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"Evangelicals and Catholics Together": A Year Later

A year ago forty Catholics and Evangelicals issued a statement entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” I scanned the document quickly, with little enthusiasm. I was more interested in the names of the signatories, especially the Catholics. A distinguished list indeed–no “cafeteria Catholics” there.

From time to time I’ve seen brief references to the statement, but little serious response by Catholics. Some Evangelicals have criticized it for what they regard as smoothing over deep doctrinal differences they have with Catholicism.

Recently my editor asked me to write a “one year later” article about ECT. Now I had to read the document carefully. What I wrote was critical and unappreciative, with some praise for ECT’s statements about cultural and ethical issues. But the article was very difficult to write. The finished product read as though each sentence had been dragged out of the computer with a big pair of pliers. I turned it over to the editor with a note, “I’m tired of this!” Later, he told me the article sounded tired.

Early the next day, in prayer, almost as a distraction, the article came to mind. Immediately followed a flood of thoughts about Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, my own experiences and those of others in dialogue, and the official reports of dialogues I have studied over the years. Then back to ECT. I began to see the statement in an entirely different light. I thought I knew why the article had been so difficult to write. The Holy Spirit must have been saying to me, “You dummy! You’re missing the real point!”

The new light in which I now see ECT focuses on the section “We Contend Together.” It says that in recent years there has been “a growing convergence and cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics” in the carrying out of their “public responsibilities.” Then follows a discussion of social, cultural, and moral issues in which the signatories declare themselves bound to keep contending together. The more significant are these:

1. Strong emphasis on moral truth as the essential basis for politics, for law, for culture.

2. Insistence that virtue “is secured by religion.”

3. Commitment to efforts “to secure the legal protection of the unborn” and “to resist proposals for euthanasia, eugenics, and population control that exploit the vulnerable, corrupt the integrity of medicine, deprave our culture, and betray the moral truths of our constitutional order.” ECT notes that involvement in the pro-life movement has brought Catholics and Evangelicals closer.

4. Demand for moral education in public schools and for freedom of choice for parents in selecting schools for their children.

5. Condemnation of pornography in entertainment and in art.

6. Call for “a renewed appreciation of Western culture” combined with condemnation of a “multiculturalism” which affirms “all cultures but our own.”

The fact that Evangelicals and Catholics have this common ground is certainly known to all informed persons. What makes this declaration of principles ecumenically unique is that it arises out of common theological affirmations.

But first a bit of background.

Near the endof Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism there is a suggestion that “the ecumenical dialogue could start with the moral application of the Gospel.” All my copies of the Decree have exclamation points in the margin beside this passage. In over thirty years since the Council, all the ecumenical dialogues in which the Church has been involved have scrupulously avoided moral issues.

During Pope John Paul’s first visit to this country after his elevation, he spoke to a gathering of ecumenical leaders at Trinity College in Washington, D.C. In his brief remarks, some ecumenists said, the Pope dropped a “bombshell.” The “bombshell”? He had simply and briefly stated that ecumenical dialogue must involve moral issues. Doctrinal agreement, he said, would mean little without agreement in morality.

Since that time ecumenical bomb-disposal squads have carefully excluded explosive moral issues from dialogue meeting rooms. One of my priest-friends who had been involved in dialogue with Episcopalians was an ecumenical guest some years ago at a triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. (The Convention is the national governing body composed of a House of Deputies, clergy and laity representatives, and a House of Bishops.) During a session of the House of Bishops, he heard a discussion of dialogue with the Catholic Church. A bishop proposed that the scope of the dialogue be extended to include the subject of abortion. Another bishop objected immediately: “Let’s not get into that can of worms!” The subject was dropped. Permanently.

Less than a year later, in a Catholic-Episcopal dialogue in his diocese, my friend encountered the same attitude. A member tried to introduce moral issues into the agenda and was rebuffed by an Episcopal member who used the identical words my friend had heard in the House of Bishops.

The Episcopalians are not alone in avoiding moral issues. All the published reports of Catholic dialogue with non-Catholic groups which I have seen are squeaky-clean with regard to matters of morality. Where were the Catholic delegates when the agendas were planned?

Why make an issue out of this? Think about the pope’s “bombshell” again. Suppose Catholic and Episcopal theologians announce they have reached an agreement on some doctrine or on several doctrines. They say that Catholics and Episcopalians subscribe to the same beliefs in these particular areas. (Never mind the fact that there is no official Episcopal doctrine or magisterium to say what that doctrine means. Forget the fact that in dialogue non-Catholics in general can speak only for themselves as individuals.)

Then up comes the subject of a moral issue on which the Catholic Church has clear teaching. Take abortion as an example. Immediately you see contradictions between what Episcopalians hold and what the Catholic Church teaches. What shall we say about the doctrinal agreement the dialogue group claims to have achieved? So far as advancing unity is concerned, it has little value. So long as its General Convention maintains its pro-abortion stance, the Episcopal Church can never come together with the Catholic Church.

