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Ecumenism, influence-envy, and the real Manichean division

The honest engagement of differences in service to evangelical vigor is not advanced by the systematic misrepresentation of others’ views, by the puerile bullying of bishops, or by indulging in spasms of influence-envy.

(CNS photo)

Defending the indefensible is never pretty. Or so we’re reminded by recent attempts from the portside of the Catholic commentariat to defend the madcap analysis of America’s alleged “ecumenism of hate” that appeared last month in the Italian Catholic journal, La Civiltà Cattolica (edited by the Jesuits of Rome and published after vetting by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See). The more sober-minded defenders admit that the article, jointly authored by Fr. Anthony Spadaro, SJ, and Pastor Marcelo Figueroa, contains errors of fact and tendentious interpretations of recent history – but then go on to suggest that it raises important questions. How, though, are serious questions raised, much less clarified or answered, by falsifications of both history and contemporary reality?  

Other defenders of the Spadaro/Figueroa article, less chastened by the self-evident fact that the article would receive a thumping “F” in a freshman religious studies course at any reputable college, have taken the occasion of the article to scrape their various boils and indulge in the very Manichean division of the ecclesial world into children of light and children of darkness the article condemns. One of these boils involves a project I helped launch and in which I’ve been engaged for over two decades: the study group known as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”

A post Spadaro-Figueroa editorial in the National Catholic Reporter charged that ECT, as it’s widely known, is a prominent example of “Catholic complicity in the politicization of faith;” that the participants in the original ECT statement, from which the study group takes its name, were on the “outer conservative edges” of their communities “before the landscape fades to irrational extremes;” and that the original statement “ill-served” Catholics, evangelical Protestants, the cause of the Gospel, and the health of American public life. Moreover, the NCR grimly warns “bishops and those who staff their offices” against conceding to “the visions of ideologues in think-tanks and institutes with an absolutist and narrow agenda.” For in doing so (by, presumably, embracing the ECT agenda) these bishops and staff “have squandered their standing and credibility in the wider culture.” 

Oh, dear. Where to begin?

ECT is an ongoing project, which has now produced nine joint statements, with a tenth, an explanation of Christianity to its contemporary cultured despisers, coming soon. Five of the first nine—on justification, Scripture, the communion of saints, the universal call to holiness, and the Blessed Virgin Mary—were entirely theological in character and had nothing to do with political controversies. Those that touched on contested issues – the statements on the sanctity of life, on religious freedom, and on marriage—set the discussion of public policy in an explicitly biblical and theological context (as, indeed, did the initial ECT statement the Reporter editorial deplores).

The five theological statements measure up well against similar documents from other ecumenical dialogues of the past half-century; an honest Catholic liberal, Notre Dame’s Lawrence Cunningham, recommended all the ECT statements for “the pertinence of their concerns and the sophistication of their theological argument.”  From the very outset of our joint work, ECT participants have made it clear that we speak from and to our various Churches and ecclesial communities, not for them. We have also scrupulously described our differences, with a concern for expressing the “other’s” views accurately.

But don’t just take my word for it. Get the book that collects the first nine ECT documents and explains both the genesis of the project and of each statement: Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Issues, edited by Timothy George and Thomas G. Guarino (Brazos Press). Read it. Then compare what you read with the NCR editorial.

In his June address to the U.S. bishops, Archbishop Christoph Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, appealed for a Church that listens more, “even to those with whom we disagree,” because the honest engagement of differences helps us all “propose the…Gospel in a more persuasive, life-changing way.” True enough. The honest engagement of differences in service to evangelical vigor is not advanced, however, by the systematic misrepresentation of others’ views, by the puerile bullying of bishops, or by indulging in spasms of influence-envy. Moreover, the Nuncio’s welcome appeal to become a Church of missionary disciples—Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission”—will only be answered if we see today’s challenging, but evangelically exciting, situation clearly; and such clarity of vision requires something other than lenses ground in the 1970s.  

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About George Weigel 428 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. While it is important to have a dialectic about policy; Matt. 22:21 – Why don’t you Europeans worry about Europe and let Americans worry about America? We sure could use another strong leader like JP2 as Bishop of Rome.

  2. Let’s work together with non-Catholics toward ending abortion = Ecumenism of hate

    It doesn’t matter what you believe = Ecumenism of Vatican II

    Which one is in favor in Rome today (or for the last 50 years)?

  3. “President Trump’s evangelical advisory board is asking Pope Francis for meetings with him and other high-level Vatican officials to discuss ‘efforts to divide evangelicals and Catholics.’ The request, which was first reported in Time, comes a few weeks after two of Francis’s closest allies published an extremely critical article about the shared political activism of conservative evangelicals and Catholics, saying it has ‘an ideology of conquest'” (Michelle Boorstein The Wash Post Aug 7). A relevant article since the issue addressed is not going away. I suppose there are “spasms of influence-envy”, a Manichean division of good guys [apparently Spadaro Figueroa Progressives] and bad guys [Faithful Catholics and more Catholic than Spadaro Figueroa Evangelicals]. The Evangelicals challenge the Pontiff on his Biblical interpretation regarding “walls” referring to border security. In fact it’s more than influence envy. The Catholic Evangelical alliance challenges Pontifical policy on immigration. Particularly the flooding of Europe with Muslims. And more. Rather than Christianity being conquered by Islam the Pontiff perceives the opposite. It’s not so much lenses ground in the Seventies. It’s Jaundiced vision.

