New Catholic-Evangelical Mix Surfaces: Catholic Church's Social Teachings Seen as Catalyst

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

New Catholic-Evangelical Mix Surfaces: Catholic Church's Social Teachings Seen as Catalyst


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


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 see accompanying story).

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 Jesutt 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 151 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. …

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