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Evangelical Author Sees Strengths in the Catholic Church

February 8, 2011

It is not uncommon among Catholics that we look to Evangelicals and, though deeply concerned about some of the theological stances, we admire the vibrancy of their communities. Some of their “megachurches” attract tens of thousands of worshippers. We see them as having a tradition of strong preaching and a good stance on the moral issues of our day. These communities attract many former Catholics who claim the strong, biblical preaching and sense of community and joy was what they found lacking in the Catholic Church. We  also see them as attracting many young adults, both single and married, a thing we are struggling in the Catholic Church to do.  At least, these are the perceptions.

But every now and then I happen upon a video or article that sheds light some of the struggles the Evangelicals have as well. And, as we look to them with an ocassional sneaking admiration for what we see, some of them look back at us with some admiration as well.  Last week an article appeared at the Patheos Website written by David French, an Evangelical author entitled: As Evangelicals Falter, Catholics and Mormons Lead. I want to share some excerpts of the full article (which you can read here: Evangelicals Falter?), and focus particularly on what he says regarding Catholics. As self-critical as we can sometimes be, it is helpful also to know how others see us as strong. Pray God we actually have these strengths and will continue to see them build. The text of the original article is in bold, italic, black text. My comments are in normal text red.

For years I’ve traveled the country, speaking to thousands of evangelical students, and find myself—even in front of “activist” organizations—virtually pleading for a sliver of courage or a trace of commitment in support of life or marriage. In response, I get encouragement, good words, and all too often nothing else.[But], on January 23, 2011, I stood, overwhelmed, in front of almost 2,000 pro-life students. I was overwhelmed by their energy, by their commitment to defending the defenseless, and by their gracious and Godly spirit….It was different. Instead of inspiring, I was inspired. Rather than exhorting others to greater levels of engagement, I was admonished for my own compromises…..And this audience was largely Catholic, and the Catholic Church for almost forty years has been the beating heart of the American pro-life movement. [What a great testimony to those young people with whom he met. It is a great tribute also to the Catholic Church to be described as the beating heart of the pro-life movement. To God be the Glory. While it is true that among us there are debates about whether we focus enough on abortion, and how we can better manifest an even stronger protest and and commitment to fight it, it is also true that others see us as great and prophetic leaders in the pro-life cause.

In the past 15 years we have gotten clearer and bolder. The faithful have insisted that priests and bishops be bolder and unqualified in this matter. And the focused battle has (paradoxically) been a source of renewal for us. God can make a way out of no way.  We are not as strong as we should be, but we are strong, and God has anointed us to this task: to be the beating heart of the American pro-life movement. All the more that we should avoid “heart disease” and stay as strong as others see us and be as strong as we know we grow to be.

There are, to be sure, dissenters, but they are fewer, and it’s getting harder and harder to be seen as a true Catholic if you support legal abortion. The faithful are insisting that bishops and priests draw the line in terms of disciplining pro-choice legislators who vote to fund abortion. While the debate continues about the prudential way to do this, it is clear the direction in which the Church is headed. Whatever ambiguity we may have sadly had in the past, it is giving way daily to a clearer stand].

As devout Catholics and faithful Mormons step forward boldly, evangelical Protestants appear in cultural disarray. The most popular of the new generation of evangelical pastors—Rick Warren and Joel Osteen—stay out of the cultural fray. Evangelical youth may have orthodox opinions on marriage or life, but they’re increasingly reluctant to voice those opinions, lest they appear “divisive” or “intolerant.” In fact, at times it appears as if much of the evangelical world has retreated into a defensive crouch, eager to promote its universally-loved work for the poor while abjectly apologizing for the cultural battles of years past. [There seems to be an over-correction the Evangelicals may be experiencing. Rev Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others often took strong and public stands on the moral issues of the day. As a Catholic, I admired them for this but at times I cringed when they were less nuanced than I wished, or failed to make some necessary distinctions. Further, they often strayed a little closer to politics than I would and often used Old Testament texts in a mechanistic way that did always respect how Jesus recast them.

Sure enough, their action caused a strong and often strident backlash from secularists and progressivist theologians. At some level the backlash was deserved for the reasons already stated and also the perception that some of  their involvement in politics was too cozy. It would seem our author is noting that within Evangelicalism this took something of a toll. Some are weary and wary of the strident battles of the past and, it appears, have sought less controversial terrain. But the correction, according to French has gone too far].   

