ECT at Twenty
By Timothy George
From the introduction to "Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics" (Brazos, 2015), edited by Timothy George and Thomas G. Guarino, with foreword by George Weigel, and prefaces by Timothy Cardinal Dolan and J.I Packer. This volume contains the nine public statements with introductions published by Evangelicals and Catholics Together since 1994.
The ecumenical initiative known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) began more than two decades ago with a stroke of insight by Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus. Their bold intention was to advance unity and fellowship among Christians by establishing a serious theological dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics, the two largest Christian groups in North America.
Both men were concerned that religion in general and Christianity in particular were being increasingly relegated to the margins of public life in the United States. Religious faith, the most comprehensive and foundational of all realities, was being consigned to the provincial arena of private devotion and sectarian belief. Colson and Neuhaus argued, however, that the Christian faith is indispensable to understanding and addressing the great issues of the day. Evangelicals and Catholics needed to be fully engaged in the complex social, cultural, and political questions that the nation faced—illuminating them with the truth of the gospel. They concluded that if a common and public witness was to thrive and bear lasting fruit, it needed to be founded on a joint commitment to theological and spiritual unity, a unity for which Christ himself prayed (John 17). This fraternal union in Christ was the cornerstone on which ECT was founded.
But there was another element central to the founding of ECT. Tensions between Evangelicals and Catholics had been proliferating in various parts of the world, particularly in South America. Colson and Neuhaus feared that “animosities between evangelicals and Catholics threatened to mar the image of Christ by turning Latin America into a Belfast of religious warfare.” They hoped that a sincere and comprehensive collaboration between Evangelicals and Catholics—a collaboration that honestly faced theological differences—could also offer a useful word to the brethren in South America. A sincere ecumenical dialogue would serve to overcome the “stereotypes, prejudices and conventional ideas” that had been entrenched for decades and, indeed, for centuries.
It was with these goals in mind—to work together for Christian unity and to live together with a deep sense of Christian fraternity— that Colson and Neuhaus founded Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1994.
But the primordial roots of ECT extend far deeper into history, down to the beginnings of the ecumenical movement. The initial impetus for ecumenical dialogue is normally traced to the International Missionary Conference that convened at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. On that occasion, several denominations came together to discuss their common witness to Jesus Christ, with the hope of putting an end to useless and counterproductive rivalries.
After this initial meeting, the “ecumenical movement” continued to grow among mainline Protestant churches. Catholicism initially kept its distance from this initiative, fearing that it would lead to relativism, with specific doctrines lost in a misguided attempt to achieve baseline beliefs to which all Christians could subscribe. This was the point of Pope Pius XI’s encyclical of 1928, Mortalium Animos, in which he warned against “pan-Christianity,” fearful that this would lead to a vapid faith, absent distinctively Catholic dimensions. Most Evangelicals also held back from ecumenical efforts represented by the World Council of Churches. They feared that a blending of Christian churches would water down the clear and forceful meaning of the Bible.
Even so, interest in ecumenism persisted. In the 1920s, Catholic and Anglican theologians met in Belgium for what were known as the “Malines Conversations,” a set of discussions over possible unity between Rome and Canterbury. And in 1937, Yves Congar, later one of the principal theologians at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), wrote a groundbreaking book entitled Divided Christendom, in which he argued for the authentic gifts found in Protestantism and insisted that one could affirm the same biblical truth from different perspectives. Authentic Christian unity was possible without uniformity or compromise.
This accent on a healthy diversity within a foundational unity had been gaining theological favor within Catholicism for decades. In the 1930s and 1940s, for example, theologians argued that differing approaches to the mysteries of faith can, in fact, possess a profound harmony, rooted in the gospel itself. It was precisely in service to this notion of legitimate pluralism that led some theologians to champion the axiom diversi sed non adversi (different but not opposed), a maxim indicating that there can be diverse approaches to theological issues without thereby sanctioning adversarial paths. Centuries earlier, this Latin phrase had been invoked to argue that the accounts of the four evangelists, while different, are nonetheless fully coherent. In the Middle Ages, the slogan was adduced in order to acknowledge that one may speak of a consensus among early Christian writers (consensus patrum) even if these authors displayed some differences in their interpretations of the Scriptures. The fundamental point, once again, is that variety in expression does not necessarily mean incommensurable or opposing positions.
On the Evangelical side, the founding of ECT in the early 1990s would not have been possible without the prehistory that included the catalytic ministries of Harold J. Ockenga and Billy Graham. These leaders were pioneers in forging a new way in American Protestant life in the post–World War II era. The “new evangelicalism,” as it came to be called, found itself engaged in a struggle on two fronts. One was modernism, as mainline, liberal Protestantism was called in those days. The other front was known as Romanism, a pejorative term for Catholic Christianity. The post–World War II reformers hoped that a reinvigorated Evangelicalism, shorn of its fundamentalist drag, would both restore true biblical Christianity and rescue American society itself by resisting the forces of modernism/secularism, on the one hand, and Catholicism, on the other. When Colson and Neuhaus proposed the ECT project in the 1990s, both of those fronts looked completely different. Protestant liberalism no longer enjoyed the kind of hegemony it had once claimed in American religion. On the Catholic side, the Second Vatican Council had introduced a renewal of the Catholic Church and made Christian unity a priority. At Vatican II, the Catholic Church entered the ecumenical movement and, by doing so, transformed it.
The council should not be understood simply as an event within the Catholic Church. It should be recognized as perhaps the greatest ecclesial event of the twentieth century, with profound significance for all Christians. Its Decree on Ecumenism (promulgated in November 1964) makes clear that unity with the “separated brethren” is one of the principal and essential goals of the Catholic Church. This Decree (and Vatican II generally) endorsed several specific theological ideas—ideas warmly received by the many Protestant observers and theologians in attendance at the council—which have allowed the contemporary dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics to flourish.
Since the founding of ECT more than twenty years ago, Evangelicals and Catholics have learned much from one another and our joint commitment to biblical and doctrinal truth. We live in an age when the very idea of truth is often called into question. And yet we believe that the Bible teaches God’s truth, a truth that is able to be known and understood, appropriated and lived, under the agency of the Holy Spirit. It is the task of ECT to formulate that truth in a way that assists contemporary men and women to live as committed disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.
Not long before his death in 2009, Richard Neuhaus made clear that he wished to see the important work undertaken by ECT continue. Chuck Colson, too, just months before his own passage to God in 2012, was insistent that ECT was one of the most powerful initiatives in the United States for communicating the truth of the gospel. No matter the obstacles, he said, Evangelicals and Catholics must stand side by side in their public witness to biblical truth. The intention of ECT is to continue the prophetic mission of its founders.
Evangelicals and Catholics do not know how or when Christian unity will come about but look forward to that day when we are fully united in the common witness for which Jesus Christ himself prayed. Our prayer is that God may continue to bless the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Published at First Things, 11.16.15
is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.
Fr. Thomas G. Guarino is Professor of Systematic Theology at Seton Hall University.