Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue Part 3 (Final)

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.)

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  • Bob

    Big divide between the Catholic hierarchy and the laity is the reception of the Sacraments is only needed for salvation

    • Percival

      Right, Bob! And that seems to me to be directly related to the main issue that divides Catholics and Protestants too.

      Sacraments offered by Protestants are not efficacious and are not real sacraments. Thus Protestants are not in the church and there is no salvation outside the church. These things are written in Papal bulls and, as far as I know, bulls can never be changed or annulled.

      • rogereolson

        The Second Vatican Council said that Protestants are “separated brethren.”

        • Percival

          Separated, but not divorced? I’m not sure what the language means. Why doesn’t it make me feel better?

          I am happy to accept a Catholic’s profession of faith in Christ. But Vatican II Catholics have to hold to the doctrines I mentioned, as well as the conflicting language of “separated brethren.” I would be interested in know what separated means in official terms. I know that in general most Catholics do not hold to some of those Counter-Reformation bulls, but they remain nonetheless.

          • rogereolson

            They remain but are reinterpreted–often as simply no longer applying. Vatican I’s anathemas against Luther and his followers no longer apply (according to the Vatican). By “separated brethren” Vatican II means Protestants can be saved but are only mystically united with the one true Church. It would be better for them (us) to enter it fully. And it means our churches are not really churches but “ecclesial communities.”

      • Greg Milford

        The Catechism, Aquinas, and Augustine all affirm the God is not bound by the Sacraments.

        So when God chooses to “show up” in protestant sacraments, that is obviously His prerogative, and He chooses to give grace when and where he wills. This is all within Catholic teaching. Think of the Sacraments of the Church as a normative means of grace and others as extraordinary means.

        To the extent that the Catholic Church claims to have protected and defined the Canon of Scripture, they can claim that Bible believing churches in a sense receive grace and salvation through the Catholic book known as the Bible or Sacred Scripture.

    • I am a practicing Catholic. The sacraments are not required for salvation. After all, the “good thief” never participated in a sacrament. It is a deep and trusting love of God and surrender to His will that is required for salvation. If one has those two things, one will receive the sacraments and give thanks and praise to God.

      • rogereolson

        Please explain the Catholic concept of “merit.”

  • CGC

    Hi Roger,
    Some good insights (thanks). My hopes is still inter-communion. As long as we continue to practice and possibly believe that Christ is not present in your fellowship or eucharist gathering, what real unity is there if we can’t even partake of the Lord’s supper together? If the Christian life is more about practice than just beliefs, then I doubt the world is going to pay much attention until Christians really show they love each other and not just talk about it.

    • rogereolson

      I hope for it, too. I’m just not hopeful about it ever happening. But it should be a distant goal of Catholic-Protestant dialogues. Your hope brings to mind a conversation I had with Hans Kung in about 1990. (I was his chauffeur for two days in Houston.) I asked him what he and other progressive Catholics were going to do about John Paul II as he was showing his very conservative side. (As I recall JP2 had just clamped down on priests giving the sacrament to Protestants.) Kung said “We just have to wait for him to die.” The day Ratzinger was elected pope I thought of Kung’s hope for a more liberal pope. And then, of course, Pope Benedict declared that Protestant churches aren’t even churches. Things seem to be moving backwards rather than forwards.

      • Cal

        Kung’s statement seems rather chilling and telling. Is the Kingdom of God just like any other worldly institute where you wait for the ruling sovereign to die to push forward a liberalizing/conservatizing agenda?

        Some days I sit and I reflect on the glories of Rome. I haven’t even visited but to be in the presence of chanting, of incense, of beautiful master pieces of artwork. Of glittering gold and aesthetic pleasure. This would overwhelm me. But the Son of Man had no place to rest His head. I realize it is either Roman Catholicism or Jesus. I may seem old fashioned and hostile, but for me it is a divide of anti-christ and Christ.

        (Disclaimer: I refuse to speak in terms of denominational affiliation, but I find kindred souls in the Waldenses and Anabaptists)

  • Jordan Litchfield

    What books/authors would you recommend to educate oneself about Roman Catholic theology? Maybe you’ll suggest Kung and Rahner since you already mentioned them, but what about Ratzinger’s books?