Why are Catholics and Mormons increasingly bold when so many evangelicals are increasingly timid? Why are Catholics so often leading on life and Mormons so often leading on marriage? The answer, I think, is theological and cultural, two words that expose profound weaknesses in American evangelicalism. [I would like to say I think Catholics are also showing something of a lead on marriage issues, but in an incomplete way. It is clear we are against Gay “marriage.” But how well do we really uphold true marriage in our lives? Our doctrine is clear enough, but in practice we have high numbers of divorce and annulments. Whereas the Mormans have large, strong,  and stable families, our witness in the actual way we live is sore comprimised. Hence,  our author does not see us as the strong witnesses to marriage we ought to be].

First, theology. One cannot spend five minutes with thoughtful Catholics without understanding how the defense of life is a fundamental and integral part of the DNA of the church. Since the defense of life is theologically-grounded, it is functionally and practically independent of any secular ideology. Nuns who one day attend a sit-in for immigrant rights may the next day do sidewalk counseling outside of Planned Parenthood. Bishops, “progressive” or conservative, defend life in Catholic hospitals. Catholics who study church doctrine, who immerse themselves in the teachings of the church, understand that to defend life is to imitate Christ. Life is not just an “issue,” for a Catholic; it is at the core of the Gospel. [Well, I wish what he said here was wholly true. There are unfortunately some aspects of  politics that separate Catholics out into two wings as we have discussed elsewhere on this blog. On one wing are Catholics who are pro-life and focused on the great moral issues of our time: Abortion, Euthanasia, Embryonic Stem cell research, sex education and so forth. On the other wing are Catholics  focused on the social issues: poverty, immigrant rights, capital  punishment, health care and so forth.

Our author’s picture of the nun sitting in for immigrant rights and protesting later in front of the PP “clinic” is beautiful but rarer than I would like. Not all Catholics easily stride back and forth between the two wings. I know many who do and would like to think I am one who does, but the truth is there ARE secular ideologies that negatively impact our ability to be truly prophetic. But pay attention fellow Catholics, someone sees us as strong in this area. Why don’t we strive to live up to the powerful image our Evangelical brother sees?

Thank God, too our theology IS very clear on life, seeing it not merely as an issue but as deeply rooted in the Gospel and the Tradition going all the way back to the Didache. Recall the strong reaction to Nancy Pelosi by ALL the bishops when she said it was something less than settled doctrine and only of recent origin. But it is long standing doctrine.  Abortion is an intrinsic moral evil without exception (ex toto genere suo). The doors are quickly closing on any Catholic who would hold otherwise].

Next, culture. The Mormon church knows what it is like to live outside the mainstream…..the Mormon culture is inherently resilient in the face of cultural headwinds… Evangelicals, by contrast, are often shocked when co-workers turn on them, or when the country drifts from its heritage. Mormons aren’t so easily shaken. After all, the country wasn’t theirs to begin with. [Note that Mr. French does not include Catholics in his description of the culture of persecution and how it steels one against compromise. At one time he could have said this of Catholics, prior to the 1950s. But as Catholics have emerged from the Catholic Ghetto and had a desire to join the mainstream we have struggled to avoid many compromises. Too many Catholics have as a goal that everyone like them.

There was a time when Catholics were widely hated and feared. We were strong and cohesive in those days. Our parishes were full, our families intact, our schools filled. Slowly we must recover our ability to experience the world’s hatred.

And it IS returning. Little by little, anger at the Church for her stance on the moral issues is building. It’s going to take strong Catholics to endure and stay. We are going to be tested in the years ahead. Bring it on! It may well be what the Church needs to be more deeply reformed and become more prophetic. I think Mr. French is right, the Mormons have not lost this, but I add that I think most Catholics have. But the times are already here when we’re going to have very little choice about rediscovering persecution if we choose to keep the faith in an uncompromised way].

For all our many virtues (and there are many: American evangelicals are among the most generous and loving people in the world), we generally have no conception of—or particular loyalty to—”church teaching” and tend to see marriage and life as “issues” rather than integral parts of our core theology. Since we’re busy being spiritual entrepreneurs, revolutionizing the whole concept of church every 90 seconds, we don’t have the kind of (relative) theological stability that has marked almost 2,000 years of Catholic history, and we can’t come close to matching the (again, relative) uniformity of teaching that marks the Mormon experience….[Well said. There is an ephemeral (passing, or transitory)  quality to evangelicalism that I think leads to a lack of depth and stability. Zeal and excitement have their place, but without roots, a mere wind carries one off to the next thing, and the next thing].  

