At a meeting of the Evangelical Alliance in New York in 1873 a delegate from Canada voiced an opinion that would have been shared by delegates. “The most formidable foe of living Christianity,” he said, “is not deism or atheism or any form of infidelity, but the nominally Christian Church of Rome.” I was brought up in an American evangelical home in the 1960s and this was one of our basic assumptions. Our church zealously supported missionaries, and we were always keen to hear of their work in South America, France or Italy, where the people’s hearts and minds were “darkened by the false gospel of the Catholic Church”. When I went to study at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, we heard regular imprecations against the Pope, who was known as the “archpriest of Satan”.
But within the last 30 years a remarkable rapprochement has developed between Evangelicals and Catholics in the United States. A fascinating new book by the Evangelical scholar Mark Noll, entitled Is the Reformation Over?, charts the growing convergence between mainstream Evangelicalism and the Catholic Church in America. It is absolutely vital to keep an eye on these developments simply because America, (love her or loathe her) pioneers developments which have a global echo. Catholicism and Evangelicalism are growing across the world. What we are seeing in the United States is the cutting edge of ecumenism for the 21st century.
Sometimes this new friendliness between Catholics and Evangelicals is perceived as nothing more than a conservative political phenomenon. Commentators say Catholics and Evangelicals seek alliances because they have a shared agenda on issues such as abortion, marriage, homosexuality, feminism and secularisation. This is true, but to see the new friendship as mere political opportunism misses the deeper unity of faith that exists between the two Christian factions.
The alliance is opening up because of a number of social and religious trends. The first is the decline of cultural Catholicism. When I was growing up in America, if your family was Polish, Irish, Italian or Hispanic, you were Catholic. If not, you were Protestant. Now these families are simply American. If they are Catholic they are committed Catholics. The cultural Catholics in America have deserted the Church to join either the Evangelical church or the country club.
Mass numbers and vocations have fallen in America, but Catholics who do go to church are far more likely to be paid-up, enthusiastic church members. They are individually committed to Christ, want to bring up their families in a dynamic and orthodox faith and want their religion to make a difference. This entrepreneurial and enthusiastic form of Catholicism is far closer to traditional Evangelicalism, with its individualistic emphasis, than the older forms of cultural Catholicism.
Another element is the influence of the Second Vatican Council. To put it simply, the Vatican Council brought the best elements of the Evangelical tradition into the Catholic Church. The new Catechism is an example: when Evangelicals read it they are thrilled to find how deeply it is rooted in Scripture; they are also disturbed to find how little they disagree with. The new openness of the post-Vatican II Church also means that Evangelicals no longer find themselves condemned as heretical outsiders. Instead, they are welcomed as brothers and sisters in Christ. This makes their traditional anti-Catholicism seem sour, backward and downright uncharitable.
As a result, Evangelicals are no longer frightened by the Catholic Church. Indeed, they are finding it very attractive. Since the 1960s Evangelicals have zoomed upward in social status and attained higher levels of education. As fundamentalists become more educated and better travelled they are naturally drawn to the historic Church. When they start looking at the Protestant churches that claim to be historical they are dismayed by the radical liberalism they find there. When looking for the “mere Christianity” of the historic faith they often end up looking longingly at the Catholic Church.
This has led large numbers of them to take the step their parents and grandparents could never have contemplated: converting to the Catholic Church. This is happening at the grass-roots level, but it is also happening at a higher level: influential converts such as the former Presbyterian pastors Scott Hahn and Marcus Grodi now exercise influential ministries in the Catholic Church. Journalists and apologists such as Tim Drake, Carl Olson, Steve Rea, Dave Armstrong and David Currie are all converts from Evangelicalism.
The convergence is changing the face of modern American Catholicism. One example is from the very buckle of the Bible Belt: the home of the Bob Jones University, no less. Fr Jay Scott Newman, a Baptist convert, is the pastor of the large downtown parish of St Mary’s, Greenville. In a town where Baptist ministers hold seminars on “How to reach your Catholic neighbour for Christ”, Fr Newman is starting a Centre for Evangelical Catholicism which weaves together traditional Catholic worship and teaching with Bible studies, solid preaching, good music and all the upbeat and zealous aspects of Evangelicalism.
Meanwhile, Fr Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor, is the Catholic half of a movement to bring Evangelicals and Catholics together to drive forward social change, as well as to discuss areas of doctrine, worship and mission. Fast-growing colleges such as Ave Maria University and Franciscan University of Steubenville are combining the best of the Evangelical renewal movement with all the strengths of a full-blooded Catholic faith.
The root of this new convergence is in a shared faith. Speaking as early as 1986, Mgr Graham Leonard (then still an Anglican bishop) predicted the realignment that is now taking place. At a lecture in Missouri, he said: “There is a realignment between those on the one hand who believe that the Christian Gospel is revealed by God, is to be heard and received and that its purpose is to enable men and women to obey God in love...
“On the other hand are those who believe that it can and should be modified and adapted to the cultural and intellectual attitudes and demands of successive generation, and indeed originates in them.” The first statement describes the worldview of historic Christianity. It is also the worldview of Evangelicals and Catholics. The second is something else altogether.
Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is Mary: An Evangelical-Catholic Debate. His books are available through his website, www.dwightlongenecker.com