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On the 40th anniversary of the first Evangelical-Catholic dialogue on mission

The starting point of the 1977 conversations was how Catholics and Evangelicals serve the same mission of evangelizing, drawing people to God, using different approaches but serving the same call.

Pope Francis attends a special audience with members of the German Evangelical-Lutheran Church at the Vatican Dec. 18, 2014. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

The term evangelical can be confusing sometimes as different meanings are attached to the word. In Europe evangelical refers to Lutherans to distinguish them from the Reformed or Calvinist; in the United States the term refers to a range of conservative churches including Pentecostal, Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Charismatic, and others. A student who was taking an ecumenism course with me once asked about evangelical and what the term really meant: “Aren’t all Christians, Catholics included, called to be evangelical? Aren’t all Christians committed to spreading the Gospel?” The questions led a to lively class discussion about why this term refers specifically to Evangelicals when Catholics are, in fact, evangelicals. A few students shared their experiences with Saint Paul’s Outreach and FOCUS, which are active and evangelizing groups on campus. The conclusion reached by these millennials was that being evangelical or active in mission—go into all the world and “preach the gospel to all creation” (Mk 16:15)—is a point of unity between Catholics and Evangelicals as they are both called to evangelize and give testimony in what St. John Paul II called in Redemptoris Missio (1990) a “springtime for the Gospel.” I realized that my students had hit the nail on the head!

Mission unites

This year is the fortieth anniversary of the first (Venice, Italy 1977) of three consecutive meetings between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics (Cambridge-England 1982, and Landévennec-France in April 1984). The meetings, sponsored by the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, produced Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission (ERCDM), an important document recording the start of dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals. Although the document is not an official statement by the Catholics and Evangelicals there is good reason to commemorate and celebrate the first encounter in 1977. The three consecutive meetings (1977-1984) marked the start of a new era in Evangelical-Catholic dialogue. The conversations were signs of a nascent ecumenism between Catholics and Evangelicals. In the list of the meetings’ participants, one can notice some distinguished scholars on both sides. Moreover, the participants were professionally trained theologians and missiologists coming from different parts of the world who authentically presented their faith from within. This was the start of Evangelical-Roman Catholic ecumenical journey towards Ut unum sint.

The starting point of the 1977 conversations was mission and how Catholics and Evangelicals serve the same mission of evangelizing, drawing people to God, using different approaches but serving the same call. The intention to begin with what unites—evangelizing—rather than the differences was an excellent starting point for dialogue. The hot buttons which separate Catholics and Evangelicals were treated by putting them in the service of mission. From the first encounters, participants regretted differences which undermined the Christian witness of the Gospel. Additionally, the document pointed out that differences between Catholics and Evangelicals over ecclesiology, sacramentalism, the papacy, Scripture and Tradition, Eucharist and the Real Presence, the Virgin Mary and other issues were still divisive, but the participants discussed the theological differences in the spirit of Gospel truth. The participants realized that perhaps the areas of agreement on Revelation, the unique natures of Christ, and the Trinitarian roots of mission between Evangelicals and Catholics outweighed disagreements.

The ERCDM document concluded on a positive note that “every possible opportunity for common witness should be taken.” Building bridges on commonalities and seeing where the Spirit leads has been the essence of Evangelical-Catholic ecumenical dialogue. The 1977-1984 meetings opened the door to the 1994 document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), signed by Evangelical and Catholic distinguished scholars and Church leaders. The road to move forward lay wide open.

Recent pontiffs and dialogue with Evangelicals

Two encyclicals of St. John Paul II in 1995 give new verve to Evangelical-Catholic relations. Ut Unum Sint (UUT) and Evangelium Vitae (EV) encouraged Catholics to make contacts and conversations part of “a common heritage” and to continue to build on commonalities. UUT met the concerns of the Evangelicals for its confirmation on Truth, i.e., doctrinal and objective Truth, while condemning anything that jeopardizes the Deposit of Faith:

Here it is not a question of altering the deposit of faith, changing the meaning of dogmas, eliminating essential words from them, accommodating truth to the preferences of a particular age, or suppressing certain articles of the Creed under the false pretext that they are no longer understood today. The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. (UUT, 18)

St. John Paul II’s emphasis on doctrine and the Deposit of Faith was met with enthusiasm by Evangelicals, as some doctrinal laxity resulting after Vatican II was a cause for concern for Evangelicals. The second point of agreement UUT brought to the dialogue was the “mutual help in the search for truth” (no. 78) considered to be a “sublime form of evangelical charity” (no. 78), although disagreements between Catholic and Evangelicals still remained.

