Saint Bernard: Unlikely Patron of Christian Unity

Less than a century after the Great Schism rent Christendom, the church in the West suffered a lesser-known split. The Roman Catholic Church had two claimants to the papacy, Innocent II and Anacletus II, each selected by rival cardinals upon the death of Pope Honorius II in 1130. To settle the dispute, King Louis VI and the French bishops called up Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, a monk renowned for his piety even among his fellow Cistercians. The Cistercians were a relatively new religious order marked by its strict adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict. Bernard ruled in favor of Innocent, settled the French council, and within a few years had encouraged most of the temporal and ecclesiastical powers of Europe to support his pick.

By 1134, Bernard had persuaded the French holdout Duke William X of Aquitaine to accept Pope Innocent, but William refused to restore the bishops that he had deposed during the schism. When Bernard ultimately dealt with this lingering intransigence, he showed up armed. According to the account of one of Bernard’s friends, the frail, red-bearded priest sallied from Mass wielding the host on a paten, daring the Duke to persist in his error in the presence of the Lord.[1] William collapsed in a seizure, and Bernard touched him, empowered him to rise, and accepted his restitution of a bishop at the scene. 

As we celebrate the Week of Christian Unity, a more serious fracture in western Christendom remains unlikely to be healed by decree or diplomacy. Bernard’s aggressive style may seem particularly ill suited to restoring relations between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Yet, we can look to Bernard as a model for today’s efforts to reunite Catholics and Protestants in spite of—and sometimes because of—the abbot’s relentless approach. His life and work exemplify the old saying of uncertain provenance, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” First, Bernard’s quest for unity was apparent in his dogged pursuit of those he considered to be perishing in error, whether as partisans of the antipope or as adherents of alien doctrines. Second, he espoused important theological positions that both Catholics and Protestants are at liberty to accept. And third, both his reputation for holiness and his writings on love show how both sides can grow together in truth. 

In Essentials Unity

Bernard’s vision for Christian unity was profoundly ambitious. His ultimate goal was evangelistic; he endeavored to bring all the heretic “foxes”—his imagery borrowed from the Song of Songs—back to his church.[2] The medievalist G. R. Evans argued that Bernard did not enjoy controversy but that he engaged in polemics to save souls from the threat of heresy.[3] For Bernard, truth was the means of achieving unity, not something to be sacrificed for unity’s sake. The late Princeton Seminary President James McCord’s quip “choose heresy [over schism] every time” would have been incomprehensible to the abbot.

Bernard worked to reunite those separated from the Church by pursuing his opponents with vigorous debate. His chief tool was the source of authority all Protestants share with Rome: Scripture. One of 36 doctors of the Catholic Church, Bernard is known as the “Mellifluous Doctor” for his prose. His prose is beautiful because it is so replete with scriptural imagery. Even the most biblically literate readers will have a hard time knowing where Bernard ends and the Bible begins—even though some Protestants may wince at Bernard’s wide-ranging allegorical hermeneutic.

Now, arguing our respective sides may seem like a naïve program for ecumenism, if not an impossible cause. We have tried that one. And, except for a few Catholics who convert from Evangelicalism and Protestant fundamentalists who think all Catholics are going to hell, no one is trying to proselytize anyone anymore. The zero-sum approach of mutual evangelism might peel off a few defections from each side but could quickly lead to a new equilibrium of division.

These are solid arguments. But conceding the case that neither side is going to “win out” by attracting mass conversions, we can still point out some benefits of the kind of debate that persuades some to switch sides. It is hard to deny that conversion within the fold of greater Christianity has edified individual souls whose faith lacked vitality within their former traditions. Witness the intellectual legacy of Catholic converts from Anglicanism and the deep piety of Evangelicals in Latin America. Healthy competition can help us corporately, as well. “Sheep stealing” might not be so bad if it encourages us to sharpen our doctrines and clean up our acts. Moreover, mutual evangelism may keep us from growing further apart. Arguably, Catholics and Protestants had more in common doctrinally in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when we had each other’s heads on pikes. Since then, we have not fought as much, but like a contentedly divorced couple, we have not talked much, either. We have forgotten what we share because we have evolved separately, missing out on opportunities to clarify each other’s ideas.  