We’re more unified than we’ve been in the past, but we’re a collection of subcultures that comprise a shaky, larger whole. And we are often desperate for acceptance. We view the transient scorn of popular culture as a virtual cataclysm, and our distressingly common health and wealth gospels wrongly teach us that Christian faith carries with it measurable earthly pleasures. We lack a theology of suffering. [Without a Pope or even fundamental liturgy to unite them, Evangelicals are really a loose-knit confederation. The Bible alone can’t unite them or focus them as a group. Niche marketing has compartmentalized them in many ways. 

Mr. French also has some very good insights as to the deep flaws of the prosperity gospel. If the point in life is to have God bless you with material things as a sign of favor, then it becomes hard to go up against the world. For everyone instinctively knows that to do so threatens the flow of the world’s blessings. 

A clear theology of suffering IS a Catholic strength that well captures Christ’s  fundamental demand that we take up our cross and follow him, that we endure the hatred of the world as he did. If we are looking to the world for blessings we are already compromised, and it is unlikely we will ever take the risk to be prophets, for we have too much to lose].   

Simply put, we evangelicals are blown and tossed by the cultural winds. Right now, the winds are blowing against us, and our young people are reluctant to engage. But God is sovereign, and the fate of the nation is in His hands, not ours. And if we fail, there are others—some from an ancient tradition, some from a new one—who may very well carry out His work with more faith and courage than we ever could.

An excellent article by Mr. French that both encourages us as Catholics but also challenges us to live up the good goals and qualities that others see in us.

Paul Washer is an Evangelical who also has a lot to say about some of the trends in Evangelicalism:

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Comments (24)

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  1. John says:

    An absolutely excellent analysis Msgr.! Thank you.

    On more thing to consider. Mr. French didn’t have to write this commentary. He certainly wouldn’t have one hundred years ago. I’m not even sure it would have happened 20 years ago! It seems to me, the wholesale killing of the unborn, and, more broadly, the secular assault on our Christian values, have forced Evangelicals, Catholics and Mormons into a group huddle, where before only division amongst them was found. No doubt, some of that tension still exists today. But, I don’t think the “whore of Babylon” caricature of the Catholic Church is as effective as it was years ago among Evangelicals. That gibberish hate speech seems to have been handed over to the secularists today.

    Praise God, maybe there are other evangelicals who, like Mr. French, are seeing the theology of Life witnessed by serious Catholics, and taking a second look at the Catholic Church. And who, like many of their Anglican brethren, wish to seek shelter under Rome’s roof.

    • Yes, I think you are right. There’s a lot more team work evident today, mainly because there has to be. God can indeed write straight with crooked lines and even something as awful as Abortion can have a way of drawing God’s people together to fight a common enemy. While I agree with you that things are a lot better, it is also true, if you read the comments to French’s article at the original site, you can see that there are still some who have that “old time religion” “whore of Babylon” perspective. But, pray God they are fewer.

      • Nick O'dEmmus says:

        Let us pray to St Francis de Sales, patron of Christian unity, that all Christians draw together against their common enemy, the Devil, Lord of this world – and through this common ground, that many Protestants and Orthodox may return to the fullness of the Catholic faith. Let us Catholics all be unafraid of the ephemeral criticisms of the times and shine out as a living example of this fullness of the faith, uncompromising witnesses of what we profess we believe. Salt of the earth, light to the world, light in the darkness, noctilucent warriors. Amen.

        • Don says:

          Thank you for such encouragement… I pray to God that as a Catholic, I would forever be strong. I recently encountered a lot of criticisms from other faiths, particularly that of evangelical. This article somehow made me stronger.

  2. Ron Dee says:

    Very thought provoking!

