Recently, I wrote an open letter to protestants of Cowlitz and Wahkiakum County, which you can view here. This is a follow up that goes a little deeper into the issue of protestant and Catholic division from a Catholic perspective, and defines how the Catholic Church understands God to be working in the midst of protestant denominations.
As Catholics, we make quite a claim. We believe that the Catholic Church is unique among other Churches. In fact, we believe that the Catholic Church is the very Church that Jesus established two thousand years ago on the foundation of the apostles. We believe that our current bishops are actually successors to the apostles, through a succession of ordination and laying on of hands.
The Second Vatican Council taught that the Church Jesus established “subsists in” the Catholic Church. The way I understand this is that everything Jesus intended for his Church to have is preserved in the Catholic Church. There also might be some little, insignificant things that Jesus did not intend for his Church. For example, Jesus might not have intended for us to have pews in the Church, or perhaps even the type of vestments we wear.
Spiritually speaking however, the sacraments, the scriptures, the doctrine are all things Jesus intended to preserve in his Church until his return, and these are preserved in the Catholic Church. Certain denominations might have some of these things, but they also lack some of them. Most protestants, for example, have valid baptisms and they believe in the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus, however they lack a valid priesthood and valid Eucharist.
This does not mean that God only works within the walls of the Catholic Church. God does not bind himself to work only through the sacraments of the Catholic Church. God certainly promises to be present in the sacraments of the Catholic Church and to work through the bishops to teach doctrine. He promises that the gates of Hell will not prevail against Catholic Church. But this does not mean that God can’t encounter people in some way outside of the Church.
If you doubt that point, consider what the Catholic Church teaches about baptism. One of the most important things we need to remember is that the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of many non-Catholic denominations. This is very important. As long as a person is baptized with Trinitarian faith and water, the baptism is valid and they are inserted into the body of Christ. The implications of this are huge.
Because we recognize the validity of non-Catholic baptisms, it means that we also believe the Holy Spirit is working within people outside the formal walls of the Catholic Church in some way. The Holy Spirit is moving in the lives of non-Catholics. If we somehow believed that the Holy Spirit was bound to work only within the confines of the Catholic Church, we would not recognize the validity of these baptisms.
Simply stated, then, we should consider protestant Christians as “Separated Brethren.” The tensions between Catholics and Protestants should not be viewed as a fight between good vs. evil, but as more of a family feud that has now lasted five centuries. God wants reconciliation within this family, and he is working from outside of our Church and from inside our Church to bring this about.