Can One Be an Evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic?
This question—whether one can be both a Roman Catholic and an evangelical Christian has arisen many times before. Now some are asking it in relation to the reported conversion of recently retired senior editor of Christianity Today editor Mark Galli.
Some historical background to my response is in order.
First, I have known Mark for many years. I have written numerous articles for CT, many of them invited by Mark. I served as consulting editor of CT and then as contributing editor of the magazine for many years. I met with Mark in person at least twice that I recall, but we mostly communicated by e-mail and by phone. I have great respect for Mark and like him.
Second, I have known of many evangelical Christians who have converted to the RC Church over the years. I have known some personally. I won’t name them all here, only a couple notable examples. Many years ago this question arose around Gordon College English professor Thomas Howard who converted to RC and wrote a book about it. Other evangelicals followed such as Peter Kreeft and Scott Hahn. A few years ago my colleague Francis Beckwith, then president of the Evangelical Theological Society, returned to his Catholic roots.
Third, I have invited Catholic priests and theologians to speak to my classes and have read many books by Catholics—to my great enrichment and benefit. I have studied and written about Karl Rahner and Hans Küng and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Perhaps my favorite Catholic theologian is Walter Kasper whose book The God of Jesus Christ is a classic of theology. I enthusiastically embrace many Catholics as fellow Christians.
However…I do have a problem considering any true Roman Catholic an evangelical Christian, just as they, Roman Catholics, have a problem considering any non-Roman Catholic church a valid Christian church. (They consider Protestant churches “ecclesial communities” which one Catholic priest-theologian told me means “parachurch organization.”)
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Now, I said “true Roman Catholic” and by that I meant “Roman Catholic in full agreement with all the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.” I know Roman Catholics who are evangelical Christians but in spite of their church and not because of it. I assume, rightly or wrongly, that when a person belongs to a church they agree with its central doctrines. But I know that’s not always the case. So by “true Roman Catholic” I mean someone who does actually agree with all the dogmas and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Catechism.
So what’s the problem with being Catholic and evangelical? (I capitalize “Catholic” to indicate the church of Rome and to exclude other Christians who consider themselves “catholic” in some sense but not Roman Catholic.)
First, a true evangelical Christian believes authentic Christianity, even salvation, begins with a personal decision of faith even if (as in some “high church” expressions of evangelicalism) infant baptism initiates a baby into the body of Christ. That is, for a true evangelical conversion is necessary for salvation once one has reached the stage of maturity where he or she knows he or she is a sinner and is “wrong with God.”
Second, a true evangelical Christian believes scripture is the sole, supreme authority for Christian faith and practice and that doctrines outside of scripture should never be made authoritative for all believers. The Catholic Church promulgates dogmas not in scripture and consider their tradition equally authoritative with scripture.
Third, a true evangelical Christian believes that reconciliation with God, justification, is by grace through faith alone and does not depend on works of righteousness. Works of righteousness are the fruit, not the root, of reconciliation with God. “Merit” has no place in evangelical faith (other than the merit of Jesus Christ which is always only imputed to us).
It may be that there are Catholic priests and bishops who will admit evangelicals into their dioceses’s or congregation’s fellowship as members, but they should not do that. It is almost certainly the case that there are Catholics who have grown up in the Catholic Church but have become evangelicals and remained in the Catholic Church. They really should leave it.
I know for a fact that most evangelical colleges and seminaries dismiss professors and instructors of Bible and theology (if not any) who convert to the Catholic Church. And most of them will not hire a Catholic to teach as part of the regular faculty.
Why do you think Mark Galli waited until he retired to join the Catholic Church? I doubt that he could have remained editor of Christianity Today if he became Catholic before retirement.
Does this mean that I think evangelicals are better Christians than Catholics? No. Certainly not. They are just different. I respect adherence to distinctives and particularities. Evangelicals have ours and Catholics have theirs. We can respect each other, cooperate with each other, engage in congenial dialogue with each other (which I have many times), and even consider each other equally Christian. That does not mean we consider both equally right. Certainly not.
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