Healthy, interfaith dialogue between Catholics, Protestants

by Bill Tammeus

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I recall a feeling of satisfaction and even excitement almost two years ago when NCR readers of one of my columns began clicking on a link to my Presbyterian congregation's website to watch video of what turned out to be a seven-sermon series about Pope Francis.

Our server complained about overwork from all the new traffic but didn't collapse.

Our pastor, the Rev. Dr. Paul T. Rock, had been fascinated by the reception this remarkable new pontiff was receiving not just from Catholics but also from Protestants, to say nothing of from the rest of the world.

So he wanted to explore that popularity and what it might be saying about ways to improve Protestant-Catholic relations as well as interfaith understanding. Thus the sermon series was born. And as the first sermon was preached, I wrote this column that included a link to it.

Editors at the national Presbyterian publishing house, Westminster John Knox Press, asked Paul and me to turn that sermon series into a seven-week study book, complete with an introduction, challenging questions for readers and suggestions for next steps readers could take to engage ecumenically and inter-religiously.

The result, just published, is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church.

It's far from the last word on Catholic-Protestant relations, but I do see it as a way to give more structure to the conversation I've been having with Catholics for the last five-plus years through this NCR column.

Why does that matter? Because Protestants and Catholics have been more or less at odds -- sometimes in bitter ways -- since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation nearly 500 years ago. Both Catholics and Protestants have been guilty of inhospitable behavior that sometimes has degenerated into harsh condemnation and even violence.

It's long past time for members of each tradition to learn to appreciate what is beautiful and life-giving in the other tradition. And it's long past time for Catholics and Protestants to stop imagining that, were he walking the Earth today, Jesus, born a Jew, would be either a Catholic or a Protestant.

In one of Rock's sermons in our book, he recounts this story as an example of what we'd all do well to get over:

"My aunt's grandfather, my great-grandfather, was a Presbyterian minister who served congregations in northern Wisconsin. He was a good man and a devout Christian but when he learned that his granddaughter was marrying a 'papist' he made it clear to the family that he would see her in hell. It's a nice little story we like to recount around the Thanksgiving table. Regretfully, I'm sure many families can share similar tales."

Clearly Paul's great-grandfather did not represent the kind of warm, welcoming presence the whole world has experienced from Pope Francis. But is such a generous presence enough to heal ancient divides, to find common ground, and to set aside long-held beliefs and traditions that result in Catholics and Protestants being somehow different in essence?

Where, in other words, should we draw our lines in the sand? Or, perhaps, is that entirely the wrong question?

The spirit of the sermon series and the study questions and guidance for next steps in our new book would suggest that drawing lines in the sand is not the way to start a healthy conversation. Rather, though we must acknowledge our differences, the place to begin is with our personal stories of faith. They will include descriptions of our own understandings about why this or that tradition is important to us.

In fact, as often happens in interfaith dialogue, the result can be a deepening of one's own faith as each of us seeks to explain it to others. As for the "bar" in the book's title, well, it's part of an opening joke. But I also see it as a barrier that needs to come down.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at]

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