Catholics vs. Evangelicals

Author: Mary Jo Anderson


Mary Jo Anderson

ECT was an open appeal for Christians to end fraternal conflicts which "give aid and comfort to the enemies of the cause of Christ." The final document emerged from a two-year discussion designed to address tensions in Latin America where Catholics and evangelical missionaries have been engaged in open conflict. Its main authors were Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of the Institute of Religion and Public Life and Chuck Colson, founder of the Prison Fellowship.

It was agreed during these meetings, anticipating John Paul II's most recent encyclical, <That They May Be One>, that Scripture "makes unity of true Christians an essential—a prerequisite for Christian evangelism." Further discussions resulted in a 28-page non-binding accord, "which cannot speak officially for our communities. It does intend to speak responsibly—from our communities and to our communities."

ECT does not turn a blind eye to doctrinal difference. It specifically notes that serious difficulties still co-exist alongside the greater imperative for Christians to present a unified front against secular culture. The document concedes that no attempt has been made to obscure serious differences, but rather to focus on what Christians can affirm together.

Catholics at large seem to accept this; the Catholic signatories have suffered little criticism. Meanwhile their evangelical counterparts are enduring a firestorm of debate. In the name of "justification by faith alone," leading evangelicals are accusing Protestant declaration signers of turning their backs on Luther and the Reformation. The evangelical signers of ECT—including Chuck Colson, J. I. Packer, Pat Robertson, and Bill Bright—have been under relentless attack for over a year from John Ankerberg, D. James Kennedy, John McArthur, and R. C. Sproul for "selling out" the Gospel to Rome.

Ankerberg has videotaped and broadcast on cable TV a series of discussions with McArthur and Sproul during which they claim that Catholics are cursed under their own anathema, since the Council of Trent, for having falsified the Gospel. McArthur writes in his book <Reckless Faith> that having "abandoned the true faith for 'another gospel,'" Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, "are not entitled to be embraced as members of Christ's body." The mission of ECT, the dissenters claim, is not the Gospel with its message of eternal salvation, but a "false unity" based upon a worldly goal of political and religious cooperation.

Dissenters also find fault with the resolve of ECT not to engage in "sheep stealing," that is, deliberately proselytizing members of other Christian denominations. For McArthur, this leaves "trapped millions of Catholics in a system of superstitious and religious ritual that insulates them from the glorious liberty of the true gospel of Christ .... That is, they should not be approached by evangelicals and told that no amount of sacraments or good works can make them acceptable to God."

For the dissenters, the intent of ECT, to promote Christian cooperation in facing the present cultural crisis, is secondary to the issue of whether or not Catholics are really Christians, whether or not they follow the "true Gospel," whether or not they are "truly saved." As R. C. Sproul, Jr. has put it, "We have a great deal in common with Rome. But if they [Catholics] believe the doctrines of their church, they are not Christians." Sproul further adds that signing the declaration implies an acceptance of Roman Catholic doctrine.

The division has spawned a flurry of clarifying documents issued by signatories in response to demands of their critics within the evangelical fold. John McArthur explains why some evangelicals signed ECT, "As the pressure mounts for evangelicals to succeed in the political realm and fight for cultural morality they often capitulate to the New Ecumenism."

Bowing to this kind of pressure, several signers, including Richard Land and Larry Lewis of the Southern Baptist Convention, have removed their names from the document. Some who let their names remain have been urged to issue statements clarifying their attitudes toward Catholicism.

The evangelical endorsers of ECT who resisted the pressure to recant their support reaffirmed their belief in the two pillars of the Reformation—<sola scriptura> (Scripture alone) and <sola fide> (faith alone). However, they declare, failure to assent to these reformation principles does not "in itself disqualify one from the salvation promised to those who believe in the Lord Jesus."

"That assumption in itself represents a monumental doctrinal shift," wrote McArthur. The shift is fundamental for dissenters who insist that unless these two principles are upheld as the defining doctrine of salvation, the Reformation is null and void.

Other endorsers have emphasized the opportunity ECT provides for presenting the Gospel to Catholics. Commenting on his meeting with his evangelical detractors, Bill Bright wrote to his supporters that ECT "facilitated our evangelism in Catholic countries." He argued that removing his name from the document could result in the loss of salvation for many Catholic souls: "Since the ECT Statement had already helped us reach more Catholics in other countries, the Holy Spirit brought tears to my eyes before these men [McArthur and Sproul] as I explained that repudiating the agreement would probably cause tens of millions of Catholics to not hear the gospel and to be eternally lost."

Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ International, in fact, has targeted Spain for mission work. One wonders if Campus Crusaders will remember ECT's distinction between legitimate evangelization and sheep-stealing?

While this controversy underlines the residual anti-Catholicism that has long been nurtured among some Protestant sects, it also threatens the unity of evangelicals themselves. As McArthur states, "This may become one of the most hotly contested issues of the decade. The future of evangelicalism hangs in the balance."

How should Catholics view ECT and this growing division in the evangelical movement? While evangelical objectors insist that the present moral crisis does not provide sufficient motivation to condone collaborating with Catholicism, Catholics have an opportunity to respond positively on two fronts.

Primary emphasis should be given to re-evangelizing our own Catholic people. It is a sobering realization that the first goal for some signers of ECT was to find a legitimate door through which they can begin proselytizing Catholics. Catholics must be alert to this very real threat.

The <Catechism of the Catholic Church> is a potent instrument with which to begin our re-evangelization effort. Millions of Catholics do not understand their faith, having accepted it, not "personally" but from their family or culture. As parishioners, parents, teachers, lay ministers, as anyone engaged in defending the faith, we should urge our bishops, clergy, and parents to teach from the <Catechism>. The best defense against false teaching is knowledge of the truth.

Catholics, as never before, have the tools with which to become apologists. The faithful need to learn the standard evangelical opening lines, and be prepared to explain baptism as the initiation of grace in the life of the believer. Catholics must teach their teenagers how to meet the "are you saved?" challenge they are sure to meet on college campuses.

Catholic parents have both the joy and obligation of passing on the faith to their children. "The mission to educate demands that Christian parents present to their children all the topics necessary for . . . a Christian and ecclesial point of view . . . its principal aims are these: that as baptized persons are gradually introduced into a knowledge of the mystery of salvation they may daily grow more conscious of the gift of faith which they have received" (<Familiaris consortio> 39).

Catholics should be impressed with the need for right-giving, which means a reordering of our philanthropy. How is it that an evangelical organization can pull millions of dollars from their followers for spreading their brand of salvation while Catholics presume on the mercy of the Holy Spirit to spread the truth? Catholics are guilty of smug complacency. Catholics must support authentically Catholic apologetic efforts, pro-life groups, seminaries, parish schools, colleges, publications, and radio-TV ministries. It is sad and unnecessary to watch anyone, young or old, reject the Church, especially when it is due to the misinformation spread by anti-Catholic evangelists.

Secondly, taking our cue from the evangelists who endorse ECT, Catholics should desire ecumenical alliances that strengthen the Christian presence in our culture. ECT was a timely idea and its authors and signers should be congratulated. Yet, Catholics have an even greater opportunity.

Catholics have the opportunity to capitalize on an unprecedented moment in which many evangelicals are open to Jesus' prayer "that they may all be one" even as Christ and the Father are one. The unfortunate erosion of confidence in the philosophical basis of Western morality has impelled many men of good will to seek a common ground in Christ. The Catholic commitment to sanctified family life, the unborn, and the correct moral order are fruits of the Church led by the Holy Spirit; thus, they are good works done by the grace of God.

Our separated brothers have witnessed the steady stream of scholars and ministers find the path to the Catholic Church. The conversions of Peter Kreeft, Richard John Neuhaus, Deal Hudson, Scott Hahn, Tom Howard, Steve Wood, Gerry Matatics, the Duchess of Kent, Bishop Graham Leonard, not to mention whole Anglican parishes, stand as eloquent refutation to the charge that Catholicism is a mindless, rote "system" for people who don't "know the good Book." Many Protestants have begun to see that the fruit of the Reformation cannot ripen to the fullness they naturally desire. Many are just waiting to be shown the way home.

For the first time since the Reformation evangelicals are drawing upon the heritage of Catholic moral theology with its emphasis on the development of virtue and character. Catholic moral theology has remained faithful, throughout history, to the tradition of wisdom which draws upon both Rome and Jerusalem. Many evangelicals have acknowledged the superiority of its natural law foundation as an antidote to the moral relativism of the present age.

With John Paul II, a visible warrior against the evil of this age, Catholics can warmly welcome alliances with evangelicals to redress the secularity of our time. This pope has captured the hearts of many non-Catholics who cannot deny that he is led by God. In our ecumenical struggle together, we Catholics, by example and commitment, by teaching and love, can welcome home our family members who have been away from the Lord's table too long.

Mary Jo Anderson writes from Orlando, Florida.

This article was taken from the October 1995 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: