Catholics … through Evangelical eyes

  • August 24, 2019

OTTAWA -- Evangelicals may disagree with many aspects of Roman Catholic theology, but many find a history and tradition which dates back to the Apostles very appealing, said a document published at the end of June by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

Although it deals candidly with concerns and differences, the document paints an overall positive image of the Church and explores beliefs that Evangelicals and Catholics hold in common.

“To be sure, there are some Evangelicals who are convinced the Catholic Church is a false church with which true believers have nothing in common,” the document entitled “Our Roman Catholic Neighbours” says. “Some would go so far as to see Catholicism as a wholly different religion.

“Many others, however, have Catholic relatives, neighbours, friends and co-workers who share a common vocabulary and are devoted to Jesus Christ, even if some of their Catholic beliefs and practices seem different from — sometimes even contradictory to — Evangelical beliefs and practices.” 

Among concerns Evangelicals have about Roman Catholics: the extent of papal authority that calls into question the authority of Scripture; prayers to saints and Mary’s role as an “intercessor to Christ”; a stress on faith and good works that challenges Evangelical understanding of faith alone as justifying.

The document, the fruit of 10 years of dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals and formal ecumenical dialogue since 2011, follows publication of “Our Evangelical Neighbours” by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in 2016.

“Both these resources are tangible fruits of our growing commitment to see in one another as fellow disciples of Jesus Christ,” said CCCB President Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil. 

Evangelicals range from those “deeply suspicious” and “militantly opposed” to the Catholic Church to those who have investigated its teachings and become Catholic, the document said. “For many Evangelicals who have not been accustomed to participating in a church that places a deep value on its own history, Catholicism offers a depth of connection to the whole history of the Church back to the New Testament era which is rarely, if ever, emphasized in Evangelical churches,” it says. “For many Evangelicals who feel their faith lacks a sense of deep roots, the Roman Catholic Church and its long history and set of traditions, therefore, can be greatly appealing.”

It notes that some Evangelicals are attracted to a Church that “traces its theological heritage right back to the Apostles themselves” and states “a deep sense of history and tradition can be so appealing to Evangelical Christians.”

The 15-page document includes a history lesson about the founding of the Church and the development of the Nicene Creed and it’s Trinitarian understanding of God, shared by all Christians. It explains the meaning of the word “catholic” in the creed as “universal.” 

It also explains the structure of the Catholic Church, noting there are many non-Roman Catholic Churches in communion with the Pope, as well as describing differences in the understanding of sacraments.

“Evangelicals tend to think of their faith in Christ as being individually or personally experienced first and corporately experienced (in worship together with other believers) as a consequence or follow-up to faith,” it says. “Catholics, however, also think of their faith as a corporate participation in Christ through ongoing and historic sacramental practices followed up by personal acts of service and devotion in their day-to-day lives outside of the Church.”

The sacraments are “essential” to living and strengthening a Catholic’s faith, “without denying the importance of individual practices such as prayer, service, Scripture reading, etc., that can foster faith apart from the sacraments themselves.”

The document also discusses the aesthetic appeal of Catholic liturgies that “better capture a sense of ‘reverence’ and the Church’s authority in the interpretation of Scripture.”

“Weary of the endless debates about correct interpretation that sometimes occurs in Bible study groups, or alternatively, the appeals that are made to one prominent Bible teacher or theologian over another, some Evangelicals have been drawn to the relatively clear ways in which the Catholic Church declares the proper interpretation of Scripture and how that applies to doctrine and ethical issues,” it says.

Gendron called the Evangelical document a “reason to celebrate the things we have in common and to continue in truth and charity to discuss matters where disagreements still persist.” 

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