    • rogereolson

      Franz Josef van Beeck, God Encountered.

    • The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains all of the teachings of the Church. An online version can be found here: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm

  • Scott Gay

    The problem of Christian disunion will never be solved with any repudiation of the particular ecclesiastical loyalties by which we live. We must consciously rediscover and reaffirm the backgrounds, not in order to standardize and perpetuate those histories, but in order to learn in humility how that past may contribute to the rediscovered unity of the One Body. Anyone who reads this blog understands how the education in the varied branches contributes to a richer view of the Christian Church.

  • Great thoughts, Roger. I think you are giving voice to many people’s humbler but very significant/substantive hopes.

  • james

    Roger about simul justus et peccator. I find the ring of truth in this statement. Objectively it makes sense to hold some tension here, however when teaching i often struggle with thinking there should be an order. Specifically, when i talk to people who have been abused as children they really struggle with being named as sinful. In fact, i think some people over-identify with this doctrine or because of abuse or negative patterns of thought they take it to be a metaphysical reality. To these folks they need to hear that they are fearfully and wonderfully made, God’s creative first word about them, life itself is a yes.

    It seems many folks live with the wounds of the total depravity doctrine being overplayed in church and at home. And as a result need to leave christianity for buddhism or something less “condemning.” I was intrigued by your remark about Wesley struggling with this tension. I wonder where he landed?

    • rogereolson

      Wesley believed in justification by grace through faith alone but rejected any idea that justified persons remain static in their sinfulness. He wanted to balance justification and regeneration. To him the “simul” of the magisterial Reformers (especially Luther) tended to discourage hope for real transformation in holiness. He did not think salvation depends on any achievement of ours, but he did think real salvation always results in inward change.

  • Roger,
    I have read these three posts with much interest. I am passionately for real and genuine oneness with the believers and consider many Catholics to be my brothers and sisters. As such, I must receive them — I would even say that I am bound to receive them personally. Many Catholic theologians have much to contribute to serious discussions on topics like, as you pointed out earlier, the Trinity, etc. However, there is a big difference between receiving Catholic believers and receiving the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic dogma.

    You said rightly that Baptists (and many others) would never accept a formal episcopacy. There are indeed many more problems than just the fact that a pope will not admit to fallibility.

    As you stated, dialogue and understanding are to be valued, even pursued, but, I think you accurately described the dynamics of what has been taking place (the dialogues always give the impression of being heavily weighted to one side) and those dynamics do not foster genuine oneness.

    Thanks for this series of posts.

  • Greg Milford

    I think the Merit subject is a prime one for dispelling misconceptions and caricatures. As an almost revert myself, this was certainly a big issue for me to gain a level of comfort around. What I have found in the catechism and in apologetic voices is the commitment for the works that are meritorious to be themselves works of Grace, such that the idea of boasting about them is then contrary to the heart of the understanding of the doctrine. That Grace infuses into and permeates our interior life and heart through the process of sanctification makes us a work of the Holy Spirit, and our works a result of His work.

    I agree that Wesley is a potential bridge, but that means the divide as I see it that isn’t as much about merit as it is about whether Grace only covers or if it permeates and transforms as a condition for fellowship with God. Now the protestant in me screamed as I typed the word ‘condition’, but I mean this only in the sense that Lewis describes in The Great Divorce, that we cannot tolerate heaven while we are still ghosts. So the dialog could then turn to the process by which we are interiorly transformed into a state of being able to fellowship with God.

    • rogereolson

      I have heard all the qualifications of “merit” from Catholic theologians and I still think it’s a bad word. It’s like “inerrancy” among evangelicals. No knowledgeable evangelical I know believes in what the word implies. Over the years of teaching theology I have often presented to students the qualifications of “inerrancy” made by leading inerrantists and most often they have protested that these kill “inerrancy.” I say the same about “merit” in Catholic theology. Why not just give up the word? There is no other context where it is compatible with “gift.” A gift cannot be merited.

