LANDSDOWNE, Va. — Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministry offers an example of what can happen when evangelicals and Catholics work together. While it’s largely an evangelical ministry, approximately 15% of the organization’s volunteers are Catholic, as is its chairman.
“We’re striving to be ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ (ECT) in action,” said Colson, founder of the ministry, referring to the document he and Father Richard John Neuhaus authored nearly 13 years ago. “There are lots of groups across America.”
Such groups are already practicing the kind of spiritual ecumenism outlined in the Vatican’s new vademecum — a handbook providing practical ways for Christian leaders and laity to foster Christian unity. The book is being released in Italy by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity just as the Church celebrates the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25).
Individual Catholics, evangelicals and Pentecostals have described progress toward unity as remarkable, but far from over.
Pope Benedict XVI, who has made working toward unity a key component of his papacy, has said that any ecumenical dialogue must be founded in truth. It’s a sentiment that’s been shared by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
“Love without truth is dishonest,” Cardinal Kasper said recently. “Truth without love can be cold and repelling.”
“When it [‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’] first came out, there was an enormous discussion, heated among evangelicals,” said Father Neuhaus, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. “The evangelical climate has changed dramatically over the past 12 years.”
Colson said that the most controversial aspects of that unofficial statement, which was signed by 15 evangelical and Catholic participants and endorsed by two dozen others, included a concern that the two groups were agreeing not to evangelize certain people, disagreements on justification, and simply describing one another as “brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“There were some Catholics who didn’t believe we were brothers and sisters, and some evangelicals who didn’t believe the Catholics were brothers and sisters,” said Colson. “That was the testiest point.”
Time has healed some wounds.
“There has been remarkable progress … the kind of thing that only God could orchestrate,” said Colson. “The tensions have died down, a lot of the objections have been answered, and there is widespread acceptance of ECT among evangelicals.”
Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, noted that formal discussions with some evangelical groups have been conducted for more than 30 years.
“The Catholic-Pentecostal International Dialogue began in 1972,” Bishop Farrell told the Register in an interview last year. “It has been a learning experience on both sides, since we are so far apart, especially as regards our ideas of what it means to be church. There have also been formal conversations between our pontifical council and representatives of the evangelical world.”
Among those who have participated in such dialogue are Paul Anderson, a Quaker and professor of religion at George Fox University and Timothy George, a Southern Baptist and dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
Anderson met with Cardinal Kasper, along with three dozen Christian leaders last October as part of the Conference of Secretaries of World Christian Communities. He was also invited to submit an essay on unity to Cardinal Kasper. Anderson’s essay focused on Christ as the chief shepherd.
George met the Pope last year and is part of the International Catholic-Baptist Dialogue. He noted that a realignment has taken place between evangelicals and Catholics. While he noted that differences remain regarding Scripture inerrancy, both evangelicals and Catholics affirm the Virgin birth of Christ, his miracles, and his resurrection.
“You would not find that commonality with a lot of mainline Protestants, including some bishops and theologians,” said George. “There is a kind of realignment that’s happening so that those who are committed to a deep, visceral, orthodox, historic Christianity share together a common bond of wisdom, spiritual life and perspective. That sort of realignment is bringing Catholics and evangelicals together a lot more today than was happening 15-20 years ago.”
It’s an ecumenism that has been described by many as spiritual ecumenism. “There is a lot more energy between Catholics and evangelicals,” said George. “There is a kind of new ecumenism — an ecumenism grounded in the historic Christian faith, in the creeds of the faith in a high view of Jesus Christ and a high view of Scripture.”
George added that finding common cause on issues related to the family and sanctity of life has also drawn evangelicals and Catholics together. He said that the two share “deep affinities.”
“We feel a kind of immediate togetherness on many of those issues and that, in fact, draws us into a more theologically focused dialogue,” said George. “We have met in the trenches as co-combatants against a common foe. But having met in the trenches we’re not going to stay in the trenches.”
George said that dialoguing on such issues has drawn the two into “deeper discussion of issues related to salvation, justification and holiness.”
Still, differences remain. In a preview to the pontifical council’s handbook on spiritual ecumenism, Cardinal Kasper gave an address at Duquesne University in October where he described Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical groups as an “urgent pastoral problem and an ecumenical challenge.”
“The aggressive proselytism and the immediate attractiveness of these groups have meant that the Catholic Church, in common with all the traditional Churches, continues to lose many faithful every year.”
According to an article in Homiletic and Pastoral Review by Gerald Mendoza, the Catholic Church in the United States has lost 30% of its 17 million Hispanic Catholics over the past 10 years.
Cardinal Kasper described evangelicals and Pentecostals as a third type of Christian community, distinct from either the Orthodox or the mainline Protestants that broke with the Church following the Reformation. According to Cardinal Kasper, Pentecostals number about 600 million Christians worldwide and are experiencing rapid growth, particularly in South America.
“Though dialogue with some classical Pentecostals has bore good fruits and should go on, theological dialogue with neo-Pentecostals at the present stage in some places, where it seems possible, is only in its still modest beginnings,” said Cardinal Kasper in his lecture.
Bishop Farrell noted one of the primary difficulties in such dialogue. “Evangelicals and Pentecostals have difficulty in recognizing the salvific nature of the Catholic Church and its sacraments, while many Catholics view with suspicion the proliferation of groups claiming an immediacy of divine intervention in forms that the Churches of Tradition are much less familiar with,” said Bishop Farrell.
“The questions of Mariology and the question of the Church are sticky ones. We’re going to be talking for years,” admitted Colson. “Yet when we started the discussion of salvation, people on both sides said you can never get an agreement on that, but we did and Cardinal Edward Cassidy [former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity] put his imprimatur on it.”
The release of the “Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism” highlights several practical ways for evangelicals and Catholics to practice spiritual ecumenism. It was published in English late in 2006, but is just now being released in Italian.
The booklet is the result of two years’ work and discussion by the members of the council focusing on the need for prayer and conversion in the search for Christian unity.
Among its suggestions are joint prayer, joint Scripture translation and study, and common prayer services during Lent and Thanksgiving.
“I think it’s a sin to perpetuate disunity,” said Colson. “I don’t think there is anything that would prevent Christians from achieving greater unity the longer we talk, understand each other, and seek the mind of God who, after all, is the same God we all serve.”
Jack Smith contributed
to this report.
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.