Before considering Bernard’s thought, we must clarify that the abbot was nothing less than a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church. He was canonized only 20 years after his death. He had a profound devotion to Mary, illustrated in his meditation on the Virgin as “Star of the Sea.” Evans writes, “his fundamental theological assumptions are entirely conventional . . . He rocked no boats.”[4] The concepts of sola fide and sola scriptura would have been foreign to Bernard, the idea of salvation outside the Catholic Church unthinkable. Some of the heretics he viewed as threats to the Church, such as the proto-Anabaptist Henry of Lausanne, could be described as Protestant forerunners. Henry’s rejection of priests, infant baptism, pilgrimages, feast days, and the invocation of the saints scandalized Bernard.   

In Non-Essentials Liberty

Strictly speaking, Bernard did not leave us any “non-essentials” that we can freely hold in tension with each other. He gave us something more: articles of faith that both sides can embrace. Some themes in his thought were remarkably consonant with those of the Reformation; Luther regarded Bernard as a Church Father and “the most pious of all monks.” Because Bernard remained faithful to the theology of his day, we must conclude that any doctrines that Protestants can find in this Doctor of the Church’s writing are not matters on which Rome has to compromise. Rather, they are issues both sides can take off the table because they already have them in common.

Bernard’s famous dispute with Peter Abelard over the atonement of Christ provides the most salient example of a doctrine both sides can support. In this controversy, Bernard comes off sounding more like an Evangelical than a twenty-first century Roman Catholic. Bernard took issue with Abelard’s position—in part a straw man that Bernard and his allies had devised—that Christ had died merely as an example for the human race. Bernard stressed one principle within his own multifaceted theology of the atonement as non-negotiable: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross-saved souls. Anthony Lane’s book collating Bernard’s writings on the cross shows remarkable links between Bernard’s language and the Protestant theology of substitutionary atonement.[5] Bernard insisted that Jesus bore the punishment of sinners and that his blood paid a price. He even used the phrase “alien righteousness,” which Luther would pick up later. Incidentally, the late Jesuit theologian Edward T. Oakes attributed the same position to the most recent doctor of the Catholic Church, St. Therese—the “Little Flower” of Lisieux.[6]

Pope St. John Paul II understood the importance of a common doctrine of atonement. In his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, John Paul quoted a homily he had given after listening to a meditation by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on Good Friday. The only way to prevent the world from denying the cross’s power to bestow new life, he said, was for Christians to profess the same truth about the cross (Ut Unum Sint, § 1).  

Lutherans and Reformed Protestants in many denominations will appreciate Bernard’s positions on sin and grace. The phrase “there is no health in us” in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s general confession is actually a quotation of Bernard.[7]

Bernard espoused a symmetrically high theology of grace in his book On Grace and Free Choice.[8] Although he used the term “cooperating”—rejected by the Reformers—to describe man’s interaction with grace, he argued that man could not choose the good without grace. Free will, or as Bernard termed it, “free choice,” meant that man was not compelled; it did not mean that alternative options were open to him. Man did the choosing, but without grace would pick evil every time. Bernard asked, “What part, then, does free choice play?’ I shall answer you in one word: it is saved . . . Take away grace and there is no means of saving.”[9] Such a view of man’s will is consistent with that of Calvin, who, citing St. Augustine, joked that free will without grace would be more accurately labeled  “freedom . . . from righteousness.”[10]     

