[Editor’s Note: The Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica, reviewed by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State prior to publication, recently carried an article by two close friends of Pope Francis arguing that an “ecumenism of hate” between ‘Evangelical fundamentalists’ and ‘Catholic Integralists’ is gaining power in the United States. Given the significance of the article in Vatican-U.S. relations, Crux will be publishing a series of reactions to the piece.]
ROME — A recent Civiltà Cattolica article criticizing ecumenism between Evangelicals and “Catholic integralists” in the United States has created a cottage industry of commentary and analysis by leading thinkers, as well as provoking both an examination of conscience and a pondering of the state of ecumenism in the U.S. today.
Certain expressions by the authors, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro and Reverend Marcelo Figueroa, have elicited sharp responses, especially the assertion that for years Evangelicals and ultraconservative (“integralist”) Catholics have been engaged in an “ecumenism of conflict” or an “ecumenism of hate,” fueled not by faith but by an underlying “desire for religious influence in the political sphere.”
This very strong allegation deserves careful consideration, because, if true, it would undermine the very core of the Gospel message and would merit the opprobrium of any committed Christian. If not true, the authors should issue an apology to the many people falsely implicated in the accusation.
Let us examine the record of U.S. ecumenism between Catholics and Evangelicals according to objective and demonstrable historical data.
Few would disagree that by far the most significant common statement to date of ecumenism between Evangelicals and Catholics was the 1994 manifesto titled “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (ECT). Prepared after many months of discussions and signed by leading figures from the Evangelical and Catholic communities, this document marked the acme of Catholic-Evangelical ecumenism and has endured as its permanent reference point.
A superficial reading of ECT might suggest that many of the concerns voiced by Spadaro and Figueroa are traceable to this seminal text. Two points in this regard are particularly worthy of comment.
A moral ecumenism
First, regarding the issues that unite Evangelicals and Catholics in their “surprising” ecumenism, Spadaro and Figueroa state that there is “a well-defined world of ecumenical convergence between sectors that are paradoxically competitors when it comes to confessional belonging. This meeting over shared objectives happens around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools, and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.”
This assertion finds undeniable corroboration in the ECT text.
“The pattern of convergence and cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics is, in large part, a result of common effort to protect human life, especially the lives of the most vulnerable among us,” ECT declared.
The authors of ECT devoted a remarkable amount of space to the question of abortion, and more broadly to the “culture of death,” an expression coined by Saint John Paul II to describe the widespread modern tendency to devalue human life.
The authors declared they would work tirelessly “to secure the legal protection of the unborn,” endeavoring to obtain “due process of law for the unborn, to enact the most protective laws and public policies that are politically possible, and to reduce dramatically the incidence of abortion.”
The question is whether such ecumenism based on common moral principles is a good thing or, as Spadaro and Figueroa suggest, a bad thing.
The year after the publication of ECT, Pope John Paul II released his encyclical on ecumenism called Ut Unum Sint, the most important Catholic document on the topic since Unitatis Redintegratio of the Second Vatican Council. In it, John Paul explicitly appealed to an ecumenism of shared moral values as an important road to dialogue and unity.
“There are many Christians who do not always understand the Gospel in the same way as Catholics,” he wrote. “In this vast area there is much room for dialogue concerning the moral principles of the Gospel and their implications.”
This, said John Paul, “is becoming ever more urgent in our time.”
Second, regarding Islam, Spadaro and Figueroa assert that the most dangerous aspect of this Evangelical-Catholic ecumenism is a militant, “Islamophobic vision” that can lead Christians to “forget they are at the service of the world, placing them in opposition to those who are different, those who do not belong, that is the ‘enemy.’”
Compare their words to the text of Evangelicals & Catholics Together, which also recognized the presence of forces hostile to the Church and its mission.
The Christian mission, ECT stated, must be advanced against “formidable opposition,” including “resurgent spiritualities and religions that are explicitly hostile to the claims of the Christ.
“Islam, which in many instances denies the freedom to witness to the Gospel, must be of increasing concern to those who care about religious freedom and the Christian mission,” it stated.
Catholics’ concern over the problematic relationship between Islam and violence is not a recent phenomenon nor one that can be attributed to American Catholic “integralists.” Similar critiques have been articulated by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his Regensburg address and elsewhere.
Beyond the question of abortion and Islam, some of the problems alleged by Spadaro and Figueroa simply find no echo whatsoever in ECT or in the Evangelical-Catholic project more broadly.
One central contention in the Civiltà Cattolica article is that proponents of this unhealthy “ecumenism of conflict” are seeking the kingdom of Christ on earth through a dangerous theocratic dream.
“The fundamentalist theopolitical plan is to set up a kingdom of the divinity here and now,” the authors allege, adding that both “Evangelical and Catholic Integralists condemn traditional ecumenism and yet promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state.”
This contention is expressly denied by ECT, whose very diverse authors embraced a healthy secularism of the state and rejected theocratic aims. At the same time, however, ECT insisted that the faith of citizens must not be excluded from public and political life, which is not the same thing.
“We strongly affirm the separation of church and state, and just as strongly protest the distortion of that principle to mean the separation of religion from public life,” ECT reads.
Cult of the Apocalypse
Spadaro and Figueroa also attribute a troubling “cult of the apocalypse” to those engaged in Evangelical-Catholic ecumenism, along with a belief that the end of the world is impending.
“Theirs is a prophetic formula,” they write, “fight the threats to American Christian values and prepare for the imminent justice of an Armageddon, a final showdown between Good and Evil, between God and Satan.
“Religion at this point becomes a guarantor of order and a political part would incarnate its needs. The appeal to the apocalypse justifies the power desired by a god or colluded in with a god,” they write.
This peculiar claim finds no basis whatever in ECT or in Catholic-Evangelical dialogue more generally. On the contrary, the authors of ECT, while presumably disposed for the end of the world when it should come, were actively preparing for a sustained period of mission.
“As the Second Millennium draws to a close, the Christian mission in world history faces a moment of daunting opportunity and responsibility,” the authors assert. “If in the merciful and mysterious ways of God the Second Coming is delayed, we enter upon a Third Millennium that could be, in the words of John Paul II, ‘a springtime of world missions.’”
A closer analysis reveals that Catholic “integralists” (by which one assumes that Spadaro and Figueroa mean ultra-traditionalists) have never been dialogue partners with Evangelicals at all.
Those who self-identify as radical traditionalists generally reject ecumenism outright and prefer to speak of converting those who still live within the errors of Protestantism rather than “dialoguing” with them. They focus far more on liturgical questions than on political or even moral issues. On the Protestant side, there is a similar disposition among radical fundamentalists to reject dialogue with Catholics, since they consider the Catholic Church to be “the whore of Babylon.”
Those who have carried forward the fairly successful Evangelical-Catholic ecumenism in the United States, on the other hand, have been some of the best and the brightest of mainstream, albeit clearly orthodox, Catholics.
Among the eminent Catholic signers of ECT were Cardinal Francis George, Cardinal John O’Connor, Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles, Cardinal Francis Stafford, Father Richard John Neuhaus, Mary Ann Glendon, George Weigel, Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, and Jesuit Father Juan Diaz-Vilar of Catholic Hispanic Ministries.
While some might choose to label these Catholics as “conservative,” it would be deeply insulting and inaccurate to suggest that these Catholic thinkers are “integralists” or that they would promote an “ecumenism of conflict” or an “ecumenism of hate.” And yet, these signers represent the Catholic leadership behind the real (not imagined) Evangelical-Catholic ecumenical project, the only one that has ever existed.
The shift by some Catholics toward dialogue with Evangelicals rather than with other Protestant churches did not result from condemnation of “traditional ecumenism” or a desire for political influence, as Spadaro and Figueroa argue, but from a growing awareness of natural points of theological and moral convergence with Evangelicals.
As Jesuit Cardinal Avery Dulles — one of the great experts in ecumenism — had observed several years earlier, “the most ecumenically involved churches have been suffering a decline in numbers and in vigor” while Bible-based churches were growing both quantitatively and in institutional vivacity.
“For the Catholic Church it may not prove easy to reach consensus with either the Orthodox or the conservative evangelicals, but these churches and communities may have more to offer than some others because they have dared to be different,” Dulles wrote.
The authors of ECT shared this vision, seeing Catholics and Evangelicals, despite their many differences, as natural partners in dialogue and mission.
The unfortunate article by Spadaro and Figueroa paints a picture of Evangelical-Catholic ecumenism in the United States that bears no resemblance to the real thing, and unjustly defames the architects and participants in this important and praiseworthy endeavor.
In a recent critique of the Spadaro/Figueroa essay, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput went to the heart of the matter when he noted it was an “odd kind of surprise when believers are attacked by their co-religionists merely for fighting for what their Churches have always held to be true.”
It is an odd surprise indeed, especially during a pontificate that has placed bridge-building and the “culture of encounter” at the forefront of the Church’s pastoral program.
Thomas D. Williams is a Rome-based Catholic moral theologian, author and professor of Ethics. The Rome Bureau Chief for Breitbart News, Williams’ fifteen books include The World as It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation (Crossroad) and Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights (CUA Press).