Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 79 (January 1998): 24-26.
In October 1997, immediately following the meeting of evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians who agreed on the foregoing statement, "The Gift of Salvation," North American Evangelicals and Catholics met with Catholic bishops from Latin America, led by Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez, president of CELAM, the council of Latin American bishops conferences. The meeting was convened by Mr. Charles Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus, and was opened by John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. The following presentation was made by Edward Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
— The Editors
The great challenge facing the Christian churches today is how to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the men and women of our times and of the approaching new millennium. It is for this reason that we hear a great deal about evangelization, reevangelization, and new evangelization. The task of evangelizing is not something new for the Church, but the actual challenge is new, since the circumstances in which this task is to be carried out today differ radically from those of earlier times.
We cannot speak of this challenge without also bringing into our discussions the question of ecumenism, the search for unity among Christians. It is significant that the modern ecumenical movement began in the first World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, when an international group of Protestants and Anglicans assembled to discuss ways of cooperating rather than competing in the work of mission.
The prayer for the unity of his disciples which Our Lord Jesus Christ addressed to the Father on the night before he suffered—that they may all be one—makes it clear that this unity is essentially linked to the mission of bringing salvation to all peoples: so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:21).
The Second Vatican Council considered "the restoration of unity among all Christians" to be "one of its principal concerns," and said of the division among the followers of the one Lord Jesus Christ that it "openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature." To the nonbeliever it would seem, says the Council document Unitatis Redintegratio, "as if Christ himself were divided."
Hence evangelization and ecumenism should go hand in hand. But that has not always been the case, nor is it always so today. At the beginning of the present century the churches were certainly much more interested in maintaining their own separate position in the world and where possible increasing their membership, even if that meant conversion to their community from other churches and ecclesial communities. In many places there was a deep hostility between churches, an inheritance of the tragic disputes and wars of previous centuries. In his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, Pope John Paul II speaks about that "painful chapter of history to which the sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance" when acquiescence was given, "especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth." The Inquisition is one example of this on the part of the Catholic Church, and there are similar examples on the part of other Christian churches and ecclesial communions.
Much progress has been made in the second half of this century in establishing a new type of relationship among Christians. Pope John Paul II has characterized the fruits of the efforts to restore unity among the followers of Christ as brotherhood rediscovered. There is no doubt that we have moved away from a spirit of confrontation to one of dialogue, and as a result there is today an aspiration among Christians for much greater unity.
The Second Vatican Council, in the Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, urged Catholics to "joyfully acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among other Christian communions." It is right and salutary, the Council affirmed, "to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood."
Pope John Paul II takes up this same thought in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One): "The relationships which the members of the Catholic Church have established with other Christians since the Council have enabled us to discover what God is bringing about in members of other churches and ecclesial communities. . . . A vast new field has thus opened up for the whole ecumenical experience." And referring to the immense number of those who in this century gave the ultimate witness of martyrdom, Pope John Paul II affirms: "Such a joint witness of holiness, as fidelity to the one Lord, has an ecumenical potentiality rich in grace."
This does not mean that our search has come to an end. There are many places in the world where we still find much tension between the churches. Russia is a prime example, and there are many others. Latin America, as we all know, is certainly not free of such tension. In fact, the Catholic Churches in Latin America find themselves often in a not dissimilar situation to the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe. The Catholic bishops see the situation as one in which their faithful are being stolen, while those accused of this theft are convinced that they are simply bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to those who have not had the Gospel adequately preached to them. There are, on the one hand, accusations of insensitivity to the presence of long-standing Christian communities and charges of proselytism, while, on the other hand, there are countercharges of persecution or denial of religious freedom.
This is not an easy situation with simple solutions. The Catholic Church has evangelized Latin America over a period of five hundred years. It has established the Christian Church in that continent. Missionaries have given their lives to bring the Gospel to the natives of these lands. Huge resources in manpower and money have been invested. Through the centuries the Catholic Church has played an important role in the life of the people, a role that has extended far beyond the walls of local congregations, permeating every aspect of the culture—from art, to music, to social institutions, to festivals and other public celebrations. Within a few years, the Catholics of Latin America will make up 50 percent of the members of the Catholic Church throughout the world.
It would be dangerous, however, for the Catholic Church to put too much emphasis on past accomplishments. It can be assumed that a culture remains permeated by faith when that is in fact no longer true. In any case, it is obvious that much evangelization remains to be done among the peoples of Latin America. The questions is: Who is to do it? Thus the title of my remarks: "The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium: Evangelizing and Reevangelizing Latin America With—Not Against—One Another. "
It seems to me that there are some fundamental principles that should be taken into consideration in interchurch relations in such places as Eastern Europe or Latin America, principles by which we might avoid conflict and move towards evangelization in an ecumenical spirit.
