Evangelical reflections on Post-Vatican II Catholicism

Fifty years ago, Vatican II was convened by John XXIII, and it has marked the shape of life and thought in the Roman Catholic Church very significantly. Recently, I enjoyed Glen Scorgie’s assessment of the Council’s impact, and his thoughts about the effects of that Council on the relationship between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. I want to cite some of Glen’s thoughts, and then I will reflect a bit on my own theological journey in relationship to Roman Catholicism, in the past 50 years.

In recent years, Roman Catholics and evangelicals have begun to rediscover one another. After close to five hundred years of sometimes acrimonious divorce, what is bringing us together again as Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants? What’s behind all the new overtures toward reconciliation?

The first cause, I’d suggest, is a growing awareness of our need for one another, as we face increasing opposition from secular and anti-Christian forces and values in our culture? When crises hit a nation, citizens drop their partisan political positions and stand shoulder to shoulder against our common foe. In times of peril, it can actually become quite exhilarating to be able, for at least a time, to rise above pettiness and become larger for it. Culturally, that seems to be happening.

The second reason is that evangelicals like where Roman Catholicism has been heading since Vatican II. Generally speaking, we admire the strong ethical stands being taken by the pope and other Catholic spokespersons. We also appreciate the Roman Catholic Church’s continued adherence to those orthodox beliefs that were simply assumed by both Protestants and Catholics at the time of the Reformation, but can no longer be taken for granted. We are impressed by the increasing number of Roman Catholic laypersons who display an affectionate acquaintance with the Scriptures. Most important, evangelicals are encouraged as they discover kindred spirits in the Roman Catholic Church—brothers and sisters in Christ who personally know and love Jesus, and whose lives are animated by gratitude for the grace of God in him.

The third reason for rapprochement is, at least here in the United States, that Catholics and evangelicals are looking more like each other all the time.

Recently I slipped into a back pew of Saint Therese, the family-oriented Roman Catholic church in our suburban neighborhood. Saint Therese is no grand cathedral with vaulted ceiling and ethereal light. Built in 1958, it looks like a tasteful modern Protestant church, except with a crucifix up front. The bulletin advertised a traditional and a contemporary service; I chose the latter.

The Bible was read from a gender inclusive translation. Women were visible, vocal . . . and hatless. One read Scripture from the lectern, while others led music, ushered, served as acolytes and helped distribute the communion wafers. It wasn’t exactly the same as a Protestant service—the homily was over in ten minutes flat and there were some actual moments of silence (which seem to terrify Protestants, who consider it dead air time).

Dress was casual. Only about a third of the folks genuflected before taking a seat; most just hurried into their pews like running-late evangelicals. The priest started out with a loud “Good Morning,” cocked his ear expectantly and the congregation responded in kind. He jovially invited visitors to stand up, whereupon they were welcomed with applause and offered free coffee and donuts at the Visitor Welcome Center after the service. Immediately a youth choir equipped with acoustic guitars started into a peppy rendition of a Maranatha Praise chorus. In a collective rite of faux friendliness, the congregants stood on cue and began leaning across pews, shaking hands with everyone within reach.

All this confirmed to me that there is indeed a quiet grass-roots Catholic-Protestant convergence underway in America. Things felt most Protestant when the priest announced that an upcoming midweek event was sure to be a great time of “fun, food and fellowship.” This church basement cliché was uttered by a steward of a great spiritual tradition characterized at its best by profound reverence for God, the mystery of grace and the beauty of holiness. To tell you the truth, something in me wished my separated brothers and sisters hadn’t already shifted quite so far our way.

So how do we build on such a foundation of acknowledged fraternal, spiritual unity? The principle of the Incarnation is that whatever is spiritually true ought to become “embodied” in physical and visible expressions. It shouldn’t remain hidden, but become tangible as it moves along the natural trajectory from essence to manifestations.

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Evangelicalism’s predominantly populist roots have inclined it toward the “low church” or congregational end of the polity scale, and rendered it somewhat suspicious of hierarchical structures of any kind. In other words, its predominantly individualistic and congregational orientation has made it less than enthusiastic about the very ideal toward which many ecumenists aspire. Evangelicals too have a vision of ecumenical unity, but it is not primarily a vision of union within a single ecclesiastical structure, nor even of a great congregation united in a single liturgical event. It is, rather, a vision of a great host of believers, voluntarily joined together in common cause, marching forward, shoulder to shoulder, in powerful evangelistic and ministry enterprise. The evangelicals’ ecumenical vision, then, is neither structural nor liturgical, but functional. Their concept of the church is, first and foremost, a salvation army (or, as our Catholic friends would say, apostolic). And consequently visible unity is sought only insofar as it is thought that it will enhance the effectiveness of the church in its main tasks of proclaiming the gospel and extending the kingdom.

