The influence of Protestant theology in the post-Reformation period was very wide ranging and had a broader societal impact than many realize. And in the Catholic response to the Reformation there was too much emphasis put upon maintaining the purity of ritual and loyalty and too little upon cultural "infiltration". As a result, a central conceit of Protestant theology became so entrenched culturally that it influenced Catholic theology for 200 years. Indeed, much of the theological work of Vatican II was aimed at reversing this trend, a trend that was most deeply ingrained in North America. With its waves of immigration and lack of traditional territorial and societal distance between Protestant and Catholic, it was relatively easy for this idea to seep into American culture in general.
And since I don't want to be coy, I'll come right out and say it - this error is the mental and emotional separation of religion from 'the real world'.
The origin of this error is Luther's hysterical insistence that works are worthless, that only inner faith is important in religious life. He based his edition of the Old Testament on the Hebrew Canon of the council of Jamnia rather than upon the Septuagint specifically to bolster his case against works. Indeed, his first version of the New Testament omitted the Book of James because it directly refutes this separation of works from faith (he replaced it after a hue and cry from his own supporters).
Why does this matter a hill of beans, ask you? Especially to the non-theologians and the non-religious in the audience? Simple - it has affected the way you think. Yes, you - the atheist anarcho-capitalist sitting at his PC. And the pagan war protestor at a mac. And almost everyone else in the industrialized West. Let me explain why.
The concept that faith alone, meaning only the interior spiritual life, matters at all to God means that works are useless on a spiritual plane. This demands that the world of spirituality is separate from the physical world, a sort of dual reality where God, morals, ethics, faith, and religion are 'over that way' and houses, jobs, cars, and checking accounts are 'over this way'. It is a mental and emotional compatmentalization of the spiritual and the physical, a separation of the sacred and the secular that you find in almost no other religion in history. And it has had serious implications to the culture and politics of the lands where it has held sway.
After World War II the Catholic Church was deeply concerned about several issues. One of the most troubling issues was the number of Catholics that had simply 'looked the other way' during the horrors of the Holocaust. Yes, many worked and even fought against the Holocaust including the Pope (I'll talk about the misinformation about the Church and the Holocaust some other time), so many that a significant number of the 12 million slaughtered by the Holocaust were Catholics, especially priests, monks, and nuns. (Think the Holocaust killed 6 million people? Nope - 12 million: 6 million Jews and another 6 million 'undesirables', mainly Gypsies, Slavs, Catholics, and homosexuals). Indeed, for a time Auschwitz was de facto the largest monastery in Europe.
So how could so many Catholics ignore or even abet such a terrible atrocity, even when it was to some extent aimed at Catholicism? They concluded that many Catholics thought of religion as 'other there', a small element of their lives restricted to Sunday Mass, Easter, and Ash Wednesday, while going to work, cleaning the dishes, and obeying the government were part of 'the real world' and never the twain shall meet. The researchers went on to conclude that this dualistic thinking was probably behind most of the acquiescence to the atrocities of fascism. The researchers went on to figure out how to make sure this stopped. During this phase of research and thelogical inquiry they used a great deal of the works of modern Transcendental Thomist theologians to address this serious problem, eventually resulting in Vatican II and its reforms aimed at reminding Catholics that religion is life.
How does this abtract concept affect me, you ask? What do the moral failings of European Catholics 60 years ago have to do with me, who would never do such a thing? More than you think. Along with this separation of the sacred from the secular came the concept that science and religion are incompatible, that they must conflict. This is a rather new idea. The two main forms of non-Euclidian geometry were developed by Catholic monks in the Middle Ages. The groundwork in heredity that is the foundation of genetic research was performed by a Catholic monk. The translation of the Greek and Roman classics into local languages were done by monls and priests who loved the ideas within them and wanted to preserve and share them. Indeed, until the last hundred years or so, virtually every college, university, and major library in the western world was founded by religious institutions interested in science. The first observatory still exists on the grounds of the Vatican where a pope had it made for the study of this new 'astronomy' gig.
But if this has nothing to do with God, what value is it to a religious person? Many who accepted the separation of the sacred from the secular said 'nothing'. This led to the long series of conflicts between religious believers and scientists that continue to this day, mainly over evolution. The Catholic Church, by the way, officially is of the position that evolution is not contrary to the faith, meaning that it has little if anything to do with religion, it doesn't say the bible, et. al., is wrong, etc. Another effect of this division is the distrust many 'rational' people have of faith and the complimentary distrust of 'rationality' by the faithful. Until this conceptual schizophrenia crept in, reason and faith were seen as complimentary to each other and incomplete alone.
In addition to placing religion apart from science, this idea also leads to the concept of morals and ethics being something from 'over there' that must be imposed 'over here'. Or even worse assigning morals and ethics to only the secular world. "Why worse?" you ask? Because once you do that you are almost forced to eventually conclude that there is no abolute moral or ethical code and, thus, no way to judge what is good and what is evil, or what is ethical and what is ethically corrupt. So either morals are part of a compartment divorced from the 'real world' or they are as individual as favorite brands of beer and just as influential in society.
Am I saying everyone must be Catholic to live an intergrated life? Nope. I am, of course, of the opinion that it is easier to live an integrated life as a Catholic, but it is not an iron-clad prerequisite.
What I am saying is that we cannot continue to consider morals, ethics, and spirituality to be separate from everyday life. Humans are inherently moral beings with a yearning for the spiritual and divorcing the two concepts results in a state almost schizophrenic in the turmoil it can bring to a person. We must realize that there is an absolute truth that can be known, there are indeed actions that are inherently immoral and unethical and that results will never justify their use as means. And we must understand that the spirit and the body are one thing, not separate; that our spiritual life is our physical life and vice versa.
Let me leave you with an image, an image that raised a lot of questions in my mind when I first read it. The leadership of the Nazi party loved opera. Shortly after the meeting that formalized the Final Solution for the extermination of European Jewry it is reported that those same Nazis attended an opera. And it is further reported that they all cried during the death scene. How is it possible to plan the systemized slaughter of millions of innocent men, women, and children as part of your job and then cry at the death of a fictional character?