[As I mentioned in my staggering TO DO list, these are the notes I prepared for Fr. Ramon to give a talk to/at the Presbyterian Student group at Providence U. I'm dissatisfied with a number of ohrases and expressions, but I wrote this fairly quickly and haven't done a lot of revising (yet?). (You're thrilled to hear this, I'm sure.) I'd appreciate any edifying comments, corrections, questions. I've also provided a link to -->
a handy comparison chart.]
One of the most basic places to compare and contrast Presbyterianism and Catholicism is in the drama of Church history. According to the Catholic Church, its rites, structures and doctrines go all the way back to the Apostles. The Catholic Church claims to be the Church Jesus Christ established centuries ago. The Presbyterian churches, by contrast, admit to being the fruit of a relatively modern movement of Christian reformation that began in the late Renaissance. Presbyterianism’s chief guides are John Calvin, Frances Turretin (both in France) and John Knox (in Scotland). Now, admitting its historical roots lie in the Modern Period does not preempt Presbyterians from claiming as well to be the church – or at the form of Christian life – which Jesus established. The Reformation would never had had to happen, Presbyterians argue, if the post-apostolic and medieval Church had not abandoned its earliest traditions – which, they also claim, Presbyterianism restored and most fully preserves in our day.
This is not the setting to debate who is right about being the “established” Church of Jesus. But what we can do is face the historical “tendencies” in Catholicism and Presbyterianism. Simply because the Catholic Church is an older and globally wider communion, it by and large approaches changes and crises with a wider, slower and deeper sense of its options. Presbyterianism, by contrast, because it came to life so deeply in the Renaissance, in the Modern Age, has Renaissance biases. For example, one of the key aspects of the Renaissance was the advance of critical textual scholarship. Along this went the rise of critical linguistic studies. As scholars (such as Montaigne, Erasmus, et al.) were able to compare and analyze ancient manuscripts, they could also dispel bad translations and erroneous teachings. Luther, Calvin and most of the Reformers, as men of their day – and as extremely well educated men of their day – were swept up into this critical frenzy. As a result, they felt competent to challenge seemingly outdated, unsupported medieval teachings in defense of a “purer,” more “explicit” form of Christianity. Calvin, for example, trusting in the best scholarship of his day, argued against the papacy in one case by using what turned out to be spurious versions of Ignatius of Antioch’s letters. Luther, for example, also trusting in the power of advanced textual analysis, felt free to relegate the books of James, Hebrews and Revelation to an appendix of his biblical translation, and in fact to deny their full authority in scripture.
What does this mean for us today? We still see the heavy influence of Renaissance ideas in Presbyterianism. Presbyterians, for example, are, on average, the most well educated Christians in the world (in terms of advanced degrees, etc.). There is also still a very anti-medieval tendency in Presbyterianism in favor of “serious” modern scholarship. By contrast, the Catholic Church is often accused of preying on the uneducated masses in underdeveloped countries, or of defending outdated claims with a medieval reverence for “tradition”. The Presbyterian churches focus on the verbal, intellectual clarity of Christian truth as divine propositions to be believed, even at the expense of Christian art and music, whereas the Catholic Church is more inclined to preach the Gospel not simply textually but also very richly with music, icons, incense, vestments and cultural (non-intellectual, non-verbal) affectivities.
Obviously, none of this historical background is an argument for or against either communion – but it should help us see how what difference a thousand years of life in Christ can mean for each communion. At the risk of stereotyping, Presbyterianism generally stands in tension between two historical poles of authority (outside the immediate authority of the Bible, of course). On the one end, Presbyterianism is intent on returning “ad fontes” – to the deep wells – of the pristine, pure, primitive apostolic church in opposition to any ancient or modern corruptions from that first church. On the other end, Presbyterianism feels compelled to stay sharp with the most advanced scholarship in order to cut away any un-Christian layers on the Gospel. The tension arises because, in many cases, the best scholarship either confirms a more “catholic” – and less “presbyterian” – understanding of the primitive Church, or is used by secular critics to undermine the credibility of Christianity in general.
This leads us into two of the most fundamental differences between the Catholic Church and all other forms of Christian communion. First, in sharp contrast to Presbyterianism, and Protestantism generally, the Catholic Church regards Sacred Tradition as a second, but not secondary, source of Christian authority. Tradition is not subject to Scripture, and neither is it superior to it; they are to be equally revered as two springs from one common source (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] #75ff). Second, in contrast to Protestantism, and even to Eastern Orthodoxy, which does also revere Tradition as a source of divine authority, the Catholic Church has a very clear role for the Church’s living teaching office (or Magisterium). In the first case, Presbyterians see the Bible as their sole, infallible authority. Notice that the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura is that Scripture is the sole infallible authority, not, as is commonly assumed, that it is the sole authority in any sense. This means that Reformed theology does, technically, regard tradition as a useful source of guidance and/or inspiration. Unfortunately, this principle rarely gets “lived out” in day-to-day Presbyterianism, where, unfortunately, the average Presbyterian is warned to avoid “catholic” influences and, hence, is all but oblivious of the Fathers and great Medieval Doctors.
The paradoxical result is that, because it has no trust in ecclesial Tradition as an ongoing, reliable source of authority, Presbyterianism is continually driven to affirm only the absolutely clearest and most indisputable aspects of Christianity – but also finds it increasingly difficult, in a pluralistic age, to claim anything is undisputed Christian truth. Not only does Scripture not interpret itself, but Scripture also did not generate itself. The Scriptures were born as enduring artifacts of a pre-existing Gospel Tradition in the Church. As the most basic example, without relying on the testimony of Tradition as a voice of divine authority, how does one defend the canon of Scripture itself? If we can use Scripture as our only infallible guide, how do we know in the first place what texts make up the Scripture we use as our sole authority? Where is the infallible biblical “table of contents” if not in infallible Tradition? In a word, how does one settle any scriptural dispute without a reliable “lens” to help us read the Scriptures clearly? This “lens of Tradition”, as one Catholic author calls it, is the most fundamental difference between Presbyterianism and Catholicism.
