If you haven’t read my two previous posts about Evangelical-Catholic-Evangelical dialogue, you should before reading this one.
So, what’s the point of such dialogue? What should aim for, realistically hope to accomplish and focus on?
When I was participating in Braaten’s and Jenson’s Catholic-Evangelical (really Catholic-Protestant) dialogues one thing gradually emerged: the goal was “visible and institutional unity of the churches.” That’s when I decided to drop my bombshell (that at least Baptists would never accept a formal episcopacy) knowing I would probably be dropped from the list of participants. That’s what happened. I don’t remember who said it, but I think it was Braaten. “If only the pope would admit he’s not infallible we could join the Catholic church.” That’s quite a statement for a Lutheran! I thought there was still a lot of ground to cover before arriving at that point! And I didn’t think that was likely to happen.
A more modest goal of that dialogue (which lasted over at least a year in several weekend sessions) was intercommunion or at least “pulpit fellowship” between Catholics and Protestants. I was surprised to hear that still some even mainline Protestant churches forbid having a priest stand in the pulpit (as opposed to the lectern) and speak or co-officiate in a worship service. I told the gathering (on that fateful last day I was invited) that we evangelicals, for the most part, already have those things. With some notable exceptions, most evangelicals have no problem allowing a priest to participate in a worship service or even preach (assuming he’s a God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving priest!).
In case you wonder if such priests exist–a couple years ago my usual guest priest wasn’t available to visit my class. So I invited a visiting priest from Nigeria. He surprised my students by talking exclusively about revivals in Nigeria. He claimed he had seen with his own eyes the dead raised, the sick miraculously healed, demons cast out and other miracles. A student asked him what he, as a Catholic, thought about us (Baptists and evangelicals). He asked “Do you love Jesus?” The students affirmed it. Then he said “That’s all that matters.” I know, I know. Many Catholics aren’t going to want to hear that and many conservative Protestants aren’t going to believe it. But it happened.
I personally don’t care about “visible and institutional unity of the churches.” I think it’s a good thing that there exist Catholic, Methodist, Pentecostal, Baptist, Presbyterian, etc., churches. What I do care about is overcoming stereotypes, caricatures, prejudices and minor doctrinal differences that divide us. I have no problem worshiping with folks of all those traditions. I doubt we are ever going to agree on things like baptism. But we can cooperate and worship together in spite of such differences.
So what should Catholic-Evangelical dialogue aim at?
The main goal should be mutual understanding and respect in spite of enduring and probably permanent differences. A secondary goal should be to realize, as possible, that we actually don’t disagree as much as we thought. A tertiary goal should be to establish real relationships between us-relationships of cooperation for the greater good of communities, for evangelism and social transformation, etc. I think those are all achievable goals.
The focus of such dialogues should be comparing the best with the best in total honesty and transparency. Too often, as I said, such dialogues becoming comparing the worst of evangelicalism with the best of Catholicism.
What finally still divides Catholics and evangelicals so that we have trouble really accepting each other as fully and authentically Christian? I suspect from the evangelical side, when all is said and done, it comes down to the issue of merit. So long as Catholics continue to use the language of merit in talking about salvation evangelical theologians will struggle with that. For us, the fact that salvation is totally, absolutely free gift is crucial. So crucial that we accuse each other (!) of fudging on it when we don’t.
From the Catholic side I suspect the enduring primary issue is simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner). Again, Wesley struggled with that, so he may be a bridge between Protestants and Catholics. But most Protestants, including most evangelical theologians, are going to hold to that with the proper qualifications (e.g., that inward transformation is possible and desirable but not necessary for justification).
Of course, there are other issues that will probably forever be obstacles to total mutual acceptance, but these seem to me to be the most basic theological issues that still divide. (And by “divide” I don’t mean just institutionally but in terms of fully accepting one another as equally Christian.)