Evangelicals and Catholics (Still) Together

April 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), a movement of key Roman Catholic and evangelical leaders who have sought to find common ground on theological issues and who have worked together to erase the centuries of animosity and distrust between the two groups.

The Original Document

In 1994, notable Catholics and evangelical Protestants, led by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, released a statement titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” In this original document, both groups attempted to state and define a common ground that had supposedly been discovered between evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics in an effort to advance the cause of Christ together in the twenty-first century. Both parties confessed to the sin of disunity and used the ECT document to emphasize that Jesus Christ has commissioned one mission for believers to accomplish, and in order for this mission to be successfully completed, all Christians who profess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” should unite around their common beliefs for the cause of Christ.

The document primarily stressed the political unity that exists between evangelicals and Roman Catholics and called for a continued united front against moral and political decline in the United States. Yet this first document intended to lay the groundwork for much more than a united social and political presence. It is obvious that the ultimate goal of those who drafted and signed this document extended beyond social and political unity to a theological unity. The authors declared that both groups can unite spiritually because both agree that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Religion news writer David Briggs recognized this ultimate goal of ECT and wrote, “What’s different in the statement is the effort to turn the theological swords honed over centuries of conflict into a recognition of the common faith” (David Briggs, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” Chicago Sun-Times, March 30, 1994). Father Michael Scanlan, who served as the president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville (OH) in 1994, noted, “The common ground we (Evangelicals and Catholics) see is belief that all salvation is in Jesus Christ—that [all people] who indeed accept Jesus as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. And that the Lord indeed has called us to Himself and that we share the common Spirit” (Sarah E. Smith, “Building a Bridge Between Catholics and Protestants,” Religious Broadcasting, February 1996).

The Second Document

In the original document, the authors affirmed that while doctrinal differences exist, Catholics and evangelicals can essentially agree on the gospel message, can “call Jesus, ‘Lord’,” can work together in religious and social endeavors, and should commit to refrain from proselytizing one another. In 1997, ECT crafted a new document titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Gift of Salvation,” in which both parties claimed that evangelicals and Catholics actually agree on the doctrine of salvation! The 1997 document clarified some ambiguous statements contained in the first document and appealed to both evangelicals and Catholics to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ since both parties agree on the doctrine of justification. The document was carefully and meticulously crafted for the purpose of making the argument that evangelicals and Catholics are truly united in their understanding of justification even though both groups express this truth differently. The entire statement is, in essence, a semantic “word play” written by evangelical and Catholic ecumenists who are desperately searching for a doctrinal unity that does not exist. Charles Colson, who signed the document, boasted, “[Martin] Luther himself would have been proud to sign [the statement]” (Greg Garrison, “Saved By Faith, Agree Evangelical, Catholic Scholars,” Birmingham News, November 23, 1997).

ECT Today

ECT has, indeed, had a profound effect upon the professing church. Today, more than ever before, evangelicals are likely to view Roman Catholics as fellow Christians with a slightly different doctrine or system of worship. In the past, evangelical Christians rightly recognized Roman Catholicism as a works-based religious system that stands in total opposition to the truth of Scripture. It could be argued that Billy Graham opened the floodgates for the acceptance of Romanism when he joined with Roman Catholics in his crusades and stated in the past that he would not hesitate to encourage wayward Catholics to return back to the Roman Catholic Church. When Graham received his honorary doctorate from Belmont Abbey College in 1967, he told his Roman Catholic audience, “We can talk to one another as Christian brothers” (“Catholics Laud ‘Dr. Graham,’” Christianity Today,  December 8, 1967). But now, it is evident that an inclusive, non-judgmental approach toward Roman Catholicism has infiltrated evangelicals at the grass-roots level, and it is likely that ECT has had an impact in this regard as it has legitimized an inclusivist view of Roman Catholicism on the part of evangelicals today.

In 2009, a Pew Research Center survey found that “49 percent of white evangelicals said they view Catholicism as ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ similar to their own religion,” while among Catholics, “60 percent said they view Protestantism as similar to their religion” (Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together Marks 20 Years,” ReligionNews.com, May 7, 2014). At a recent conference of evangelicals, Catholic theologian Matthew Levering stated, “The first affirmation of Evangelicals and Catholics Together is that Jesus Christ is Lord, and there’s the source of our hope.” He added, “This was an anchor for when they began to discover that we share the same gospel” (ibid.).

