“Personal Relationship with Jesus” — A Catholic Concept?

We should not pit Jesus and his Church against each other

Thomas Francis Dicksee (1819-1895), “Christ of the Cornfield”
Thomas Francis Dicksee (1819-1895), “Christ of the Cornfield” (photo: Public Domain)

A Protestant in one of the Facebook groups I am part of, observed (paraphrased):

The emphasis of Catholics is for you to join their Church. But the emphasis of Protestants is to want others to experience a personal relationship with Jesus.

This statement is typical of Protestantism’s characteristic “either/or” outlook, or what convert from Lutheranism Louis Bouyer called “the dichotomous mindset of Protestantism.”

I freely grant that the observation is true in a very broad way: regarding the small number of Protestants who are actually concerned with evangelization and the (sadly) few Catholics who care whether someone is a Catholic or not.

The insinuation is that the Catholic is completely out to sea and misguided in emphasis, whereas the Protestant is only concerned with high and noble spiritual matters, such as relationship with Jesus.

But we need not pit the two things against each other. To show why we don’t have to do that, I’d like to offer an analogy. Imagine a happy couple, not yet engaged.

By analogy, the “Protestant” would say to them, “the most important thing is their relationship of love with each other.” The “Catholic,” by contrast, would say (by analogy), “the most important thing is that they get married to each other.”

Is one better than the other? Well, yes and no. In one sense one of them is more important; in another sense the other one is more important. Relationship obviously precedes a happy and fruitful marriage. But marriage is where the relationship can best flourish and proceed in a moral way. It’s the natural and necessary “home” of the love and sexual relationship, within the bounds of traditional (Christian) sexual morality.

There is no need to dichotomize the two. Both are essential and important. The “Protestant” is emphasizing the primacy of the relationship itself, in its personal, subjective dimension, while the “Catholic” (in this analogy) is emphasizing the supreme importance of marriage, which is more of the institutional and cultural or communitarian dimension: with implications for the larger society.

Neither theological / spiritual thing (back to the original question) negates the other. Catholics (if we really delve deeply into Catholic teaching) teach relationship with Jesus as strongly as any Protestant does. The “personal relationship with Jesus” aspect of the great Catholic mystics is more profound than any Protestant reflections on this that I have ever read (as I discovered in compiling my book, Quotable Catholic Mystics and Contemplatives).

A Protestant might want to check out The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis: if he or she doubts that Catholicism possesses this outlook.

Personal relationship with the Lord is great; no one (who knows anything about Catholicism) denies it. Protestants do, however, emphasize it more in “everyday life” terms, and Catholics would do well to readily agree with that, rather than ever oppose it, since it is our own tradition (deeply understood), too.

But there is also nothing wrong with a Catholic focusing on others becoming Catholics. We do that because we believe that the Catholic Church possesses the fullness of spiritual and theological truth, and is protected by the Holy Spirit from doctrinal or moral error.

If that is indeed true (as we believe), then it is a loving act to share that news with non-Catholics, so they can share in the blessings. It would indeed be the place where they would be best-positioned for salvation and also for relationship with Jesus. It’s the concrete environment and institution on the earth where discipleship can best — most effectively — be lived (just as marriage is the best place for a love relationship).

The Protestant is saying, “Here, let me share with you the glories and joys of a personal relationship with Jesus.” That’s a good motivation, and true message, and God honors it. He shares it out of love for the other and concern for their spiritual well-being.

Likewise, the Catholic says, “Here, let me share with you the glories and joys of the fullness of historic Christianity within the Catholic Church.” That’s a good motivation, and true message, and God honors it. She, too, shares it with the same motivation.

The problem only starts with the Protestant denial of the Christian “fullness” of the Catholic Church. But Catholics have no essential disagreement with the notion of a personal relationship with Jesus. We receive Him Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity into our mouths and bellies every Sunday. It doesn’t get much more “personal” than that.

So we are “both/and,” but many Protestants look at this as an “either/or” proposition, and tend to deny that the Church is necessary or even (in some cases) important in the Christian life. This was set in motion as soon as Protestantism at large denied that neither the [historic, Catholic, pope-headed] Church nor sacred tradition was infallible. Only the Bible was infallible (doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Protestant rule of faith).

Protestantism tends to be (at least in some of its forms) individualistic, subjective, and ahistorical, whereas Catholicism is by nature communal, more objective, and within the historical / apostolic succession framework or perspective.

Catholics gather every Sunday to receive the Holy Eucharist: together, in a group. We do that because this was the essential purpose of church meetings (rather than, primarily, listening to sermons) from the beginning:

Acts 20:7 (RSV) On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (cf. 20:11)

We know that “break bread” is eucharistic terminology. Protestants will say that one ought to go to church (the great Billy Graham famously urged that at the end of his evangelistic rallies), but it doesn’t hold the necessity that it does in Catholicism, where we have the Mass obligation to attend church every Sunday (it being a mortal sin to deliberately miss it without serious reason). Hence, we emphasize “the Church” far more than Protestants do.

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