Catholics’ and evangelicals’ ‘surprising ecumenism’

Catholics’ and evangelicals’ ‘surprising ecumenism’ July 24, 2017

By now, most observers of religion’s role in U.S. public life are aware of a controversial editorial that appeared in the Jesuit publicaion Civilta Cattolica earlier this month. The piece by Father Antonio Sparado and an Argentine Protestant minister, the Reverend Marcelo Figueroa, critically examined Catholics’ engagement with conservative low-church Protestants.

The editorial raised eyebrows in Catholic and evangelical circles, both in the USA and around the world, not least because of the publication’s close ties to Pope Francis.

I will quote a choice passage here, but you should read the whole thing.

There is a well-defined world of ecumenical convergence between sectors that are paradoxically competitors when it comes to confessional belonging. This meeting over shared objectives happens around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values. Both Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.

However, the most dangerous prospect for this strange ecumenism is attributable to its xenophobic and Islamophobic vision that wants walls and purifying deportations. The word “ecumenism” transforms into a paradox, into an “ecumenism of hate.” Intolerance is a celestial mark of purism. Reductionism is the exegetical methodology. Ultra-literalism is its hermeneutical key.

If this essay was submitted in my religion and politics class, I would not give it an A. It reads like it was written by a non-native outsider who has done his homework but who uses terms imprecisely and tries a little too hard to fit the facts to his preferred narrative.

But that’s not to say it is without merit. In fact, I applaud the authors for making some important connections. They also point toward glaring problems with this “surprising ecumenism” that no one wants to talk about.

Most responses to the editorial were predictable and boring. The Catholic Right went bonkers. The evangelical right snickered at being misunderstood.

The very best response came from Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit at Georgetown University. Father Christiansen reminded anxious readers and gently corrected the authors: “Catholic-evangelical relations in the United States are richer and more nuanced than the fearsome conspiracies Civilta described.”

This is exactly right. But I will say again: Just because Father Sparado and Rev. Figueroa overstated their case does not mean there’s nothing to what they are saying.

Here are a few points I would add to the discussion:

In many places, evangelicals and Catholics are competing for the same souls. I can’t seem to get anyone interested in talking about evangelical proselytization of (usually?) lapsed Catholics. But I’m surprised it’s not more of a strain on their “surprising ecumenism.”

There are different manifestations of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” I suspect Father Sparado would be less concerned about the Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus-style ecumenism than by, for instance, Steven Bannon and an ardent Trump disciple like Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress. To be sure, the First Things ecumenism has arguably harmful effects on the integrity of each tradition’s political witness. But it would be heard to link Timothy George and George Weigel to an “ecumenism of hate.” The question is, how far into mainstream evangelical-Catholic political cooperation will figures like Bannon associate Austin Ruse be able to climb? And how vociferously will the First Things– and National Review-style ecumenists denounce the once-invisible bottom dwellers who might seek to drag Catholic-evangelical cooperation into the gutter.

In short, there’s a high road and a low road. I wonder to what degree the two will converge “in the Age of Trump.”*

What is an evangelical? I talk about this all the time, but it needs to be asked here, especially considering the way Sparado and Figueroa loosely conflate evangelicals and fundamentalists. I would add this to Father Christiansen’s point about how evangelicals and Catholics have done a number of helpful and beneficial activities together: It is, of course, true that Catholics have worked with social justice-oriented evangelicals. But not all evangelicals would accept that these brethren, ever tempted by leftism, are bona fide evangelicals at all.

Catholicism and Protestantism have real differences that really matter. People seem to forget this, even on the eve of the Reformation’s quincentennial. But evangelicals and Catholics believe fundamentally incompatible things about the Church, her authority, and her sacraments, and more. I’m all for working together toward shared goals. But I would caution both Catholics and evangelicals to think twice about getting too politically cozy with people they would never dream of allowing to teach Sunday school in their church.

Ecumenism is a lot easier with people who vote the same you do.


*I have quickly come to detest the phrase “in the Age of Trump,” but its use here shows how Trumpism can poison just about anything – even things you may not be especially excited about to begin with.


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