Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue

Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue March 4, 2012

Report on Another Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue Event (Part 1)

About a year ago I reported here on an Evangelical-Catholic (or Catholic-Evangelical) dialogue event. Last year I only heard the plenary address which was public. This year I was invited to participate in the following day of theological conversation. I truly appreciate that invitation and opportunity once again to engage in theological dialogue with Catholics and Protestants of other traditions.

This is the most recent of many Catholic-Evangelical dialogues in which I have participated. When I was in eighth grade we were assigned to interview a community leader and write a paper about the interview and what we learned from it. I was the son of a Pentecostal preacher. I chose to interview the Catholic bishop. I’m sure my parents were surprised and somewhat puzzled. He agreed to meet with me at his residence across the street from the Cathedral. I rode my bicycle there on a Saturday morning and we talked for about an hour. I had a list of questions to ask him and he answered them all graciously. And he prayed with me before I left. I came away from that meeting certain that he was a Christian, but I didn’t know how to reconcile that with what I was being told by my parents and church. (This was in 1965 and neither Vatican 2 nor the Catholic charismatic movement had reached my backwater part of the world.)

When the charismatic movement began and reached where I lived I discovered some Catholics attended our little Pentecostal church AND their own Catholic masses. They would go to mass on Saturday evening or early Sunday morning and then come to our church later on Sunday morning or Sunday evening. My father began organizing and hosting “Charismatic Breakfasts” on Saturday mornings. Well-known Catholic charismatic speakers came. I read books by people like Kevin Ranaghan. During my Bible college years I attended a Catholic church a few times and heard a neo-Pentecostal Catholic priest speak in chapel. But, for the most part, our Bible college was untouched by anything Catholic which was still pretty much viewed as paganism and a mission field.

When I graduated from college and entered (evangelical Baptist) seminary I discovered Catholic students in my classes. Some of them were studying to become deacons. Others were simply taking classes for enrichment. Catholic speakers came to some of my classes. I’ll never forget the day I was invited to participate in an anti-abortion demonstration by Catholics and evangelicals that ended up at the Cathedral. I sat on in the chancel area with priests and pastors and, as I recall, led in the Lord’s Prayer. (It wasn’t a mass, just a Saturday morning event.)

During seminary I read some Catholic theologians and learned much about Vatican 2. When I began my Ph.D. studies at a major secular research university I was thrown into seminars with about an equal number of Catholic and Protestant (and a few Unitarian and non-Christian) students. I read and devoured Rahner. He became my Catholic theological mentor “from a distance.” I read many of his essays in Theological Investigations. (Some years later I read his Foundations book which sums up the main points of his TI which is twenty-some volumes. And I also read Spirit in the World and Hearers of the Word.)

One of my doctoral exams was on Catholic theology with special focus on Rahner’s theological method. I passed.

When I arrived in Munich in 1981 to study with Pannenberg I discovered that he was meeting every Tuesday evening with some students of the Evangelical Faculty and a professor and students of the Catholic Faculty. He graciously allowed me to sit in and listen. That was fascinating. They agreed on almost everything except the infallibility of the pope and the Vatican 1 anathemas against Luther and his followers. Of course, they didn’t even talk about some secondary issues such as the Marian doctrines, transubstantiation, etc. They just figured these would take care of themselves eventually. Most of the discussion revolved around justification by faith, forensic salvation and simul justus et peccator and there was general agreement that these differences needed no longer to divide. One Tuesday evening the whole seminar walked down to the Catholic church on Ludwigstrasse for mass. The Protestants were allowed to partake.

During my time in Munich I often walked by the Jesuit house where Rahner lived. I so much wanted to go up and knock on the door and ask for an audience with the great theologian. But, I was told he was very ill and so never did.

While I was teaching at Oral Roberts University many charismatic Catholic speakers come through and either spoke in chapel or in classes. And there were Catholic students and some Catholic professors. The dean of the School of Arts and Sciences was a Roman Catholic. There was a general sense there, then, that Catholics and Protestants are equally Christian insofar as they accept Jesus and the Holy Spirit.


