The Catholic and the Evangelical, faced by a Culture of Death that hates them both without much distinction, have, in the past 30 years, seen many of their quarrels fade in significance before the specter of Mordor, stretching forth its arm to extirpate the Judeo-Christian worldview from our culture.
This is not, of course, to say that educated Catholics and educated Evangelicals are now pretending to “really be saying the same thing”. Often we are not. But far more often, we are. We really can recite virtually all the Apostles or Nicene Creed in common and-but for the meaning of the clause “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”-mean the same thing. Contrasted with the culture of death, our unanimity of witness to the Lord Jesus Christ is what is most impressive. It is a “mere Christian” unity that can still move among the walking dead of contemporary culture like an army of saints-if only we will do it.
To that end, I wish to offer a few observation about how we Catholics might better work together with Evangelicals in the common task of what Peter Kreeft calls “ecumenical jihad.”
Don’t Fight Cultural Cross-Fertilization, Welcome It
Catholic and Evangelical differ in far more than theology: they differ in culture too. Catholic culture is feminine. Evangelical culture is masculine. Catholic culture and piety are inward, contemplative, Marian, emphasizing familial bonds, and sacramental. Prayer is done in order to achieve union. Evangelical culture and piety are mission-oriented, abstract, emphasizing personal responsibility (though often with a “team” rather than a “family” emphasis) and Scripture-centered. Prayer is done in order to get something accomplished.
Be it noted that neither of these cultural approaches are wrong or unbiblical. But both invite confusion when the two parties are looking at each other. That’s why, when they are ill-disposed to each other, Catholics so plausibly look “dead” to Evangelicals (“They never talk about their Faith! They don’t know the Bible! It’s all ritual!”) while Evangelicals so plausibly look “shallow” to Catholics (“They have no interior life! All they do is chatter pre-recorded Scripture passages at you! Everything’s about the latest hubbub and fad!”). The problem, typically, is not really with Catholic or Evangelical piety: it’s with our tendency to be ill-disposed to things we are unfamiliar with. And the proof of this is that, as familiarity increases, each culture starts to look longingly across the fence at the other and try to find ways to imitate it. Thus, Evangelicals began (about 20 years ago due to the good offices of Evangelical Quaker Richard Foster and his superb Celebration of Discipline) to discover the Catholic spiritual masters such as St. Teresa of Avila and the Catholic spiritual disciplines The result was that Evangelicals began to find great Catholic saints were “real Christians” (i.e, Christians with a serious devotion to Jesus as Lord and not mere ritualists) and that Catholic spirituality was, in fact, Christian. Moreover, they began to seek out the Catholic feminine way these often embody, with happy results. Foster’s spiritual children are multiplying in Evangelicalism. The feminine has fertilized the masculine.
Meanwhile, lay Catholics have (due to the good offices of converts like Dr. Scott Hahn and other members of the bumper crop of Evangelical converts in the past 15 years or so) begun to discover that masculine, verbal, bible-emphatic, evangelistic, mission-oriented approaches to the Faith are not inherently “un-Catholic” and can, in fact, be nicely expressed in Catholic Christianity with exciting and winsome results. Catholic Christianity has, paradoxically, begun to recover its evangelizing voice in a major way due, paradoxically, to the cross-fertilization of Evangelical culture into its ranks.
Watch What They Do and/or Mean, Not What They Say
Jesus tells the story of the two sons who were asked to work in the vineyard by their father. The first said, “Yes” and then didn’t do it. The second said “No!” and then went anyway (Matthew 21:28-31). I met a couple of those Number Two Sons on a web board I frequent, when somebody asked whether “good pagans” might be saved. A frequent Protestant poster who said he rejected Purgatory weighed in with the startling announcement that “good pagans” would probably “repent in hell” and then be saved.
Now, to be sure, the thought, as expressed, was incompatible with Catholic teaching. And indeed, several Catholics wrote to point out that there is no possibility of “repentance in hell” since hell is, by definition, the fate of the absolutely impenitent. But I think such folks were missing the point by listening to the words, but not the meaning behind the words. Sure, the poster was confused in his thought processes. But think: What was he really getting at? In essence, the man who thought they didn’t believe in Purgatory expressed a conviction that people who have been open to grace imperfectly in this life might, after death, experiencing a cleansing pain that will bring them fully into conformity with the life of the Blessed Trinity.
It’s called “purgatory”, and his notion largely conformed to Catholic teaching.
This leads to the cheerful phenomenon which I have christened “eupocrisy”: the strange talent some humans have for being untrue to their worst words (as distinct from hypocrisy, which is the sad talent we have for being untrue to our best words). My rule of thumb is that Catholics should rejoice over every eupocritical statement made by opponents of the Faith and not waste too much time trying to arm-wrestle people into believing things they already believe.
So before Catholics rush off to argue with somebody against their alleged belief in salvation by “faith alone” they should stop and listen. Does the person use a slogan like “faith alone saves” and then go on to explain “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone”? If so, then they are essentially embracing the incarnational Catholic view of salvation as involving the whole person. Does the person deny the reality of mortal and venial sin with catch-phrases like “all is sin is sin” but then go on to distinguish between “stumbling” (sinning in a minor way) and “backsliding” (sinning so as to kill our relationship with Christ)? If so, you are looking at somebody who believes in mortal and venial sin and doesn’t realize they do. Is your non-Catholic friend opposed to the idea of “merit” while emphatically insisting that “he who sows to the Spirit shall reap of the Spirit” (Galatians 6:8)? Guess what? He believes in merit anyway! In short, Evangelicalism is often about the business of recapitulating Catholic ideas in different garb. Which brings me to my last point:
Remember Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila
The Second Vatican Council sagely directs us to view such folks in a charitable “glass-half-full” rather than a polemical “glass-half-empty” manner: hence the term “separated brethren”.
And with good reason: most of us Catholics are theologically “half-full” as well. Almost none of us are absolutely perfect compendiums of accurate theological knowledge. Yet God chooses to use us now, when we still often don’t know what we are talking about, and educates us as we walk. Therefore we should take the same attitude with one another.
The biblical model for this is found in Acts 18:24-28 when a gung-ho young preacher who didn’t quite know what he was talking about went around sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ even though he did not know anything about sacramental baptism. His name was Apollos and God did not sit up in heaven saying, “Sorry. I won’t bless your ministry till you’re absolutely totally 100% doctrinally perfect.” Neither did he leave Apollos where he was.
Instead, He blessed Apollos’ work and He sent Priscilla and Aquila, not to fuss at Apollos for making converts to a “false gospel” but to “expound to him the way of God more accurately”. As a result of this happy synergy, Apollos went off and became a great Catholic evangelist.
So welcome cultural cross-fertilization. Listen to the meaning and look at the deeds before you latch onto the words. And take the hint given by Priscilla and Aquila. Rejoice over all those Evangelical Apolloses rescuing people from the Culture of Death. And pray that in those pockets of resistance to love, Evangelicalism will continue to drop their prejudices against the Catholic Priscillas and Aquilas. There’s too much to lose in the coming Millennium to needlessly prolong the conflicts of the last one.