  3. MichaelP says:

    I think we lack the “culture” that is desired simply because of modernity. This spirit has taken its toll on the Catholic Church and we need to push it out. It has even affected our theology but not as bad. Our theologians are starting to dig into the Church Fathers again. This was something that was mostly lost in the past 50 to 60 years.

    michael

  4. Sarah says:

    As a convert, I believe the thing French refers to by talking about how for Catholics, life isn’t just an issue, but is part of our core theology, comes from the fact that our theology includes the idea of the dignity of every human. I don’t know of any Christian group who denies the imago dei formally, but many of them don’t think or talk much about it. Their devotional materials tend to focus on praying more, being kinder personally, trusting God through difficulties, and not much else. Those are all good things, but without the richness of the Catholic tradition (including a deep appreciation for the dignity of human life), Evangelicalism is anemic.

    The two wings in the Church that you mentioned are both trying to further the respect for basic human dignity. If both wings agreed on abortion, there would be no problem with some of us focusing on abortion and others of us focusing on poverty. What doesn’t make sense is for someone to fight poverty and champion immigration rights because poor people and immigrants ought to be treated with dignity and respect, but not to also champion the right to life of unborn babies. It makes me scratch my head, or alternately, want to bang said head against a wall.

    • Yes, the imago Dei is surely a deep tradition on the Catholic Faith.

      I wonder too about your second concern. I struggle too figure why any Catholic would be annoyed to talk about the evil of abortion. And I’ve met some who think abortion is a kind of distraction from “bigger” issues like poverty, drug abuse etc. I really don’t get their dismissive attitude and figure they’re just pro-choice even they claim not to be. That said, I also struggle to grasp what the plan is to care for the poor among pro-life Catholics. Now take me. I have a libertarian tendency though I am not a libertarian. However, I don’t trust big govt. Ok so I don’t think big Govt welfare is a good solution, what is my plan B? FOr me it is not enough to be against big govt welfare, but I also need a feasible alternative Some say the Church should do it. OK fine but where do we suddenly get the cash? Etc. So I think both wings need to do a bit of soul searching.

  5. Sarah says:

    I should clarify – many Christian groups talk a good bit about human dignity, but few Evangelical groups do. The Protestants who do talk about it tend to think the way “liberal” Catholics do – dignity for the poor, but not for the unborn.

  6. TeaPot562 says:

    I just finished reading another blog on parents discouraging religious (and priestly) vocations among their children. If newly married Catholics make conscious decisions to limit their children to just two or three at most, then they run the risk of never having grandchildren IF the kids don’t survive to marry and reproduce. Therefore, these parents, having ignored God’s command (Genesis) to be fruitful and multiply, are forced to push against a possible call to a religious vocation if it shows up among their kids.
    The contraceptive generation finds it difficult to allow their children religious vocations. This, in turn, weakens the Church.
    TeaPot562 (Parent of five – including a priest – and grandparent of twelve; And, one of my seven siblings is a Good Shepherd sister; and my mother (in the 1960s) fussed about that!)

  7. Mike McLaren says:

    How do you suppose it is that a serious Christian like Mr. Washer can make references such as, ” ancient tradition”, and “theological stability that has markd almost 2,000 years of Catholic history”, and not be inspired to conversion to the Catholic Church?

    • I suppose you mean Mr. French. I suppose he may be more inclined. We can pray for unity here.

      • Michael Lofton says:

        I am a Catholic but use to be Protestant. I use to listen to Paul Washer constantly. I’ve probably listened to over 300 of his sermons. He is extremely anti-Catholic and Catholics should stay away from him. He is of the view the Catholic Church is satanic. I suppose that is also why he doesn’t convert to Catholicism when he speaks about “ancient tradition”.

  8. Daniel says:

    “There was a time when Catholics were widely hated and feared. We were strong and cohesive in those days. Our parishes were full, our families intact, our schools filled. Slowly we must recover our ability to experience the world’s hatred.”

    Dear Msgr. Pope, your words are powerful, and timely. I’m too young to have been alive during that time, but growing up in the Church during the ’90s, I think the lack of solidarity and catechesis in some of our parishes has been devastating. My generation is lost, they are not in the pews. They have energy and enthusiasm but it is funneled back into the culture, or worse, the self. If our young people knew more about the one true Faith, what She really stands for, I think less young people would be afraid to align themselves with Holy Mother Church.

    I have many Evangelical friends and this article rings true. They are curious about our unwillingness to budge, and the “stubborn” beliefs we hold about life and marriage.

    We’re all lost without Christ. I hope the Manhattan Declaration is a sign of things to come.

  9. Patt says:

    If this gentleman starts reading the Church Fathers, there is a good chance he could become Catholic.
    The 3 former evangelics I know came in through that route. Then they became wonderful defenders of the Faith.
    It is a tough road to travel when you convert , I always admire them.

