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New Catholic-evangelical mix surfaces

NCR Staff

Evangelicals are among the many Protestants flocking to Catholic retreat centers and monasteries, and Catholic social teaching is attracting evangelical admirers such as David Neff, editor of Christianity Today -- the movement's major publication.

At the same time, increasing numbers of Catholics appear to be acknowledging that evangelicalism's scripture-based energy and enthusiasm has a place in their lives, too.

The increasing contacts among these constituencies, historically at odds with one another, is documented more through anecdote and the actions of leaders of the respective groups than through scientific studies. It has been known for some time that some Catholics seeking scripture study often attend evangelical Bible groups. And one national survey hints that grassroots Catholics may be joining the trend because the language they use in speaking about about faith matches that used by evangelicals.

However deep the associations between the two groups, there was no disputing that something new was afoot April 26 in Philadelphia, when Protestant evangelicals and Catholics met to discuss "The Church Steps Forward: A Christian Roundtable on Poverty and Welfare Reform."

Participants represented groups ranging from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development to the evangelical World Vision, from the National Association of Evangelicals to the National Council of Churches, from Promise Keepers to the Salvation Army, from Bread for the World to Habitat for Humanity.

The meeting was billed not as a one-time event, but as "the start of a crucial conversation between diverse church constituencies" on issues facing the poor.

At the base of this new venture is what appears to be a growing evangelical-Catholic search for common ground. The Philadelphia gathering -- an attempt to build coalitions among moderately progressive to moderately conservative Christian groups -- followed a 1994 declaration by groups and individuals on the conservative end of the political spectrum. That group's declaration was titled, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium."

Signers included Charles Colson, prison ministries founder and former Watergate conspirator; Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic convert from Lutheranism; Kent Hill, former director of the Institute for Religion and Democracy and now of Boston's Eastern Nazarene College; George Weigel, then director of the Ethics and Public Policy Institute in Washington; New York Cardinal John O'Connor; Archbishop Francis Stafford, then of Denver and now in Rome; Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute; and Jesuit Fr. Avery Dulles.

Sacramental system

While the main point of the joint statement was to fight abortion, the 1994 declaration concerned itself also with issues such as the "right ordering of civil society," and pressed for parental choice in education.

To the suggestion at the time that the declaration sounded like a partisan conservative agenda, Neuhaus replied, "It's just not true." If liberals weren't warm to the statement, many conservative Protestant evangelicals also were not happy, and some signed a follow-up document the next year distancing themselves from "Roman Catholic doctrinal distinctives" and "church systems."

To assess the current mix of evangelical-Catholic activities, NCR interviewed Alister McGrath in Oxford, England, and the Rev. James Wallis of Sojourners Community in Washington.

McGrath, principal of the grassy, gray stone Wycliffe Hall on Oxford's Banbury Road, is the author of Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, (InterVarsity Press, 1995) and A Passion for Truth: the Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism, (InterVarsity Press 1996). He sees evangelicalism, with its capacity for bringing the scriptures into everyday life, as "virtually alone" in contemporary Christianity in its "ability to bring individuals to faith from a secular culture."

McGrath argued -- without producing statistics -- that evangelicalism is "the largest and most actively committed form of Christianity in the West," but that its makeup masks its growth. That is because evangelicalism is not a denomination in itself (though some denominations are totally evangelical), but a movement that carries itself familiarly through many denominations.

To Wallis it is no news that "the largest, growing segments of Christendom in the United States are those associated with evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and Catholicism," particularly Catholics associated with spiritual renewal.

"Spiritual renewal is the tie-in between the Catholic side and the evangelical side," said Wallis, who established Sojourners community in 1975 in a faded former embassy in Washington's tough Columbia Heights' district. The community produces Sojourners magazine and serves the neighborhood poor with a wide array of ministries.

What's happening in the broad evangelical-Catholic renewal, surmised Wallis, is a growing convergence over the issues of Catholic social teaching. "If you could combine the energy of active Catholic social teaching with the renewed interest of evangelicals around both poverty and racism, with the renewal and vitality of the black churches, you would have a very powerful force. And it would include portions of the mainline churches drawn to that, though that's not where their leadership is," he said.

Neff, the Christianity Today editor, said that as he writes editorials that deal with social issues he always makes sure he takes a look at "Catholic social teaching -- on whatever topic -- if we're dealing with an area that would come under the general umbrella of 'the culture of death,' " he said, using a phrase coined by Pope John Paul II.

On labor and economic issues, too, though less frequently, he'll consider Catholic thought on the matter, though that thought is variously interpreted, he said, because within evangelicalism "there is no cohesive body of thought on those things."

As Neff sees it, "Part of the bridge between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism has been through the pro-life movement, and through that movement we've discovered that there is more than simply antiabortion -- there is more cohesiveness to it," he said. Not least, as a Chicago area resident, he added, he was "well aware" of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's seamless garment ethic when considering life issues.

While the leading evangelical publication looks in on Catholicism in the social arena, some say Catholics appear to be looking to evangelicalism in the area of personal belief. A 1997 nationwide survey by the Barna Report claims that 43 percent of all Christian adults are now "born-again" (evangelical), up seven percentage points since 1994.

The increase, contends Barna, "is largely due to the rapid expansion of born-again Christians within the Catholic church." Barna did not ask the Catholics if they considered themselves "born-again," the group's David Kinnaman told NCR.

