Yesterday’s “Conversation on Unity in Christ’s Mission” between Francis Cardinal George and Evangelical author and former pastor John Armstrong was thoroughly enjoyable. The two men shared an obvious love for one another and for Jesus Christ. John spoke of being enriched by Catholic writers from long before the Reformation, who sound little like modern Evangelicals; Cardinal George spoke of the need for Catholics to learn a thing or two on preaching from Evangelicals. But despite the mutual respect and admiration, both men were forthright on the differences, and the things that still separate us. Chris Castaldo, an Evangelical ex-Catholic, was the host, and he asked good, substantive questions from justification, to mixed-marriages, to the way that each side understands Evangelization.
|Fr. Marcel in front of 3300 flowers,
representing the daily death toll from abortion
That’s not to say that this “ecumenism of the trenches” is without its malcontents. I encountered some of them at Encircle the Court. To set the stage a bit, Rev. Mahoney had asked we not bring signs, since this was about God, not politics. We weren’t protesters, per se: we were just concerned Christians and Americans who wanted to pray that God’s will be done. While we were praying around the court, we had the pro-Obamacare people in front of us, camped out and awaiting oral arguments. By the end, we had some actual protesters with signage arrive. The signs ranged from the generic to the offensive (like a sign with an upside-down American flag saying, “Jail to the Chief”). These protesters are part of a fringe of Evangelicalism that believes it’s immoral to even protest abortion along with Catholics. Being in between these two groups (literally) was fascinating, since both sides disliked us, but for opposite reasons.
After the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the leader of the protesters spoke to us through a megaphone, saying, “You’ve just taken two steps forward and four steps back. When you pray the Rosary, you’re praying to Mary, and you shouldn’t be surprised that God doesn’t hear your prayers.” No matter that we had just prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet, not the Rosary; that there had been no prayers to Mary; and that Fr. Marcel had explained all of this a few moments before. The protesters were here to express disdain for Catholics, as well as for those like Rev. Mahoney who would stand alongside us.
At this point, Rev. Mahoney went back to his microphone and announced that these folks had nothing to do with us, asking that we not speak to them or engage them. By the time I left, it appeared that everyone had honored this request. It was clear that the protesters were just a fringe, and that the overwhelming majority of the Protestants there felt comfortable at least praying the Lord’s Prayer with us.
|Andrea del Sarto, Madonna of the Harpies (detail) (1517)|
It would be a mistake to view this as simply a marriage of convenience between two groups who will then go back to distrusting each other. On the contrary, as Tim Perry, author of Mary for Evangelicals, explains:
First, we must consider the impact of what Timothy George has called the “ecumenism of the trenches.” Over the last 35 years or so, evangelicals and Catholics have slowly come to appreciate how much we share in terms of morality, particularly in the thorny ethical problems surrounding the beginning and end of life, the definition of marriage, and the constructive role faith can and should play in the public realm. I think this has led to the establishment of grass roots friendships based on trust. To put the matter bluntly, theological disagreement takes on a whole new tone when you’re praying together in front of an abortion clinic. Key evangelical theologians and leaders like Timothy George, J. I. Packer, and Chuck Colson have used that trust wisely to engage in theological dialogue with Catholic theologians and leaders. Once such theological ties were established, it was only a matter of time before Mary came up. Since the third generation of the Reformation, she has personified every major doctrinal dispute, whether sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, or solo Christo.
There is, I think, great reason to be hopeful. Evangelicals are increasingly feeling comfortable acknowledging Catholics as Christians, and recognizing a common faith. And this, as Perry acknowledges, is something of a first step that opens the doorway for authentic and meaningful Catholic-Evangelical dialogue. Given this, I would not be surprised if God heals the wounds of the Reformation using the Roe v. Wade backlash, rather than relying on the work of joint theological commissions.