Last week, the Evangelical Philosophical Society held its annual conference (in conjunction with the Evangelical Theological Society) at the Town & Country Convention Center in Mission Valley. On Friday afternoon, a crowd gathered in the center's meeting house for a session entitled "Catholics and Evangelicals in Dialogue." Paul Copan, current president of the society, set the stage: "When Francis Beckwith, then-president of the Evangelical Theological Society and past executive member of the EPS, joined the Roman Catholic Church, we thought it would be fitting to strike while the iron was hot and devote a session that addressed...questions and concerns in a spirit of graciousness and the mutual pursuit of truth." He began with a prayer: "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit...we pray that your presence will be sensed here as we discuss...things that often seem to create deep emotions and often anger, perhaps resulting in bitterness. We ask...that there will be love and grace shown by all." Copan's prayer was answered; everyone on the panel was quick to acknowledge that both Catholics and Evangelicals shared a love for Jesus Christ and sacred scripture, a commonality that had perhaps been obscured in Evangelicalism's early days.
Ralph MacKenzie, chairman of the San Diego Christian Forum, started off with an allusion to those early days: "When Norm Geisler and I began to interact with Catholics some 50 years ago in Detroit, we had to smuggle them in the side door. We had to ask the priests to remove their clerical collars."
Among the changes that extinguished the acrimony was the Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council, which termed Protestants as "separated brethren," and which "encouraged Catholics and Protestants to join in ecumenical Bible studies." One such, said MacKenzie, was Logos, a five-year, verse-by-verse course taught by UCLA professor Bill Creasy -- a Roman Catholic who had been mentored by the Evangelical J. Vernon McGee. MacKenzie suggested that attendees look at a tract put out by the American Tract Society that attempted, using Catholic sources, "not to save Catholics out of their church but to save them within their church" by helping them obtain "a personal relationship with Jesus."
Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, spoke next and related the story of his conversion from Evangelicalism to Catholicism. "My thinking was not that I was jettisoning anything, but it was an idea of coming to a completion, a fulfillment." He cited the Apostles' Creed as an expression of common faith and argued that "the nature of the Church" was the fundamental disagreement between the two denominations. Commenting on this disagreement, he said, "The Baptist who says, 'Out of fidelity of Christ, I can't go with you on the papacy'; he is actually closer to Christ and closer to his Catholic brother than the Baptist who says, 'In order to get along, I'm going to go along.'" There is a closer Christian communion among people who differ, precisely because they are being faithful to Christ in their differences."
Dr. Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, took up the notion. He praised "the ecumenism of the trenches," wherein Catholics and Evangelicals had found themselves side by side in the struggle over issues such as abortion. "Having found one another, we began to develop a deeper sense of unity," one that led to the creation of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a sort of religious think-tank that produced statements on the various issues of division. "This is what I have called an ecumenism of convictions, not an ecumenism of accommodation.... We must seek unity in truth. There is no unity worth having that is not unity in truth. We are committed to the truth because Jesus Christ said, 'I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.' If we're committed to Him, we can be committed to nothing less than the truth.... That means, sometimes, that we can walk this far but no further on an issue. We have to say, in good conscience, under God, that we cannot walk together."
Father Anthony Saroki, director of vocations for the Diocese of San Diego, spoke of his admiration for Philip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial and a man who combated scientism, "the notion that the only things you can have truth debates on have to do with science. When it comes to religion, you can't have debates about truth; it's debates about opinion." Saroki had encountered that attitude among both Christians and Catholics -- the idea that "religion has nothing to do with our convictions and beliefs that these things are so."
President Copan stepped in to offer his own comment on truth: "Is there a relativism within Christianity...? No. All these expressions cannot be right. If the Catholic understanding of the Church and the Mass is correct, then the Evangelicals are incorrect. There are genuinely conflicting truth claims."
Later on, Dr. George made a kind of reply: "I think doctrine matters. I think theology matters. I think truth matters. Where we have differences, I don't think we sweep them aside, but we continue to follow the prayer of the Lord Jesus to the heavenly Father in John 17: 'I pray that they may all be one, so that the world might believe.'"
And Brumley offered this toward the session's conclusion, a probing exploration of the complex relation between faith and truth: "I would not want an Evangelical to profess those things which he regards as not true. That would be, at the very least, a sin, and...it may be damnable. But, if you do come to believe that what the Catholic Church teaches is divinely revealed, then...not to accept those things and become a Catholic? How can I think that would be anything other than a sin...? A man must be faithful to what God has revealed. I believe God is going to honor that and lead him to wisdom and understanding. I don't believe that we should expect that person to act contrary to his honest, prayerful conviction about what's true."