Since the 1970s Evangelicals and Roman Catholics have been involved in a substantive dialogue with one another about both the essence of the Christian faith and how Christians should respond to various social justice and moral questions that confront us in the modern world. A document was signed in 1994 titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” It was signed by leading Evangelical and Roman Catholic scholars from around the United States. The two main signers were Father Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson. The statement laid the foundation for the need of Protestants and Catholics to join in common witness to the modern world as they prepared for the third millennium.
The statement drew heavily from the New Testament and the Trinitarian doctrine as presented at the Council of Nicaea. It was a document that was basically a nod to the bare bone Christian beliefs that we hold in common, as it intentionally stayed away from the many doctrinal and dogmatic differences that divide Catholics and Evangelicals. Rather than speaking of any kind of organic ecumenism or unity, it employed the language of a “spiritual ecumenism,” devoid of any solid theological agreements. Nonetheless, the document pointed to agreement that moral truth is the essential basis for politics, for law and for culture. They agreed to work together “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.”
We certainly have come a long way from the time of an early Baptist confessional document, the Second London Confession of 1689, which declared that the pope is “that Antichrist, that Man of Sin, that Son of Peridition, that exalteth himself in the church against Christ, and all that is called God,” and its reference to the Catholic Church as “the whore of Babylon.”
Just recently, Pope Francis addressed a national gathering of American Evangelicals in Rome on the Vigil of Pentecost, thanking them for all their work toward the unity of Christians, “which the Lord wants.” “Let us walk together,” he said, “let us help the poor together, let us perform acts of charity together, let us work for education together.”
He said that theologians have their part to play in the effort toward unity, yet added, “but we are always on the journey, never stopping, never stopping … and together.”
On the other side of this growing warmth in our conversations with one another, there are some voices concerned over the mix of politics some conservative Roman Catholics and American Evangelicals are engaged in here in the United States. Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Jesuit journal, La Civilta Cattolica, wrote that a shared desire for political influence between “evangelical fundamentalists” and some Catholics has led to what he calls an “ecumenism of conflict” that demonizes political opponents and promotes a “theocratic type of state.”
In an interesting interview with Father Spadaro by America Magazine, he explained that his periodical warned against an unholy alligence between some Catholics and Evangelicals. The article, “Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism,” was co-written by Father Spadaro and a Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Marcelo Figueroa, who is the editor of the Argentine edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. “We have expressed our opinion on a phenomenon,” that of “a strange form of ecumenism” bringing together “fringe groups of Catholic integralists and some groups of evangelical fundamentalists” in a political union.
The article spoke of “an ecumenism of hate” based on a fundamentalist view “of a world that is threatened, a world that is collapsing, and so it responds with a religion from a reading of the Bible transformed into an ideological message of fear. It’s manipulation of anxiety and insecurity. And the church is therefore transformed into a kind of sect, a sect of the pure, the option of the pure, even numerically small, which then seeks to impose its vision on society, prescinding any form of dialogue. It’s a way of dropping out of what is perceived as a ‘barbaric’ mainstream culture. Some call this ‘authentic Christianity.’ Intolerance thus becomes the mark of purism, while evangelical values like mercy do not form part of this vision, which is very conflictive, belligerent and seeks to impose itself in political ways.”
In all discussions of what and who is moral or acceptable, Christians must always be cognizant of the dignity of each person and the core of the Christian message that is based on love and mercy.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.