The ecumenical dilemma

John O’Malley, S.J., is University Professor in the Theology Department at Georgetown University, a Catholic priest, and a member of the Society of Jesus. Illness prevented our originally scheduled interview, but we are pleased to reprint some of his reflections from Trent and All That (2000) on how the Catholic and Protestant Reformations differed. 

Since at least the early nineteenth century until recently, the questions historians of all persuasions asked was “What caused the Reformation?”.…The answer, from all sides, was “abuses.” The next question, when one bothered to ask it, was “What impact did the Reformation have on the Catholic Church?” No matter how this question was answered, its starting point was the Reformation. … 

To be sure, Catholicism is diffuse, complex, and incoherent in ways different from early modern Protestantism. It was, for instance, doctrinally diffuse in that it did not have a single, clearly formulated teaching like justification by faith alone or, perhaps more significantly, “Scripture alone,” to give it center, and it rather gloried in the fact. The doctrinal assertions at Trent covered a wide range of teaching with a seemingly even hand. These assertions found expression, moreover, in subtle and technical “committee documents” that represented compromises and were thus incapable of packing the wallop of Luther’s tracts and polemics or even of Calvin’s Institutes. With both doctrine and discipline Trent sent out the difficult message: you must stand pat—yet things are not going to be the same. …

Few of the popes…took “Catholic Reform” as the emotional center of their lives.…With the exceptions of Paul IV and Pius V, the all-consuming passion for reform was to be found in officers outside the papacy, in prelates like Archbishop Carlo Borromeo in Milan, whose assumption of authority to reform clashed with Roman claims to rule.…The accumulated tangle of papal bulls and briefs, canons of councils and synods, royal and ducal prerogatives, and the claims to autonomous action of cathedral chapters, local traditions, and similar titles was impossible to sort out.


Paul Rorem is Princeton Theological Seminary’s Benjamin B. Warfield Professor of Medieval Church History and an ordained Lutheran minister.  

As a born, bred, and trained Lutheran I naturally approve of Luther’s biblical re-appreciation of a radically Christocentric message. Much of Luther’s writing, including hymns, resonates with me personally. As the Warfield Professor, I’m reminded of B. B. Warfield’s quip that the Reformation was “just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church.” Luther does stake out some territory that is not simply Augustinian, for we are put right with God (justified) by grace, not through “faith formed by love,” Luther said, but “through faith alone.”

I do see among Protestants a misperception of abrupt discontinuity between Luther and prior Christian tradition. Luther did not rediscover the Bible. Think of all the centuries of Benedictine women and men who spent their days in biblical prayer. They could sing the Psalms by heart! Nor was Luther novel in emphasizing Christ and the cross. He loved exactly that about Bernard of Clairvaux and Saint Bonaventure. 

In my view the Joint Declaration brought recent ecumenical dialogues into broader public view, but was seriously over-hyped as a breakthrough agreement. “Faith alone” is still in contention, as is the enormous question of whether justification is a criterion for deciding other doctrines, such as indulgences or the Lord’s Supper. Lutherans said and say it is decisive; Roman Catholics said and say it is one doctrine among others. This impasse was evident even during the Reformation itself. When I first became editor of Lutheran Quarterly, we published a statement from hundreds of German theologians dissenting from the Joint Declaration, but that dissent was barely noticed, then or now. 

There is one thing coming out of the Lutheran–Roman Catholic Commission on Unity that gives me hope for better understanding. For generations Lutherans have perpetuated a biased story of Luther the heroic individual breaking with the distorted institutional church of the “Dark Ages,” while Roman Catholics have told of a renegade who went off the rails and led others astray. (When I first met the Roman Catholic woman who became my mother-in-law, she asked, “So, Paul. Martin Luther. He was a monk, and he went mad, right?”) It might seem impossible to do justice to both sides, but the commission’s book From Conflict to Communion (2013) does so. Credit is due to its two historian consultants, Theodor Dieter and Wolfgang Thönissen. 


Ernest Freeman, father-in-law of CH picture researcher Jennifer Awes Freeman, was an Assemblies of God pastor who became Catholic in 2010. His thoughts are excerpted from the article “The Full Gospel” with his permission. 

The Drill Sergeant walked into the barracks and yelled, “Who wants to go to church? Be out front in 10 minutes!” Being an 18-year-old raw recruit in desperate need of a break from military training, I decided to go. I assumed it would be a Protestant gathering; to my astonishment it was a Roman Catholic Mass. A sense of alienation set in as the Mass began; it was as if I had been transported to an alternate universe. I didn’t know what to say, what to do, or when to do it. However, in the midst of my confusion I was stirred by the deep reverence and quiet devotion. …

Although Pentecostals also had a commendable concern for holiness and obedience to scriptural precepts, it seemed to my limited understanding that in order to maintain holiness and be sure one remained a Christian, it was necessary to adhere to a list of prohibited practices … laughingly called the “Big Five”—no dancing, smoking, card playing, going to the movie theater, or drinking alcoholic beverages. Catholics did all of these things.…I was taught, and believed, that Catholics were deceived, generally led dissolute lives, and likely weren’t “saved.” The first encounter with the Mass didn’t alter my thinking, but it did become part of a curiosity…that took decades to flower. … 

Entrance into the Catholic Church is not [for me and my wife, Lois] a repudiation of our Evangelical heritage. We are humbled and thankful to God for the opportunity of service afforded us there; that tradition introduced us to the triune God, taught us to embrace the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, and nurtured a desire to be empowered by the Holy Spirit for worship and service. For this we are eternally grateful. Not only to God, but also to the family and friends who were His instruments on our behalf. 


