Our Kind of Ecumenism: Why Catholics need to be More Evangelical and Vice Versa

The scene is becoming a commonplace: scores, or even hundreds, of people silently sitting or busily marching before a hospital or an abortion clinic (euphemistically called a “women’s health clinic” by its proprietors). If the people are marching, they may have signs that read variously: “Abortion Is Murder,” “Stop the Killing,” or “Choose Life.” Among this crowd one may hear calls and pleas imploring women not to pass through these doors; that there are alternatives to abortion; that they should not kill their unborn babies. If they are sitting, a la Operation Rescue, one sees that, by and large, the people are all of one mind and method: they are praying quietly or silently that God will bless their efforts and that the lives of the innocent will be spared.

But if we look more closely and listen more attentively, we begin to notice that there are slight differences in the way various people are praying, or the things they are saying to the people passing by. Among the marchers, some are saying things like: “repent from your sins, and be baptized” or “Jesus saves.” Among the sitters one hears the low sound of many quiet prayers, some rambling and repetitious and, like snowflakes, no two alike. But other voices from within either group suddenly become distinct if we listen closely. Among the marchers one may hear the rhythmic and harmonious sound of the Lord’s Prayer (or as this group would call it, the “Our Father”). Among the sitters one may hear the tinkling of glass beads and something that sounds suspiciously like prayers to “Holy Mary, Mother of God.”

In some ways each of these sub-groups makes the other a bit nervous. The first group is somewhat wary about the latter’s habit of pulling out strings of rosary beads and “praying to” someone other than God the Father. Obversely, the rosary-toters are a bit embarrassed by shouts of “Jesus saves,” and they are not quite sure what “you must be born again” really means. On Sunday morning one group may well be taught that their compatriots on the picket line are in big trouble in the cosmic scheme of things: they pray to idols, think that they crucify Christ weekly, and believe that one man speaks with the authority of God, all of which contradicts Scripture.

Across the street, the other group believes that their erstwhile companions have starved themselves of the fullness of the Faith; they do not fully participate in the sacred mystery of our redemption in and through the body and blood of Christ; and they are “free” to interpret the Bible in any erroneous way they wish. On the same night that Blessed Sacrament holds a class on the teaching authority of the Church, Grace Chapel is hosting a lecture on the Protestant Reformation principle of solo scriptura. This presents something of a dilemma for both groups. If we really are so different, they may conclude, perhaps we really ought not to associate with these idolaters or zealots. What fellowship has darkness with light?

This vignette indicates the need for a “new ecumenism” between Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. George Weigel has recently described the beginnings of this new ecumenism as somewhat accidental. “It is not the product of theological seminars in major universities; it is the result of a shared perception that the systematic effort to strip American public policy discourse of any relationship to the religiously-based values of the American people portends disaster for the American experiment.” What has been implicit in this realization needs to be made explicit and seized upon as an opportunity both to be better witnesses of the grace of God in Christ and to renew public moral and political discourse. “There is theological ground for a dialogue,” says Weigel. “No doubt there are important theological tensions between Catholics and evangelicals, but there is ample ground on which to build the needed correction.”

Authentic Ecumenism

The first task of this new ecumenism is to rescue a very good word from the very bad repute it has come to have in recent years. The so-called ecumenical movement among Protestant churches has come at the expense of Christian doctrine, and ultimately the distinctive voice of Christian moral language. Truth is sacrificed on the altar of civility, unusually in the guise of a far-left political agenda. A new ecumenism of Catholics and evangelicals will understand that true unity is unity of doctrine.

The key to true ecumenism is not some lowest common denominator (for mainline Protestants this is usually commitment to “social justice,” “civil liberties,” and such like), but full theological integrity. The very purpose of the Church councils which have borne the name “ecumenical” has been to affirm what the entire Church believes on every point of Christian doctrine. Evangelicals believe, and Catholics stress, the constitutional unity of the Church of Christ. We are not called to “make” the Church one by ignoring or eliminating embarrassing doctrine. Rather, we are called to acknowledge the essential unity of the Church, and then to work toward visible unity, based on Christian truth.

Having lived in both worlds, I can attest to the attachment to sound doctrine of practicing Catholics and evangelicals. Neither group will give up the integrity of its doctrine, and this is good. As Richard John Neuhaus has written, “The only unity that is lasting and worth pursuing is a unity rooted in a shared confession of Christ and the Gospel. Theological integrity is . . . not an obstacle to unity but the servant of unity.” Unity that does not positively embrace the gospel of Christ in its full theological integrity is not Christian unity, and it is not authentic ecumenism.

At least two problems urge us on to take seriously the call to a new ecumenism. First, all believing Christians are commanded to work for visible unity. Catholics and evangelicals cannot pretend that there are not serious obstacles to fulfilling this command. But by seizing on the many points of faith that unite these groups, we will make a positive, visible move toward full affirmation of the real unity of the body of Christ. Catholics, especially, must not com-promise our firm belief that we are the Church of history, the full and authentic expression of Christ’s plan for His Church. But we also affirm that the Church has members outside of Catholicism, incomplete though that earthly membership may be. Catholicism, we believe, is not a different expression, but the full expression of Christian faith. To deny our faith that Catholicism is the perfect form of the Church on earth would be disingenuous, but to deny that the Grace of Christ has worked in the lives of believing non-Catholics would be arrogant.

Second, American political life needs us. The moral and political climate in America shows no sign of correcting its steady slide into the new barbarism. To be sure, this is a secondary and derivative purpose of the Church: the mission of the Church is to work for conversions, a decidedly non-political act. But Christian persons are still political animals who go out into the world as witnesses against the idols of the age. And the Church itself is a social institution: the language of the Church is heard, if not often understood, by non-Christians. By affirming common moral language and organizing our political lives around that language, Catholics and evangelicals can make a significant contribution to all moral and political discourse.

