National Catholic Register

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Catholics & Pentecostals Work To Overcome Mutual Distrust

BY Gabriel Meyer

September 13-19, 1998 Issue | Posted 9/13/98 at 2:00 PM

 

• Fact: By 1990, fast-growing Pentecostal denominations, with more than 193 million members worldwide, had surpassed Eastern Orthodoxy as the second largest grouping of Churches after the Roman Catholic Church. (Eastern Orthodox Churches claim approximately 179 million worldwide, with Roman Catholics totaling nearly one billion.)

• Fact: According to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, between the years 1965-1989, Catholics gained 25%, Southern Baptists grew by 38%, and the Assemblies of God, a leading Pentecostal Denomination, grew by more than 120%.

• Fact: In Brazil, the country with the largest Catholic population, nearly 20 million out of a population of 150 million are Pentecostal — and that figure is rising.

It's little wonder that many observers call Pentecostalism the fastest growing phenomenon in Christianity, an assessment made all the more remarkable by the fact that Pentecostalism as a movement — with its emphasis on personal conversion and the lived experience of the Holy Spirit — dates back less than a century and that much of this explosive growth has occurred within a single generation.

In large part that growth has come at the expense of traditionally Catholic communities in the United States, Latin America, the Philippines, and Africa. As such, last summer's landmark report on evangelization released by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity — part of its ongoing official dialogue between Catholic and Pentecostal leaders — marks a sea-change in the often prickly relations between the two traditions.

The 16,000-word report, entitled “Evangelization, Proselytism and Common Witness,” is the fruit of dialogue sessions from 1990 to 1997 carried out under the auspices of the Holy See and some Pentecostal Churches and leaders.

The diversity of the classical Pentecostal world and its lack of central institutions the report's Pentecostal drafters note, prevents them from speaking with an official voice, but, they say, their views represent “the common consensus, held by the vast majority of Pentecostals worldwide.”

The report caps the work of the fourth phase of a dialogue begun in 1972, the earlier phases of which dealt with theological issues, such as faith, and religious experience, “speaking in tongues” (or glossalalia), the role of the Virgin Mary, the relationship between what Pentecostals call “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and the sacraments of Christian initiation, and the nature of Christian community.

Co-chairing this fourth phase were veterans of the 25-year Pentecostal-Catholic dialogue: noted Catholic ecumenist Father Kilian McDonnell of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minn., a long-time leader in the Catholic charismatic renewal and a pioneer in forging relations with the Pentecostals, and the Rev. Cecil

M. Robeck, Jr., of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

The next phase of the dialogue will be chaired on the Catholic side by Prof. Ralph Decolle of Marquette University.

Given that Latin America, in particular, has become a battleground between the Church and often aggressive, well-financed Protestant ministries, the report's expressions of “sorrow at the scandal of a divided witness,” and pledges on the part of Catholic and Pentecostal signers to work together “toward possibilities of cooperation in mission” are very significant developments indeed.

The report notes that “Catholic-Pentecostal relations in many parts of the world have been troubled at times with accusations of insensitivity to the presence of long-standing Christian communities, charges of proselytism, and counter-charges of persecution.”

The report then goes on to make some important distinctions between evangelization and proselytizing — distinctions that the drafters hope will reduce the tensions that have often poisoned relations between the Churches in the developing world.

Among the unethical actions the report singles out is “every form of willful misrepresentation of the beliefs and practices of other Christian communities” and any use of force, coercion, intimidation, cajolery or manipulation, including exaggeration or distortion of biblical promises, to induce others to join one's Church.

This last point, on the distortion of biblical promises, calls attention, among other things, to those largely American-based groups that hawk the so-called “prosperity gospel” — a teaching that tithing and other financial sacrifices ensure God's blessing of wealth — a lure for many poor and unemployed workers in Latin American and elsewhere.

“Instead of conflict,” the report asks, “can we not converse with one another, pray with one another, try to cooperate with one another instead of clashing with one another?”

Authentic witness to the Gospel, says the statement, “will bear the marks of Christian love. It will never seek its own selfish ends by using the opportunity to speak against or in any way denigrate another Christian community….”

Evangelizers witnessing to other Christians should not “suggest or encourage a change in someone's Christian affiliation,” underlines the report.

“Proselytism must be sharply distinguished from the legitimate act of persuasively presenting the Gospel.”

That's not the sort of responsible ecumenism that, even today, some Pentecostals in the field are prepared to support — the report indicates as much — but such sentiments on the part of any Pentecostal leader a generation ago would have been little short of unthinkable.

Few observers would argue against the notion that one of the strongest contributing factors to this incipient change in relations between contemporary Protestantism's “cutting edge” and the Catholic Church has been the emergence of the Catholic charismatic renewal — a spiritual movement in the Church which, while appreciating aspects of Pentecostalism, has remained rooted in contemporary Catholic life and thought.

Coming on the scene as one of the “surprises of the Holy Spirit,” in the late Belgian Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens’ memorable phrase, the Catholic charismatic renewal arose in the late 1960s as a largely lay-led popular movement in the Church, inspired by the vision of Vatican II, and focused on personal conversion, openness to the Holy Spirit, and mission.

Father George Montague SM, professor of theology at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, a biblical scholar and long-time leader in the charismatic renewal, stresses that the important strides made recently in the Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue should come as no surprise.

“Early on, the renewal found that we [Catholics] had strong common ground with Pentecostals,” he said, “things like openness to the charismatic gifts, eagerness to evangelize, and a greater appreciation of the reality of the Scriptures.”

Clearly, he said, honesty about our many differences is crucial. “If we don't face the difficulties, we'll end up reducing things to the lowest common denominator and fail to achieve the unity that Jesus wants.”

In that regard, Father Montague stressed that Pentecostals need the Catholic tradition's witness to the importance of authority, to the reality of the sacramental life, to the wisdom of tradition.

“Generally, Pentecostals try to go from the Bible to today, skipping two thousand years of development in the process,” he said.

However, “Pentecostals are on our side on so many issues,” the priest pointed out. “Basic faith issues, the ‘life’ issues, family issues, the importance of evangelization — they're really with us on these things.” If we compare the values of Pentecostals with the values of secular society today, he said, “we'll quickly see that what we have in common is very great indeed — and that we need to build on that.”

Rather than being alarmed about the growth of Pentecostal Churches, about their remarkable successes in evangelization, Father Montague suggested, “we should ask ourselves as Catholics why we aren't doing the same thing, why we aren't more excited about our faith.”

He pointed to the vast numbers of unchurched people in the world, “even people who are in the pew, but who don't really have a personal experience of God, who don't know the Lord in a personal way, who aren't aware of what faith really offers.”

“I don't think we should feel threatened by the evangelistic success of Pentecostals, we should feel challenged by it,” he said.

That point was not lost on the bishops who attended the Fourth Conference of the Latin American Episcopate held in Santo Domingo in 1992.

Vatican Secretary of State, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, who presided over the meeting, congratulated the bishops on making the transition “from the dominance of sociological analysis of the … problems to focus on the primacy of Christ's message…. “Everyone can see how advanced the process of de-Christianization and secularization is in Latin America too and not only in the major cities.”

At Santo Domingo, the bishops recognized that evangelization in Latin America must be newly ardent, it must be new as far as its methods and expressions are concerned; and that only by means of a testimony born from the heart of daily life will the message be made effective.

“Today, as in the past,” the cardinal pointed out, “we become Christians only if we encounter Christ and live according to Christ.”

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.