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“Ask a Priest: What About the Divisions in Christianity?”
Q: I am trying to understand what happened at the time of the Reformation. I can see that there were excesses and corruption in the Catholic Church, and these had to be addressed. But there was so much violence on both sides. The differences of theology seem to have been used to excuse political actions for both the Protestant and Catholic churches. Now we are past that time, but there is still so much division. I know there are good Christian people in both camps generations later. My question is, how does Jesus view these divisions? Are all mercifully accepted because they come in Jesus’ name, or is Jesus a judge who wants only those who adhere to every doctrine to be forever blessed? He said that anyone who calls upon his name would be saved. Is that what the Catholic Church believes? I am coming to understand the place of the Eucharist in my faith more and more, but what of those who do not understand the Eucharist? -C.C.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: You raise big questions that touch on the heart of what is known as ecumenism.
The Catechism defines ecumenism as: “Promotion of the restoration of unity among all Christians, the unity which is a gift of Christ and to which the Church is called by the Holy Spirit. For the Catholic Church, the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council provides a charter for ecumenical efforts.”
How does Jesus view the divisions within Christianity? These divisions were not part of his original plan. This is why he prayed for those who would follow him in some way, “so that they may all be one” (John 17:21). (For more reading, see Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint)
Certainly there are many fine non-Catholic Christians, many of whom are often better moral examples than some of us in the Catholic Church. The Church holds that non-Catholics (and non-Christians) can make it to heaven if they are sincerely faithful to God’s action in their lives. Thus, adherence to every point of Catholic doctrine is not necessary for everyone to attain to salvation.
Of non-Catholic Christians, the Second Vatican Council document Lumen Gentium said, “In some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power” No. 15. Sanctifying grace is what a soul needs to make it to heaven.
One clarification is in order. More is required to reach heaven than to simply “come in Jesus’ name.” Our Lord himself warns, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
So what can we make of all this? We could note that faith is a gift, and the Catholic faith is a very special gift. Not everyone has received this gift. And this means that not everyone will be held to the same standard at Judgment Day. There are many non-Catholics who, sincerely living the Gospel the best way they know how, can become holy with God’s grace. This goes for people who don’t understand or accept the Eucharist.
Yet, we as Catholics have an obligation to evangelize others as best we can, to share with them the fullness of the faith. This includes what we believe about the Eucharist.
The divisions within Christianity are a scandal to the world; they prevent many people from coming closer to Christ. This is lamentable. While non-Catholics can still reach heaven, Christ’s perfect plan was that his followers “may all be one.” This remains an ideal we should strive for. I hope this helps. God bless.