Issue Date: December 17, 2004
Reviewed by DARRELL TURNER
Ten years ago a group of evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders issued a statement affirming that they are brothers and sisters in Christ and that there is but one church of Christ. The statement, known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, was remarkable for such affirmations in the wake of centuries of polemics on both sides. It was also notable for having been issued in the same month as a statement of the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Interpretation warning that fundamentalism promotes a kind of intellectual suicide.
In his new book, religious historian William M. Shea traces the relations between the two groups in the United States and finds much to praise and criticize on both sides. The criticisms evangelicals and Catholics have been making of each other for five centuries are correct, he says, but they have not in common taken responsibility for the causes of validity of those criticisms.
Much of the volume serves as a compendium of anti-Catholic invective by Protestants of all stripes, including some who would never be considered remotely evangelical in their theology. Shea cites the 1830s writings of the Rev. William Nevins, a Presbyterian pastor in Baltimore, as examples of what he calls The Outline, the Protestant bill of particulars against Catholicism that includes such charges as practicing idolatry and Mariolatry, adapting the priesthood of classical paganism and desiring to dominate the world religiously.
But Shea also finds some surprises. For example, the Rev. J. Gresham Machen, one of the foremost fundamentalist Presbyterians of the early 20th century, wrote in his 1925 book Christianity and Liberalism, Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today!
Shea characterizes evangelical Protestantism as biblical Christianity and Roman Catholicism as liturgical Christianity and notes that these two emphases have been responsible for some of the conflict between the two. But there have also been non-theological issues, such as the turf wars that led nativist American Protestants to fear Catholic immigration in the mid-19th century and that provoked warnings by both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops in the 1980s in the face of evangelical and Pentecostal incursions into Catholic communities.
While denouncing the ignorant stereotyping of Catholics by Protestants, Shea, a former priest, also opens fire on several of his own coreligionists. Critiquing a description of fundamentalism that was included in a 1984 catechetical resource published by the United States Catholic Conference, he writes that the stereotyping here reaches depths of absurdity.
What made Evangelicals and Catholics Together so significant, Shea says, is its call for a common agenda on such issues as abortion and pornography and its invitation to further dialogue and theological reflection. In this respect, he says, the document is a thorough departure from tradition for Catholics as well as evangelicals.
The scholar concludes that the way forward for both sides is mutually respectful theological and religious criticism based on each taking the other fully seriously as a Christian community. If this cannot be done, he says, then the hope for Christian maturity is dim indeed.
There have been other signs of evangelical-Catholic cooperation and understanding in recent decades, including the presence of such evangelical scholars as Nathan Hatch and Alvin Plantinga on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame and the rediscovery of Catholic spirituality by such evangelical writers as Dallas Willard and Philip Yancey. For a penetrating look at the faith and foolishness that has marked so much of their respective histories, both groups would do well to consult Sheas book.
Darrell Turner writes the section on religion for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year. He has been an associate editor for Religion News Service.
National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 2004
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