During my fifteen years teaching at an evangelical Christian liberal arts college I invited Catholic priests to my classes to speak. I had trouble finding a traditional Catholic. One priest who came several times confessed to me that his favorite theologian was Paul Tillich! He pooh-poohed purgatory and the immaculate conception of Mary and other Catholic doctrines. So I finally found the one Catholic church that still used Latin (by special permission) and invited that priest to class. He was polar opposite of the liberal priest. Both were good experiences for me and my students. In my upper division seminars I had students read Catholic theologians and always lectured on Rahner and Kung in my Contemporary Theology classes.

When Stan Grenz and I wrote 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (1992) I wrote on Rahner and Kung. During the year 1991 I chauffeured Kung around Houston for two days during an ecumenical dialogue event. During those days I met the Bishop of Shanghai, China who later was imprisoned.

During the 1990s I was invited to represent the evangelical Christian community in dialogue events sponsored by Robert Jenson’s and Carl Braaten’s Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. These were held at St. Olaf College in Northfield and at St. Thomas University in St. Paul. These were gatherings of very well-known Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant theologians who read papers to each other and engaged in vigorous dialogue and debate about especially ecclesiology. George Lindbeck and Gabriel Fackre were there as was Stephen Sykes. It was a real privilege to participate.

Over the years I have written on theological topics related to Catholic (or Orthodox) theology such as deification. In my present location I always have a Catholic priest (who earned his doctorate in Rome) speak to my classes. Occasionally we meet with him at his church. I have outstanding Catholic colleagues in the university. I admire them very much and have no trouble embracing them as equally Christians with Protestants. That doesn’t mean I agree with their theology on every point; I don’t. And I could never myself be a Catholic, but none of that means I consider them less than authentically and fully Christian. No church or tradition has a corner on truth.

All that is to say, this weekend’s Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue event was not new for me—except the people. Much of what I heard was familiar from earlier dialogues and encounters. Of course, there were nuances and angles to the subjects that I had not heard before (e.g., fine points of Augustine’s doctrine of creation from his sermons and John, etc.). But I can now truly say I am a veteran of Evangelical-Catholic dialogue going back to eighth grade!

Next I will make some comments about issues and problems that I think tend to make these dialogues less than fully helpful. The first one is the problem of defining “evangelical.”

To be continued….

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  • Fred

    Can’t wait. Ten years ago I married a Catholic woman. When we told our families, her mother said “He’s Catholic, isn’t he?” And mine said “She’s not Catholic is she?” We’ve been chuckling ever since.

    Five years ago I attended a Bible study at her church led by an elderly, very small priest with a thick Irish brogue. I couldn’t help but love him. It was about Christmas time and we got on to the subject of the immaculate conception and the priest showed us a verse or two to support their position. One retired attorney (a cradle Catholic) exclaimed “Sounds like a stretch to me.” This was the same man who was attending because, in his words, he didn’t know much about the Bible but he wanted to.

    Over the years, I have seen my wife slowly pull away from the Church in some areas (like annulment). I, on the other hand, have been attracted to their way of worship. Both of our horizons have stretched.

    Thank you for doing this, Dr. Olson.

  • I look forward to the future posts on this. Living in New England as I have for 22 years, my basic cultural framework is the mighty presence of the RC church. In the suburbs where I live, 80%+ are RC. Over these years I have met so many Jesus-loving and Jesus-worshiping RCs that it has become hard for me to entertain all the doubts I hear from Evangelicals as to the salvation of individual RCs. Formulas and doctrinal equations matter. They really do. But in the midst of artillery shells flying across theological trench warfare both Evangelicals and Jesus loving RCs are brothers and sisters in Christ. When it comes to Nicene orthodoxy, I am much more suspicious of Protestantism than Roman Catholicism. I am an Evangelical Protestant and convincedly so. But my eyes are not closed to the warm piety that flows out of many RC parishes. My interdenominational pietistic background (Christian and Missionary Alliance) is inclusive of RCs, though I have never actually put an RC church on my “recommend” list.

