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Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Evangelicals' pope.

Jaroslav Pelikan explained the significance of John Paul II's ecumenical efforts among the Orthodox churches. Now Evangelical historian Mark Noll explains how the pope encouraged a surprising but politically potent rapprochement with Evangelical Protestants:

Catholics and evangelicals who advocate conservative convictions on chastity, family, and community have found each other as co-belligerents, and this co-belligerency has eased much of the hostility that once separated the two movements. . . .

But politics is only part of the story. Alterations in a range of religious beliefs and practices are running just as deep or even deeper. Only a generation ago, evangelicals almost universally condemned Roman Catholicism as a badly flawed, or even false, form of Christianity.

What thawed the Evangelical Protestant hostility to Catholicism? Noll points to something that might surprise theological liberals:

Multiple forces lie behind these developments, the most important being the ongoing effect of the Second Vatican Council, the great conclave of all Catholic bishops convened by Pope John XXIII shortly before his death in 1963. After the Council was over, the evangelical theologian David Wells, who now teaches at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, concluded that the Council's actions had ''rendered the vast majority of Protestant analysis of Catholic doctrine obsolete.'' Wells correctly predicted that the Council would push change among Catholics in many different directions, with some moving toward social radicalism and theological liberalism and some moving closer to evangelical theology and practices.

As a result of the Second Vatican Council, Catholics sought ecumenical dialogue with many other Christian bodies, including evangelicals. The Council's stress on encouraging the laity and on opening the Scriptures to the whole church also led to new points of contact with evangelicals. These developments are not leading to a formal union of churches. But they have led to much better communication and a general relaxation of mutual suspicion.

Noll concedes that John Paul's "primary interests in inter-religious dialogue were aimed not at evangelicals, but at bringing the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches together, and then in repairing Catholic relations with Jews and Muslims." I wish he would have said more about how the changing culture of American Evangelicalism has itself led many Protestants to a greater interest in and appreciation for Roman Catholic and Orthodox forms of Christianity. (And my hunch is that the Evangelical crush on Rome has been somewhat stronger than the Catholic crush on Colorado Springs, although another part of the story is that a growing number of American Catholics have become so fed up with the Catholic hierarchy that they have abandoned the church altogether.) Noll's upcoming book, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, will undoubtedly have a lot to say about this.

I also wish I understood how the lay reform movements that have sprung up in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church will play out; it isn't clear to me yet whether groups like Voice of the Faithful or parishes like St Albert the Great (where a six-month 24-hour-a-day sit-in by the congregation convinced the Archdiocese to reverse its decision to close the liberal church) point towards vital expressions of liberalism in the church.

For theological liberals, it must be said that Vatican II has played out somewhat differently than many had hoped. To see such successful Evangelical-Catholic partnerships and such faltering signs of genuine liberalism throughout the church is discouraging.

("The Evangelical Pope?," Mark Noll, Boston Globe 4.10.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 10 April 2005 at 10:37 AM

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April 10, 2005 07:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think that on a popular level Evangelicalism began it's "crush" (lol -- loved that sentence!)ever so slowly in the 1950s with someone like Billy Graham who sought to work with Catholics in his "Crusades" and then grew as other popular figures like Chuck Colson, who's wife is Roman Catholic, began pointing towards John Paul's conservativism on sexuality and aversion to Communism. Through them, Evangelicals began to realize those Catholics were not only not so bad, but had this really cool thing called "liturgy," as well could be pretty valuable politically in conservative causes.

For liberals, so far I think the only thing Vatican II has given them is guitar masses and Protestant hymns. But, it's only been 40 years since that council, and as we only have one every 100 years or so, we still have a good 60 to figure this one out. :)


April 11, 2005 05:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

And how about the Mormons' pope? Peggy Fletcher Stack writes in the Salt Lake Tribune: "Mormons embraced John Paul II with a kind of folk ecumenism." (4.8.05)

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