Here at the Bad Evangelist Club, we are trying to do more than just correct some misguided ideas you hear from a lot of apologists and evangelists. In addition to pointing out what not to think, it helps to remember what we should think. When it comes to the topic of Protestants and Ecumenism, it is a topic where we have a lot of heat, and very little light.
In a recent thread here at Catholic Lane, a commenter said the following, and his response will serve as a jumping point for this discussion:
I think God laughs at all this theological hairsplitting. Protestant Christians are His children, too. They have the Holy Spirit and are our brothers and sisters in Christ, heirs to all the promises of Christ.
Yes, Protestants Have the Holy Spirit
The statement I just made above seems to be a hard statement for many to take. In these cases, it helps to understand what is being said.
1.) When you are baptized validly, you become a child of God.
2.) This baptism is valid even in non-Catholic congregations if done validly.
3.) When we are baptized, Scripture makes clear we receive the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
4.) Protestants are validly baptized
5.) In this sense, Protestants have the Holy Spirit
This Means Far Less Than You Might Think
From those simple points, many argue (or fear others will believe) that since Protestants have the Spirit, we shouldn’t emphasize the importance of the Catholic Church being the Church founded by Christ, to which all must be united to. Since they have the Spirit, who are we to judge how they use the Spirit? Shouldn’t we leave that part to God, and just “love” our neighbor?
While this is a faulty understanding of ecumenism, first and foremost it is a faulty understanding of the Holy Spirit. Being misguided in prudential approaches is one thing, being misguided about God’s very being is quite another. This understanding (whether in its promotion or feared acceptance) treats the Holy Spirit as some inanimate object, some talisman. At this point the Third Person of the Trinity ceases to become a Divine Person, and more an object people can manipulate at will. This object exists just for the preference of sanctifying the individual Christian. It is a very individualistic (and fundamentalist) view of the Spirit: the Spirit exists for my well being only.
Why is the Holy Spirit Here?
The Bible speaks of the Spirit’s purpose in far different terms. The Holy Spirit comes to “reprove the world of sin”(John 16:8), and “to guide you into all Truth.” (John 16:13) It must be pointed out that in this context, Christ is addressing the Apostles as a group. So when he states the Holy Spirit will guide “you”, he is speaking of the collective. The Spirit is trying to guide all of God’s children towards the truth.
Sometimes this can get obscured by our language. For when Catholics rightly talk about the very special way we possess the Holy Spirit (in the ability for a priest to confect the sacraments), even in this instance the priest is not controlling the Holy Spirit. Rather, the priest (and sometimes lay faithful!) are sharing in the ministry of Christ’s priesthood and giving Spirit to the world. While this does occur through the Sacraments in a singular and special way, there is more to the action of the Spirit than the sacraments.
What is This Action?
St. John Paul II states that the purpose of the Holy Spirit is that He is “the one who points out the ways leading to the union of Christians, indeed as the supreme source of this unity.” (Dominum et Vivificantem) When we speak of the union of Christians, it is helpful to remember this is not just a mere cliche. We are speaking of a hope that all who profess the name of Christ are not only united to each other, but united together in Christ. It is a call that every Christian take up his vocation and enter deeply into communion with God.
From this standpoint, anything that helps to make that communion with God a reality comes from the Holy Spirit. This means baptism even if we aren’t Catholic. It also means the Sacred Scriptures. The Scriptures are “a Letter, written by our heavenly Father, and transmitted by the sacred writers to the human race in its pilgrimage so far from its heavenly country.” (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus) They guide all to heaven, whether Catholic or non-Catholic.
The Second Vatican Council refers to these gifts as “elements of sanctification” which can be “found outside its visible structure.” What is most important about these gifts is what the Council says next. The Council states that these gifts are “are forces impelling toward catholic unity.”
Why Does Division Exist?
If there are gifts of the Spirit present even outside of the Church, and these gifts are God’s way of pushing humanity towards the Catholic Church, why are all Christians not united? First and foremost, we Catholics should have no problem confessing that we have not always been good representatives of the Holy Spirit. We’ve squandered the gifts provided to us through our inaction, or sometimes through bad action. We sometimes don’t give enough credence to the fact that our behavior plays a huge role in how people around us see Christ. While they are responsible for their own choices, we are also responsible for which direction we push them in through our behavior.
Yet even if we are good witnesses, sometimes the work of the Spirit is not as effective as it could be. At this point the truth of what it means to “have the Spirit” is revealed. According to St. Stephen, the Jews of his day had the Holy Spirit. He knew the Jews had the Spirit because the Sanhedrin resisted the Spirit at every turn. (Acts 7:58) The Spirit exists to push us closer to Christ, and that means to the Church He founded. We are free to be guided by this Spirit, or we can resist it. Even with the sacraments, we frequently resist the Spirit in our own lives.
Why Does This Matter?
While all of this might sound like a pointless theological exercise, this should have profound implication for our desire to evangelize. Our Protestant brethren having the Spirit should make us want to witness to them more, not less. If they have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit (even if it is not readily apparent) is guiding them towards the Catholic Church. To reach the Church, the Holy Spirit is guiding them to us. Sometimes we need to go out there and let people know we are there for that purpose. While this might take the form of a debate/argument, more often than not, we are there to answer questions. Yet in order to fulfill this role the Spirit has for us, we need to make ourselves present. Otherwise, in our failure to evangelize, we are resisting the Spirit as well.