Consider some recent examples of the lengths to which intentional, ecumenical unity between evangelicals and Catholics is taking place before our very eyes, especially since Pope Francis has taken the helm at the Vatican:

•     Even before Pope Francis was elected, Christianity Today published an editorial titled “A Pope for All Christians” in which the author, Timothy Morgan, noted that the success or failure of the new pope affects all Christians of every denomination because “the walls that have long divided Catholics from Orthodox, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and Pentecostals are eroding” (“A Pope for All Christians,” Christianity Today, March 13, 2013). Morgan cites Brian Stiller of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) as saying, “Not in 500 years have the two sides [evangelicals and Roman Catholics] been so close and friendly.” Morgan makes the case in his editorial that evangelicals and Catholics must find more ways to work together in a culture increasingly hostile to professing Christians of any denomination: “We want to help Christians everywhere comprehend that a healthy and gospel-proclaiming Catholic body greatly benefits all churches—and the cause of Christ.”

•    In an interview with Christianity Today writer Melissa Steffan, renowned evangelist Luis Palau, known as the “Billy Graham of South America,” spoke highly of Pope Francis as a “Jesus-centered” man of God and a personal friend. “He knew God the father personally,” Palau said of Pope Francis. “The way he prayed, the way he talked to the Lord, was of a man who knows Jesus Christ and was very spiritually intimate with the Lord” (“Luis Palau: Why It Matters that Pope Francis Drinks Maté with Evangelicals,” Christianity Today, March 14, 2013). He continued, “He’s a very Bible-centered man, a very Jesus Christ-centered man.… He’s really centered on Jesus and the Gospel, the pure Gospel.” Palau even emphasized the “pure gospel” of Pope Francis later in his interview. “He (Pope Francis) definitely knows and is committed to the pure gospel.… He knows what he is saying when he says the gospel.”

•    In February 2014, Pope Francis sent a video message to Kenneth Copeland in which he described his longing for unity with Pentecostals and charismatics. Copeland aired the pope’s message to his congregation who cheered and applauded it. Consider the following transcript of the pope’s words:

    “It’s my pleasure to greet you.… We are kind of … permit me to say, separated. Separated because, it’s sin that has separated us, all our sins. The misunderstandings throughout history. It has been a long road of sins that we all shared in. Who is to blame? We all share the blame. We have all sinned. There is only one blameless, the Lord. I am nostalgic [yearning], that this separation comes to an end and gives us communion. I am nostalgic [yearning], of that embrace.… [illustrates using story of Joseph and brothers and reunification in Egypt].… We have diverse traditions, but we have to encounter one another as brothers. We must cry together like Joseph did. These tears will unite us. The tears of love. I am speaking to you as a brother. I speak to you in a simple way. With joy and nostalgia [yearning]. Let us allow our nostalgia [yearning] to grow, because this will propel us to find each other, to embrace one another. And together to worship Jesus Christ as the only Lord of history. I thank you profoundly for listening to me. I thank you profoundly for allowing me to speak the language of the heart.… Let’s pray to the Lord that He unites us all. Come on, we are brothers. Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that He has begun. And this is a miracle; the miracle of unity has begun.… He will complete this miracle of unity. I ask you to bless me, and I bless you. From brother to brother. I embrace you. Thank you.”

•    Dwight Longenecker, a Roman Catholic priest who has transitioned from a fundamentalist to an Anglican priest to a Roman Catholic priest, wrote an article for Zenit, a Roman Catholic news agency, in which he stated, “The evangelical faith is incomplete without the Catholic Church, but we (Roman Catholics) are also incomplete without those Christians who are separated from us” (“Can Evangelicals and Catholics Be Friends?” Zenit,  February 28, 2014). Longenecker pointed out some of the strong points of evangelicalism and then described what evangelicals can gain from Catholicism and how the new generation of evangelicals is open to the Catholic Church: “The new generation of evangelicals … are more tolerant and open-minded towards Catholicism. They are less frightened of other forms of worship and are happy to experiment and be open to beliefs and worship practices which would have horrified their parents and grandparents.” He added, “These promising signs, and many more, have been brought about because evangelicals and Catholics are finally realizing that there is more that unites them than divides.”

