Chuck Colson, who passed away last week, famously went to jail for crimes related to the Watergate scandal and, during his time in prison, discovered the healing mercy and love of Jesus Christ. Colson dedicated the remainder of his life to the redemption he found in Christ, seeking to communicate the good news of the Gospel in a variety of settings: through Prison Fellowship, a vast radio network, and innumerable books and lectures.
But Colson was convinced that one of the most important venues for witnessing to biblical truth was through the group known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). With Richard John Neuhaus, Colson was the co-founder of ECT and generously dedicated his time and resources to it. He was a busy man, much in demand as a preacher and lecturer throughout the United States and beyond. But such was Colson’s commitment that I do not remember him missing a single ECT event in the course of almost two decades.
My last extended conversation with Colson was in December of 2011. After a breakfast meeting in which the future of Evangelicals and Catholics Together was discussed, he pulled me aside. He was insistent that ECT was one of the most powerful initiatives in the United States for communicating the Gospel and that, no matter the hurdles, Catholics and Evangelicals must stand side by side in their public witness to biblical (and natural) truth. (While always firmly committed to biblical revelation, Colson had become increasingly convinced that reason, too, witnessed to important verities about the nature of marriage, human sexuality, and religious freedom—and that adducing philosophical arguments was one significant way of addressing disputed issues in the public square).
I remember one ECT meeting in 2006 when the issue under discussion was abortion. (The document “That They May Have Life,” was the fruit of these deliberations). Several Catholic members expressed reservations about natural law arguments on the philosophical ground that no reason exists that is not already deeply saturated with prior pre-understandings and commitments.
Surprisingly, Colson emerged as a strong defender of pursuing the case against abortion on the basis of public reason (as one authentic way of approaching the issue). Neuhaus was deeply amused by this turning of tables: Catholics were expressing reservations about dimensions of natural law theory while Evangelicals were ardently defending it.
Particularly admirable was Colson’s fortitude in pressing ahead with Catholics as brothers in Christ, even when this was hardly a popular position in all sectors of the Evangelical world. As Timothy George has recently written, when ECT began, some Evangelicals reacted toward Colson with “anger, bombast and recrimination.” Even Colson himself proceeded with some hesitation. In a 2009 interview with Christianity Today, soon after Neuhaus’ death, Colson noted that he had been very friendly with him when he was a Lutheran pastor. But when he became Catholic, Colson felt “some estrangement,” conceding that Neuhaus’ conversion was “a bit hard for me to take.” Ultimately, he reasoned that the man who had once been a brother in Christ must continue to be so.
During this same interview, the questioner asked about the 1997 ECT document on justification, “The Gift of Salvation.” Colson always saw this as the cornerstone document of ECT, and its most significant [theological] fruit. He told the interviewer that Avery Cardinal Dulles and Neuhaus died in back-to-back months, but not before God had providentially allowed them to collaborate on an important statement about justification by faith. So far, so good.
But Colson expanded on this idea. Just a couple of months earlier, in a routine Wednesday audience on November 19, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI stated that “Luther's phrase: ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.” Colson went on to imply that by this comment, the pope had fundamentally embraced Luther’s position. More damagingly, Colson concluded that if one compares Benedict’s comment to the sixteenth-century Council of Trent, one sees that, although there has been a “profound change,” Catholics simply call this “development of doctrine.” This is so even if the new position is “contrary to some church council—as this was, clearly.”
I sent a message to Colson insisting that this is not at all what Catholics mean by doctrinal development. Development is, indeed, a subtle theological process, but it cannot be confused with the bare reversal of a prior position. I asked him to refrain from describing doctrinal development in this unnuanced manner.
I do not remember Colson’s reply, except that he again appealed (as he had in the interview) to Benedict’s speech in which Luther had been positively mentioned. Colson thought that the pope had been fully persuaded by the reformer’s arguments and that this was simply a Catholic reversal of field (although called a development). Perhaps Colson’s confusion is understandable. After so many centuries of papal condemnation of Luther, Benedict’s subtle words of endorsement may have seemed a significant concession.
In any case, too much weight cannot be placed on Colson’s lapsus linguae. He frequently announced that he was no theologian, but a preacher of the Gospel.
And the truth of the Gospel led him to be a fearless witness to theological and ecumenical dialogue and a dedicated proponent of the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Requiescat in pace.
Rev. Thomas G. Guarino is a professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J., and co-chair of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
That They May Have Life: A Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together
The Gift of Salvation
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.