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FUTURE OF PROTESTANTISM AND CATHO
(From the Catholic World for 1870.]
This work of serious and conscientious learning by the Abbé Martin, former curé of Ferney, noted as the residence of Voltaire when exiled from France, has been written mainly for the purpose of making known to Catholics of the old Catholic nations of Europe the real character and tendencies of contemporary Protestantism—a work not uncalled for, since those old Catholic populations, seldom coming into personal contact with Protestants, have not kept themselves well posted in the changes, developments, and transformations that Protestantism has undergone during the last two centuries, and are hardly able to recognize it in its present form, or to meet and combat it with success. The great controversial works of the seventeenth century, excellent as they were in their time, only imperfectly serve the present wants of Catholic polemics ; for the dogmatic Protestantism they met and vanquished is, save in its spirit, not the Protestantism that now confronts the church. That primitive phase of Protestantism has passed away, never to Teappear, and a new and a very different phase has been developed, which demands a new study and a new and different mode of treatment.
The learned Abbé Martin, favorably situated for his task, during several years, at the gate of Geneva, the Protestant Rome, has embodied in his volume the result of much serious and conscientious labor devoted to this new study, and has so well accomplished his task as to leave nothing to be desired, till Protestantism undergoes another metamorphosis, which it is not unlikely to do; for to assume new forms or shapes according to the exigencies of time and place, is of its very essence. For this reason, the labor of refuting or even explaining it can never be regarded as finished.
*De l'Avenir du Protestantisme et du Catholicismo. Par M. L'ABBÉ MARTIN. Paris : 1869.
It is the characteristic of Protestantism to have no fixed and permanent character, except hatred of Catholicity. It has no principles, doctrines, or forms, which in order to be itself, it must always and everywhere maintain. It may be biblical and dogmatic, sentimental or sceptical, combine with absolutism or with the revolution, assert the divine right of kings and passive obedience with the old Anglican divines, or shout, à bas les rois, and vive le peuple ! vive la liberté, l'égalité, et la fraternité ! with the old French Jacobins and contemporary Mazzinians and Garibaldians, as it finds it necessary to carry on its unending warfare against the church, without any change in its nature or loss of identity. It is not a specific error, but error in general, ready to assiime any and every particular form that circumstances require or render convenient. It, like all error, stands on a movable and moving foundation; and to strike it we are obliged to strike not where it is, but where it will be when our blow can reach it. The abbé is well aware of this fact, and sees and feels the difficulty it creates. Hence he regards Protestantism as imperishable, and holds that our controversy with it must, under one form or another, continue as long as error or hostility to the church continues, which will be to the end of the world.
To those of us who were brought up Protestants, who have known Protestantism in all its forms by our own experience, the Abbé Martin tells little, perhaps nothing that had not previously in some form passed through our own minds, and not much that had not already been published among us by our own Catholic writers. It is not easy to tell an American Catholic any thing new of Protestantism. There is no country in the world where Protestantism is or can be so well studied as our own; for in no other country has it had so free a field for its development and transformations, or in which to prove what it really is and whither it goes. It has suffered here no restraint from connection with the state, and till quite recently the church has been too feeble with us to exert any appreciable influence on its course. It has had in the religious order every thing its own way,
has followed its own internal law, and acted out its nature, without let or hindrance. Here it may, therefore, be seen and studied in its real character and essence.
But if the Abbé Martin has not told us much that we did not already know, or which American writers had not already published, he has given us a true and full account of the present aspects and tendencies of Protestantism throughont Europe, very instructive to those Catholics who have had no personal acquaintance with it, and not unprofitable even to those who, though converts to the church, were familiar with it only as seen in some one or two of the more aristocratic sects, in which large portions of Catholic tradition have been retained. We in fact wonder how a man who, like the abbé, has had no personal experience of Protestantism, who has never had any internal struggle with it, and has been brought up from infancy in the bosom of the church and in the Catholic faith, can by study and observation, by prayer and meditation, make himself so fully master of its real character, and come so thoroughly to understand its spirit, its internal laws and tendencies. No doubt one who has been a Protestant, and knows thoroughly its language, can find in his work proofs that Protestantism was not his mother tongue, and that he knows it only as he has learned it; but learned it he has, and knows it better than it is known by the most erudite and philosophical Protestant ministers themselves, and the Catholic reader may rely with full confidence on his expositions. The work is, in fact, an admirable supplement alike to Bossuet’s Variations and to Moehler's Symbolik.
It will startle some Catholics, no doubt, to hear the wellinformed author assert, as he does, that Protestantism is not dead or dying, that it is imperishable, its principle is immortal, and never was it a more formidable enemy to the church than it is at this present moment; but they will be less startled when they learn what he means by Protestantism.