For evangelicals, this is the bottom-line issue: Are Roman Catholics really my brothers and sisters in Christ? Are we really heirs together of the hope of glory? Or should we still be evangelizing them?

I confess that there are moments when I have contemplated converting to Roman Catholicism myself. These thoughts have hit right out of the blue during an evening tour of the exquisite architecture of the University of San Diego campus, or when I read the latest shenanigans of the Westborough Baptist Church, or an outrageous statement by Joel Osteen or Jack Van Impe, or discover that Liberty Baptist University has awarded an honorary doctorate to Donald Trump. These impulses to run from evangelicalism can hit after standing for forty minutes of banal choruses, or during an interminable, Scripture-butchering sermon.

But I have never seriously contemplated converting, because I still think that evangelicals have a handle on the heart of the Gospel, and when you get that right there’s such a lot of ebullient joy, blessed assurance, and gratitude for amazing grace. Besides, I have issues with the structural pretensions of the Roman Catholic church, and I find the conduct of many priests to be reprehensible. And a lot of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice still strikes me as wrong. Personally I think the Catholic doctrines of justification and assurance remain muddled, that Mary is excessively regarded, that the sacraments are not intrinsically saving, and so forth.

But here’s the thing. The Spirit of God refuses to be restricted by boundaries of doctrinal precision. Don’t get me wrong: doctrine is hugely important, and what we believe colors even our experiences, and eventually will determine whether our faith will survive healthy inter-generational transfer. The Spirit glides most smoothly along the rails of clear truth.

But the Spirit works where minds are still muddled, and thank God for that, because we all see as through a glass darkly. I thought of describing this as the Spirit’s promiscuity, but that sounded wrong. How about dialing that back to the generosity of the Spirit? That’s probably better. In any event, what matters more than uniformity of conviction is a shared, regenerating and transforming touch from the living Christ in our hearts and lives. Is there genuine new life from Christ by the Spirit in the heart, regardless of whether there is yet perfect light in the head? If so, then we are family.

The Spirit will not be contained. Some years ago I spent part of my sabbatical in Rome. We stayed in an amazingly cheap B & B right across the street from the Vatican. It was operated by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, a small group of nuns, and from our window we could look across St. Peter’s Square to the window where the Pope occasionally emerges to address audiences of the faithful.

I was expecting nuns of approximately the age and disposition of the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, but they turned out to include young women the age of my own daughters. And they invited us, myself and my daughter who was accompanying me, to their daily chapel services conducted in an Italian I could not understand. But we entered into the spirit of these joyful little gatherings of guitar, songs and prayer, and then marveled at the enthusiasm these same nuns displayed in their ministries to the homeless who gathered for food and clothing twice each week right outside their front door.

Later on they connected us up with other members of their order in Assisi, and we stayed with them for a week, soaking up Franciscan history. I will never forget the drive down the steep hill to the train station on the plain below. One of the young nuns drove the sisters’ little Fiat vigorously, downshifting and gripping the turns like a Formula 1 driver while we held on for dear life. I sensed in these sisters the joy of the Lord. Their faces and their actions exuded regenerate life. I was sure they were my sisters too.

Many years ago John Wesley, one of the pioneers of the evangelical movement, reflected in a sermon on this very issue. Acknowledging that it is impossible ever to establish complete agreement in opinions, it is nevertheless possible to work together in a spirit of brotherhood. Paraphrasing a biblical text [2 Kings 10:15], he wrote: Is your heart right with mine? If so, I give you my hand.

Coming out of our respective bunkers and acknowledging our spiritual unity is good for our souls. After all, the Scriptures remind us that it is “together with all the Lord’s holy people” that we are best able to grasp the full dimensions of the love of God (Eph. 3:18, NIV). Beyond many surface idiosyncrasies are the strong, subterranean continuities of a shared life with God. This is where we must start and where I will end.

I agree substantially with Glen’s perspective, so I want to add to his own autobiographical reflections, some of my own. When Vatican II convened, I was a Bible College student in a conservative evangelical school. I don’t think that I had ever had a serious conversation with a Roman Catholic but I assumed most, if not all, of them to be unsaved by virtue of serious doctrinal error and practical idolatry. That was the impression I took from visits to Catholic churches up to that time, in Rome on our trip home from India in 1960, or from visits to Quebec.

