There’s much talk these days about Catholics and Evangelicals drawing closer together in theology as well as in politics and social action. On the whole this is good--after all, there's much upon which we agree.
Yet openness on both sides has created problems for Catholic apologetics. When a Catholic responds to Fundamentalist charges, he's apt to be criticized by his Evangelical friends for criticizing them.
As Evangelicals see it, the Catholic apologist is guilty of making two mistakes about Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism.
First, he doesn't understand the difference between the terms. Evangelicals want to make it clear to Catholics that Fundamentalism is merely one branch of Evangelical Christianity, and the more extremist branch at that. It's inaccurate to equate Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.
Second, what is criticized by Catholics as a peculiarly Fundamentalist tenet is often indistinguishable from general Evangelical teaching. When Fundamentalists are attacked for believing, say, in justification by faith alone, the attack strikes a larger target.
For Evangelicals, what's at stake is not some Fundamentalist aberration, but the Protestant Reformation itself. They think the apparent attack on their position undermines the alliance between themselves and Catholics on social and political issues and damages efforts at theological unity among orthodox Christians.
There's truth in the first objection.
Sometimes the word Fundamentalist is used by Catholic apologists as a catch-all for any conservative Protestant position, although it's usually not due to ignorance of Evangelicalism's theological diversity.
It's just that repeating long, more precise theological labels to a largely uninitiated Catholic audience gets tedious. Imagine having to repeat the term "dispensational premillennialist" every time you want to talk about the rapture. "Fundamentalist" is much shorter, if not as accurate.
There's also something to the second objection--that Catholic apologists are really attacking the Reformation, not Fundamentalism as such. Before tackling this point, a few observations are in order.
With respect to things which might damage relations between Catholics and Evangelicals, Evangelicals operate according to a double standard.
They appreciate it when Catholics speak well of them and show openness to their forms of spirituality. They applaud when Catholics talk about Christianity in ways that include Evangelicalism. And they feel that they've reciprocated by acknowledging that Catholics, too, can be Christians.
When it comes to Catholic theology, the typical Evangelical feels unhindered about offering criticisms. Fidelity to what he perceives as the truth requires his stating forthrightly just where Rome has gone wrong.
Evangelicals and catholics are still, to use the late Francis Schaeffer's expression, "co-belligerents" in the battle against secularism. The onslaught of common enemies requires that certain issues be set aside for the moment, but Evangelical Christianity cannot permit this temporary alliance with Catholics to be misconstrued as a surrender to Rome.
At the same time, Evangelicals take umbrage when Catholics claim a similar right to criticize what appears to them to be Evangelicalism's errors. It's not that Evangelicals have no sense of fair play. They just see themselves as representing C. S. Lewis's "mere Christianity" over against the denominational particularism of the Catholic Church.
As spokesmen for Christianity in its generic sense, Evangelicals feel their version of "historic" Christianity is the norm by which all claims to religious truth are to be judged. To challenge their theology is considered tantamount to challenging Christianity itself.
Holding this position is not so bad, provided one realizes that it's a position to be defended, not a self-evident truth to be accepted. The trouble is that Evangelicals get upset when Catholics dochallenge it. They're too used to squabbling with liberal Protestantism, where it's clear they represent the more traditional and orthodox side. They're not accustomed to arguing with aggressively Catholic apologists making the same claims for Catholicism.
In a sense, it's like the experience of a star minor league ballplayer suddenly thrust into the majors. In the minors he sat comfortably on the top; now he must struggle against players who are his equals--or his betters.
What about the objection that Catholic apologists aren't merely refuting over-zealous Fundamentalists, but attacking the Reformation itself? There is a sense in which Fundamentalism or, more broadly, Evangelicalism really is the true heir to the Reformation. In many ways mainline Protestantism has abandoned the faith of the Reformers. If a Catholic wants to argue about historical Protestantism, he's got to find an Evangelical or a Fundamentalist to argue with.
Does this amount to anti-Protestantism? Not in the bigoted sense.
But remember, the thinking Catholic is a Catholic precisely because he doesn't accept Protestantism's peculiar tenets. Likewise, the intelligent Protestant doesn't accept uniquely Catholic doctrines--if he did, he'd join the Roman Church.
A positive assertion implies its contrary is false. To be a Catholic is to reject, at least tacitly, the Protestant Reformation, just as to be Protestant means thinking Rome is mistaken in its claims.
Of course, there are degrees of opposition on both sides. A Protestant needn't think Catholicism is the whore of Babylon. He can admit there's something to be learned from Catholic theologians and saints.
A Catholic needn't deny some reform was needed in the sixteenth-century Church. He can acknowledge there were (and are) holy men and women in the Protestant camp from whom Catholics can learn.
And both Catholics and Protestants can agree that much of what Catholics and Protestants disagree about is reducible to differences in terminology. For those who believe contemporary Christianity's denominational apartheid (to use Christopher Derrick's expression) is against God's will, this is encouraging.
When all is said and done, though, an honest man remains a Catholic or a Protestant because he thinks his position is true and the alternative is false.
This means that, although Catholics and Protestants hold much in common, the restoration of Christian unity will require a rigorous, though charitable, discussion of real points of disagreement. Catholics and Protestants will make progress toward authentic unity only when our differences as well as our similarities are faced squarely.
Unity can come only from a frank conversation, and we owe the truth and each other the best arguments we can muster.