Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium (ECT) was released in the spring of 1994. The document was signed by twenty leading Catholic intellectuals, theologians, and bishops along with a significant lineup of evangelical theologians, leaders and ministers. At first the document created very little interest but over time it caused a new dialogue about the relationship between America’s Catholics and Protestant evangelicals. A new appeal for unity, one never heard in America’s long history, soon emerged. The importance of this development cannot, at least in my view, be easily overstated.
I remember the months following the release of ECT in 1994 quite well. My initial response was one of frustration and opposition. I could not understand why such a statement was needed nor why evangelicals would form such an alliance with their Catholic peers. Within a year I was also caught up in the discussion, much of it negative. But as time passed, and as I listened more carefully to the evangelical signers explain their words and actions, I began to grasp the importance of this significant turn in American church history. Something major was happening and a new resistance to cultural and ecclesial decline was on the table. In his book, Bad Religion, Ross Douthat says, “This was not, to put it mildly, the kind of ecumenical cooperation that the leading lights of 1960s religion had expected.” That is an understatement.
Douthat believes this new unity was made possible by intellectual pilgrimages on both sides. What was happening was clear. A significant push back against the age of accommodation was underway. A significant number of Catholic intellectuals were turning back to traditional piety and a growing number of evangelicals were ready to engage in serious dialogue with them about the future of the church in America. The abortion debate was clearly a part of this shift but beneath the surface there was much more that would be discovered as the twentieth century turned to the twenty-first.
On the Catholic side the pontificate of John Paul II made resistance to the redefinition of Christianity a central concern for Catholics. On the evangelical side politics became an increasing concern. “This mobilization had mixed results. It brought Evangelicals into the halls of power for the first time in generations, but it swiftly exposed them to the compromises of partisanship as well.” Douthat suggests that the alignment with the Republican Party eventually had a deleterious impact on the movement.
The long term positives of these changes fostered a rise in ecumenism that had a considerable impact on various institutions and leaders. The most significant fruits of the ECT movement were not to be found in schools and intellectual centers but rather in communities where evangelicals and Catholics began, for the first time, to talk and pray together about how to respond to the fast-growing impact of accommodation. “But the fact that America wasn’t rapidly secularizing didn’t mean that it was returning to Christian orthodoxy.” The real issue, Douthat believes, was not “growing unbelief” but rather “pseudo-Christian and heretical” beliefs. The presidency of George W. Bush eventually “had a chastening effect” upon evangelicals. Evangelicals have not lacked for vibrancy and vigor. What has been missing is a consistently robust understanding of theological orthodoxy and its importance for a lasting Christian witness. Ending the first half of his important book Ross Douthat writes that the
. . . the waning of Christian orthodoxy has led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether. And it is by no mean clear that these heresies are actually more “benign” and beneficial than the beliefs they replaced.