Calvin also quoted Bernard favorably on the topic of assurance of salvation.[11] For Bernard, as for Calvin, faith was the basis for this assurance. Bernard received the witness of the Holy Spirit that he was indeed a child of God. Showing a blend of Catholic and Protestant sensibilities, Bernard in one of his sermons on the Song of Songs related a fleeting mystical instance of this testimony of the Spirit by marveling that “[Every sin] which he has agreed not to impute to me is as though it had not been.”[12]

Finally, Protestants uncomfortable with religious images will appreciate St. Bernard’s aesthetic taste. In his diatribe against what he regarded as opulence among the Cluniac brethren the Cistercians had left to found their own community, Bernard criticized extravagant proportions, sculpture, and paintings in ecclesiastical architecture.[13] Bernard was no iconoclast—he permitted simple crucifixes—but regarded religious art as a distraction to Cistercian devotion. Bernard was not a philistine, either. Cistercian buildings are beautiful by virtue of their refined simplicity. Moreover, as hundreds of Cistercian houses sprung up across Europe built by Cistercian architects such as Bernard’s brother Gerard, the use of the new pointed arch spread, ironically making possible the soaring structures that culminated in the elaborate High Gothic style of the following century. 

Catholics and Protestants can generate goodwill by recognizing the validity of positions such as these. Although none of us may ever understand exactly how the atonement “works,” Catholics can reduce suspicion among Protestants by affirming that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is consistent with Catholic thought. The Council of Trent may prevent Rome from explicitly affirming Reformed doctrines of grace, but Catholics can certainly stand with the Reformation in recognizing sola gratia and our common view that no good choice comes without grace. On the Protestant side, while some Protestants may continue to eschew icons, they can recognize with Bernard that images have their place. Bernard granted that secular clergy used religious art to glorify God and to stir the devotion of those with weak faith.[14]

Can Protestants also tolerate the intercession of the saints? Evangelicals in particular are quick to pray for each other and to claim that deceased Christians are in heaven. If they cannot believe that the church triumphant is listening to the prayers of the church militant, they can at least admit that the idea is within the bounds of orthodoxy. Even Luther had a devotion to Mary, although he was uncomfortable with the idea of her intercession. 

Skeptics may argue that the strategies of evangelizing each other’s flocks and finding common ground are incompatible. They also may charge that they are impractical. To address the allegation of incompatibility, we can say that what the two approaches share is a commitment to truth rather than compromise. Again, the more conciliatory approach does not mean compromising on doctrines but on embracing truths forgotten in our traditions. The objection of impracticality is harder to address, because the suspicion engendered by the former approach could undermine the goodwill of the latter. To answer, we must turn back to the third part of the quotation we began with: “in all things charity.” 

In All Things Charity

Catholics and Protestants agree on the need for sanctification. Sanctification may be instrumental for the salvation of Catholics and evidential for Protestants, but it is incidental for neither. Sanctity, of course, means charity, and it is only in charity that we can combine criticism of each other’s doctrines with a search for truths to embrace together. A charitable approach means—sometimes contra Bernard—standing down before debates get ugly and our arguments unintentionally hurt our opponents. Catholic and Protestant polemicists may relish using the fathers to attack their opponents’ theology rather than to find doctrine they can embrace together. In the sixteenth century, Calvin notoriously declared, “Augustine . . . is totally ours.”

Such triumphalism continues to reign in Internet arguments that not only drive us apart but also weaken our common witness to the world. Evangelism, then, becomes a result of successful ecumenism as well as a condition. Jesus prayed after the Last Supper and before his arrest “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

With love, Bernard welcomed his Church’s lost sheep back into the fold. The biographer monk Arnold of Bonneval reports that Bernard after bringing William of Aquitaine back around spoke “familiarly and kindly” with the Duke and admonished him “in a fatherly way.”[15] Indeed, Bernard reprimanded with so much care that those he corrected often became devoted to him. The abbot’s reputation for charity, miracles, and conflict resolution swarmed him with supplicants and left him longing for much of his life to return to contemplation and prayer.

