In an email discussion recently, a friend asked, "What do Catholics usually think of when they speak of Protestants?" My answer: I think part of it comes from the fact that all Western Christians not in union with Rome have traditionally been labeled with a single term: Protestants. Because of this, many Catholics presume that all Protestants believe roughly the same things, just as most Catholics do (or are supposed to). Of course they realize that there are Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed, AoG, Baptists, etc., but they still tend to think that they all believe pretty much the same things. And what are those "things", the doctrines which all Protestants believe? They are the doctrines they hear from the Protestants who approach them the most: the Jimmy Swaggert, Jack Chick types. As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
While this may not be as true for Catholics who are well-formed in their own faith, it is still a problem. I know of many Catholics who have rediscovered their faith and its truths and often become interested in apologetics. The problem is that all too often they assume that when an writer or speaker makes an argument against one particular Protestant tradition's teaching on a doctrine, that argument can be applied in the same manner in regard to another tradition's teaching on the same doctrine. As I and others I know have learned from painful experience, this is not the case. Catholics must always seek to understand those they are actually engaged in discussion with, and not only for apologetics purposes. Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, states the following in article 9:
- We must get to know the outlook of our separated brethren. To achieve this purpose, study is of necessity required, and this must be pursued with a sense of realism and good will. Catholics, who already have a proper grounding, need to acquire a more adequate understanding of the respective doctrines of our separated brethren, their history, their spiritual and liturgical life, their religious psychology and general background.
Let me give an example: I have on many occasions heard Catholics refer to the "legal fiction" notion of justification as if all Protestants accept it, when in fact that notion of the doctrine is rejected by Lutherans and Reformed as well (at least substantial numbers of both traditions). Pointing out the errors of a doctrine not held by one's discussion partner not only fails to adequately respond to the real issue, but it makes one look foolish as well. Even more, in such a situation one is not speaking what is the truth, and that is the most important thing.