Excerpts from the Catholic Herald
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.
… 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.)
… 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”.
… 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.
… Like his mentor [Francis], 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.
… 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!”
… 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.
… 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.
… 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.