  • Bob Brown

    Fr. John O’Connor warned about the infiltration of the Catholic Church by communists, masons, occultists and homosexuals. This google video should be viewed by everyone concerned with truth and deception not just in the Catholic Church but in non-Catholic churches as well.

    I personally stay away from the ecumenical movement. It’s not that I don’t believe that there are other Christians in the Catholic tradition or in the mainline Protestant denominations or Pentecostal Churches. And it’s not that I believe I have all the truth. But where there is outright denial of the truth of the gospel it must be confronted as Paul confronted Peter.

    Jesus was “full of grace AND truth”. Truth is very important to me. Transubstaniation, Marianism, and the infallibility of the Pope strike at the very heart of the gospel as far as I’m concerned. Dialogue can be helpful to let the truth shine out. May God bless all those called to diaglogue.

    • rogereolson

      Question: If you stay away from dialogue how do you even know that you properly understand what the others believe? Sure, you read about it in books, but how do you know you can trust what you read in them? Are you reading good, contemporary books by Catholic theologians or just anti-Catholic literature? And why do you trust John O’Connor if you don’t trust Catholics? Your comment is full of problems. I hope you’ll begin to take seriously your own final statements and get involved in real dialogue with real Catholics and others you think you disagree with.

      • Bob Brown

        Answer: So you trust dialogue over books? Really? I don’t need to dialogue with JW’s to ‘properly understand what they believe’. I don’t need to dialogue with Mormons to ‘properly understand what they believe’. Do you dialogue with JW’s and Mormons? Do you dialogue with all the cults in order to ‘properly understand them’? I don’t need to dialogue with theologians from the biggest ‘cult’ in the world in order to properly understand what they believe. Whose to say that these theologians properly represent the church that they belong to?

        The best people to listen to are those who were ‘former’ members of JW’s, Mormons, Catholicism. So I listen to former members like Luther, Melanchthon and the Reformers and those who branded the Catholic Church as antichrist, the harlot who rides the beast…the false prophet. I have not forgotten the millions martyred by the Catholic Church. I was baptized a Catholic and raised a Catholic and members are still taught that salvation comes thru the church, papal infallibility, apostolic succession etc. etc. Fr. O’Connor was an archbishop in the church. He has something to say about what is currently going on in the Catholic Church.

        • rogereolson

          I don’t know anything about him. As for dialogue, yes, I have engaged in dialogue with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and I have found (especially in the case of Mormons) that much of what I read about them was wrong. As Barth said “He who knows only his own side of an argument knows little of that.”

  • Scott Gay

    Your post conservative impulses of transformation, journey, dissatification with modern, centered set, the experiential, and respect for the great traditions of the Church are impeccable and make a for a great choice for dialogue.
    The RC’s hold on to views about hierarchy with respect to leadership, steps on a spiritual ladder, and even in areas of toleration. When “assigned roles matter more than truth” you have a dysfunctional situation whether in a family or an organization. Even inclining toward abuse. How does one, with respect, show that when we are committed to truth(Jesus), we betray that concern and committment when we insist on hierarchy?

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Thanks! I really appreciate your generosity in sharing from your personal life and experiences.

  • Roger, I would love to talk with you sometime about these issues. As a person who was received into communion in the Catholic Church in 2000, but now attends weekly mass as well as active participation in an emergentish parish I have a lot of interest in these subjects. I mentioned it another comment, but be sure and check out John Armstrong’s event with Cardinal George coming up later this month in Wheaton.

  • Scott Evans

    Wouldn’t a person who has been transformed by the renewing of their mind destroy their Mary on a stick idol, never to march around with it again while repeating a prayer to Mary over and over and over and over…

    • rogereolson

      Who can claim to be completely transformed by the renewing of the mind? It’s an exhortation. Rather than apply it to others in a judgmental way, why not bring it home and ask if we (I, you) are being transformed as we should be? What are our idols? And, of course, if you think all Catholics do what you describe, you’re ignorant.