Can Francis overcome decades of antagonism between Catholics and Evangelicals?

Somewhere in Pope Francis’s office is a document that could alter the course of Christian history. It declares an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals and says the two traditions are now “united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel”. The Holy Father is thinking of signing the text in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, alongside Evangelical leaders representing roughly one in four Christians in the world today.

Francis is convinced that the Reformation is already over. He believes it ended in 1999, the year the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint declaration on justification, the doctrine at the heart of Luther’s protest.

The German firebrand had accused the Catholic Church of teaching that man was saved by faith and good works, rather than “by faith alone”.

In 1999, after extensive talks, Catholic and Lutheran theologians concluded that the two communions now shared “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ”.

In 2006, the World Methodist Council also adopted the declaration. But not one major leader of “born-again” Christians has publicly endorsed the text. So most of the world’s 600 million Evangelicals don’t realise that the protest is over. From the shantytowns of São Paulo to the high-rises of Seoul, Evangelicals and Catholics still eye each other warily.

Many of the former are reluctant even to describe Catholics as Christians, while the latter often dismiss Evangelical groups as “sects”.

But not everyone is resigned to enmity. As far back as 1984, an influential Charismatic magazine published an essay entitled “Three Streams, One River?” The author, Richard Lovelace, argued that Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism were three tributaries forming one great torrent of Christianity. (Many observers would count Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism as a single stream, given that most Pentecostals are Evangelicals.)

Lovelace wrote: “There will be many knots to be untied before we have a united church which is truly Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal.”

“Many knots to be untied”: today that phrase calls to mind Pope Francis. He has popularised devotion to Mary Undoer of Knots, which seeks Our Lady’s help in resolving seemingly intractable problems. The rift between Catholics and Evangelicals has long seemed to belong in that category.

For much of his life, Francis must have viewed Evangelicals with suspicion. An old-school Argentine Jesuit, he would have watched in dismay as his flock drifted off to Evangelical churches (nearly one in five Latin Americans now describe themselves as Protestant).

You can imagine his discomfort when, in 1999, he first celebrated Mass for charismatic Catholics. They spoke in tongues, like their Pentecostal counterparts, when he elevated the Host. But, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he began attending noisy, praise-filled gatherings of Evangelicals and Catholics. At first, he sat discreetly sipping mate.

But in 2006 he went on stage, where he knelt as Protestant leaders prayed over him. A pastor with a microphone hollered: “Fill him with your Holy Spirit and power, Lord! In the name of Jesus!” The image of the cardinal kneeling, head bowed, beneath the outstretched hands of Evangelicals was so startling that a traditionalist magazine ran the headline: “Buenos Aires, sede vacante. The archbishop commits the sin of apostasy”.

A papal biographer says that, after the blessing, “the cardinal was on fire”. He began to meet Evangelical pastors monthly. He would arrive by public transport and enthusiastically join in their improvised prayer sessions. They never discussed indulgences or the Immaculate Conception. He now believed that their shared baptism was more important than their differences.

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As Pope, he has continued to sidestep theological disputes. Unlike the former Vatican doctrinal watchdog Benedict XVI, he’s willing to say: “Let’s leave those to the theologians.”

In Buenos Aires he met a British-born South African pastor called Tony Palmer. Palmer belonged to the “convergence movement”, which seeks to blend charismatic worship with a more historically grounded liturgy and understanding of the sacraments.

The cardinal became Palmer’s “spiritual father”, but reportedly discouraged him from becoming a Catholic, arguing that he was called to serve as a “bridge-builder” between Catholics and Evangelicals. (Francis is said to have told an Evangelical leader recently: “I’m not interested in converting Evangelicals to Catholicism. I want people to find Jesus in their own community. Let’s be about showing the love of Jesus.”)

Like his mentor, Palmer believed that the Reformation had already ended. He bluntly challenged Luther’s spiritual heirs to reject the “Protestant” label. “It’s like saying you’re racist even though you’re living in a country that no longer has an Apartheid system in place,” he argued.

When Francis wanted to reach out to Evangelicals after he was elected Pope, he didn’t do the obvious things. He didn’t ask the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity to organise a conference or seek advice from the group Evangelicals and Catholics Together in America – arguably the most advanced such dialogue in the world. Instead, he rang his old friend. During a leisurely meeting at the Vatican, Palmer recorded a video of the Pontiff on his iPhone.

Designated an “Apostolic Representative for Christian Unity” by Francis, Palmer took the film to a ministers’ conference in Texas organised by prosperity gospel preacher Kenneth Copeland. Palmer introduced the film with what must count as one of the great Christian orations of the 21st century. “Brothers and sisters, Luther’s protest is over,” he said. He told the audibly stunned audience that he was speaking to them “in the spirit of Elijah”, who prepared the way for something much greater than himself.

