An underlying intolerance

DIALOGUE BETWEEN the Methodists and Roman Catholics has been going on for many years at the international level.

When Pope Francis was elected as spiritual leader for the estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, it was indeed heartening to learn of the warm greetings and congratulations conveyed by the World Methodist Council to the pontiff.

Yet, this same level of respect and understanding appears somewhat remote in Singapore.

It is strange and regrettable that there is reticence among Protestants, in particular, in extending that same hand
of friendship to Catholics, who I have found to be most courteous and welcoming to other denominations.

I continue to meet Methodists (and Protestants of other fellowships) who tell me in no uncertain terms that they want nothing to do with Roman Catholics.

All the age-old prejudices come out and the result can only be termed one thing – bigotry, which The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines as: “Obstinate and unreasonable adherence to a religious or other opinion; narrow-minded intolerance.”

People expressing these anti-Catholic sentiments justify them on the grounds that “truth cannot mix with error”. The implication appears to be that “we have all of the truth” and all others are wrong.

To this I say: Only one Person can claim to have all the truth – Jesus Christ. Indeed, He is the truth. Since both Catholics and Protestants profess to be followers of Jesus, a little more humility and tolerance for perceived differences would not be misplaced.

A lot of the Protestant bigotry stems from serious misrepresentations of Catholic positions. Here is a sampling of the two I keep hearing ad nauseam.

“Catholics believe in salvation through works.” This is dead wrong. There is even a section in the documents of the (very Catholic) Council of Trent which explicitly condemns this.

And in 1999, Catholics and Lutherans signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which very clearly spells out that we can only be justified by grace through faith. Methodists signed this same Joint Declaration in 2004.

The other objection is that “Catholics worship Mary”. Again, wrong. The Roman Catholic Church clearly and carefully distinguishes worship, reserved for God alone, from veneration. “Oh, but it’s the same anyway,” some say. I disagree.

The dictionary definition of veneration is “profound respect or reverence.” We have no problems “venerating” the state flag – we treat it with great respect, we salute it (schoolchildren and soldiers do it every day), we sing an anthem while it is ceremonially raised and our righteous indignation begins to burn when we see it desecrated by foreigners. Double standards?

Even the labels we use are wrong-headed. In Singapore I have often heard “Christian” used to distinguish Protestants from Catholics. This is mighty puzzling, because the rest of the world seems quite happy to consider the Roman Catholic Church to be a Christian Church.

Please do not get me wrong. We do have our differences, but there is more common ground than we usually think. I am not saying that the genuine differences should be swept under the carpet.

A change in attitude is, in my opinion, long overdue. Why can’t we take the view, which is both biblical (Heb 11:13, 13:14; 1 Pet 2:11) as well as a perspective endorsed by the Vatican, that we are all PILGRIMS as Christians?

Why can’t we dialogue with Catholic believers without insisting that they should “convert”, but instead share our insights and testimony as a “fellow pilgrim on the way”? And why are we not prepared to listen to their experience?

We cannot expect a 500-year old division in the Church of Jesus Christ to be healed overnight. But we can be agents of reconciliation. Indeed, the heart of the gospel is restoration of relationships.

One of the challenges of the 21st Century is whether Catholics and Protestants can pray and stand together as fellow Christians, and contend together for the faith in the face of growing barbarism, intolerance, racism, materialism, exploitation and the other evils of our time.

André De Winne was brought up as a Roman Catholic in Belgium. Married to a Singaporean Chinese, he was the pastoral team member for Discipleship and Nurture at Wesley Methodist Church until recently as he and his wife will be relocating to France for a new ministry later in the year.

Picture by Chan Yee Kee/

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By André De Winne