Will Catholics and Evangelicals ever agree?

Evangelicals and Catholics Together

Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus

Word Publishing, Dallas and Vancouver

236 pages; paperback; $14.99 US

Reviewed by Joseph Woodard, Ph.D.

It’s an old maxim that civil wars are the most vicious wars. But brothers fight not only with the greatest bitterness. They also show the greatest blindness toward “third party” threats. For 250 years after King Solomon’s death and their division into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah squabbled heedless of glowering Babylon. Four centuries later, the Greek city-states brawled themselves into exhaustion, oblivious of Alexander’s Macedon. Fifteen hundred years later yet, the machinations of Catholic Crusaders and Orthodox and orthodox Constantinople sparked the sacking of that bastion against Islam.

Fort those taking the providential perspective on history, however, the acme of bitter, brotherly blindness is found in the Reformation. The theological differences between Mediterranean and Gemanic Christianity were fought out in the political arena, and again, an evil “third party” found its opening. For 150 years, Protestant and Catholic princes clashed and their people bled. Meanwhile in the midst of divided Christendom, the autonomous secular state gathered in strength.

In response to the religious violence, secular propagandist (like Francis Bacon) first counseled half-rightly that civil right out not be tied to sectarian confessions of faith. Bu their ultimate goal was to free the state from religious constraints. Slowly, they build into the laws and constitutional arrangements the presumption that religious issues were too volatile to be permitted in public debate. The purely secular massacres of the 20th century would later render that presumption ludicrous. But by the 1960s, the “pragmatic superstition” had gathered enough legitimacy to suppress even nondenominational, public acknowledgements of Christ’s Lordship or Kingship.

Inevitably, some sort of public idolatry was going to take Christ’s place. Today, fire centuries after the Reformation, the much-vaunted “separation of church and state” means that the church may tell us how to feel, but the state will tell us how to live. So Christians on both sides of the Reformation Divide may be “personally opposed” to abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, pornographic sexed, adolescent fornication, and state baby farms. But we must keep our “religious values” out of the debate. Our public god is now the secular state itself.

Bucking this new Moloch, a manifesto entitled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” appeared in the May, 1994, issue of the interdenominational policy monthly, First Things. Its authors intended little more than a statement of practical intention and pious hope. But because divided Christianity is so marginalized within modern culture, the need for and “ecumenism of the trenches” has become urgent.

“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” was drafted on the Catholic side by First Things publisher Richard John Neuhaus, conservative lobbyist George Weigel and orthodox theologian Avery Dulles, and its signatories included John Cardinal O’Connor and Archbishop Stafford of Denver. On the Protestant side, Prison Fellowship-founder Charles Colson, Eastern Nazarene’s Kent Hill, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Richard Land were the drafters. And among its signatories were Wheaton College’s Mark Noll, Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright, Pat Robertson, and Canada’s own J.I. Packer of Regent College, Langley.

The statement listed the theological agreements between Protestants and Catholics – fundamentally, the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. It then pointed out their disagreements, like the visibility or invisibility of the universal church. Its longest section then listed the issues where “We Contend Together,” particularly abortion. And it closed with the prayer that “we Witness Together” – and refrain from treating subordinate theological differences as crimes of perversities.

“ECT” generated more controversy than its signatories expected. Within three months, a barrage of evangelical animosity prompted James Packer to publish a subsequent statement, signed by 35 colleagues, reaffirming all their traditional theological disagreements with Rome. Still, Dr. Packer and his friends insisted, their disagreements do not preclude co-operation.

The largely evangelical antagonism has also prompted this book, a collection of three Protestant and three Catholic essays, elaborating upon the historical context, purpose and prospects of the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” manifesto. Charles Colson and George Weigel recount different sides of the current “culture war,” Mark Noll writes the history of Protestant-Catholic antagonism in North America, Avery Dulles outlines six alternative forms of ecumenism, James Packer defends “ECT” from its evangelical opposition, and John Neuhaus compares and contrasts Protestant and Catholic “ecclesiology.”

At first blush, it seems mysterious that such co-operation is possible between the Christian denominations most distant in doctrine. But their common biblical morality is the cause.

The internationalism of the one, and the independence of the other, has resulted in a political marginalization, saving both from “stateolatry.”

“this is a theologically rooted alliance – not one hammered out in the ivory towers of academia or the well-lit conference rooms of church bureaucracies, but one lived out in the battle-field,” writes Charles Colson. Whether “works” are a life-long means of sanctification, or merely a symptom of once-and-for-all justification, committed Christians of both stripes have little choice but to “incarnate” their faith in their civic and political struggles.

There is no simple formula for the distinction – not separation – of church and state within a Christian society. Yet if the Reformation itself saw the illegitimate use of politics for sectarian ends, then Evangelicals and Catholics Together outlines the obligatory use of ecumenism for political ends. It’s one of those rare book that deserves meditating upon.