As a graduate student at Wheaton, in 1968, I read significant parts of the documents of Vatican II. I found myself encouraged by some of what I read, but my general attitude to Catholicism did not change much. That was my state of mind when I arrived in the Philippines as a missionary, in 1970. I was a member of an evangelical mission and I was keenly aware that I had just landed in a country where well over 90% of the population were nominally Roman Catholic. Most of the Protestants I met were converts from Catholicism or, at most, one generation from conversion, and many of them had suffered significant persecution for joining a Protestant church.

We arrived in the Philippines in January and were settled in a small city, studying Tagalog, by the time Easter week arrived and nightly processions went by our apartment. These were unattractive to us, and seemed to have too little to do with the real significance of Easter.

A year later, we had moved to the capital of a small island where I gave basic pastoral care to a small evangelical congregation for a couple of years. At the mid-week young people’s meeting, we had a number of students from Immaculate Conception College, and they asked the nun who taught their course on “Mary and Ecumenism,” if she would invite me to give a Protestant perspective. I found the course title a peculiar combination of subjects because, as I told the class, our differences regarding Mary were prominent among the items that made it difficult for us to pursue unity with Catholics. The nuns were lovely women and, after the class at which I spoke, one of them thanked me and said that she sensed that I was “Mary-like.” I appreciated what I recognized as a high compliment, from her perspective, but I told her that my desire was to be Christ-like. I realize now that for her these were not very different ways of expressing the same goal.

From that island, we moved to Manila for me to begin teaching at a Bible College, which had been my goal in going to the Philippines. On Sunday afternoons, I accompanied a group of believers from the congregation with which we worshipped, to an area in which we were doing home visitation and seeking people interested in studying the Bible. I was soon leading a small study weekly, with a widow, her children, and a couple of neighbours. We studied Romans together, and I remember vividly an afternoon when I was belabouring the point that we are declared righteous by God when we believe in Jesus, not through our own righteous deeds. The widow asked whether I did not think that “everyone in the Philippines believes in Jesus.” Given the massive percentage of the population affiliated with the Catholic church (not to mention the rapidly growing Protestant church, I conceded her point).

Afterwards, I pondered her comment, and it dawned on me that people are justified by faith in Christ, not by knowledge that justification is by faith. I came to see that what I consider Roman Catholic error concerning the doctrine of justification does not necessarily invalidate the trust in Christ which God may work in the heart of a devout Roman Catholic. The line between true followers of Jesus does not run as clearly between the Protestant and Catholic expressions of Christian faith as I had been assuming, and only God can accurately discern our hearts. I lost no enthusiasm for teaching Scripture to professing Christians, but I did gain a reorientation in my attitude to the people affiliated with other branches of the global Christian church.

On my first home service, while studying at Westminster (Philadelphia), I wrote a thesis on the sufficiency of Scripture in Neo-Catholicism. I also took a seminar on contemporary Roman Catholic theology, which gave me an opportunity to read large sections of the writings of key 20th C Catholic theologians. On the next home service, I studied at the University of St. Michael’s College (Toronto), and I profited significantly from courses with a couple of Roman Catholic professors in the faculty at U. of T. Upon our return to the Philippines, I transferred my course work into a Ph.D. program in dogmatic and moral theology, at Loyola School of Theology (Ateneo de Manila University), and I eventually became the first Protestant graduate from the school. It was a very worthwhile process, and I wrote my dissertation on the theology of Irenaeus, because I wanted to work in an area where I shared common theological ancestry with my Jesuit advisors. In the meantime, I continued to teach theology to evangelicals at Asian Theological Seminary, and I recall how often different Filipino students asked me whether my teachers at Loyola were saved. By then, the understanding I had reached years before in the process of teaching Romans in a home Bible study had settled firmly. So, it was easy for me to say that such a judgment was beyond my ability (or responsibility), but I had strong reason to believe that my teachers were brothers in Christ.

