ROME (BP)–It was a striking image to one observer: evangelical Protestant powerhouses James Dobson and Chuck Colson visiting the headquarters of the Catholic church, the very institution Protestants rebelled against centuries ago.
Dobson and Colson joined a global cast of business executives and Catholic politicians, lawyers and scholars last week for a three-day conference at the Vatican on the world economy’s impact on families. They also met briefly with the pope.
For centuries, Catholics and Protestants have clashed about the role and infallibility of the pope, among other issues. That makes the brief meeting between Pope John Paul II, Dobson, president of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, and prison ministry leader Colson a special moment.
The significance was not lost on Colson who, according to one conference participant, noted that there would have been a time when he would not have been invited and he would not have come.
Though Catholics and Protestants disagree frequently on theological matters, dialogue between the faith groups has been going on for years. On several social issues such as opposition to abortion and homosexuality many evangelicals and Catholics find common ground.
What distinguished this meeting was that the subject went beyond usual ecumenical dialogue to a topic of mutual concern – the “breakdown of the family and the deterioration of the respect for human life,” said Russell Hittinger, a law professor at the University of Tulsa and a Catholic who was one of the conference’s 20-plus speakers.
Conference participant, the Rev. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and president of the Acton Institute, said Vatican officials told him they could not recall a similar meeting involving such high-level evangelical Protestants taking place at the Vatican.
“This kind of communication, this kind of dialogue, it’s not an attempt to negotiate the truth, but to approach it together in a bond of fraternal love,” Sirico said. “Part of the thing is to get over the hump of knowing each other. I think that’s what’s beginning to happen here.”
The Vatican is expected to release a six-page statement this month summing up the Nov. 27-29 conference, which was co-sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a Grand Rapids, Mich., think-tank that blends conservative religious and free-market business views.
Dobson, who spoke mostly about issues facing boys, the topic of an upcoming book, was not available for comment Friday, said Paul Hetrick, a Focus on the Family spokesman.
Dobson, whose media and broadcast ministry boasts a 2.4 million-person mailing list, was among a smaller group of speakers who met briefly with the pope after his weekly general audience. Hetrick said he didn’t think the two had time to talk during the meeting.
According to Catholic News Service, Dobson praised the Catholic church for its efforts to protect the family.
Dobson was quoted as saying that although he has theological differences with the Catholic church: “when it comes to the family, there is far more agreement than disagreement, and with regard to moral issues from abortion to premarital sex, safe-sex ideology and homosexuality, I find more in common with Catholics than with some of my evangelical brothers and sisters.”
Hittinger, the law professor, said conference participants agreed that Christians should continue pressing their issues in the political realm, but more importantly need to evangelize people and “convert their minds and heart.”
(Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette and is used here by permission.)