“By their fruits you shall know them.” When ecumenists claim to have reached doctrinal agreements and then gag on basic moral issues, we can be certain their agreements are purely academic. Agreement on moral matters can act as a gauge of the reality of doctrinal agreement. “Faith [doctrinal consensus] without works [moral consensus] is dead.”

Let’s call ECT an ecumenical consultation rather than a dialogue, since the signatories came together on their own initiative. To the best of my knowledge, ECT is the first and only ecumenical consultation involving Catholics which has produced a statement of moral consensus. This immediately distinguishes it from all the preceding consultations and dialogues.

Now for the doctrinal sections of ECT, which comprise two-thirds of the document.

In the published reports of Catholic-Lutheran, Catholic-Episcopal, and other dialogues, the non-Catholic participants are generally much more forthright in stating their beliefs than are the Catholics, especially where there are real differences. I have often wondered why Catholic members do not state Catholic teaching on controverted issues more plainly. Nowhere in all the literature about dialogue which I have studied have I found a Catholic statement which can compare in strength with that contained in ECT.

After listing a number of areas in which Catholics and Protestants are divided, the document continues: ” On these questi ons, and other questions implied by them, Evangelicals hold that the Catholic Church has gone beyond Scripture, adding teachings and practices that detract from or compromise the gospel of God’s saving grace in Christ.”

Now ponder this Catholic rejoinder: “Catholics, in turn, hold that such teachings and practices are grounded in Scripture and belong to the fullness of God’s revelation. Their rejection, Catholics say, results in a truncated and reduced understanding of the Christian reality.”

From both Evangelicals and Catholics, this is strong, honest. Spiritual and moral strength always begets respect, which is one of the basic goals of ecumenical dialogue. Accurate expression of differing traditions puts all the doctrinal cards on the table. Now the game can go on with a full deck and not with some cards put aside (as happens in other dialogues).

The participants in ECT, and especially the Catholics, have set a new standard of candor which other Catholic ecumenists must emulate. I have seen this candor exemplified by my favorite ecumenist. (I hope he will not be embarrassed by this.)

It was my privilege to participate in the early dialogues between representatives of our bishops’ Ecumenical Committee and groups of Southern Baptist theologians and denominational leaders. Our most forthright member was also the most effective in clarifying Catholic teaching for the Baptists and in earning their respect and affection.

Again and again I saw him intervene enthusiastically with “I see your point, but you’ve got to remember that the Catholic Church teaches so-and-so, and for these reasons,” or words to that effect. Not once did I sense a Baptist delegate taking offense at his contributions. Indeed, he was clearly the favorite of the Baptist representatives.

That man is not unknown today. Back then he was Monsignor, then he was Bishop, now he is Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston. I have no way of knowing how Catholic signatories of ECT interacted with their Evangelical counterparts. The document itself does reflect a positive and effective ecumenical stance like that of Cardinal Law.

ECT begins with a conventional note of ecumenical caution: “This statement cannot speak officially for our communities. It does intend to speak responsibly from our communities and to our communities.” In speaking to the signatories’ various communities, ECT invites responses.

In addition to the appreciation already expressed, I offer a few suggestions.

The word “church” necessarily occurs repeatedly in the document. It is an ecumenically troublesome word. In any dialogue, representatives of various traditions naturally bring differing contents to this word. This can make their affirmations subject to misinterpretation.

A basic affirmation made by ECT is this: “However imperfect our communion with one another, however deep our disagreements with one another, we recognize that there is but one church of Christ. There is one church because there is one Christ and the church is his body.”

These words call to Catholic minds magisterial statements such as those in section 8 of the Constitution on the Church. The Mystical Body of Christ and the Catholic Church form “one complex reality.” Again, “the sole Church of Christ” was entrusted by Christ to Peter’s pastoral care. The church Christ established “subsists in the Catholic Church governed by Peter’s successors and the bishops in communion with him.”

We can assume that Evangelical signatories such as Bill Bright and J.I. Packer did not have these statements in mind when they spoke of “church.” The word is inevitably ambiguous since each tradition represented in the consultation has its own content for the word.

This declaration about the “one church” freely concedes at the outset that the participants have deep disagreements. The statement could have added, “even about the content of the phrase ‘one church.'” This recognition might have protected the signatories from some of the criticism (mainly from Evangelicals) that ECT erroneously implies a degree of doctrinal unity which does not exist.

At other points some clarification of meaning would be helpful. “We further affirm together that Christ has promised to his church the gift of the Holy Spirit who will lead us into all truth in discerning and declaring the teaching of scripture (John 16).” When hundreds of Evangelical denominations are deeply divided among themselves and divided from the Catholic Church on key issues, in what sense is the Holy Spirit leading “us” into all truth?

ECT “confidently acknowledge[s] the guidance of the Holy Spirit” in instances such as the formation of the canon of Scripture, the hammering out of Christological and Trinitarian doctrine in early centuries, the formulation of the Apostles’ Creed “as an accurate statement of scriptural truth. . . .”