Some years later, when I was relocated to Canada, I went to the meetings of the Canadian Learned Societies (as they were then called), in Ottawa. I was living on the university campus but often walked off campus for food. I had wanted to go to church on Sunday but had not figured out where, before going to Ottawa. On my daily walks, however, I passed a Catholic church, outside of which was a large sign advertising the forthcoming Billy Graham crusade (as his meetings were still called). That intrigued me and I went to a service there on Sunday morning. It was Pentecost Sunday, and the service was a great blessing. A very fine biblical sermon was preached by a layman, a group of young girls did a liturgical dance in celebration of the Spirit’s sending by the Father and the Son, we sang praise choruses with which I was very familiar (just as Glen has described above), and a letter in the bulletin, from the local Bishop, encouraged Catholics to attend the Graham meetings. I felt very keenly that I was worshipping God together with brothers and sisters in Christ, and I went forward during the Eucharist to receive the “body of Christ.” I was well aware that I understood its substance differently from the priest who gave it to me, and from most (if not all) of those communing with me, but I was quite sure many of us responded equally sincerely to the same invitation from Christ to do this act until he returns.

I could go on to recount numerous other incidents in my encounters with Catholics and their writings, through the years, but these personal anecdotes all came to mind as I read Glen’s description of his own experiences among Catholics. I share his sense that the Reformation is not over, and that it is not time for us to return to Rome, but I praise God for the work of his Spirit in and through the Catholic church, and I pray that it will continue.

I particularly pray for the success of the efforts launched by Benedict for re-evangelization of Catholics in the countries where nominal Catholicism is strongest but where authentic faith is much less common. I am reminded of a statement made by the teacher of a Philippine Church History course, I took at Loyola. The American Jesuit teacher told the class of priests in training that the Philippines was full of “baptized pagans.” This was not surprising, given that the ratio of priest to parishioner in the Catholic Church in the Philippines was 1:100,000. There were more Protestant pastors or missionaries in the Philippines than Roman Catholic priests, despite the vastly different numbers to whom they ministered. If a priest managed to serve his parishioners with the sacraments, he would be doing well, so significant catechization or discipling was humanly impossible. It was in this context that I made sense of being a Christian missionary to the Philippines. The country was a great deal less Christianized than baptized church membership would indicate. So we informed Catholics who asked that we were not there to convert people to Protestantism, we were there to preach the gospel and to assist people to mature in Christ. Many people found that growth impossible within their Catholic parish structures, and so they chose to worship with like minded Christians, even though this meant affiliating themselves with non-Catholic congregations.

It was my privilege to serve as one of the evangelicals involved in the Asian part of the “Evangelical-Roman Catholic dialogue on mission,” which was convened jointly by the Lausanne Continuing Committee and the Vatican. At our first meeting, I was asked by the chairman of the evangelical contingent to present a paper describing the perspective from which we, as evangelicals, approached the dialogue. I was forthright about the fact that, for many evangelicals in the Philippines, a pressing question was whether authentic believers in Jesus should remain in the Roman Catholic Church. The responses from Catholic members of the dialogue was fascinating. The first respondent was incensed that the question should arise at all. Why would anyone think that a person must leave the holy Catholic Church to follow Jesus? A second priest/theologian acknowledged that there are many Roman Catholic congregations in which the ministry does not foster healthy Christian maturation, so members of those congregations should find gatherings of fellow Catholics who understand the gospel and are seriously seeking to follow Jesus. (That was a time when the charismatic movement was rising within the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines, and I assumed that these grps were in my respondent’s mind.) But the third respondent most took me (and possibly his fellow Catholic delegates!) by surprise. He was a Dutch Catholic missionary who had been assigned by the Archbishop to liaise between the Church and the charismatic communities working within it. He suggested that if people found that they could not grow well in their faith within the context of the Catholic Church, they should find congregations in which that was possible.

I thank God for his work in the Roman Catholic Church, as I do for his work among Protestants. We both need constant reformation because none of our congregations has yet arrived at the fullness of Christ, and we both have things to learn from one another.

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3 Responses to Evangelical reflections on Post-Vatican II Catholicism

  1. Louis McBride says:

    A wonderful post! Thank you for recounting your experiences and tracing the journey of the development of your thought on Roman Catholicism. Your comment, “it dawned on me that people are justified by faith in Christ, not by knowledge that justification is by faith. I came to see that what I consider Roman Catholic error concerning the doctrine of justification does not necessarily invalidate the trust in Christ which God may work in the heart of a devout Roman Catholic” was especially helpful.

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  3. Stan Fowler says:

    Terry, I’m late getting to this post, but I must say thanks for saying it so well. It is important, I think, to affirm your point that justification by faith is not justification by doctrinal precision. As you and Glen have both noted, there are fascinating points of convergence between Catholics and evangelicals, and I pray that renewal may continue in both camps.

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