the entrance, spoke to the minister about the core beliefs of that church, etc, what would they think? I am inclined to believe that they would have a great deal of trouble accepting the claims advanced that this or that church held to the fullness of the Faith, or that it represented any sort of recovery of apostolic truth, contrary to the perceived corruptions and elaborations of Rome.
One could of course say that there is much in contemporary Catholicism that saints from a variety of ages would not accept either – the Apostles for example would not know anything of the majesty of the Tridentine Mass, and Saint Therese of Lisieux (for example) would be taken aback by the stripped down nature of much contemporary liturgy. However, it is clear that throughout history different approaches to worship have been used, and different things have been emphasised – the Church is Catholic (i.e.; universal) after all, it is not an unchanging monolith, and the Roman rite is one amongst twenty-three that exist and operate in communion with Rome.
The point at issue is what the Mass is – i.e.; a genuine re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself to the Father, fully present in body, blood, soul and divinity, in which we sacramentally participate. This is not a definition that the vast majority of Protestant churches could agree with, and yet it is one that all the saints would recognise as being true. And this discrepancy between the articles of faith recognised by the saints throughout the ages and the various churches which (to some degree) recognise them as Christians worth imitating is problematic for the Protestant. As Thomas Howard puts it in his book On Being Catholic:
‘But then what of the questions that bedevil “traditional” Christian groups? Did Jesus die for the elect or for the whole world? John Calvin will tell you one thing, John Wesley, another. Is the bread at the Lord’s table only bread, or is it the Body of Christ? Zwingli will tell you one thing; Luther, another. Is the Church to be governed by elders and general assemblies or locally, by democratic vote of the congregation itself? The Presbyterians will tell you one thing, and the Congregationalists another. Will there be a “secret rapture” of believers exempting them from the great tribulation to come upon the world, or must the Church brace herself for just such tribulation? A hundred voices clamour here.’
From Chapter 14 of On Being Catholic, reprinted at Ignatius Insight.
This sort of disunity on fundamental issues of the Faith is something which the saints would absolutely not recognise, and which leads to the one point at which I think they would be most surprised during these hypothetical visits – the repudiation or marginalisation of the authority of the Church, and in particular, the Pope. The idea that issues such as the manner of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (or whether he is really present there at all) should be a matter of debate, or even up for the individual communicant to decide, would be inconceivable for any of the saints – this is an article of faith, to be believed by all, and if anyone is to decide on how Christ is present therein, it is up to the Church to say so, not the individual.
Saint Augustine of Hippo – often cited by in support of various Protestant doctrines – said that ‘I would not believe in the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so’. In this he sums up the whole essence of the problem here, and the thing that any ‘visiting saint’ would find strangest when consulting ministers, hearing sermons, etc – the idea of separating the deposit of faith from the Church in which it was deposited, and of eschewing the only authority able to say definitively what that Faith is and what are valid expressions and developments of it.
Similarly, regarding papal authority there would be a great deal of confusion as to how the various churches could have revoked unity with the See of Saint Peter, for whatever particular reason given. In a speech given at the University of Athens in 1962, the then archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, gave a speech where he said:
‘Passing through the Reformation our Church was the same Church. We hold that its identity and continuity remained. It still remained, so we believe, the Church of St. Augustine and St. Theodore of Tarsus; it possessed still the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments, the mystery of the threefold Apostolic Ministry, the faith of antiquity. But though the same Church, it was a Church reformed. Its communion with the Papal See of Rome was now broken.’
Would Saint Augustine of Canterbury himself recognise the Church of England as having ‘passed through the Reformation…the same Church’ and that ‘its identity and continuity remained? Given that Article XXXVII of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles states that ‘the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England’ and that he was sent to England as an emissary of the Pope (Gregory the Great), I highly doubt it, at least on that point (which is a pretty significant one).
Then, if one looks back to the early Church Fathers for support, we have people such as Saint Irenaeus of Lyons saying (with reference to Rome):
‘With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition’
More patristic endorsement of the supremacy and authority of the Bishop of Rome can be found here and here. The point is that all the saints would have a very hard time understanding how the various churches could recite the Creed, claiming to be part of ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’ and yet cast off things that they would consider to be absolutely essential to the Faith, paramount amongst these being the authority of the Church to determine the content and boundaries of it.
Whilst it is obviously the case that they would be appalled by some of the sermons preached in the more liberal churches (endorsement of same-sex marriage and abortion, for example), they would be perplexed, at the very least, by what all Protestant churches have rejected. The witness and teachings of the saints may not mean much to some churches and their members, but for those for whom they do mean something, the highly Catholic nature of their Christianity, particularly their humble submission to the Church, and recognition of communion with the Pope as a fundamental sign of catholicity, should certainly raise a question or two.