Interview with Bill Tammeus: Can Jesus bring Catholics and Protestants together?

Cover of Bill Tammeus book Jesus Pope Francis and a Protestant walk into a bar (1)

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The joke in this new book’s title is funny. But, the point of the book is earnestly serious: This is a historic moment when Pope Francis and Protestant leaders might finally complete the mission of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and link hands as Christians. The new book says: If our leaders aren’t ready to do that, then we as ordinary men and women can start the process of making friends across the great divide of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

That message comes from one of the nation’s most-respected religion writers, journalist Bill Tammeus, and his friend—a leading pastor in Tammeus’ hometown of Kansas City, the Rev. Paul Rock.

“For a long time, I have been concerned about the divisions within Christianity,” Bill Tammeus said in an interview. “In some ways, these divisions are perfectly understandable and the different worship styles are generally to be encouraged. But in too many instances this has degenerated into vitriol and prejudice and bigotry against one another. There’s no cause for that. It’s time for everybody under the Christian umbrella to recognize that we are all drawn toward the same center. There’s no reason to treat each other as enemies. The time for this great division to exist between us—is over.”

What great division are we talking about?

Most Americans still say they’re Christian but, each year, a majority of Americans can’t name the four Gospels when asked to list those books of the Bible by pollsters. So, considering our collective lack of knowledge about Christianity, delving into church history is a stretch.

“As Christians, we don’t know our own faith well enough,” said Tammeus. “Many things divide us as Catholics and Protestants, but we should realize there is much common ground we share. If Protestants understood our traditions better and our own theological center, then we might see the possibility of some real movement in closing this divide.”

So, to recap the great divide—here’s a 60-second overview:

German Peasants War (1)

16th Century wood-cut illustration of the German Peasants’ War in 1524-25, a rebellion touched off partly by the Protestant Reformation that resulted in tragic loss of life. This was just one of many examples of deadly conflict between Protestants and Catholics over the last five centuries.

Back in the era of Martin Luther, John Calvin and other European leaders who had grown restless with the Vatican—a “Protestant” movement finally reached enough critical mass that it broke away from the Catholic church. Down through the next five centuries, this sparked violent clashes, including here in the United States. Then, in the 1960s, John Kennedy was elected our first Catholic president. Later, conservative evangelicals found they could score political points by joining with Catholic allies on hot-button issues. The great Protestant divide seemed to be narrowing into a handful of trivia questions.

But not so fast! In 2000, the man who would later become Pope Benedict XVI issued Dominus Ieusus, or “Lord Jesus,” and once again made it crystal clear that the Vatican believes Protestant churches “are not Churches in the proper sense.” Many Protestants were offended. If they read the Vatican declaration carefully, they found words that seemed to hold open a doorway that “Christ” still might be “using them as a means of salvation.” But the overall tone was like a 2-by-4 smashed into the Protestant forehead—and the Vatican’s underlying rebuke was intentional. The Vatican was re-emphasizing its traditional view that Protestants are wrong and the poor souls in their congregations are sadly deluded. If that 2000 rebuff wasn’t clear enough, Benedict doubled down on this point in 2007 in a fresh Q&A published by the Vatican—repeating the same points.

The great divide yawned, once again.

The inspiring vision you’ll discover in this book

Bill Tammeus - hi res (1)

Bill Tammeus

In this story, we won’t spoil the punchline of the joke in the book’s title—but we will share the book’s main point. Rock and Tammeus challenge all of us loudly and clearly. In the final pages of the book, you’ll read:

Today, the Spirit is once again blowing and stirring and calling out to the church. At a time when the U.S. president is black and when the pope, whose throne sits in the center of the Northern Hemisphere, comes from South America and when the greatest male athlete of the 1976 Olympics is now a woman named Caitlyn Jenner, we are hearing the voice of God call out to the world that no matter our prejudice or taste or inclination, all are invited—male and female … slave and free, Left and Right, gay and straight, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, you and me. All are invited because all are one in Christ Jesus.

In your family, in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your community, who has been left out? Whom do you need to extend an invitation to today?

