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Evangelicals & Catholics session features Neuhaus, Gros, George

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Three noted theologians, who have worked together on Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) documents and as individuals on the topic of unity, shared thoughts and clarified the message of ECT Oct. 2 at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

ECT has brought to the fore diverse issues of ecclesiology, the aspect of theology that deals with the doctrine of the church, acknowledged Richard John Neuhaus, president of Religion and Public Life, during a session of “Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail: Evangelical Conversations.” The two-day program was sponsored by Samford’s Beeson Divinity School.

“Our Lord intended that there should be one everyday reality: Christ and his church. The scandal is that we aren’t one. We are brothers and sisters, and we do not live as one,” Neuhaus said.

Respondents were Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George and Jeffrey Gros, associate director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Neuhaus traced the beginnings of the ECT movement to the early 1990s, when it was grounded in the pro-life movement.

“We have already seen what can happen when Christians converge in unity,” he said.

An important part of the first ECT document in 1994 was the statement recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, Neuhaus said. “Many evangelicals had not been raised to think of Catholics in that way,” he said.

Few Catholics oppose the work of ECT, Neuhaus said. “Being a Catholic is not so much about not being something else. It is the Catholic belief that the saving graces of God are by no means limited to the Catholic Church,” said Neuhaus, citing action of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which set forth that Christ and the church are co-terminate. “When someone is connected to Christ, they must be connected to the church because the body and the head can never be separated.”

Christian unity is necessary, he said, “because we are one. From the Catholic point of view, the goal of Christian unity is the full communion of all Christians.”

In his view, the goal of ECT is not that everybody become Catholic, Neuhaus said. “ECT has no great plan for reorganizing any of the major religious institutions, but seeks to recognize the unity that is ours as brothers and sisters in Christ.”

For several years, Catholic and evangelic theologians have been studying the issue of Scripture and tradition, a major difference between the two communities, he said, noting that publication of a new statement on this theme is planned for the spring of 2002.

“All of this is the work of Christ before it is our work. The only unity pleasing to God is the unity that is established in truth. The only thing that truly brings us together in Christ is truth. Our task is that of obedience,” Neuhaus said.

In response, Gros noted Vatican II’s impact on today’s Catholics. “Catholics are in revival because of Vatican II. More Bible reading, more laypeople and deacons are involved, and there is a return to the values of the gospels.”

Regarding ECT, Gros observed that on the Catholic side, the evangelical side is hardly taken into account. “The evangelicals, in a positive way, are yet to occur on the scanner,” he said, adding that there is a need to help people understand that there is more to evangelicalism than an anti-Catholic sentiment.

“But I believe evangelicals need to know that we are Bible-believing Christians, who always had the Bible as the center of our faith. We keep a closer connection between the invisible church and the visible church than is true of Protestants, and evangelicals in particular,” Gros said.

Beeson’s dean, Timothy George, noted that evangelicals have often been defined by their “contrarian impulse.”

“We’ve not been as well known for what we are for, as for what we are against,” George said.

“Evangelicalism is a renewal movement in historic Christian orthodoxy,” he said. “Evangelicals accept the apostolic witness of the early church, as well as the great themes of the Protestant Reformation, and the many movements of awakening from the Methodist revival to Pentecostalism,” George said.

He noted several reasons why conversations between evangelicals and Catholics are difficult, beginning with the “virulent nativism” that is part of American culture. “That fear has subsided, but not been eliminated,” he said, noting that the scars of persecutions, “on both sides of the confessional divide,” extend back through centuries. The two groups, he said, must come to a reconciliation of shared memories. Also, he noted, many evangelicals find it difficult to think that they could enter into dialogue with Catholics without compromising.

George took issue with Neuhaus’ reference that the church can only be used in a singular sense.

“Scripture uses it in the plural. Paul writes letters to churches. Individual churches must repent and return to Christ, or else they can cease to be,” George said. “Evangelicals would say that churches can come and go, but the one true church to which all believers belong comprises all of God’s redeemed people through the ages.”

While ECT builds on the things that the two groups can affirm together, such as the Trinity and salvation through Christ alone, the documents “make clear the differences we still have,” George said. “Truth doesn’t always burst forth with absolute clarity and fullness at once.”

George described types of ecumenism, such as that “of the trenches,” identified by the common stand Evangelicals and Catholics took on the sanctity of human life. The ECT process, he said, has been guided by an ecumenism of conviction, not of accommodation, and an ecumenism of fellowship has followed.

“All who truly believe in Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters in the Lord, regardless of denominational differences,” George said.
He also pointed to the ecumenism of common witness in a world that needs people who follow Jesus Christ to demonstrate God’s love and grace in their relationships with one another. This common witness, he said, must be based on the biblical and apostolic witnesses of the Christian faith.

Largely because of this, George said, evangelicals can have a common witness with Catholics that they can’t have with Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness and many other sectarian groups.

“Pilgrims on the Sawdust Trail” also included sessions devoted to conversations among evangelicals and fundamentalists, Pentecostals and mainline Protestants.

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  • Mary Wimberley