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Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Letters to Our Protestant Friends

By:   Vincent Chiarello
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Letters to Our Protestant Friends

By Hugo Klapproth
Foreword by Michael Matt

Reviewed for The Remnant by Vincent Chiarello

"Conversion is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real-world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it endlessly."  - Evelyn Waugh

I CAN RECALL the first time I ever heard anyone refer to, and then describe, someone who had converted to the Church of Rome and its subsequent effect. That event took place in a high school English class and Mrs. Fitzpatrick, the instructor, described what had happened to the convert, who also happened to be her husband. If memory serves, she claimed: "He has become more Catholic than the pope!" A bit of exaggeration perhaps, but very characteristic of many converts. It is my continuing interest in converts that led Michael Matt, The Remnant's editor, to ask if I would review the letters of his great-grandfather, Hugo Klapproth, a German born-convert, in a book entitled, "Letter to a Protestant Friend." I accepted with pleasure.

In his Introduction, Michael Matt provides a biographical sketch of great-grandfather Hugo Klapproth, who was born in Germany in 1848, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1875. Through the efforts of Matt's daughter, who "dug up" these 18 letters that comprise the book, it was only three years ago that Matt came " ... to know Hugo Klapproth," Then this: "Through these letters, Hugo Klapproth has been recalled to life."

It should be noted that Klapproth's immigration to the U.S. coincided with the tempestuous times occurring in Germany. From German unification in 1871 until 1887 during the "kulturkampf" or cultural struggle, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a Lutheran, waged a campaign against the Catholic Church, questioning its loyalty to the newly formed German state. Among the measures he enforced were forbidding priests making political statements from the pulpit, dissolving the Jesuit Order in Germany, and demanding state control over all education and ecclesiastical appointments. Comments about some of these policies will be noted in Klapproth's correspondence. In time, Bismark retreated on many of his draconian measures, and, ironically, it was Pope Leo XIII who declared the conflict over in 1887, when most of the anti-Catholic legislation had been repealed or reduced in severity,

Klapproth begins the first letter to his friend by referring to him only as "D," the format he will use throughout his correspondence. Hence, "D" is never identified. What is described is the purpose of these letters: they are responses to "D's" reaction to Klapproth’s conversion. To "D," such a decision by his friend to convert is "... totally astonishing, incomprehensible, almost unforgiveable." And it goes further, for Klapproth now has succumb to "Roman spiritual slavery." It should be noted that "D's" reaction is not an unusual one from friend or family because it is often considered an abandonment of one’s heritage, in this case a Lutheran one.

It is Klapproth's response to this initial criticism that will also set the tone for much of what follows, and each of the letters demonstrates the reasons for the conversion. Yet this is done amicably despite the level of "D's" harsh criticism , which includes how, " ... your warm heart can stomach all of the confused foolishness and uncharitable intolerance of the Roman Church?" Refusing to respond in kind, Klapproth explains his conversion by giving "D" lessons in history, theology, and Scripture throughout, most often in a friendly way. "Let us," Klapproth requests, "keep our correspondence in the future on rather more neutral territory." To begin at the beginning.

While reading these letters from a century and a half ago, I wondered what Hugo Klapproth would think of the German Catholic Church today? The possible results of the recent Synodal Conference in Frankfurt alarmed even the Vatican, for they included the German Catholic Church’s granting female ordination and blessing of homosexual unions.

Klapproth begins with an explanation of the reasons behind his conversion by responding to "D's" comment that "Catholicism is not the true Church; that she does not possess a pure Christianity," and " ...its 'barbaric claim' to be the only true one." Then there is "the incomprehensible deification of humanity found in the Marian cult ..." This visceral dislike (blind hatred?) of Catholicism, Klapproth explains, is misguided, for, "...if your objections truly touched upon doctrines of the Catholic Church, this Church would continue to have scarcely a more resolute opponent than myself."

"D" tries hard to convince Klapproth that his conversion is of no great matter to him, but that is doubtful, for his objective seems to be to convince the convert that the Church of Rome is not "the true religion." It was as true during this correspondence as it is today that Marian devotion is a major point of controversy between Catholics and Protestants. Klapproth is gentle in his effort to teach "D" the error of his ways regarding Mary and her importance. "Admittedly, you share this (misconception) with a great mass of Protestants although any Catholic catechism could easily give anyone better instruction on the topic." Klapproth takes “D” to task for "the irreverent manner in which Mary is spoken of in the pages of Protestant books and even from orthodox Protestant pulpits."

Klapproth's criticism continues: "I can assure you that the Protestant disrespect for Mary alone would now be sufficient to prove to me that Protestantism cannot be the religion of Jesus Christ." He adds the words of a Catholic bishop: "The crown of all the distortions of the teaching of the Catholic Faith is the assertion that the Catholic Church ...attributes the adoration which is due to God alone to the Virgin Mary ... We reject this assertion with the deepest disgust." How many Catholics, including its clergy, would even consider writing that sentence today!  

Then there is the matter of saints. Klapproth notes that Luther claimed, " ... I say and hold fast with the whole of Christianity that we should honor and call upon the loving saints, for who would contest that in our day ..." And to clarify the Catholic position Klapproth adds: "We do not ascribe to the saints either omniscience or any other divine characteristic, but rather trust that God will allow them to have our supplications recognized ... which emerges directly from the article of the Apostles Creed."

