Could you please briefly summarize your view of Protestant Christians? According to Catholic teaching, are they condemned to go to hell?
a. What, from the Catholic point of view, constitutes the unity of the Church?
b. In what respect has this unity been violated in the course of history?
c. How does the Church try to restore this unity?
d. How does the Church see its relationship with non-Catholic Christians?
I will answer these questions based on the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and especially the dogmatic constitution on the Church “Lumen Gentium” (LG) and the decree on ecumenism "Unitatis Reintegratio (=UR), as well as the subsequently published official “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (=CCC).
It should be clarified that in our day May most Protestants would not at all subscribe to the claim attributed in Questions 42 to the Protestants that Catholics will go to hell just because of being Catholics.
Ad a) What, from the Catholic point of view, constitutes the unity of the Church?
The Church is one, because of its origin, the unity of the one God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Trinity. It is one, because of its founder, Jesus Christ, and it is one because of its soul, the Holy Spirit who dwells in the believer and who fulfills and guides the whole Church.
From its beginning there has been much diversity within the Church. This originates from the diversity of Gods gifts, but also from the diversity of the people who receive those gifts. This diversity among its members arises either by reason of their duties, as is the case with those who exercise the sacred ministry for the good of their brethren, or by reason of their condition and state of life, as is the case with those many who enter the religious state and, tending toward holiness by a narrower path, stimulate their brethren by their example. Moreover, within the Church particular Churches hold a rightful place; these Churches retain their own traditions, without in any way opposing the primacy of the Chair of Peter, which presides over the whole assembly of charity (cf. LG: www.ewtn.com/library/councils/v2church.htm, German: www.stjosef.at/konzil/LG.htm)
This rich diversity does not oppose the unity of the Church, but sin and its consequences constantly burden and threaten this gift of unity " (KKK 814).
What are the ties of unity of the Church? First of all, it is love, the bond of perfection (Colossians 3:14). The unity of the church is also ensured with the following visible ties:
- the commitment to one and the same apostolic faith ;
- worshipping together, especially celebrating the sacraments
- apostolic succession, i.e. the continuous succession of Bishops and Priests going back to the Apostles, which through the sacrament of consecration sustains brotherly harmony in the family of God.
"This is the one Church of Christ … which our Savior, after His Resurrection, commissioned Peter to shepherd, and him and the other apostles to extend and direct with authority…. This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in [Lat: subsistit in] the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him (LG 8).
Ad b) In which way has this unity been violated in the course of history?
Very early on there were already splits in this one and only Church of God, which the Apostle (St. Paul) criticizes severely; in later centuries, more dramatic differences developed and not unimportant sections of the community separated from the full community of the Catholic Church, occasionally not without guilt of people on both sides (UR 3).
Among the communities which developed after the separation from the Catholic Church are the Protestants.
But those who have now been born into such communities and who are filled with faith in Christ, cannot be blamed for the separation, and the Catholic Church meets them with brotherly respect and love. ...they are justified through their belief in Baptism and are part of the body of Christ, and therefore they deserve the honorable name of Christians, and the Catholic Church rightly recognizes them as brothers in Christ. (UR 3).
Furthermore, beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found (LG 8): the written word of God, the life of grace, faith, hope and love, and other internal gifts of the Holy Spirit and visible elements (UR 3). The Spirit of Christ uses these Churches and the Church communities as a means towards salvation. Their strength results from the fulfillment of the grace and truth, which Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these goods come from Christ, lead to Him and on their own accord, strive towards Catholic unity (cf. LG 2-3).
Ad c) With which means does the Church strive to re-establish unity?
Christ always gives His Church the gift of unity, but the Church must pray and work constantly to retain, strengthen and perfect this unity Christ wishes for it. The following is necessary to fulfill the promise of this:
- the constant renewal of the Church towards a greater faithfulness in its calling. This renewal is the power of the movement towards unity.
- the conversion of the heart to strive towards a pure life in accordance with the Gospels, because the unfaithfulness of the members of the Catholic Church to the gift of Christ is a cause of the separation this Church.
- joint prayer, because "the conversion of the heart and the holiness of life, together with private and public prayer for Christian unity, are to be considered the soul of the whole ecumenical movement; it can rightly be called spiritual ecumenism. (UR 8)
- Brotherly knowledge of each other
- ecumenical education of believers and especially of the priests
- conversations amongst theologians and the meeting of Christians in the various Churches and communities
- cooperation between Christians in the various kinds of service to mankind.
Ad d) How does the Church view the relationship of non-Catholic Christians with itself?
All men are called to be part of this Catholic unity of the people of God….And to this belongs or are in various ways related to it, the Catholic faithful, all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, for all men are called by the grace of God to salvation. (LG 13).
They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The ties which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a "bodily" manner and not "in his heart." (LG 14).
The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the appellation of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. (LG 15). "He who believes in Christ and has received Baptism in the correct manner, is in a certain, albeit incomplete communion with the Catholic Church (UR 3). Communion with the orthodox churches is so deep that only very little is missing to achieve the fullness required to permit the joint celebration of the Eucharist. (Pope Paul VI, Sermon of December 14th, 1975) (see also KKK 836-838).