Chuck Colson, in last week’s issue of Christianity Today , reflects on the death of his friend Richard John Neuhaus and the origins and future of their joint ecumenical project, Evangelicals and Catholics Together . The two became friends when RJN was a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor and both men were working to promote religious liberty and the prolife cause. Then, Colson recalls:
One day, with very little warning, he converted to Catholicism. Although we were very good friends, I felt some estrangement. Here this very conservative Lutheran turns up the next day Catholic. And that was a bit hard for me to take. But over a period of about a year, I realized he’s still the same guy, we still have the same views in common. He was a brother in Christ before his conversion, so I didn’t see how he couldn’t un-become a brother in Christ. I realized I could still look upon him as a close brother and friend and colleague and every bit the Christian he was before his conversion. That inspired me that we should be finding more common ground.
Prompted by this discovery, Colson joined Fr. Neuhaus in founding Evangelicals and Catholics Together and, from 19922008, overseeing the drafting, publication, and defense of six statements, aimed at “reexamin[ing] stereotypes, prejudices, and conventional ideas that have been entrenched, in some cases, for almost 500 years.” Looking at the evangelical and Catholic Churches today, Colson notes that, to an impressive extent, they have succeeded. And, though two of the prominent Catholic leaders have died this winter, the mission and momentum of ECT is still very much alive:
They [Dulles and Neuahus] were the principal leaders on the Catholic side of the dialogue. In some respects, those are two giants of the faith that you can’t replace. But God in his sovereignty, his providence, knows exactly what he’s doing.
The timing of Neuhaus’s and Dulles’s deaths is really significant when you realize that Pope Benedict on November 19 in what was otherwise a routine audience in St. Peter’s square, gave a homily on justification and fully embraced the position that Evangelicals and Catholics Together had taken [in the 1997 document, ” Gift of Salvation “]. He didn’t identify it as such, but that’s what he did.
Eleven years after that document was written, the Pope, the head of the church, concluded his homily by saying Luther was right, so long as you don’t exclude charity, that is love, and the works that flow from love. Which of course none of us does.
Almost at the same time that statement was issued, the two Catholics who were willing to say they agreed with what the reformers meant when they said sola fide died. It’s as if “Okay, you finished your task. The big issue that divided us in the Reformation has now been settled, so you guys can come home and rest.”
. . . The two of them going just weeks apart does not suggest to me that God does not care about the continuing work of ECT but that the first major breakthrough had been accomplished. It’s amazing timing.
And, Fr. Neuahus earnestly hoped, that is only the beginning.