1. It is surely just that the church that has evangelized a country or people should be held in respect by others who come later on the scene. This sense of respect would seem to require that newcomers not target for their evangelizing work the active, baptized members of the church that has been responsible for the original evangelization, and that they seek to enter into contact and dialogue with those who have preceded them.
2. It should be taken as a fundamental principle that every person has the right to belong to one or another church or ecclesial communion according to his or her conscience, provided of course that a decision to leave one community for another is made in true freedom and for the proper motives.
3. Every church or ecclesial communion should be able to bear witness to the Gospel. Indeed it is hard to imagine a church or similar Christian body that does not have an obligation to do just that. Consequently, every church or ecclesial communion should have the right to accept into its membership those who in conscience decide that they belong there. It should not automatically be concluded that such a transfer is the result of proselytism. It is, after all, much more important that a person find salvation in Christ than that he or she belong without conviction to any particular community.
Let me note in this regard a statement taken from a special report of the Joint Working Group between the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches on the question of proselytism: "Religious freedom affirms the right of all persons to pursue the truth and witness to the truth according to their conscience. This includes the freedom to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the freedom of Christians to witness to their faith in him by word and deed."
4. It is important, however, that the preaching of the Gospel be free from any taint of proselytism—by which I mean the use of unworthy means to attract members of other churches or even unchurched persons to their fold. Misrepresentation of the other, or of one’s own community, is a common source of tension. Some of the tension between churches comes from the way in which new converts to one community denigrate their former ecclesial home. Unfortunately, these converts are often the most bitter enemies of the religious family to which they once belonged.
In considering these suggested guidelines, it would be good to keep in mind an orientation given to the Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council, which declared in Unitatis Redintegratio that we should not "forget that whatever is wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our Christian brothers and sisters can contribute to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian never conflicts with the genuine interests of the faith; indeed it can always result in a more ample realization of the very mystery of Christ and the Church." Let us remember that the Lord has not given his missionaries and evangelists a dispensation from the commandment to love one another. Hence the legitimate proclamation of the Gospel should bear the marks of Christian love as we find them enumerated by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13.
I believe that Evangelicals and Catholics have a particular responsibility in this connection. Very often in the past these two communities—and they are today the two largest Christian communities in the world—looked upon each other with such suspicion, distrust, and even hostility that the very Christian authenticity of the other was questioned. At times one has been presented by the other in ways that completely distorted its identity. These misunderstandings and conflicts have left a painful heritage.
It is for this reason that, as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, I have been encouraged by recent attempts to bring Evangelicals and Catholics into dialogue. I know that this has not been, and is not even now, an easy task, nor is it seen sympathetically by all in either community. Yet Catholics and Evangelicals live side-by-side today in all of America and they will continue to do so in the coming century. Are they to do so in peace or in conflict? Are they to evangelize "one against the other" or "with one another"? How can we help to make the second of these choices the reality? For whether we wish it or not, a choice has to be made.
There is no doubt that Evangelicals and Catholics have begun to find themselves on the same side in many of the great public debates of the present day in the United States and elsewhere. In such places, all churches are under attack, for God Himself is under attack. The Christian civilization upon which both the north and the south of this hemisphere have been built is itself under attack. The July 4, 1997 statement by Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox leaders, "We Hold These Truths," shows just how deep is the crisis in the United States—but similar situations are common elsewhere. This is a cultural war in which Catholics and Evangelicals find themselves with a common cause, the cause of Christ against a new paganism.
This does not mean, of course, that Evangelicals and Catholics have overcome all their doctrinal differences or that their understanding of the Gospel and of the Christian message has suddenly become identical. For Catholics, it is a part of our faith that "it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone . . . that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained" (Unitatis Redintegratio). New doctrinal understandings have been forthcoming and differences have been clarified, but no one claims that we have reached the kind of unity we would like to achieve. For that reason we will surely continue to evangelize according to our beliefs. What we look forward to is rather a way of carrying out this mission with respect one for the other, according to principles similar to those I have suggested. It means above all that we not direct our mission against the other, but seek to preach Christ and draw to him those who continue to wander in the darkness of sin and disbelief.
As I have said, this is a very delicate matter and certainly not an easy task. The fact that we are here to consider it is, however, most encouraging. I look forward with you all to these days together in the hope that we may be able to contribute something towards bringing about a new spirit of cooperation between Catholics and Evangelicals in Latin America, for the good of the societies there and effectively to further the task of the new evangelization that challenges us as we move forward into the next Christian millennium.