Without the lens of Tradition, however, Presbyterianism is, and always has been, obsessed with the so-called “perspicacity” of Scripture. Since, they argue, God gave us only the Bible for divine authority, surely He would have made all necessary truths clear enough for all Christians to understand and agree upon. Anything less than “perspicuous” in Scripture, therefore, has a hard time rising from “controversial interpretations” to true dogmas. This brings us to the role of the Magisterium mentioned above. Not only does the Catholic Church rely on Tradition as a true source of divine truth, it also trusts in the present guidance of the Holy Spirit in the leaders – particularly the bishops as successors of the Apostles – God appoints for the Church. So, even when the light of Tradition seems unclear in our attempts to better understand and live the biblical truth, the Catholic Church trusts in God’s guidance in the voice of the Church’s “shepherds.” Ideally, this structure of teaching authority keeps the Church in order and frees the faithful from worrying if one private interpretation is the truth or not. Even so, the shepherds themselves, as the living anchor of teaching in the Church, need a center of unity, which the Catholic finds in the Bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter, chief of the Apostles (cf. CCC #84ff, 880ff). In Presbyterianism, as synod after synod struggles to find unanimity and truth in the disputed “perspicuity” of Scripture, the churches continue to fragment: from one Presbyterian Church in the USA centuries ago, to two in 1934**, to three in 1978**, to increasingly more in the past decade or two. In Catholicism, by contrast, we have a two-thousand year-old saga that began when God gave birth to the Bible from the Church’s Tradition, and which continues into our own day in a harmonious dance** between the Bible, on the one hand, deepening and purifying the Church’s lived Tradition, and the Tradition, on the other hand, clarifying and realizing the Bible’s tremendous power. Meanwhile, this whole mysterious dance of divine truth is shepherded by the Church’s apostolic successors as ministers from the Holy Spirit.
From here, we can more quickly note the main differences between these two communions.
SACRAMENTS: In the Catholic Church, there are seven sacraments, which Jesus established as permanent means of grace for His people. In the Presbyterian churches, there are only two: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. As mentioned, because these two are the only “sacramental things” unequivocally attested to in the Bible (sola scriptura), Presbyterians are willing to call only them true Sacraments of Jesus. Again, without a binding Tradition or a Magisterium to navigate the less clear parts of the Christian heritage, Presbyterianism must “settle for” only the most fundamental, most perspicuous elements of the Faith.
EUCHARIST: While Presbyterianism, classically, acknowledges the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, it sees this Presence only as a sacramental visitation, which, in a sense, “disappears” apart from the immediate action of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus, in a sense, hides the bread and wine in Himself at the Lord’s Supper, but as soon as He has nourished His people, the bread and wine reemerge and Jesus, in a sense, returns to His rightful place, in Heaven, before His Second Coming. Catholics (and Orthodox), by contrast, recognize not only the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but also affirm the enduring reality of this Presence in the elements as the hidden manna of life (i.e., transubstantiation; cf. Rev. 2:17; Jn 6:48ff), although He veils His own glory before His returns in full glory. Further, because Jesus wholly and truly remains with His People in the Holy Gifts, these gifts as the Lord Himself are worthy of adoration, an action no Presbyterian would ever dare do at the Lord’s Supper. A final difference is that Presbyterianism utterly rejects the Mass as an efficacious propitiatory sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, whereas the Catholic Church sees the Mass as the sacramental re-actualization of Jesus’ saving death at Calvary. Because Jesus is the enduring Lamb of God slain in Heaven, Catholics on earth enter His blood Mass after Mass for the hope of salvation (cf. 1 Jn 2:1-2; Rev 5:5ff).
Jesus prayed that all His disciples would be one, as He and the Father were one; and He prayed that we would love each other, so that the world would know we are truly Jesus’ disciples in the love of the Father (cf. Jn 17:20-23). We must never forget the deeper truth that we are united as brothers and sisters in the baptismal union of Christ’s death and resurrection! So, while these comments so far may seem very negative and competitive, we must close on a good note. What are some similarities between Presbyterianism and Catholicism? What are some common “stones” we share in order to build a unified house of faith?
First, both Catholics and Presbyterians believe in Infant Baptism.
Second, unlike some radical charismatic groups, both Presbyterians and Catholics believe in the need for order (cf. 1 Cor 11:33). Hence, while denying the need of ordained bishops, Presbyterians do have synods of elders in each region and a council of elders ("presbyters”) in each church for the regulation of church affairs.
Third, while many Presbyterians do have iconoclastic tendencies (no icons, no musical instruments, no art, etc.), a number of them do use liturgical vestments and colors and they do follow a yearly lectionary to keep “sacred time.”
Fourth, while many people think only Calvin and Presbyterians teach predestination, Catholics, most notably in the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, also believe in the absolute necessity of God’s grace alone for our salvation prior to any of our own efforts.
Fifth, as mentioned, both Presbyterians and Catholics believe in at some kind of Real Presence of Jesus in Lord's Supper. This is a huge connection! Jesus calls us to Himself in this Supper and if we are serious about meeting Him, we must be equally serious about meeting and embracing each other in Him as our common Bread of Life.