Then there is the matter of the Jesuits, dissolved by Bismarck for, among other reasons, "Jesuitical morality," and being “a secret society.”  That morality, "D" and Bismarck insisted, was incorporated in the maxim, "the ends justify the means." Perhaps neither "D" nor Bismarck had ever heard of Niccolò Machiavelli. Here again, Klapproth is direct: "Whoever wishes to be convinced of the groundlessness of the accusation that the Jesuits pay homage to the infamous theory of expediency, should actually read their moral theological writings." And if the charges of this infamous indictment were true, Klapproth adds, "How could men with immoral principles be personally moral?” Klapproth exhibits a strong interest in the Jesuits, for there is another letter dealing with the Jesuits entitled "Black Robes and Black Legends." In one, we get a glimpse of Klapproth the man: his wife had given him, " ,,, so little oil for my lamp that the (writing) light is now about to go out right under my nose. Wives are like that - full of Jesuitical tricks."

happy klappy

Then there is the matter of "sola Scriptura," the foundational belief among Lutherans and other Protestants that the Bible is the only source of God’s word, and thereby the  means to justification.  Klapproth responds by acknowledging the differences, which he describes as, “a major point of controversy" between the Church of Rome and the Lutheran Evangelical Church. He will return to this difference in a later letter. Here, once again he chides “D” for his ignorance of Church beliefs: “My dear ‘D,’ the Catholic teaching on justification is unfortunately just as misunderstood and disfigured on the part of Protestants as practically everything else; and one Protestant then thoughtlessly repeats to others all of this absurd stuff from generation to generation.”  Justification he writes, stems only from God’s grace. “On the contrary we believe that justification is a grace earned through Jesus Christ, ...” Klapproth goes further: "The Bible, which is held in honor as Holy Writ among Catholics far more than it is among you …”  Klapproth is not finished.

In reference to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Klapproth raises the question of Luther’s intent, which “…added a word in his translation so as to make his new teaching on justification more plausible than it could have been ‘as written.'" Luther’s translation claimed: “For we think that a man can be righteous through Faith alone without the words of the Law.” First, there is no trace of the word “alone” in the original text. What is equally important here is that the contrast between the Christian Faith and the “works of the Law” referred to Jewish ceremonial Law, not “good works” in the Catholic sense. Klapproth recommends that “D’ read a text on the question of justification, “…which is as difficult as it is significant.”

This book offers a spotlight into the mind of not only a brilliant Catholic convert of the late 19th century, but also his dedication to the ideas and doctrines of Catholicism. Read as a whole or in sections, one cannot help but admire the wisdom of this very devout Catholic.

In one instance, Klapproth mentions a member of his family, his "good mother." Why? She, like "D" and their fellow co-religionists, are convinced that "auricular confession" substitutes a priest for absolution rather than God. In addition, the counting and recitation of sins is highly problematic, "since according to God's word itself, the just man falls seven times a day." Klapproth's approach in analyzing this charge is pointed: he uses a Lutheran newspaper citing Scripture to demonstrate "...the Lord creates a complete judiciary. Just as the earthly judge may not only absolve but also condemn, so the spiritual judge as well." "D" also claims Catholic confession "alien to Christian Antiquity," a charge that even Calvin denied.  Again, Klapproth reviews the exegesis, and ends with this: "...I believe that I have sufficiently demonstrated to you that confession has been practiced and maintained from the beginning of Christianity and that it is extremely rational in all of it demands, means, and goals.” Despite their deeply held disagreements, Klapproth ends this letter to "D" thus: "May God protect you!" 

There is more - much more - to these letters dealing with Purgatory, sola Scriptura (again), but especially interesting is a letter on Tolerance, about which Klapproth "lingers" in his explanation to "D." The absence of "tolerance" had a personal impact on him, and here his words ring as true in his letter of the late 19th century as they do today: " ... in the past and in the present, both in the Old and New World, there is little to detect of the infant named "tolerance" to whom 'the Reformation' is supposed to have given birth; but rather, the opposite." It was that Protestant intolerance, not its opposite, that was instrumental in setting Klapproth on his road to Rome.

I would be remiss if I did not conclude this review with Klapproth's letter entitled, "Popes and Papists, Popery and Poppycock." He confronts "D" with a dangerous situation: "For once a Protestant recognizes the total emptiness and groundlessness of the formal principle of Protestantism, he stands before a horrible dilemma." Then this: "That dilemma abandoned Christ and justified his abandonment with these words: I must accept that if God had given Revelation to men, He would also have had to take care that the sense of the Revelation would not be handed over to the arbitrariness of subjective judgment." And thereby begins Klapproth's description of a "one-church" Christianity with Peter possessing "the keys to the kingdom." "And so the Bible clearly certifies for us that Christ the Lord honored Peter before all of His Apostles and clothed him with the highest authority for His church on earth." And if Christ's Church was to last forever, the authority conferred on him would remain in place "...until the end of days..." 

While reading these letters from a century and a half ago, I wondered what Hugo Klapproth would think of the German Catholic Church today? The possible results of the recent Synodal Conference in Frankfurt alarmed even the Vatican, for they included the German Catholic Church's granting female ordination and blessing of homosexual unions. In the eyes of many observers, the Catholic Church in Germany is on "the road to schism." Perhaps Herr Klapproth would have put it another way: the Catholic Church in Germany has been Protestantized.

This book offers a spotlight into the mind of not only a brilliant Catholic convert of the late 19th century, but also his dedication to the ideas and doctrines of Catholicism. Read as a whole or in sections, one cannot help but admire the wisdom of this very devout Catholic.

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Last modified on Tuesday, April 4, 2023