I saw the gloating over the repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act from an evangelical on this page the same day I read that the US Catholic Bishops do not favor repeal. I thought to myself: “Adios, Evangelical-Catholic coalition!” In fact, I’m not sure there ever really was much of a coalition of Catholics with evangelicals.
Certainly some evangelical leaders with pro-Republican Party leanings crafted agreements with Catholic leaders professing the same partisan tendencies. The purpose of the so-called “Manhattan Declaration” fits this description. While not insignificant, such elite agreements *–like those of the lawyers at the ACLJ –do not usually reach the Catholics in the pews.
Catholic America seems to have its most positive ecumenical experiences with the mainline Protestants, not with the right-wingers. Here in my local parish, among others the United Methodist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran Churches and United Church of Christ regularly cooperate with St. Luke’s in offering charitable services to the poor like the soup kitchen. In the mix are other groups that are not strictly religious, like the United Way and the Salvation Army. The various church choirs sing together with interdenominational participants at key moments like Thanksgiving.
In contrast, my church encounters the so-called “evangelicals” every year during the Holy Thursday procession with the Eucharist. A guy with a bull-horn insults us Catholics, telling us we are not Christians but that we are idolaters who worship Mary as a goddess.
I realize that some mainline Protestants can be prejudiced against Catholics and that not all evangelicals have the same hatred for Catholicism as the guy with the bull-horn, but there is a pattern here. A strong evangelical-Catholic coalition is not one of them. I found out the hard way that being “born-again” in such churches is not conducive to true dialog when a family member started telling me that in his conversion he had discovered that all Catholics were going to hell. He ridiculed our service to the poor by saying that unless the needy were in his church, helping sinners made them lazy.* To save my sanity and family peace, I resorted to “Adios, muchacho.”
I have no doubt that evangelicals are just as nice and God-fearing – maybe even more so – than other believers. The walls against coalitions with Catholics are not personal, but rather doctrinal. With some notable exceptions, evangelicals do not possess a theology with room for ecumenism. In conformity with the definition of a “sect” that is found in sociology text books, these churches ordinarily divide people into two groups: “us = the saved” and “them = the lost.”
This idea of sect is based on a reading of scripture that presumes that only “our” church is faithful to the religious message. Interpreting passages about sinners and saints in self-serving ways, the sect concludes that only by belonging to their church can people go to heaven. Recently, Robert Bentley, the new Governor of Alabama made a statement to the effect that non-Christians were not “his brothers.” His view is part of the Southern Baptist teaching that reflects the tendencies of sect and evangelicals. While the governor as politician was quick to recast his words, it is a valid question if when a Southern Baptist says “Christian” whether or not Catholics are included. After all, the Great Commission Council of the Southern Baptist Convention noted in 2009 that Roman Catholics are to be classified with “non-Christians” (#4).
Catholics too have fallen under the sway of this sectarian interpretation. We have in Catholic America the sad history of Father Leonard Feeney, S. J. who understood the idea that “there is no salvation outside the church” to mean that God condemned to Hell anyone who was not Catholic. Unlike the Alabama Southern Baptist Governor, however, Father Feeney was excommunicated.
The II Vatican Council gave great attention to the faith among all believers (Lumen Gentium #16), both Christian and non-Christian, and urged Catholics to embrace ecumenism. While never saying that there is “no difference” among the churches, the council offered a “glass half-full” approach to ecumenism that still has not been undone by a 2007 restatement that the “glass is half-empty.” Catholic America has much to gain from ecumenical respect of other believers and – hopefully — they will be enriched by contact with us. Governor Bentley was wrong: we ARE bothers and sisters to each other.