Amidst all the turmoil of the age, it is important to recall the astonishing effect of the Reformation. For better or worse, we live in a world forged by it. In my simple opinion, the issue turns on the role of the Roman priesthood: do we need one? Protestants have always answered ‘no, we do not’, and it was Luther who ended the monopoly of the Roman priesthood over the interpretation of the Gospels and the administration of the sacraments. The priesthood of all believers calls upon every one equally to bring about Christian life, and that there are no legally or religiously sanctioned people who take on a special status in the eyes of God.
Doing Christianity without benefit of a sanctified monopoly clergy: that is Protestantism.
Outsiders to the Roman Church can have little conception of how central the priest is to the core of its belief and structure. I have heard a devout Roman Catholic inform me that 80% of Roman canon law deals with the status and authority of the priest. 20% deals with everyone else.
Luther utterly destroyed the sense that we gain our salvation through adherence to an institution, rather than belief in the power and mercy of Jesus Christ. He did the Christian religion the great compliment of taking it seriously. By going back to its source material, the gospels themselves, he sought to re-establish what Christianity was intended to be. Yet the challenge Luther posed for the Roman Catholic Church was to its Romanity, not to its catholicity (world-embracing nature).
The Roman Catholic church is the last vestige of the ancient world’s most successful political structure, the Roman Empire. It ran from Emperor on down on the claims of absolute authority. When the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion, much good ensued. Yet the message of Christianity, of Jesus Himself, was presented through the lens of an imperial structure sustained by state officiants, who were the priests. In the wreckage of the Western Roman Empire after 400AD, there can be no doubt that the Church sustained civilization and culture against barbarism. To my way of thinking, which has been influenced no doubt by Luther, the priestly Roman Catholic Church is something of a contradiction in terms, like an anarcho-imperialist party, an authoritarian liberationist church, a aryan supremacist racially egalitarian movement. The vessel contradicts the message.
The division of the Church remains contrary to God’s will, and therefore it is an obligation of Christian discipleship to work to repair the divisions. It is fair to say that 500 years after the Reformation that obligation is better understood now than over most of the past half millennium. That work of reparation is not only for the sake of the Church, but for the world too, also suffering the lacerations of division.
The Reformation and its aftermath, including the Catholic Reformation or Counter-Reformation, accomplished needed reform. Those reforms achieved, what remains to justify the division?
I wish I could believe in this irenic vision. What remains to justify the division of the Christian Church is the role, authority, and status of the Roman priest, and I do not see them giving up their monopoly any time soon. How the authority and monopoly of the Roman Church to establish Christian doctrine can survive the authority of the believer to interpret the Gospels has never been resolved, nor ever yet will be.
The sanctification of ordinary life – and therefore of ordinary people – is the end result of this disestablishment of the priesthood.