Dialogue with Frank Viola

Frank Viola is an Evangelical writer with whom I am “dia-blogging”. I ask a question one month. He replies and asks me a question back. Frank’s experience is that Catholics are more involved in ministry to the poor than Evangelicals, and he wonders how an Evangelical might make friends with socially involved Catholics and get involved. Here ‘s his question and my reply.

I wanted to push the envelope a little with Frank. Referring to G.K.Chesterton’s quip that “Every argument is a theological argument” I wondered, if Frank’s observation is true, why that is.

I think, as a general rule, Frank is right, but why should this be? Evangelicals have Matthew 25 in their Bible too. You know–the sheep and the goats–”Inasmuch as you did it to one of these you did it to me…inasmuch as you didn’t visit the prisoner, feed the hungry, clothe the naked etc…you didn’t do it for me”?

Growing up as an conservative Evangelical I remember the preachers warning against “the social gospel”.They were opposed to the liberals limiting the gospel to feeding the poor and working for peace and justice. Consequently they threw the baby out with the bathwater and were only concerned with evangelizing, and were actually suspicious of what Catholics call “the corporal works of mercy.”

But I wonder if there isn’t a deeper problem, and it is this: Evangelical religion is very largely an intellectual religion. What I mean by this is that it is Bible based, and word driven. It is suspicious of the physical in other ways too. Evangelicals are often suspicious of the sacraments. They’re often not real good on the arts. They’re suspicious of beautiful architecture, vestments, candles, incense, stained glass and all that physical stuff. Does their suspicion about all these physical aspects of worship connect with their rejection of the sacraments? Does a refusal to see Jesus Christ present in the Eucharist blind their eyes to Jesus Christ present in the person of the poor?

I don’t wish to throw stones at our Evangelical brothers and sisters, but I don’t think it is a co-incidence that they are distrustful of the physical in worship and they also are not as involved in feeding the hungry and clothing the poor as they might be. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it echoes.”

Notice what Ignatius of Antioch writes about the heterodox believers around the year 90 AD:

“Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.”

He recognizes that those who deny the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist also neglect the corporal works of mercy.

Just sayin’

PS: I’m not blaming Evangelicals, by the way, and I’m not saying all of them do not care for the hungry…nor am I saying all Catholics are busy helping the poor…just leapfrogging form Frank’s generalized observation.

  • FW Ken

    You fight the battle in front of you. What became the protestant mainline had become infected with a sort of Pelagianism. Lacking theological and ecclesiological resources, these denominations became the sterile, dying wrecks we see today. Refugees from those groups (some of them) ended up evangelicals, so that’s the battle they fought. Catholics went through a different history these past 150 years.

    Having grown up Baptist, I heard a certain amount of this in church. Some more came from church history classes. But I wish I knew more about the Catholic church in recent times.

    • Paul Rodden

      I think you’re right about the ‘Pelagianism’, FW Ken.

      What Fr L says about the ‘social gospel’ was part of my upbringing, yet many of my Evangelical friends who condemned it back then are the new social gospellers!

      I believe The difficulty is, fulfilling the demands of the Corporal Works of Mercy, as the Church understands them, is very different from Pelagianism – ‘Works Righteousness’ – but Evangelicals conflate the two into the latter thinking we see ourselves saved by ‘Works alone’. The problem on this score is that many ‘Go-to-Mass-as-a-Fire-Insurance-Policy’ Catholics would give that impression, too, because they do think it’s all about ‘striving’ as we used to call it as Evangelicals.

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  • Tom in South Jersey

    I think reading Dickens can help explain some of this phenomenon. I descend from Anglican and Puritans. There was a strong belief that the poor were lazy sinners. You might recall the whole “strong Protestant work ethic” thing.

    The nerve of young Master Twist asking for more pudding.

    • Lynn

      This is definitely what I grew up with in evangelical Protestantism. There was never any sense that anybody outside that particular fold was a child of God. We were only to interact with “them” for the purpose of evangelism, and friendship was strongly discouraged because they would pull us away from the faith. I never heard anything about seeing Jesus in a non-Christian, or about the inherent worth of all people, until I became a Catholic.

  • Robert

    Besides the biblical teaching about the corporal and spiritual works or mercy (and the ‘preferential option’ for the poor in the Magnificat, etc.), the Catholic Church has an official body of social teaching. Evangelicals do not have a living magisterium to develop such a body of teaching in their tradition, and the individualism of the evanglical tradition (churches as fellowships of people who have been saved, rather than a mystical corporate body), as well as its roots in the Reformation caused by economic forces and influenced by the rise of capitalism, does not really make room for any official social teaching. However, there is no doubt that many non-Catholics and their church-related charities provide heroic examples of advocacy on behalf of the poor and direct service to those in need. But the difference between the Catholic and Evangelical ecclesiology is an important factor in the observation that Catholics are more committed to the poor than Evangelicals. Before I was received into full communin with the Catholic Church, I was inspired by the work of the Jubilee Group in the Church of England, Anglo-Catholic Socialism (which drew on the Catholic Church’s social teaching, as well as 19th century progressive thought and activism of the Anglo-Catholics in the slums). We are blessed in the Catholic Church by the development of the Church’s social teaching in each generation.

    • Paul Rodden

      Hi Robert,
      “Evangelicals do not have a living magisterium to develop such a body of teaching in their tradition”
      - I think this is one of the biggest problems with some of the issues we are facing with same-sex marriage, etc..