•    Shane Claiborne, an activist author and founder of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, has a tremendous influence among the more “emergent” wing of evangelicalism; he praised the pope in an article he wrote for the Religion News Service. Claiborne lauded the pope’s humility and noted, “The most remarkable thing about the pope is that … he is simply doing what popes and Christians should do—care for the poor, critique inequity, interrupt injustice, surprise the world with grace, include the excluded and challenge the entitled.” He added, “Pope Francis is leaving off the fragrance of Jesus, and he is fascinating the world with Christ” (Religion News Service, March 13, 2014). He said he hoped the world would give a second look at Christianity due to the influence of the pope. “I can’t help but think St. Francis of Assisi (the pope’s radical namesake), and all the angels and saints in heaven must be smiling as they look down on our brother Jorge Bergoglio, whom we now fondly call ‘Pope Francis.’”

•    Joel Osteen, pastor of the largest church in the United States, participated in an interfaith delegation to the Vatican in June 2014. Osteen, who was accompanied on the journey by fellow evangelicals Gayle Beebe and Tim Timmons,  greeted the pope and attended mass in St. Peter’s Square. “I just felt very honored and very humbled,” Osteen told a Houston television station. “It was amazing. And even to go back into that part of the Vatican—there’s so much history there.… You feel that deep respect and reverence for God” (“Megachurch Speaker and Author Joel Osteen Meets with Pope Francis at Vatican,” Christian News Network,  June 9, 2014). Osteen told reporters, “I love the fact that [the pope] has made the Church more inclusive; not trying to make it small, but to try to make it larger—to take everybody in. So, that just resonates with me” (ibid.).

•    In June 2014, several prominent charismatic televangelists participated in a delegation of evangelicals joining the pope for a private three-hour meeting at the Vatican. James Robison and Kenneth Copeland joined Geoff Tunnicliff of the World Evangelical Alliance, John Arnott of “Toronto Revival” fame, and others for the June 24 meeting, which Robison called “a miracle … something God has done.” He added, “[God] wants Christians to put his arms around the world by working together” (“North Texas Evangelicals Meet with Pope Francis,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 26, 2014). In a written statement following the ecumenical meeting, James Robison said he was “blessed to be part of perhaps an unprecedented moment between evangelicals and the Catholic pope” (“Why Did Copeland, Robison Meet with Pope Francis?” Charisma News, July 7, 2014). He described the meeting as “an intimate circle of prayerful discussion and lunch to discuss not only seeing Jesus’ prayer answered, but that every believer would become bold, joy-filled witnesses for Christ.”

•    During the months of June and July 2014, Pope Francis became the first pope to visit a Pentecostal church and attend a charismatic-Catholic renewal conference in Rome. Within the two-month period at these gatherings, the pope called evangelicals his “brothers” and apologized for Roman Catholic persecution and denunciation of Pentecostalism (“Pope Francis Becomes First Pope to Visit Pentecostal Church; Calls Evangelicals His ‘Brothers,’” Christian Post, July 29, 2014). In turn, some evangelical leaders praised the pope and offered their own apologies for evangelical discrimination against Catholics.

Of course, many other examples could be cited revealing the monumental shift that has taken place during the last twenty years concerning how evangelicals and Catholics view one another. Clearly, the professing “Christian” church is heading in a profoundly unprecedented direction, and the ECT movement and its various documents have certainly played a role. It seems increasingly clear that evangelicals today not only are losing sight of some major doctrinal differences between evangelical, biblical Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church, but they also are losing sight of the fact that the very “gospel” proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church is no “gospel (good news)” at all. While many Roman Catholic people are kind, genuine, and sincere in their faith and attachment to the Catholic Church, the very doctrine embraced and propagated by the church is leading them away from a true relationship with Jesus Christ. Roman Catholicism is not biblical Christianity, and for influential evangelicals and evangelical ministries to affirm that the pope is a “Jesus-centered” man who is committed to the pure gospel and that the doctrinal differences between evangelicalism and Catholicism are minor is to betray the truth of God’s Word. True, Bible-believing Christians today must love and show kindness toward all people, yet they also must be aware that any religion that espouses and proclaims salvation through a church or through works stands in total opposition to the Bible’s revelation that salvation is by grace through faith alone.

— Pastor Matt Costella. Reproduced from Foundation magazine, Issue 3, 2014.