“Protestantism,” he says, “differs essentially from all the heresies that have previously rent the bosom of the church. It is not a particular heresy, nor a union of heresies ; it is simply a frame for the reception of
Vinet, one of the most distinguished Protestants of the day, softens, indeed, this expression, and says that ‘Protestantism is less a religion than the place of a religion.' He would have been strictly exact, if he had said Protestantism is less a religion than the place of any negation of religion under a religious garb. It is a circle capable of indefinite extension, of being enlarged as occasion requires, so as to include any and every error within its circumference. A new error rises on the horizon, the circle extends further and takes it in, Its power of extension is limited only by its last denial, and is therefore practically illimitable. What it asserted in the beginning it was able to deny a century later; what it maintained a century ago it can reject now; and what it
holds to-day it may discard to-morrow. It may deny indefinitely, and still be Protestantism. It can modify, change, metamorphose, turn and return itself without losing any thing of its identity. Grub, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly, it is transformed, but dies not."
All this is perfectly true. Protestantism undoubtedly differs essentially from all the particular heresies of former times, such as the Arian, Macedonian, Nestorian, Eutychian, Pelagian, &c.; but we think it bears many marks of affinity with ancient Gnosticism, of which it is perhaps the historical continuation and development. Gnosticism was not a particular or special heresy, denying a particular article, dogma, or proposition of faith. The Gnostics held themselves to be the enlightened Christians of their times, men who had attained to perfect science, been initiated into the sacred mysteries concealed from the vulgar, professed to be spiritual men, spiritually illuminated, and looked down with contempt on Catholics as remaining in the outer court, sensuous and ignorant, knowing nothing of the spirit. This is no bad description of contemporary Protestants. They call themselves the enlightened portion of mankind, claim to be spiritual men, spiritually illumined and instructed in the profoundest mysteries of heaven and earth; while from the height of their science they look down on us Catholics as simply sensuous men, having only a sensuous worship, and hold us to be a degraded, ignorant, superstitious, and besotted race. We are very much disposed, for ourselves, to regard Protestantism as Gnosticism modified to suit the taste, the temper, the mental habits, and the capacity of modern times.
The author makes Protestantism not a special heresy, nor yet a union of heresies, but the receptacle of illimitable denials; yet he throughout distinguishes it from absolute unbelief in Christianity and maintains that even as so distinguished it is imperishable, and its principle immortal. We confess that we do not see how he can make this distinction without giving to Protestantism a specific character and making it a positive heresy, and not simply a frame for the reception of heresy or heresies. Assuming it to be a positive heresy, and not the general spirit of error adapting itself to any and every form of error, his reasoning is far from satisfying us that it is imperishable. The assertion that “its principle is immortal,” can in no case be accepted : for all error must ultimately die, and only truth survive, if our Lord is to overcome all his enemies, and God, who is truth
itself, is to be all in all. It is not to be supposed that they who are eternally lost continue to err and to sin for ever. They know and confess the truth at last, and it is their severest hell that they know and confess it when it is too late for it to liberate them. Understanding Protestantism to be the general spirit of error, we can concede it to be imperishable, in the sense that the world is imperishable ; for men will hate Christ and deny him as long as the world stands ; but in no other sense are we prepared to concede it.
The author defines the essence of Protestantism to be hatred of the church, and yet throughout his book distinguishes it from absolute infidelity or unbelief. We do not see the propriety of this distinction, nor understand how he can consistently exclude from Protestantism any form of error that hatred may assume. He makes Protestantism not a particular, a specific heresy, but the frame in which any negation of religion under a religious garb may be set. We see no ground for this restriction, and it seems to us that it contradicts his own assertion that Protestantism is a circle capable of indefinite extension, and practically illimitable ; for if the circle can include only the denials of religion that wear a religious garb, it is not illimitable or capable of indefinite extension.
The learned abbé, we suspect, has been led into this real or apparent contradiction by neglecting to distinguish sharply between Protestants and Protestantism. Protestants are of all shades, from the Calvinist down to the Unitarian or rationalist, from the high-churchman down to the nochurchman. The great majority of them retain some shreds of Christian belief, read the Bible, look to Christ as the Redeemer of mankind, and are governed more or less in their opinions, sentiments, and conduct by Christian tradition. It would be a great mistake as well as gross injustice to represent all or even many of them as actually or intentionally unbelievers in Christ, or to hold them to be, in the way of error, any thing more than heretics. But Protestantism is not a form of heresy, is nothing in itself but hatred of Catholicity or hostility to the church of God; and there are no lengths in the way of denial it will not go, if necessary, for its gratification. "It is potentially absolute infidelity.
This seems to be in reality the abbé's own doctrine, and its truth is evident from the fact that the general tendency of Protestantism is not toward Catholicity, but further and further from it. Individuals among thein, at certain times