Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 108 (December 2000): 13-16.
“The Protestants were out at the pro–life ball,” my Catholic friend told me, with some agitation. “They gave us all evangelical tracts.” He was talking about a fundraising ball in Manhattan for a variety of pro–life groups. Although of the two young professional women who cochaired the event one was Roman Catholic and one evangelical Protestant, given the religious demographics of New York, most of the over three hundred people in attendance were Catholics, giving the impression that this was a “Catholic” event. That’s why my friend was irritated at receiving an evangelical “tract” in a package handed out at the affair. When I reminded him that evangelicals are pro–life, too, and that distributing tracts is one way in which some people are accustomed to spreading the gospel of Christ, he upbraided me for not being more concerned. Aren’t they spreading error? Isn’t Protestantism heretical?
Earlier that same day I had received a call from a friend who works for a major evangelical parachurch organization. He wanted my advice on the best way for his organization to set up activities at a Catholic university with which I am somewhat familiar. We spoke for some time about the particular questions involved, but did not broach the larger question of whether I as a Catholic should help Protestants evangelize at a Catholic university in the first place.
That question did occur to me, but I decided that he had a right to pursue his ministry, and the handful of evangelicals at Catholic universities have a right to be ministered to. Although his organization is not interested in “sheep stealing,” I could certainly foresee that some students who were baptized Catholic might decide to convert to evangelical Protestantism. I think such conversions could, at least in some instances, turn out to be a good thing. And I think John Paul II might agree with me.
Let me explain. All Christians agree that salvation involves a commitment to follow the call of Christ, a commitment that is renewed daily. Many Catholics and evangelicals fall short of this, of course, and in characteristic ways. Catholics tend to find comfort and security in their membership in the Church, as they should; they weave the sacraments and the liturgical seasons into the warp and woof of their lives, as they should; their faith becomes routine, as in regular, and appropriately so. But it can also become routine, as in routinized. Some seem to presume that not being excommunicated or in a state of mortal sin is the totality of the Christian life, as if the whole purpose of being Catholic were to avoid being thrown out of the Church. Cradle Catholics have the decision to follow Christ in the Catholic Church made for them by others while they are infants. Often, and I speak from experience, they do not later make that commitment their own and affirm it daily, as many of those who join the Church as adults do. We might call the resulting vice of merely routinized Christian living spiritual sloth.
Evangelicals, if I may be permitted, have almost the opposite spiritual vice. They tend to have had such a strong experience in their adult conversions that they make that experience the touchstone of their interior lives from then on. The experience has many aspects, but two in particular: the decision to accept and imitate Christ, on the one hand, and the emotions that accompany and confirm that decision, on the other. It seems that most evangelicals believe, and they are undoubtedly right in most cases, that the emotional part of conversion—the quickening of the heart, the ecstatic rush—is the felt experience of the action of the Holy Spirit.
The Christian spiritual tradition calls these the “consolations” that God sometimes sends us as a foretaste of the delights of heaven. Some evangelicals, apparently, find them so delightful that seeking consolations comes to constitute the center of their spiritual lives. This desire for heavenly delights in this life can lead us to identify the action of the Holy Spirit with powerful but merely human emotions (always a danger with a style of worship, whether Catholic or Protestant, that relies on generating spiritual enthusiasm). Looking for consolations can lead us to question the Holy Spirit when, because of psychological difficulties or other ways in which God may be testing our faith, consolations are lacking in our prayer and worship. An attachment to and hunger for emotional experiences that repeat the ecstatic moment of conversion—an attachment and hunger distinctive among evangelical Protestants—we might call spiritual gluttony.
It would be too easy to say that evangelicals and Catholics ought to get together because their characteristic spiritual vices complement each other. As a Catholic, I think that all Christians should accept Jesus as Lord and should each day make a conscious commitment to imitate Christ in their lives, tapping into the resources of truth and grace he entrusted to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church headed by Christ, shepherded by Peter and his successors up to and including John Paul II. Catholics ought to be filled with the energy and zeal that their evangelical brethren so often show. We must always be haunted by the words of Revelation regarding the fate of the lukewarm in the Church, whom the Lord says he will “vomit out” because they are neither hot nor cold (Revelation 3:16).
Likewise, I think evangelicals ought to accept the authoritative voice of the successors of Peter and the apostles not as an oppressive imposition but as Christ’s gift and as an aid in evangelization. After all, Jesus asked Peter to take responsibility for feeding Christ’s sheep. If at times Peter’s successors have seemed less interested in feeding the sheep than in fleecing them, it should still be acknowledged that Jesus wanted the sheep to be fed by Peter, and he wanted the sheep to want Peter to feed them. Since both the pastor and his flock are guided by the Good Shepherd who is Jesus, the leading and the being led are both in obedience to Christ.
Catholics are sometimes prone to a partisan understanding of the Church’s relation to non–Catholics. A person can become so caught up in defending the institution that he sees other committed Christians primarily as threats, rather than as brethren in Christ. This is decidedly not the ecumenical vision of the Second Vatican Council, which declares of non–Catholic Christians that “by his gifts and graces, the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit is also active in them” (Lumen Gentium 15). But it is common nonetheless.