For Catholic signatories these are affirmations about a specific institution (the Catholic Church) which was led by the Holy Spirit to do these very things. At the same time, Evangelical signatories credit to “the church” they have in mind these same accomplishments. Yet in the sense of a visible institution, the “church” to which the Evangelicals belong did not exist when these momentous events occurred. Many Evangelicals hold that the true church is the invisible church known only to God. But the events affirmed in the preceding paragraph were the actions of a historical entity. Could this ambiguity have been cleared up to some extent?

A section entitled “We Search Together” lists several differences in terms of apparent antinomies. The wording of some of the antinomies could be made more accurate:

1. “The church as local congregation or universal communion.” These words seem to contrast the Evangelical emphasis (the first) with the Catholic emphasis (the second). The suggestion of an either/or is misleading. In Catholic teaching the Church is both local congregation and universal communion.

2. “Ministry ordered in apostolic succession or the priesthood of all believers.” In context these words imply that Catholics hold the former, Evangelicals the latter. Certainly Catholics affirm the former, but, in the true sense of the phrase, they equally affirm the latter. The present wording obscures this fact.

3. “Remembrance of Mary and the saints or devotion to Mary and the saints.” Stating what seems to be the Catholic alternative as “devotion to Mary and the saints” does not clearly address the real issue. Evangelicals condemn Catholics not for being devoted to Mary and the saints, but for seeking their intercession.

ECT courageously addresses the question of “proselytizing”: ” Today, in this country and elsewhere, Evangelicals and Catholics attempt to win ‘converts’ from one another’s folds. In some ways, this is perfectly understandable and perhaps inevitable. In many instances, however, such efforts at recruitment undermine the Christian mission by which we are bound by God’s Word and to which we have recommitted ourselves in this statement.” The instances referred to are evidently instances of proselytizing.

ECT acknowledges that “[i]t is understandable that Christians who bear witness to the gospel try to persuade others that their communities and traditions are more fully in accord with the gospel.” Then it adds, “There is a necessary distinction between evangelizing and what is today commonly called proselytizing or ‘sheep stealing.'”

Proselytizing is defined as “recruiting people from another community for purposes of denominational or institutional aggrandizement.” The definition requires clarification. What constitutes “recruiting people”? Is not the purpose of all sincere Christian witness to “recruit,” if by that you mean per suading others to join the witness’s community? “Denominational or institutional aggrandizement” is also a puzzling phrase. Each time the Church receives a new member she is “aggrandized” in the sense of being enriched.

ECT offers three general comments on the subject of proselytizing.

1. “[A]s much as we might believe one community is more fully in accord with the gospel than another, we as Evangelicals and Catholics affirm that opportunity and means for growth in Christian discipleship are available in our several communities.”

Taken by itself, this passage reflects the teaching of Vatican II that the various Christian traditions are communities of salvation. This does not contradict the dogma that all salvation ultimately is through the Catholic Church, but, in the context of ECT’s strictures on proselytizing, this passage might be interpreted as saying that since salvation is available in all the Christian communities anyway, why proselytize?

2. “[T]he decision of the committed Christian with respect to his communal allegiance and participation must be assiduously respected.” How does one do this? What is “assiduous respect”? Does this sentence mean that we must not witness to a person who is active in his own tradition?

3. “[I]n view of the large number of non-Christians in the world and the enormous challenge of our common evangelistic task, it is neither theologically legitimate nor a prudent use of resources for one Christian community to proselytize among active adherents of another Christian community.”

Now enters the devil’s advocate. Suppose the Evangelical a Catholic helps to enter the Church turns out to be a Scott Hahn or a Steve Wood who evangelizes large numbers of other persons. From the Catholic perspective, this would be a quite prudent use of resources.

ECT sets a very high standard for whatever witnessing we are permitted to do. It condemns “the practice of comparing the strengths and ideals of one community with the weaknesses and failures of another.” While one’s witness must be positive, one can hardly avoid doing some of what ECT declares is forbidden.

It seems to me impossible to distinguish “evangelizing” from “proselytizing” in terms acceptable to Catholics and Evangelicals. Subjective interpretation of the terms is inevitable.

A Catholic starts (or should start) with the conviction that the Catholic Church alone is the true Church of Christ. It is not one of the competing denominations. Therefore, he can argue, seeking to bring others (Christian and non-Christian alike) into the Church can only be “evangelizing.”

An Evangelical might not make the same claim about his own denomination, but he can argue that bringing other Christians as well as non-Christians into his denomination is evangelizing, not proselytizing, because there they can find the purest form of the gospel.

I could list other requests for clarification. It is easy to point out weaknesses in a statement like ECT, but it is difficult to hammer out the finished product. Catholics and Evangelicals alike are indebted to this group of outstanding leaders and theologians. For reasons given earlier, they must be regarded as ecumenical pioneers. Like all pioneers, they challenge us to advance farther along the path which they have charted.

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