LEXINGTON, Ky. — Why has the Southern Baptist Convention decided to stop 30 years of official discussions on doctrine with the Catholic Church in the United States?

And what will the discontinuation of the dialogue mean for the future of the Church's ecumenical outreach to evangelical Protestants?

Those are the questions Catholics are asking in the wake of the convention's Feb. 7 letter to Lexington, Ky., Bishop Kendrick Williams, Catholic co-chair of the dialogue, stating that next year's meeting will be the last. The letter was made public in late March.

Established in 1971, the Southern Baptist-Catholic dialogue is one of eight official conversations with U.S. Christian branches that the Catholic bishops have conducted since the Second Vatican Council issued its decree on ecumenism.

With more than 14 million members, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, tracing its roots to the time of the Civil War and historically exerting a significant cultural influence in the American South. The Southern Baptist Convention is a force to be reckoned with on a larger scale as well, as strong a voice for evangelical Protestant Christianity as you'll find in this country.

Christian Brother Jeffrey Gros, associate director of the Catholic-Southern Baptist dialogue for the last 10 years, is quick to laud the mission and accomplishments of the 30-year project. “It's important that fellow Christians reach out to one another,” says Brother Gros, who grew up in the Southern Baptist stronghold of Memphis, Tenn.

Brother Gros says he has a warm affection for that “great religious tradition,” and stresses that the talks weren't intended to achieve fuller communion between the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists, but rather to “seek mutual understanding and clarify differences, and build a basis for a common witness to the Gospel.” A 1999 report detailing shared beliefs about Sacred Scripture is just one recent example of the kind of common ground that dialogue has helped flesh out.

Through the years, both sides have had room for growth in understanding, says Brother Gros. “There has been a good deal of anti-Catholicism” from the Southern Baptists, “and I have tried for years to explain to Catholics that Protestants don't have horns and tails.” The regular official meetings, he adds, helped create an atmosphere of “positive openness” that dispelled many misunderstandings.

Why Stop Now?

Rudy Gonzalez, director of interfaith evangelism for the Southern Baptists’ North American mission board, agrees. “The talks have been beneficial to both sides,” he told the Register. As Brother Gros’ counterpart on the Southern Baptist side, he has come away with a “keener understanding of the Roman Catholic Church,” while being able to “express clearly in our own words who Southern Baptists are, instead of [Catholics] relying on caricature or stereotype.”

So why stop a good thing? Gonzalez insists the Southern Baptist Convention is “not averse to communication"; that it is “not unplugging the phone lines,” but merely clarifying and redefining the focus of the mission board on evangelism, not ecumenism.

Brother Gros too, sees the decision as an internal matter for the convention, not a sign that “we're going to be any less friendly, or any less in touch.”

Yet there are signs that not everyone within the Southern Baptist Convention perceived the dialogue with the Catholic Church as a good thing. Gonzalez's predecessor, Rev. R. Philip Roberts, now president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., admitted recently that “many Southern Baptists have become suspicious of these discussions.”

That doesn't surprise Father Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic convert and a key framer of the ecumenical initiative “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Southern Baptists have “long-standing passions and prejudices” about Catholics, says Father Neuhaus, who is also editor-in-chief of the religious journal First Things. “There is a deep-seated suspicion among many evangelical Protestants that any time you get involved with Catholics, they are trying in a crafty, sinister way to co-opt you or seduce you.”

This suspicion tends not to cut both ways. Catholics “are more accustomed to being in dialogue with everybody,” notes Father Neuhaus. “Catholics aren't worried about being taken over by the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Besides traditional prejudices, there are theological and ecclesiological obstacles to Southern Baptist-Catholic relations. The organizational structure of the convention is loose, with local congregational leadership enjoying virtual autonomy and the Southern Baptist identity resting on historical precedent and a few binding doctrines, such as rejection of infant baptism.

Together In the Trenches

Evangelical Protestants tend to choose their church based on “where they feel welcomed and fed,” says James Akin, a Catholic apologist, author and convert from evangelical Protestantism. Pastors and local churches succeed or fail on the strength of the personalities that run them, he adds. Akin recalls one congregation in his hometown that lost 5,000 members when the choir director left.

He points out that, within the Southern Baptist Convention, there is no hierarchy, no sacramental system, and different factions are free to teach their own, competing understandings of such doctrinal matters as predestination, charismatic gifts, women elders and many moral matters.

Because of this, observers have speculated that the convention's decision to end formal talks with the Catholic Church may have been influenced by factions that saw the relationship as playing into the plans of other factions with different priorities.

“Hard-liners within the Southern Baptist Convention might view greater openness toward the Catholic Church as part of a liberalizing trend some fear is underway within the organization,” says Akin. The convention is “fairly unique” among Protestant denominations in that it has never had an official split along “liberal-conservative” lines, he adds, and “theological conservatives feel the need to flex their muscles sometimes to prevent” such a scenario from developing.

Likewise, Southern Baptists can vary widely in their views of the Catholic faith. Akin explains that, based on their reading of the Book of Revelation, some Southern Baptists believe that a time of worldwide tribulation is coming, and that it will be preceded by the advance of a one-world religion. This false religion some identify with Revelation's “Whore of Babylon” — which, they believe, will one day be revealed as the Catholic Church. These Southern Baptists would oppose dialogue with the Church out of fear that such a relationship would help hasten this end-times scenario

Interestingly, despite the suspicions and longstanding prejudices, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals find themselves more often than not united with Catholics on social issues, putting aside fine doctrinal differences to unite against the common enemies of secularism and the culture of death. Father Neuhaus says this “ecumenism of the trenches” is a “very strong and continuing phenomenon” that doesn't stand to be impacted negatively by the cessation of official dialogue.

Akin agrees, adding that he doubts many rank-and-file Southern Baptists will even take note that the talks are ending — if they were aware of them going on at all. There are far more important controversies for most Southern Baptists, he says — the question of women elders, for example. He thinks the cooperation will continue because “the culture is generally hostile to authentic Christian voices, which forces Christians to cooperate with each other despite their differences.”

Neither Brother Gros nor Gonzalez want or expect to see that kind of grassroots social cooperation diminished, but both are quick to point out that it's not their primary goal.

“Evangelism is our primary purpose,” says Gonzalez. “The Gospel is the overriding goal of everything we do here.”

“Our concern is not public policy,” says Brother Gros. “It's the Gospel.”

Todd Aglialoro writes from Peoria, Illinois.