EV brought forth another level of agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals. St. John Paul II explained in EV that for Catholics to be faithful to the Gospel and to the integrity of the human person, who is made in the image of God, required social engagement and advocacy supporting the culture of life. So besides mission and evangelization, EV added social activism and the culture of life to the points of agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals.

Pope Benedict XVI, with his sharp and lucid theological insights, continued in the UUT tradition. Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World (2011), co-authored and signed by the Catholic Church, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the World Council of Churches, follows the principles of common witness and common heritage as a basis for ecumenical dialogue.

Evangelical-Catholic dialogue under Pope Francis

Pope Francis had given his support to the Evangelical-Catholic dialogue before he became a pontiff. On June 19, 2006, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio attended the Third Fraternal Encounter of the Renewed Communion of Evangelicals and Catholics held in Luna Park stadium in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The highlight of the meeting was when Cardinal Bergoglio fell to his knees on the stage to be blessed by twenty Evangelical pastors. The Evangelicals laying hands on Bergoglio caused criticism and controversy in some Catholic circles. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this event in the eyes of Bergoglio’s critics was not the fact that the cardinal accepted the blessing from Protestant ministers, but that Bergoglio appeared to be genuinely mystified as to why anyone would find his actions objectionable. This is how Christianity Today described the event: “He [Bergoglio] mounted the platform and called for pastors to pray for him, He knelt in front of nearly 6,000 people and [Protestant leaders] laid hands and prayed,” adding that “Bergoglio has played a central role in Argentina’s CRECES (Renewal Communion of Catholics and Evangelicals in the Holy Spirit) movement over the past ten years, and has strongly supported the Argentine [Protestant] Bible society.”

Moreover, Bergoglio seated at the same table—himself in the middle, the Jewish rabbi Abraham Skorka and Protestant minister Marcelo Figueroa, a pastor of the Presbyterian Church, co-author of a recent article Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism—for a series of inter-religious conversations broadcasted by Canal 21, the television channel of the archdiocese of Buenos Aires. The conversations were later published in a book in Italian by Libreria Editrice Vaticana, the official Vatican Press, with the title: Conversations on the Bible. That cycle of conversations was interrupted at its thirty-second episode by Bergoglio’s election to the papacy. The thirty-third episode, which was left unproduced, was going to focus on “friendship,” as Figueroa later explained in the Roman Observer.

Francis’s 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG) reminded Christians of a renewed personal encounter with Christ similar to Protestant-Evangelical conversionism, which stresses the personal commitment and experience of Christ, as Francis wrote in paragraph 27 of EG:

I dream of a ‘missionary option,’ that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.

This approach is cause for concern in ecclesiology, as Evangelical conversionism undermines the role of the Church. For Francis, mission and evangelizing is a dynamic, two-way transformative process: through evangelizing the Church draws people to God, but she is also transformed in the way. The “laying of the hands” and Evangelicals praying for a future pope as well as EG indicate openness and dialogue on the part of Bergoglio towards Evangelicals. Moreover, Pope Francis’s ecumenism is a work in progress, under construction, always evolving, as he said in the press conference on the return flight from the Apostolic Journey in Egypt on May 1, 2017:

There is no such thing as a static ecumenism. It is true that the theologians must study and agree amongst themselves, but this will never have a successful outcome unless we move forward. What can we do now? We must do what is possible: pray together, work together, exercise acts of charity together… But together! This is what it means to move forward.

Since the first unofficial meetings beginning forty years ago, in 1977, Evangelicals and Catholics have made progress building on common ground and giving collective testimony on the Christian message. Evangelizing and a call to mission go hand in hand with ecumenism. Through dialogue Evangelicals and Catholics will overcome divides and strive to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Eph. 4:4-6). Where there is harmony there is victory: Ubi concordia, ibi Victoria—and this is what we all hope will happen.

About Ines Angeli Murzaku 8 Articles
Ines Angeli Murzaku (http://academic.shu.edu/orientalia/) is Professor of Church History and Director of Catholic Studies Program at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Her research has been published in multiple articles and seven books, the most recent Life of St Neilos of Rossano (1004) (Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University Press 2017). Prof. Murzaku is currently writing a book entitled Mother Teresa: The Saint of the Peripheries Who Became Catholicism’s Centerpiece (Paulist Press 2018). She is a regular contributor and commentator to media outlets on religious matters including the Associated Press, CNN, National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report, Voice of America, Relevant Radio, The Catholic Thing, Crux, Salt and Light, The Record, The Stream, Radio Tirana (Albania), Vatican Radio, and EWTN (Rome).

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