Beyond these practical matters, Bernard’s theology of love offers a more powerful source of achieving Christian unity. In his little tract On the Love of God, Bernard explains that love is the path to union with God.[16] The late, great philosopher and historian Etienne Gilson described Bernard’s ontology and his epistemology as mutually dependent.[17] In other words, Bernard believed that the more the soul became like God (in love), the better it would know him. Perfect charity is perfect knowledge; union with God is union in truth. In math terms, Bernard presents us a kind of transitive property of charity—we approach each other’s theology by approaching God in love. The achievement of this ambitious goal will transcend the arithmetic of defections to one side or another. The result is also certain to surprise us, just as Joshua must have been when he asked the angel commanding the Lord’s army whose side he was on (Josh 5:13-14).

To pull this off, Catholics and Protestants need each other. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we must be objects of each other’s love. Each side also needs the other’s spiritual gifts. Bernard extolled the charisms of diverse religious orders and vocations by reflecting on the typology of Joseph’s coat of many colors and Jesus’s seamless undergarment at the cross. From the rich translation of the Cistercian monk Michael Casey:

To his Bride, the Church, he left his own robe as a pledge of her inheritance, a many-colored robe, woven from top to bottom. It is many-colored because of the many different orders that are distinguished within it; it is seamless because of the undivided unity of a love that cannot be torn apart, as it is written: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?”[18]

Is it too much of a stretch to consider how the same coat comprises the vivid hues of Catholic and Protestant Christians? 

On both sides of the divide, Western Christians have given ecumenism up for dead. Yet, because grace draws us to a common end in love and truth, we have no grounds for despair. We know that the Son has asked the Father to unite us. We can take comfort in his promise to intercede for us still. Some of us, of course, will see opportunities to appeal to even more advocates in heaven. Let us agree, then, that it cannot hurt for Roman Catholics to add, “St. Bernard of Clairvaux, pray for us.”

[1] William of St. Thierry et al., The First Life of Bernard of Clairvaux, Cistercian Fathers Series, Number seventy-six (Athens, Ohio : Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Publications ; Liturgical Press, 2015), 120–21.

[2]  St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Cantica Canticorum: Eighty-Six Sermons on the Song of Solomon trans. Samuel John Eales (E. Stock, 1895), sermon 64.8.

[3] G. R. Evans, Bernard of Clairvaux, Great Medieval Thinkers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 112–14.

[4] Evans, 72.

[5] A. N. S. Lane, Bernard of Clairvaux, Theologian of the Cross, Cistercian Studies Series, no. 248 (Trappist, Ky: Cistercian Publications ; Collegeville, Minn. : Liturgical Press, 2013), 197–98.

[6] Edward T. Oakes, S.J., "Are Protestants Heretics?" First Things, December 19, 2007,

[7] Church of England, ed., The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Church of England, 1st. American ed (New York: H. Holt, 1992), 33.

[8] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio, trans. Daniel O'Donovan, OCSO (Oxford; Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1988).

[9] Bernard, De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio, 54.

[10] Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1989), 2.2.8.

[11] Calvin, 3.13.4.

[12] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Cantica Canticorum: Eighty-Six Sermons on the Song of Solomon, sermon 23.15.

[13] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Cistercians and Cluniacs: St. Bernard’s Apologia to Abbot William, trans. Michael Casey, OCSO (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1991), 63–66.

[14] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Cistercians and Cluniacs, 64.

[15] William of St. Thierry et al., 121.

[16] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Love of God (Gideon House Books, 2016).

[17] Etienne Gilson, The Mystical Theology of Saint Bernard (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 2008).

[18] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Cistercians and Cluniacs, 40.

Featured Image: Alexandro Loarte, Milagro de San Bernard, 1620; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Charles Ridley

Charles Ridley is native son of the Bible Belt who has spent nearly half his life in majority Catholic cities and countries. He is an officer in the US Foreign Service.

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