On the one hand, each knows that the other is wrong on super-important, deal-breaking things. For example, let's take the issue of justification (how sinful humans get right with God). In 1547, the Catholic Council of Trent, a reaction to the Protestant Reformation that shaped Catholic dogma for centuries afterward, issued a decree on justification that contains 33 anathemas. (Anathema is a Greek word meaning "accursed"; it is a technical term in the church world that means, "If you believe or do such-and-such a thing, you are separated from grace, under God's wrath, and headed for hell." It is extremely serious.) Somewhere between one and three quarters of these anathemas applies to any given Protestant, depending on his or her particular theological positions.
That's a lot of anathemas.
But even though Protestants don't generally have councils with the sweep of Trent, we do assert one anathema against the Catholics that is huge—in fact, it is the Biblical Mother of All Anathemas: "But even if we (or an angel from heaven) preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be anathema! As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be anathema!" (Gal. 1:8-9). Contending that Paul argues in Galatians that the true gospel is of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (see also Rom. 3:21-31), Protestants allege that Catholic doctrine on justification as set forth in Trent is "a different gospel." So anathema back at ya.
So each side can be pretty confident from the revelation of God (as each understands it) that the other is alienated from God and going to hell, right? Well, not quite. Because there are also these verses in Scripture that talk about how to tell a true believer from a false one, and they complicate things. For example, from 1 John:
"Now who is the person who has conquered the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? . . . The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself . . . : God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has this eternal life; the one who does not have the Son of God does not have this eternal life" (5:5, 10-12).
"Now by this we know that God resides in us: by the Spirit he has given us" (3:24).
"Now by this we know that we have come to know God: if we keep his commandments. The one who says, 'I have come to know God' and yet does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in such a person. But whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has been perfected. By this we know that we are in him" (2:3-5).
"We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians" (3:14).So if a person displays evidence that he or she believes that Jesus is the Son of God, has the Holy Spirit, keeps God's commandments, and loves other Christians, that is strong, biblical evidence that the person is saved.
Jesus told us that we would be able to tell the difference between true and false teachers by the "fruit" they bear. So what happens when an Evangelical knows a Catholic who bears the fruit of salvation that John delineates, or vice versa? We find ourselves in a very uncomfortable position: what we take to be divinely revealed truth tells us to regard the other both as an infidel and as a brother. We're stuck.
This is a very difficult dilemma to sit in the middle of, so for the most part we don't. On both sides there are people who tilt toward the anathemas: "We know they are unsaved, because they believe damnable false doctrine." They don't want anything to do with the other, and if you suggest to them, "Maybe some of those people are saved after all," then they gear up to anathematize you too. Then there are those who are eager to join hands and sing "Kum-Ba-Ya" with those across the divide. (Did you know that people still do that on occasion? To my own shock I participated in that earlier this year.) Their approach is either, "Those folks don't really believe all that anymore" (yes, they do), or, "Doctrine, schmoctrine; isn't the most important thing that we love everybody?" (no, it isn't).
But either of these stances that minimizes the other is unbiblical. For me as an Evangelical Protestant, I have abandoned the faith if I don't insist that the gospel revealed once for all in the New Testament, which I believe to be badly perverted by Trent, is the only true gospel there is and the only "power of God for salvation" (Rom. 1:16). But I have also disobeyed my Lord if I don't regard a given Catholic who displays the biblical evidence of salvation as my brother or sister in Christ.
I really don't know exactly what to do with this. I just know what not to do: either shun fellow children of God or say that a foreign gospel is no problem.
Obviously, this is about doctrine. But at another, complementary level it is an example of what I wrote about last time: how do I maintain self in connection with others? Or on the other side, how do I not compromise who I am (in this case, what I am convinced is exclusively true) but also not avoid engagement with the other, who differs profoundly from me and yet is like me?
God has blessed me with a friendship with a Catholic priest who joins me in wrangling over these things. I once asked him how we might achieve visible unity, in particular how from the Catholic side the anathemas of the Council of Trent could be squared with the measured acceptance of Protestants (if not of their doctrine) in the Second Vatican Council. His reply: "With God, all things are possible" (Matt. 19:26). At this point, I can't think of a better answer.