The instinct to protect one’s turf can too easily translate into a defensive attitude towards other Christians, a temptation of which John Paul II is acutely aware. In December 1987, at the beginning of a year that the Pope dedicated for special reflection on the importance of the Virgin Mary, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I of Constantinople visited the Holy See. The Pope took advantage of his annual address to the curia to link the two events, the Marian year and the visit, in a speech still talked about thirteen years later.
Borrowing a metaphor from Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Pope spoke of two dimensions or “profiles,” or, one might even go so far as to say, two Churches within the one Church that is the Body of Christ: the Church of Mary and the Church of Peter. The Church of Peter or the “Petrine profile” refers to the exercise of the authority of jurisdiction and office—the official concern of the bishops—while the Church of Mary or “Marian profile” consists of those who with Mary say “Yes” to God’s call.
The Marian dimension is “supreme and preeminent,” said the Pope, “richer in personal and communitarian implications” than the Petrine dimension. Pressing this image, the Pope insisted that the Petrine profile be thought of as in service to the Marian profile, that the chief purpose of office in the Roman Catholic Church is not to protect God’s interests or those of the Church’s institutions, but to minister to—that is, to aid and serve—all those who with the Mother of God respond faithfully and lovingly to the person of Jesus.
The “pilgrimage aspect of the Church,” said the Pope, is prefigured in Mary, who accepted Jesus before he had founded his Church. It is when the Church looks to Mary’s example as a pilgrim, the Pope believes, that its ecumenical possibilities are most manifest. It is also part of Catholic doctrine that all those who believe and are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit participate in the Body of Christ, whether or not they are in full communion with the Body of Christ as it subsists in the Catholic Church. Which means that all Christians, including Protestants, make up the Church of Mary, and ought to be served and supported by the Church of Peter.
While this way of putting it might make some evangelicals uncomfortable, others have already started using the resources this Pope has made accessible and attractive to the world. It is obvious that Charles Colson and Billy Graham pay more attention to the writings of the Holy Father and take them to heart more readily than do some dissenting Catholic priests and theologians. Pat Robertson for a time was sending copies of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a gift to friends, while some Catholics view the Catechism as oppressive and authoritarian. It could even be argued that Campus Crusade and Prison Fellowship have done more to advance the Church of Mary than entire theology departments of some Catholic universities. These evangelical leaders recognize that Catholics and evangelicals share the same gospel, the same deposit of faith, and especially in recent decades, the same evangelical and apostolic imperative. Robert P. George refers to this reality as the “pan–orthodox alliance” (see “What Can We Reasonably Hope For?” FT, January 2000). The Pope seems to think that the papacy—being the “servant of the servants of God” in the words of Gregory the Great—can be viewed as ministry in service to this alliance.
Although the imagery is his own, the Pope is surely following the Second Vatican Council’s teaching that the hierarchy is in the service of all believers. The constitution Lumen Gentium, in which the Council expressed the Church’s self–understanding, looks outward to others from its opening line, “Christ is the light of the nations.” The Council describes the Church as the People of Israel chosen by God, reconstituted in Christ, and sent out to the world, preaching the gospel in word and deed. Catholics and Protestants who have not read Lumen Gentium often do not realize how seriously it engages those important parts of the Christian tradition so vigorously asserted by the sixteenth–century Reformers, and therefore fail to realize how little support it supplies for the instinct to protect one’s own turf, to be obsessed with “sheep stealing,” or to define the Body of Christ polemically so as to exclude other Christians from the “gifts and graces [and] sanctifying power” that the Holy Spirit gives them.
While many evangelical churches are filled with former Catholics, these former Catholics will be the first to admit that as Catholics they were (for the most part) either nonpracticing or practicing but lukewarm. While they were sacramentally and juridically Catholic by their baptism, they did not live the baptismal grace that was theirs. If that latent grace is revivified, Catholics should rejoice, even if it happens outside full communion with the Catholic Church. Many of these former Catholics left the Church of Peter but are not lost to the Church of Mary, the dimension of the Church which Christ intends the Church of Peter to serve.
Although Catholics are rightly disappointed when people feel they have to leave the Catholic Church to find a living faith in Jesus, we should not be angry with them. We must rather ask about the stumbling blocks that other Catholics had placed in their spiritual path. Lumen Gentium speaks quite starkly of those who fail to live according to the grace they receive: “Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but ‘in body’ not ‘in heart’” (no. 14, emphasis added). Catholics should give thanks if charity returns to their hearts, even if it is through the evangelism of non–Catholics.
So when I encourage my evangelical brethren to extend their ministries among Catholics, I hope to be adding to the number of people who say “Yes” to God. I do hope they say it also to Christ’s Body the Church in all the dimensions Christ intended for his Church; but, above all, I hope that they say it. Many evangelicals are good Christians, many Catholics are bad Christians, and if some bad Christians become better Christians through the influence of evangelical Protestants, Deo gratias. If I pray that there be more workers for the harvest, I shouldn’t mind when they show up, even if they are not exactly what I expected. And, as the animosities between Catholics and evangelicals subside, as Catholics and Protestants come to realize that they are already in communion, however imperfectly, I am confident that many Christians who live in the Marian dimension of the Church will continue to discover the fulness that the Holy Spirit bestows in the ministry of Peter, who is called by the Good Shepherd to feed all the sheep.
Daniel P. Moloney is Associate Editor of First Things.