Pope Francis’ recent address to a conference of prosperity-preaching ministers sponsored by Kenneth Copeland has many people talking. On the one hand, there are those who have expressed deep concern and dismay about this event. They wonder what ecclesial status Tony Palmer—a longtime friend of the pope’s who arranged the meeting—has, why the pope of the poor chose a prosperity-preaching Word of Faith group out of all the possible choices, and what the future implications might be. On the other hand, there are those who have rejoiced and hold out the possibility that this may yet produce some positive fruit. I count myself among this latter camp while I sympathize with those who remain troubled.

I sympathize with the first group because I have witnessed too many persons receive a “fresh revelation” that they turn into a dogmatic teaching as though they are their own magisterium. The communion of the saints means that the centrality of Scripture expressed in and through Christian Tradition to which all baptized believers belong stands over against all forms of private revelation. I sympathize with the latter because I have witnessed too many persons pound others over the head with local traditions that they equate with Christian Tradition.

My hopefulness remains tempered by a realism about the current state of Christianity. The questions concern how Christians can move forward together, or how to get Christians even to want to move forward together since some would prefer to remain in their corner of the Christian world. For Pope Francis, the answer seems to reside in simple gestures of friendship. The friendship between Francis and Tony Palmer, which preceded Francis’ rise to the papacy, prompted the greeting. On the basis of this friendship and the trust it entailed, the pope decided to risk extending the hand of friendship to another group whose theology is questionable, to put it delicately.

What are we to make of such a gesture?

It does not mean that anything has changed in terms of the theological and ecclesial distance between the Catholic Church and Pentecostal or evangelical ecclesial bodies. We might consider for a moment that the International Catholic/Pentecostal Dialogue has been in existence since 1972 and has issued five joint statements. After forty years of discussion, the purpose of the dialogue remains promoting mutual respect and understanding by finding common points of agreement. Moreover, none of the statements issued is authoritative for the Catholic Church or for Pentecostals. In other words, the dialogue has not even entered a phase where both parties can say that they are ready to take one step toward visible unity. The best that can be hoped for is mutual understanding given the diversity of the global Pentecostal movement and the theology of the Catholic Church. And, this mutual understanding cannot come by way of authoritative statements, but through declarations that point toward areas of common ground. What the dialogue aims to produce is friendship.

The success or failure of most, if not all, ecumenical dialogues depends upon relationships of trust between the dialogue participants. These relationships require time and effort to build and without them most conversations will not move beyond polite exchanges. For trust to be built, all participants must be honest. Catholics should maintain their Catholic witness, Lutherans their Lutheran witness, and so forth. While conversions between ecclesial traditions will always occur, the ecumenical movement is best served by those who combine a strong commitment to their own tradition with an openness toward others. The gesture by Francis represents an authentic Catholic gesture and brings with it the entire weight of Catholic tradition. It simply does not require, as a first step toward friendship, that others cease to be authentic either.

Even though a gesture toward friendship does not require change, growth in friendship does. This growth, however, cannot come by compelling the friend simply to become more like oneself. It does no good to say that the Catholic Church just needs to become more like this or that form of Protestantism. At the same time, all friendships involve a process of self-discovery in which one comes to a deeper awareness of oneself as the mechanism by which the friendship itself deepens. Ecumenical dialogues are no different, which is what makes them precarious. The immense effort to find common ground requires that each party go back to their own tradition and ask where the similarities are. Differences lurk around every corner. The challenge is to find the commonalities given such stark differences.

What I hope will come from this simple gesture is for Christians from all kinds of traditions to decide that it’s time to become friends again. It would be an enormous step forward for many conservative Evangelicals and charismatics in the Word of Faith camp to acknowledge that Catholic theology is not a form of works righteousness that ultimately denies the gospel. I hope that thousands of conversations will break out between those in the Word of Faith movement and those within other traditions. I hope that these conversations will bring mutual understanding because they will force participants to learn to speak one another’s language. By learning the language of the other, Christians might just find the common language of the Tradition grounded in Scripture. Not only can this common language become a vehicle for mutual understanding, it can bring balance back to the imbalance that focusing on any single identity marker like prosperity will invariably produce. Such conversations usually begin with a simple, yet profound gesture of friendship. That’s what the pope has set before us. 

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Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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