Sound like a book you might want to read? Or, better yet, a book that might stir Spirited discussion in your congregation?

This book arose within a church. It began as a series of sermons preached in Kansas City by several pastors—most of the sermons by Rock himself, said Tammeus. “When the opportunity arose to work with Paul on this book—I leaped at it. Paul began doing this because he was fascinated by the response Pope Francis was receiving around the world. Then, Paul did a lot of study and marinated on these ideas for quite a while. Paul believes ecumenical/interfaith understanding is really important.”

Then, full disclosure: Tammeus is a member of Rock’s congregation at Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. “The church is celebrating its 150th anniversary. We started in 1865 with a few folks who were anti-slavery and broke away from the old First Presbyterian church, which was pro-slavery. The Civil War was ending and these anti-slavery folks decided they’d had enough! They didn’t want to hang around those folks who had been supporting slavery right through the war. So, this church has in its DNA the practice of engaging the community on all kinds of social-justice issues.

“We are most concerned about how we can move a church that has been collapsing for quite a while out of its walls and out into the world to do the work of the church. In Francis, Paul and I recognize someone who shares that goal.”

‘RELIGION HAS TAKEN A LOT OF HITS’

Pope Francis in his element—among the people crowding into St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo by Edgar Jiménez of Portugal, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Francis in his element—among the people crowding into St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo by Edgar Jiménez of Portugal, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Does anyone care? It’s a valid question, Tammeus acknowledged after a lifetime of covering the impact of religion in the U.S. and around the world. When Benedict was elected in Rome, American newspaper and magazine stories explored the idea that, in this new millennium, popes might be irrelevant figures.

“Religion has taken a lot of hits in the last 20 or 30 years and not simply because of terrorism. We’ve also seen declines in mainline churches and the growth of the ‘Nones,’ ” Americans who answer pollsters’ questions about religious affiliation with the option None, Tammeus said.

“Then this new pope really surprised a lot of people with his personality, his tone—and clearly: The pope matters again,” Tammeus said. “In the public eye, he’s making religion itself more respectable again. And on a personal level: He’s this energetic older man who seems to love life and he clearly loves his faith tradition. He’s not crazy theologically. He’s a rational, wonderful human being and he’s helping people think again: Hey, there might be something to this faith stuff, after all!” (Care to read more on this? ReadTheSpirit earlier published an analysis of Francis as a new kind of inclusive religious leader.)

WHAT THIS BOOK MIGHT DO …

This little black book is small. It fits comfortably into a jacket pocket, a purse or shoulder bag. The whole thing is less than 100 pages. You can read it in a single evening—or day-by-day over in short segments over a week.

What could it do?

“I hope that this book gives people tools to start asking some questions,” said Tammeus. “And I’m not necessarily talking about challenging questions. I’m more interested in encouraging people to talk appreciatively to one another about our different religious traditions.

“If you’re a Protestant, then we suggest that you ask a Catholic friend to take you to Mass and, then, agree to sit with you so that they can explain what’s going on. The idea is not to convert people, but to understand more about each faith tradition. We need to know—and to be known. Going to Mass with a friend is just one idea. We suggest many activities you can do with friends. This can change your life.

“I believe we can learn a lot more about our own faith by learning about the faith of others. I know that we’re not going to get rid of all the ignorance and bigotry that still plagues us—but if our new book helps people take a few steps in the direction of understanding, then we will be very happy.”

Care to read more?

They Were Just People cover by Bill Tammeus and Jacques CukierkornFROM TAMMEUS ON THE HOLOCAUST: Last year, ReadTheSpirit published a column by Bill Tammeus about a new book related to the Holocaust. Working together with a rabbi friend, Tammeus published They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

MORE ON THE POPE’S GOOD HUMOR: Last week, we published a story about Rabbi Bob Alper winning an international contest to be named Honorary Comedic Advisor to Pope Francis.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Comments

  1. Allen Ohlstein says

    I have shared this book with several of my Catholic friends, including my Spiritual Advisor. Their review of it was that it was “spot on.” I agree. Instead of merely comparing and contrasting Catholicism and Protestantism, it offers hope for a truly Christian future of the church Catholic.