    • As a convert from the Southern Baptists to the Catholic Church, I’m afraid the issue is much deeper than immigration, however important that might be. It’s about the fundamental question of our times: Are their ANY moral norms that “the strong” — be they political leaders, religious leaders, or academic researchers — are unable to change, let alone make the changes binding on “the weak”? In the final analysis, does might really make right? The traditional answer is of course that might certainly does NOT make right, but today all of the secular world and most religious bodies seem convinced that it DOES. This question is basically the same as the second of the five dubia submitted to the Pope by four cardinals — dubia that the Pope, his reputation for humility notwithstanding, has not deigned to answer.

      Make no mistake about how important this question is. It is basically the question of whether or not there actually is a Logos — which even the pagan Greeks knew, though they had no way of knowing that the Logos would become flesh and dwell among us. This question is more important than the question of the existence of the United States or of the existence of Europe, to say nothing about the question of immigration into those places.

      • Howard it appears your comment is a response to my post. This reply to a commentator to another article “Pope Francis: Jesus went to the Cross for sinners, not the perfect” should convince you I’m in agreement. “Your impression is that of many, Laity as well a eminent clergy. Does the Pontiff promote a doctrine that places primacy of conscience in lieu of Apostolic Tradition when the unavoidable difficulties of the human condition call for mercy not condemnation? What he is saying based on many previous statements including the premises contained in Amoris Laetitia is that such conditions leave countless many without hope. Unless the Church takes the first step of offering absolution and the sacraments. In effect that Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion alone save the sinner. It removes the obligation to turn away from sin. A [presumed] merciful act. I quote the Catholic Catechism on what I believe is congruent with the “Mystery of Iniquity”. “The Church’s ultimate trial. 675 Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist”.

        • Let me be clear: I do not think the Pope is the Antichrist. It is impossible that any Pope could be the Antichrist, given the protection that the Holy Spirit gives the Church. However, we know from history that although some Popes have been great Saints, even Doctors of the Church, others have been vain, worldly, even petty, to say nothing of those who may have been personally holy, but have been inept in management or clumsy in articulating the Faith.

          Pope Francis has received a great deal of praise from the world, which is at least an addicting temptation. In my view, he has completely dropped the ball on several occasions, and I can see real damage that has been done — yes, he may be popular among many non-Catholics, but are they drawn by him to join the Church? And what of the many non-Catholics who were being drawn to the Church, but who have been discouraged by the apparently intentional ambiguity in his statements and actions? But whenever the Pope leaves me discouraged, he next does something like demand the Belgian Brothers of Charity break all ties with euthanasia.

          Perhaps part of the problem I have making sense of Pope Francis is the fact that, as a physics professor, I am much more in tune with the style of Pope Benedict — even when he was too hesitant, I could see that he was trying extra hard to make sure he dotted all his i’s and crossed all his t’s. Benedict was a German professor; Francis, for good or ill, is basically the opposite of a German professor. I could imagine Francis in Purgatory being forced to work through proofs in geometry, while Benedict in Purgatory might have to write beat poetry. (My own torments will be much, much worse, for what it’s worth.)

          It’s always tempting to treat the crisis du jour as a manifestation of the Antichrist, but it is really not hard to find crises as bad or worse in history. The deception of the Antichrist will be much more powerful, much more effective, and much less criticized.

          • I’m not alleging Pope Francis is the Antichrist Howard. What he is doing fits the pattern of the “iniquity” referred to in the Catechism. The Pontiff’s actions in respect to what I criticized in my initial response leave me convinced those actions are in the spirit of Antichrist. Primarily because of his virtual denial of the Logos.

  4. I am very proud and very impressed by Mr. Donahue of the Catholic League for sticking up for the American Catholic’s after we were attacked by Spadara & Figueroa.

    • The Catholic League would speak with greater authority if it did not seem to consist of Bill Donohue and no one but Bill Donohue. I know there are other people there, but they are kept silent in a way that reeks vaguely of a cult.

  5. Sad,sad article. Unite and don’t divide. The Gospel is clear on that, directly from the lips of Our Lord Jesus,and you are not helping. Academia and knowledge is different than Wisdom which comes from the Holy Spirit, and forgive me, but this is not what I sense from your article, as mean and divisive as the ones you attack. St. Paul in the First and Second Letters to Timothy, which I’m sure you know by heart, are very clear on this.

    • I have your book Witness to Hope, about my Pope (I loved him then and love now as Saint, John Paul 2). Words of Wisdom everywhere, The Engaged Ascetic, what an example. I find myself waiting from you Words of Wisdom not what I just read (oh dear……?

    • Spadaro/Figueroa write an article attacking the ECT. Weigel writes a clear essay, laying out the facts, defending the group.

      But he’s being divisive. What kind of logic do you use?

      • Portside (il) logic. Leftists cannot articulate or defend their assertions either secular or ecclesiastical using reason, history, rightly interpreted Scripture or tradition. That just leaves name calling and straw man arguments. I’ve ceased “dialogue” with them because I don’t traffic in emotional tirades and histrionics.

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