The Impact of Grassroots Ecumenism

Are Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians bridging the gap that has divided Catholics and Protestants for hundreds of years? Many leading histori­ans and theologians believe Roman Catholicism is becoming more accepted among those who call themselves "evangelicals." In fact, it could be argued that many (if not most) who profess to be evangelical Christians would call a Roman Catholic a "brother or sister in Christ"—something they would have refused to do only 25 or 30 years ago. How has this change in thought and acceptance come about? The Roman Catholic Church has not changed its doctrine. Evangelical churches still claim to embrace the Reformation doctrines of sola fide (faith alone), sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola gratia (grace alone). It appears as though ecumenical relationships on the everyday, grassroots level are playing an important part in this change of attitude between Roman Catholics and professing evangelicals.

On October 5, 2005, Zenit, a Roman Catholic news service, published an interview with Mark Noll, who at the time was church historian at Wheaton College, an evangeli­cal school (Noll is currently a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame). Noll, who co-wrote Is the Reformation Over?: An Evan­gelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, explained why many evangelicals and Roman Catholics have begun to change their views of each other. When asked, "What evidence have you seen of an increasingly warm relationship between Catholics and evangelicals recently?" Noll replied, "Things began to change seriously only in the 1950s and 1960s. Evidence of those changes abounds on every side." Noll then cited several examples:

  • More and more evangelicals and Catholics take part in ad hoc or para-church religious movements such as Alpha.
  • More and more contacts for cooperation have been made in political matters, especially between culturally conservative Catholics and culturally conservative evangelicals, but also on some questions be­tween culturally liberal Catholics and culturally liberal Protestants.
  • There is more evangelical respect for leading Catholics such as Mother Teresa and John Paul II and more Catholic respect for leading evangeli­cals such as Billy Graham.
  • Many evangelicals in academic life benefit from instruction or models from Catholic intellectuals such as Alasdair Maclntyre or Charles Taylor, and at least a few Catholic academics benefit from the work of Protestant intellectuals such as Alvin Plantinga.
  • In many local neighborhoods, home Bible studies — usually organized by women for women — draw in both Catholics and evangelicals to study the Scriptures together.
  • Formal dialogues, as initiated by the Vatican after the Second Vatican Council, have helped reduce tensions, as have a large and growing number of opportunities for Catholics and evangelicals to dialogue more informally in many different settings.
  • Informal but visible movements like "Evangelicals and Catholics To­gether" also have spotlighted opportunities for cooperation.

It is obvious that evangelical churches have done little to inform God's people of the unbiblical doctrines and practices of Roman Catholicism. In fact, evangelical churches, including those identified with the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, have actually served as the catalyst for much of the grassroots ecumenical endeavors cited by Noll—endeavors that serve as a key point of convergence between Catholics and evangelicals. Many evangelical churches today are supporting or partnering with religious movements that attempt to break down the doctrinal walls of separation that exist between Catholics and evangelicals. Other evangelical churches are looking for ways to cooperate with Roman Catholics and others who share similar social concerns. In either case, evangelicals are looking for a "least common denominator" of agreement and then uniting with those who embrace doc­trines and practices that contradict the truth of God's Word. Noll said, "We have seen evidence for at least some Catholics and some evangeli­cals to identify points of common Christian affirmation—on the Trinity, on the work of Christ in redeeming sinners, on the truth-telling character of the Bible—and then, on that basis, to advance in dia­logue concerning remaining differences, but also cooperation in a wide numberof social and religious matters."

On November 9, 2005, Zenit News Service published an interview with Bishop Mark Hanson, who at the time served as president of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). Hansen echoed Noll's observations. When asked by Zenit, "Is ecumenical dialogue easy for you in your everyday life?" Hanson responded:

"For me, as a presiding bishop of a large church, it is. I lead the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is the largest Lutheran church in America. We are very committed to our ecumenical rela­tionships ... As Cardinal Kasper says, I also think there is an ecu­menism of life that the laity share—that is, of the grass roots—and I believe there is also what I would call missionary ecumenism, namely, Christians working together in the world.

"For instance, I went down after Hurricane Katrina and witnessed the devastation. A Christian there said to me: 'The winds of the hurricane not only destroyed our homes and revealed to the world that there is poverty in America, but they also blew away our differences as Chris­tians so that, in response to the hurricane, we are one—Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians—because we need to be one in orderto rebuild our lives and communities.'

"I think there are many issues in the world where we need to be one, such as responding to poverty in the face of wealth; advocating human rights; and caring forcreation. What I see all overthe world as I travel is that not only Christians are coming together, but Christians, Jews and Muslims are also coming together around three issues: ending hunger, reducing poverty and caring forcreation. These are the converging issues for people of faith in the world today."

We need to understand that our ecclesial associations and fellowships have a profound impact on the way we view those who embrace doctrines and practices different from our own. Roman Catholics are precious people whom we must love and respect as people. Yet the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church not only conflict with the Word of God, but they are actually leading millions of people away from a relationship with Jesus Christ. Believers must not be deceived into thinking they can unite in prayer, Bible study, worship, or other common cause with those who embrace and practice false doctrine and not walk away affected by such associations. God's Word forbids such fellowship. — Matt Costella