From Mainline to Sideline

The new ecumenism will have to be composed of these two groups for a couple of reasons. First, mainline Protestantism has completely lost its way as a moral guide for American moral and political life. Rather than calling its surrounding culture to conversion, mainline Protestants have themselves answered the siren-call of secular liberalism. For many years their agendas have been set not by the gospel of Christ but by the canons of the secular society in which they dwell. When a church says only what its culture wants it to say, it becomes an irrelevant institution. The precipitous decline in mainline Protestant church membership demonstrates this point.

Positively, the new ecumenism will be composed of evangelicals and Catholics because they have not succumbed to this tragic temptation to be “relevant” to modern culture. Practicing Catholics (despite what some recent polls have suggested) do indeed take their faith very seriously. They understand it as a challenge to, not an affirmation of, American liberal culture. And evangelicals, by the very definition of the movement, reject both the morality of secular culture and the appeasement made to it by the mainline churches.

The new ecumenism can be successful because of the peculiar qualities that each tradition brings with it. Catholics have an ancient and rich moral vocabulary; it formed the great philosophical and theological traditions of the (pre-modern) West. The institutional memory and current organization of Catholicism make it effective at organizing and implementing its agenda. Evangelicals bring a sense of urgency and fervor to the project. They are converts and children of converts, with all the energetic zeal that that entails. Their emphasis on active personal discipleship and commitment to Sacred Scripture make evangelicals the yeast in the dough. Even committed Catholics have be-come complacent in recent years. Evangelicals will call us to a more energetic expression of our faith.

“This is the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church in the world can and should be the lead church in proclaiming and exemplifying the Gospel,” argues Richard John Neuhaus. “This can and should be the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States assumes its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy” for America. Neuhaus may be correct, and Roman Catholics will be wise to heed both his admonitions and his commendations. By calling on our evangelical brothers and sisters to join us in the task, we will be seizing the moment, and something much more important: movement toward the visible unity of the Church of Christ on earth. But the lot does indeed fall to Roman Catholics to lead the way. Such an ecumenical movement will not happen if the Catholic Church does not take up the challenge. The diversity of evangelicals simply does not provide them the institutional framework. If this is indeed the Catholic moment, it will be a much richer one if it is also more catholic.

Evangelical Protestants have a long and bitter strain of anti-Catholic rhetoric among them.  From the (relatively) dispassionate but wildly caricaturist book Roman Catholicism by Loraine Boettner, to the vitriolic screeds of Jack Chick, Catholicism has witnessed an open hostility from some sectors of conservative Protestantism. Perhaps for such as these there is no hope for a Catholic/evangelical ecumenical movement. It is difficult to imagine someone joining us in anything if he thinks we worship statues and pray to Mary, and thinks that the pope is the anti-Christ. But this is a small (and probably shrinking) sub-set of fundamentalist Protestant Christians. Evangelicals who care to learn what the Catholic Church really believes and teaches soon discover large areas of theological and temperamental agreement.

The term “fundamentalism,” to which contemporary American evangelicals trace their lineage, comes from a series of tracts written in the early part of this century and distributed in large numbers across the country. At the height of the “modernist” movement, when such doctrines as the virgin birth of Christ were first being called into question in American Protestant seminaries, these tracts were discussions of just what one must affirm really to be a Christian: what are the fundamentals of the faith?

While the list went through various stages and forms, a consensus of these conservative Protestants listed five central doctrines, the rejection of any of which would constitute rejection of Christian faith. These were: The virgin birth of Christ; the infallibility of Scripture; the substitutionary atonement; the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ; and Christ’s visible second coming. To these, evangelicals are committed to this day. And while it would not call this list exhaustive, nor perhaps even representative, the Roman Catholic Church stands firm in accepting each of these “fundamentals.” On the very bedrock principles upon which the evangelical movement was built, Catholics are in full agreement.

Further, both Roman Catholics and evangelicals take seriously the Christian mandate to evangelize the world, to preach that Christ is the only way to salvation. Pope John Paul II recently called upon Catholics to take this mandate seriously, and to reaffirm the unique role of Christ in redeeming mankind. The only difference is that evangelicals are so much better than Catholics at carrying out this mission. (Again, the contrast with mainline Protestants is telling. In one seminar at the Harvard Divinity School, the entire semester was spent decrying Christian missions efforts as “cultural imperialism.” From a seminar of about 15 people, only three—my friend and I and an evangelical from Ohio—raised an objection to such thinking. The others, from various liberal Protestant backgrounds, agreed with the professor.) While Catholics recognize the mandate to evangelize, we have much to learn from evangelicals on how to carry it out.

When he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1985, Thomas Howard was interviewed by Christianity Today, arguably the most prominent evangelical magazine in America. At one point the interviewer asked, “Have you ceased being an evangelical by becoming a Roman Catholics?” To which Howard replied, “Quite the contrary. Evangelical and Catholic are, or ought to be, synonymous. I will never be anything but an evangelical.” Catholics would do well to make this statement their own. By definition Catholics are evangelical; the key is to find out how better to act like it. And evangelicals believe in the catholicity of the Church; their task is to move toward visible unity. The call for a new ecumenism is a call for Catholics to be more evangelical and for evangelicals to be more catholic.


  • Kenneth R. Craycraft

    Kenneth R. Craycraft is Bradley Doctoral Fellow at Boston College. Before his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he was a minister in the evangelical Christian Church, and a graduate of Cincinnati Christian Seminary.

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