John Armstrong is the president of ACT3 Network, an adjunct professor at Wheaton College, and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. 

I was born into a solidly Christian home in the South. I grew up questioning injustice, prejudice, and racism—and how my church lived as if we were the best Christians in our community. I had a close friend who was a devout Catholic, and we talked a great deal about faith and practice. In 1960 my pastor told us we should not vote for a Catholic for president. 

I began to doubt this anti-Catholic narrative deeply, just as I began to question the stories I’d heard about race. The more I spent time with other Christians, the less I doubted their faith. Finally, in 1992, John 17:21 profoundly altered me. I knew I had to live my life in answer to Jesus’ prayer for unity of all believers. The Holy Spirit showed me amazing and costly ways to invest my life in Christian unity.

I’ve learned to deeply love other Christians by receiving them as others loved by God and then by entering into profound friendship. From this I learned to engage in true dialogue. This opened every door that I have been through in ministry for the last 20-plus years. We need to stop telling each other what each other’s church believes and instead, take time to truly listen. Only in listening can we engage in what is called receptive ecumenism, where we receive the other and lovingly learn their faith, language, and culture. This allows us to be transformed together.

I see a growing number of young Christians who hunger for love and thus desire that we turn away from our broken models of church as fad, function, and religion. We are family; without this costly love our family will not be healed. Costly love is the power that will bring about meaningful unity.


Thomas Baima is vice rector for academic affairs, dean of the seminary and graduate school, and professor in the Department of Systematic Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, and a Catholic priest.  

I was asked to fill a spot on a church commission that had to do with relations with other religious bodies. I’d never had much interest in being an “ecumenical operative”; my interest was theoretical and academic. But you don’t actually understand another community if all you do is read about them. 

CH 122

Order Christian History #122: The Catholic Reformation in print.

Subscribe now to get future print issues in your mailbox (donation requested but not required).

It became a fixed principle for me: if I was going to be in relationship with another community I had to experience them as community in their own setting, attending worship, and being with them. I think apologetics is important, and any religion has to do it. But the audience of apologetics is first of all your own co-religionists, to equip them to properly understand their own identity and faith. This is a valid and important role. But arguing others into community is not effective. 

Christians should go in search of what other ecclesial communities have preserved from the apostolic tradition and be prepared to esteem them when they have preserved the gifts well. Yves Congar once said he believed the Catholic Church had preserved all of the gifts; but he added that some of the churches, though they retained only a few, had better actualized them in their ecclesial life. That got him in a little trouble in the 1930s. One of his examples was that Protestants have preserved a piety around the Scriptures which leads them to daily seek nourishment in the sacred page, to let it guide and govern their lives.

One of my friends from ecumenical work, a Baptist minister, invited me to come teach their Sunday school. On their literature rack, the first sentence of almost every tract was “Protestants broke away from Catholics during the Reformation.” I went into Sunday school and asked, “If we could get the phantom zone projector from Superman, and send the Catholic Church into the phantom zone so we aren’t here, how would you describe yourself if you couldn’t say ‘We’re not Catholic?’” This led to a fascinating conversation.

People outside the church don’t care who we’re not. We have to develop our identity with reference to Christ and Christ’s desire for the church. We all have some converting to do. Not that you have to become like me, but we both have to become what Christ originally wanted. And when we do, perhaps we can commend the good and holy in one another. CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #122 The Catholic Reformation. Read it in context here!

mag covers

Christian History’s 2015–2017 four-part Reformation series is available as a four-pack. This set includes issue #115 Luther Leads the Way; issue #118 The People’s Reformation; issue #120 Calvin, Councils, and Confessions; and issue#122 The Catholic Reformation. Get your set today. These also make good gifts.

By John W. O’Malley, S.J., Paul Rorem, Ernest Freeman, John Armstrong, Thomas A. Baima

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #122 in 2017]

Next articles

Early Church Heroines: Rulers, Prophets and Martyrs

Early church historians tell of the accomplishments of Christian women.

Ida Besancon Spencer

Quick Quotes on Women in the Early Church

Early sources speak about Christian women.


Christian History Timeline: The World of 1732

The Moravian movement in its historical context.

the editors

The Moravian Mission Influence Spreads Throughout the World and to Other Denominations

Today membership in the Moravian mission Churches outnumber those at home 4 to 1!

the editors
Show more

Subscribe to magazine

Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basis


Support us

Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministry


Subscribe to daily emails

Containing today’s events, devotional, quote and stories