Born-again Christian in the survey, he said, are people "who say they have 'made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today' and that they believe that after they die they will 'go to Heaven because [they] have confessed their sins and have accepted Jesus Christ as [their] savior."

When NCR suggested that such broad definitions could apply to most Catholics at Sunday morning Eucharist, Kinnaman demurred. Being "born-again" requires a personal conversion experience, he said.

Historically, American Protestantism, writes Jim Wallis in the May-June Sojourners, split in the early 1900s when " 'fundamentalists' took the conservative road of personal piety and correct doctrine, while 'modernists' chose the liberal path of the social gospel."

Catholics were not considered Christians in these camps, and racial segregation was the prevailing preference. Thus, writes Wallis, "the four basic constituencies of American Christianity have remained apart: evangelical, mainline Protestant, Catholic and the historic black churches."

American Protestant fundamentalism took its name from a series of 12 books titled The Fundamentals, the first of which was published in 1910. McGrath said fundamentalists at first simply saw themselves as returning to biblical orthodoxy, a reaction to "modernity." Fundamentalism's "central doctrines" (the absolute, literal authority of scripture and the premillennial return of Christ) along with its "siege mentality" in defending itself against a hostile, unbelieving, secular culture, became its leading characteristics, he said.

The Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925 -- when Tennessee teacher John T. Scopes was prohibited from teaching evolution -- was fundamentalism's "biggest public relations disaster," said McGrath. It pitted William Jennings Bryan (on the side of the creationists) for the prosecution against Clarence Darrow for the defense. Bryan won in court and lost in the public arena.

"From that point on," wrote McGrath, "fundamentalism became as much a cultural stereotype as a religious movement. It was only with the emergence of a new form of evangelicalism after World War II that momentum and credibility were regained." Fundamentalism, meanwhile, had withdrawn from "what it regarded as a corrupt society and an apostate church."

Evangelicalism is "a post-fundamentalist phenomenon" that avoids the weaknesses of both fundamentalism and modernism, McGrath said, and is especially associated with Billy Graham and Carl F. Henry, Christian leaders "disillusioned with fundamentalism, but for different reasons."

Henry argued that fundamentalists did not present Christianity as a world-view with a distinctive social vision; Graham, "sick and fed up" with controversies, "wanted to get on with preaching the gospel."

McGrath described evangelicalism's six "fundamental convictions" as:

1. The supreme authority of scripture as a source of knowledge of God and a guide to Christian living.

2. The majesty of Jesus Christ, both as incarnate God and Lord and as the savior of sinful humanity.

3. The lordship of the Holy Spirit.

4. The need for personal conversion.

5. The priority of evangelism for both individual Christians and the church as a whole.

6. The importance of the Christian community for spiritual nourishment, fellowship and growth.

All other matters, wrote McGrath, "have tended to be regarded as 'matters of indifference,' on which a substantial degree of latitude and diversity may be accepted, a diversity grounded in the New Testament, however.

"Responsible evangelicalism," he wrote, "refuses to legislate where scripture is silent. Evangelicalism has refused to treat knowledge as something abstract; instead it recognizes it to be strongly experiential and personal, capable of transforming both the heart and the mind."

Scripture, McGrath said, defines evangelicalism's center of gravity, not the limits of its reading or knowledge; it is "the central legitimating source of Christian faith and theology, the clearest window through which the face of Christ may be seen."

What evangelicalism lacks, he said, is a spirituality that prevents burnout. Consequently, when "people need help with prayer, devotion and personal discipline, if evangelicalism is not providing it, is it really surprising they turn elsewhere [and] end up committed to a form of Catholicism?"

Franciscan Fr. Joseph Nangle, who worked with Wallis and the Sojourners community from 1990 to 1994, has a firsthand Catholic view of the significance of progressive and moderate evangelicalism. The evangelicals' heavy dependence on scripture for moral guidance is a quite sophisticated understanding of God's word, he says, that can "tend a little toward the fundamental, though not necessarily.

"Our [Catholic] social doctrine is just good news to them when they're open to it," said Nangle, "and I'd love to see them engage in our sacramental system -- those moments of encounter with the Lord in the Eucharist and reconciliation. They have it," he said, "but it's more casual, I think, compared to their intense use of the scriptures."

What Catholics don't understand, he said, is "the great possibility for social engagement on the part of evangelicals. When they get on to it, they're phenomenal. I think they're able to hold together personal morality and social morality if you will -- something we liberationists could learn from."

Wallis said, "On issues facing poor people and social policy, there's a growing convergence of progressive and moderate evangelicals with Catholics. The pro-life convergence is important too. I'm part of that.

"By pro-life I don't mean criminalizing abortion," he said. "There is a broad consensus we have to reduce the abortion rate, that's an important moral imperative. By pro-family I don't mean antifeminist or anti-gay, but that the re-establishment of the bonds of family and community are critical in a way that is in fact pro-equality of men and women and pro at least civil rights for homosexuals."

The emphasis is Christianity first and politics next, said Wallis. While this growing alliance of Catholics with progressive evangelicals is not a movement, it might function as a nonparty political alliance. Evangelicals, Wallis said, are drawn more in the direction of the U.S. Catholic Conference than toward the National Council of Churches "because evangelicals are looking for a social policy place to turn.

"They're not going to go the Protestant liberal left-wing Democratic Party way," he said, "but they do want to go somewhere on the poor people's issues."

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997