  10. Jan says:

    I wonder what is meant by the uniformity of teaching that marks the Mormon experience?

    One absolutely cannot compare a 180 year old religious cult with the Catholic Church in any regard, and especially not theologically. They are not Christian, for all their Christian ethic. They don’t believe the truth of Jesus Christ and have invented a persona for Him. Because of that, they call themselves ‘Christian.’ The Mormon church, in fact, is utterly bereft of any meaningful theology, to the best of my knowledge.

    What they are is extremely well organized and controlling. The members tithe and wear garments, because if they don’t, they lose their temple recommend. If they lose their temple recommend they can’t perform temple work which they need to do, among other things, to reach the celestial kingdom, which is the highest degree in heaven.

    In areas where Mormons are in the religious majority, being an active, garment-wearing and tithing Mormon is necessary in many business relationships. And as far as their persecution goes, a little study will shed a lot of light on why they were run out of every place they tried to settle until they got to uninhabited Utah where they had time and freedom to grow.

    The church would be better called a business than a religion.

    • I think your points are generally on target. Mormonism has a wholesome exterior but there are very troubling matters in terms of their theology and practices.

      • Michael says:

        I’m wondering if either of you know any members of the LDS church? While I agree with you on some points, I have some problem with your definition of what it means to be a Christian. “You shall know a tree by it’s fruit.” Mormons have a much better record than most American Catholics when it comes to following Christs teaching on how to live. They take the call to evangilization and priesthood seriously. They DO tithe. They take marriage vows seriously. They reach out to their neigbors and form strong communities. They treat the entire Sabbath as a holy day, spending 4 or 5 hours in services and classes. Yes, their theology is immature, and has led to some abuses, and leads to some other problems. And I get that their tradition is much younger that the Catholic Church, but the point in the article is that they HAVE a tradition, and a sense of authority outside the individual, as opposed to the Evangelical movement, and they stand up for it.
        A couple of my best friends are Mormons, and while I would love for them to join the true Church, they lives reflect a deep belief in the Gospel. Rather than ridicule their theology, I suggest trying to understand it, so we can better lead them to the true way.

        • The problems are theological in terms of how they understand God the Father. He is a God to be sure, but just a local God. WHen Mormons advance they seem to think they will get a planet to rule and ascend also to the status of a local divinity. They do not envision the Trinity in any Christian sense. Such views clearly set them outside the Christian faith. They may be nice people and exhibit many wholesome traits but they do not hold anything close to a Christian notion in reference to De Deo Uno and de Deo Trino.

  11. Jan says:

    I’m wondering if either of you know any members of the LDS church?

    Sure do, Michael. I’ve lived in Utah for 30 years and I married into a Mormon family.

    I learned early on to study up on the Mormon faith in self-defense so I have a fairly good grasp of their theology and methodology. When I say that they are not Christian, I am referring to the fact that we are not free in this life to define or invent who and what Jesus and God are. There is truth involved. The LDS church has usurped the name of Jesus Christ to lend credibility to their church, but they don’t believe what is the Truth, which is outlined in the Nicene Creed.

    By Christian ethic, I mean acting in a manner and accordance with what is expected of a follower of Jesus Christ. They do this in spades, without a doubt. No argument there. As for the tithing – when the bishop comes into your home and reviews your tax returns to assure that you are tithing at risk of losing your temple recommend, I think that falls more into the realm of coercion than of ‘the Lord loves a happy giver’!

    Some of the worst people I know call themselves Christian, and some of the best Mormons I know have absolutely no Christian ethic. A church cannot define that within a person.

    We are not likely to see the LDS church turn more fully to the truth – the One, True Faith – the Catholic Church. And it doesn’t do to forget that at some point in their upbringing, the LDS are taught that the Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon, and they are also taught to convert, convert, convert. One of the ways they excel in this regard is to take advantage of a crisis and then put some of that good old Christian Ethic to work. They have ‘loved’ a lot of people into their ranks.

    Like you, I too have several LDS friends that I treasure – in a small town like mine, if it weren’t for my LDS friends, well, friends would be in short supply. But the disparity in our beliefs doesn’t allow for a fruitful exchange of religious ideas. That’s not what we’re after in our friendship, anyway.

    I hope this gives you a better idea of what I was trying to say.