      From the outside, ‘we Christians’ look hopelessly divided, and without dogma, any moral position is relativised. The anti-Christian ranters (and politicians and law makers) can always point to ‘the Christians I know’ who think bestiality and incest are OK and also ‘go to church every week’.

      The fact their ‘church’ teaches nothing apart from subjectivity, and you’re a Christian and member in good standing as long as you use the word ‘Jesus’ apart from as an expletive.

      Sola Scriptura and Sola Fides give our enemies the biggest leg-up in their argument against Christianity and the justification for their judgement that religion is, indeed incoherent and merely personal preference and therefore has no place in the Public Square.

  • http://backoftheworld.com Ryan M.

    My experience of growing up as an Evangelical was that there was a terribly pragmatic look at works of mercy: they were only useful insofar as they might lead someone to make the ol’ “decision for Christ.” There was an unspoken expectation that if you came around asking for money for your orphanage in Africa or your soup kitchen in South America, you would have statistics at the ready of how many had been “saved” as a result of your ministry. I take away two things from those memories: the first is a fearful recollection of such ministries feeling very much like a sales tactic, and not very much like Caritas. The second goes along very much with your point, Father: that the driving force behind all of Evangelical life was the conveyance of some kind of soteriological gnosis, and in my experience it was robbed completely of any kind of appreciation of the genuine value of the works of mercy as such.

    • Paul Rodden

      I agree, Ryan.
      We have this very issue with two evangelical organisations in our town but, of course, they see Catholics as ‘fair game’ for conversion, despite the fact they want us to work ‘ecumenically’.
      If we ‘decode’ their word ‘ecumenically’, it means ignoring hierarchy, tradition, dogma, and all our man-made nonsense – in other words anything which makes us Catholic – that gets in the way of us being ‘one church’ as they see it, as if they are ‘one church’ already and we’re somehow the odd ones out and getting in the way of unity…!

  • FW Ken

    BTW, Methodists were doing fine, faith-filled work before the”social gospel” set in. It’s probably unfair to speak of Catholics being more committed to the poor than protestants. Especially since we had a tradition of consecrated religious who did (sometimes still do) the heavy lifting for us lay folk. They also called us to the real social gospel, though with the example of their lives rather than by riding around in luxury buses getting on TV.

    That’s the whole problem with Catholic Christianity. It takes devotion to a time and place, to real people, not “public figures”, it means slogging through through years of hard work, faithfulness, and integrity. It doesn’t make good television.

    • Lynn

      Think of the Mennonites, too, and all the good they did for the country as conscientious objectors during WWII, and all around the world to this day. As a Protestant evangelical, though, I was explicitly taught that those sorts of people might mean well, but they were “liberals,” and had corrupted the true faith and likely weren’t really Christians at all, or they would put evangelism first. So whene er I left those particular folks out of the discussion, it was because they were “them,” too.

    • Paul Rodden

      Well said!

  • David Naas

    If there were one word I could use to describe the Catholic Church to another person, it would be “balanced”. After 2000 years, in many of which we will see shameful undertakings in the name of Christ, the Church has realized that the cliches of our lives have the most truth. “Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater”, being only one.
    In the argument between capitalism and socialism, the Church says “You are both wrong, and you are both right”, hence solidarity, subsiduarity, and stewardship.
    In the discourse between the mystic and the legalist, the Church says “Yes, but…”
    In truth, I see Holy Mother Church as recognizing fully the truths of “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”.
    Perhaps when we are out of balance, we focus on pet peves and personal projects to the detriment of the gospel. The church used to do that, and her disaffected children have been doing it for the last 500 years. It is a process of maturity. (This is not to be confused with “process theology”, but is a matte of an institution which, although divine, is yet social, and hence, human.)
    In my own experience (looking for God in all the wrong places), every really sincere Evangelical/Protestant is a Catholic who just doesn’t know it yet.

    • Paul Rodden

      “In my own experience (looking for God in all the wrong places), every really sincere Evangelical/Protestant is a Catholic who just doesn’t know it yet.”

      My boss is an Evangelical Anglican vicar, and I would say that is true of him. I would actually follow him anywhere (within reason!). He’s a man of deep prayer and a very wise and compassionate pastor, and if I attend communion when he’s presiding, I feel a real wrench inside.

      He loves what I pass him from Pope Benedict and bemoans Anglicanism doesn’t talk about Jesus with such passion any more, yet says he has no truck with ‘tradition’ and ‘hierarch’, and they’re big sticking-points.

      One day, when it’s appropriate, I’ll try to explain to him how the reason Pope Benedict does, and can, talk in such a beautiful and powerful way about Jesus as if it were St Peter himself saying it, is because of the protection and guardianship of Apostolic Tradition, and without it, the whole shooting match can fall to bits at any stage – just like Anglicanism. In other words, the key thing which has led to all the mess in the Anglican communion is that Apostolic Tradition is absent. :)

  • Brad

    I see two issues here. First is the either or attitude that is taken up by many Christians (either social gospel OR evangelize). Second most non-catholic Christians I know , and they are on both sides of my marriage) see their faith as strictly a personal relationship with Jesus. A faithful Catholic should see it as familial.

    • Paul Rodden

      I agree.
      Trouble is, we haven’t been teaching the faith to the laity for several centuries. We’ve just had them memorise completely accurate, yet incomprehensible, doctrinal statements.
      Then we wonder why they’ve become Protestant – or learnt from Protestantism because it has been teaching easily comprehended error.