  • For a number of reasons, I feel threatened by Protestants who “convert” (I hate that word in this case) to Catholicism. I know full well that traffic between the two traditions flows in both directions, and, around where I live, more from Catholic to evangelical than vice versa.

    We had a high profile United Methodist clergy in our area cross the Tiber recently, and, predictably, Catholic apologists used it for propaganda purposes: This former pastor had “come home,” etc. I resented it. In this pastor’s case, he said that he left because of the “real presence” of Christ in the eucharist. (UMC doctrine affirms real presence, although we don’t presume to say how Christ is present; nor do we imagine that the Christ is somehow sacrificed all over again each time we receive it!)

    But what I would ask this former pastor is, “What about everything else you have to swallow in order to be a Catholic in good standing?” Does he really believe that Mary was sinless or or perpetually a virgin or assumed into heaven? That Jesus didn’t have siblings or that Joseph was something like 90+ years old when Jesus was born? That the Pope is infallible when he speaks “ex cathedra”? That the bread and wine of communion literally become the body and blood? Or that there’s some sort of unbroken chain of apostolic teaching that has been preserved by the Magisterium—as if St. Peter himself knew anything of immaculate conception or perpetual virginity! Not to mention birth control, which most Catholics obviously don’t believe.

    I’m sure there’s room for nuance in some of these doctrines, but I don’t think I’m far off in saying that if you want to be a Catholic in good standing, you have to believe most of these things. Right? The problem is that since the Reformation, the Church has dogmatized what used to be a plurality of orthodox opinions. That further builds the wall between the two traditions.

    I would say that all of these dogma (not just the question of “merit”) are at the heart of what separates us. Am I missing something?

    • rogereolson

      Well, obviously you can be a Catholic and not agree with everything the church teaches. But my question is, with you, why a person would want to switch to a church if he or she doesn’t agree with many of its teachings? I can see people who are already Catholic staying Catholic (it’s a family thing and a culture) even if they come to disagree with many of its teachings. (For example, Hans Kung.) But why join it unless you do agree with them or at least most of them? I suspect most people who “convert” from Protestant to Roman Catholic are uncomfortable with ambiguity and feel the need to have a magisterium. Or else they have simply come to agree with traditional Catholic teaching about salvation (merit) and disagree with traditional Protestant doctrine about it.

      • You’re onto something when you talk about discomfort with “ambiguity.” I once had a Catholic friend who wanted me to listen to a CD of something called “Catholic apologetics”: why we Protestants should become Catholics. The speaker on the CD was well-known within that particular Catholic subculture. As I was listening to him, he sounded like a fundamentalist at heart. He left a PCA church to become Catholic. So he was already a Protestant’s Protestant for whom no church could be quite good enough. (Maybe I’m being unfair, but you get my point.)

        I sensed that he really needed to be “right” and for others to be “wrong.” He liked defining himself over against other Christians. From my SBC days, it felt very fundie.

        • rogereolson

          I think converts are often that way–very defensive, sometimes offensive towards those poor, benighted folks they left behind. I went through that phase when I left Pentecostalism to become Baptist. But it was kind of hard, because there wasn’t that much difference! 🙂

  • gingoro

    I don’t think that any kind of union is at all likely and that inter-communion is at best a far away goal. However, I do think that cooperation and mutual respect are possible and are good short term goals.

    A few years back the governor general attended a state funeral at the cathedral a few blocks from our house. Although an Anglican she took communion much to the public consternation of the Roman Catholics. Our church used to have a relatively restricted communion but now is quite open to Christians of other denominations. Sometimes I wonder if we should be open to those such as Catholics who do not reciprocate and in fact think protestant communion invalid?
    Dave W

    • rogereolson

      I can’t speak for Anglicans, but many baptist churches (not all “Baptist” churches) would welcome a born again Catholic to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with us.

    • John Inglis

      In Christ’s love we should reciprocate. We don’t do unto others what they do to us, but as Christ would do, as we would do to any part of our own fleshly body and as we would do to any part of our spiritual body which is the body of Christ.