Palmer was unaware, of course, that as he stood at the lectern he had just months left to live. But with hindsight there was a spine-tingling moment when he announced that he would introduce the papal video with a short prayer. “This was a dying man’s prayer,” he said. “And when you know that you are about to die, you certainly pray the most important prayers.”

Palmer read John 17:20-22, in which Jesus prayed that his followers “may be one”. Francis’s face appeared on a big screen, unflatteringly close to the lens. In his short, impromptu message the Pope referred to Palmer, who belonged to an Anglican group that is independent from the Archbishop of Canterbury, as his “bishop brother”.

Francis then proclaimed that “the miracle of unity has begun”. The audience greeted the video with whooping, laughter and a babble of tongues. Copeland summoned Palmer back on stage to record a reply on his iPhone. The video ended with all the ministers – some of whom may have believed the Pope was a false teacher just minutes earlier – raising their hands and addressing Francis in unison with the cry: “Be blessed!”

Not long after, Palmer brought Evangelical heavyweights representing millions of churchgoers to the Vatican to meet Francis. The encounter was remarkably informal.

The Pope spoke of the need for all Christians to have a personal relationship with Jesus. “Sir, as an Evangelist, that deserves a high-five,” said James Robison, who helped to inspire the rise of America’s Religious Right in the 1980s. Once an interpreter explained what a high-five was, the Vicar of Christ slapped the beaming televangelist’s hand.

That day Palmer gave Francis a draft text called the “Declaration of Faith in Unity for Mission”, which he hoped the Pope would sign with Evangelical leaders in 2017. A month later, Palmer died after a motorcycle accident in England – an event so shocking it has inspired mind-bending conspiracy theory videos on YouTube.

Francis hasn’t given any public sign of whether he will sign the declaration. But he has taken steps that seem to prepare the ground for it. Days after his friend’s death he became the first pope to visit a Pentecostal church, offering an apology for Catholic persecution of the movement in Italy. Last month he asked forgiveness of the Waldensians, a communion regarded as the world’s oldest Evangelical church.

But even if the Pope does sign the declaration in two years’ time, full, visible unity between Catholics and Evangelicals will remain unlikely. As Fr Dwight Longenecker, an American Catholic priest who was raised Evangelical, explains, there is no single, authoritative body that could be reconciled with Rome.

“‘Evangelicals’ could include the most rabid, anti-Catholic, fire-breathing fundamentalists right through to the prosperity gospel televangelists, ‘Evangelical’ Anglo-Catholics, charismatics and modernist Protestants,”
he says.

He suggests that few are truly interested in unity with the Catholic Church. “For most Evangelicals any reunion with Rome is very low on the agenda if it is there at all,” he says. “This is for two reasons: despite their current friendliness toward Catholics they still have a deep distrust of Rome. They simply cannot conceive of the idea that ‘Roman Catholicism’ has much good in it. They might view us as brother Christians, but we are still deeply deluded.

“Second, their ecclesiology is that of the invisible church only. They do not see the thousands of Protestant churches as a problem because the ‘institutional church’ is man-made and temporal, so it doesn’t really matter which one you belong to. Formal reunion of any kind, for them, simply doesn’t matter.”

Ulf Ekman, a Swedish megachurch pastor who became a Catholic last year, agrees that many Evangelicals are afraid of “a Superchurch”. Still, he believes that old wounds can be healed by what he calls “a parallel approach”. “That is, both sides coming closer on equal terms and recognising each other with an approach of avoiding any appearance of submission and triumphalism, more converging then conversion.” This, of course, fits well with Francis’s own thinking, which he captures in pithy phrases such as “reconciled diversity” and “unity without uniformity”.

In order to preserve diversity, Francis could offer Evangelicals in the more liturgically minded “convergence movement” something similar to the ordinariate, which has allowed groups of ex-Anglicans to be reunited with Rome while retaining elements of their patrimony. Alternatively, the Pope might create an “Evangelical apostolate”, allowing reconciled Evangelicals to promote their distinctive style of worship and Scripture study within the Catholic Church.

Fr Longenecker says Francis could also encourage ex-Evangelicals to found religious communities, giving the example of American singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot, who leads an informal religious community of “Evangelical Catholics”.

But there is no evidence that Francis is considering any of these options. Perhaps he thinks it will be up to his successors to explore these paths to unity. He may believe his own mission is limited to bulldozing away the debris currently blocking the route.

Meanwhile, the Pope is encouraging Catholics to be more evangelical with a small “e”. He seems to want the faithful to become more like “born-again” Christians: to ditch the “funeral” faces, radiate joy and take the Gospel out of the church and on to the streets.

Thanks to Francis and the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement, the faithful are likely to look considerably more like Evangelicals by the end of the century than they did at the beginning. But whether Evangelicals will be more Catholic remains to be seen.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/7/15).

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