A recent joint statement by a number of Italian evangelical groups indicts the Roman Catholic Church as an “imperial” church and its call for evangelicals to “unionist initiatives that are contrary to Scripture and instead renew their commitment to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world.”
Writing for the Gospel Coalition, Leonardo De Chirico offers an interpretation that does not do full justice to the complexities of Italian evangelicalism and its history with the Catholic Church. The statement was issued by both the more Reformed Alleanza Evangelica Italiana, to which de Chirico, a Reformed Baptist, belongs and various Pentecostal groups with greater numbers. To interpret the statement as a straightforward affirmation of Reformed commitments, as de Chirico does, smacks of the way Pentecostal and holiness churches were initially invited to join the National Association of Evangelicals for their numbers, not their theology, a history Molly Worthen has chronicled in her Apostles of Reason. Moreover, de Chirico’s position represents only part of the Reformed tradition. The Reformed scholars who signed Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement “The Gift of Salvation” would view the situation differently.
The document’s description of the Catholic Church as “imperial” is no doubt meant to conjure Constantinian images, but for Italian evangelicals it has a more immediate historical context. From 1929 Italian Pentecostals, along with other small Protestant groups, were persecuted by the government. During the late 1920s and early 1930s there was concern on the part of Catholic politicians in Italy and also the Vatican about proselytism by Protestant minority groups. This concern led to harassment of Pentecostals at the hands of local police. This was decades before Catholic experiences of spirit baptism, like that experienced by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, began to break down prejudices against Pentecostals.
When one is the object of persecution, it is difficult to differentiate between militant local priests, Catholic politicians, and the church hierarchy. Pope Pius XI may well have not wanted any persecution, but the average Italian Pentecostal during the 1930s would not have differentiated between him and local expressions of Catholicism. As late as the 1970s, Italian immigrant communities of Pentecostals were still saying to their American counterparts “you do not know the Catholic Church” in reference to their experiences in Italy. I might add that this complicated history in Italy is still being played out in certain parts of Latin America. Under these conditions, holding up the banner of the Protestant Reformation is less about affirming the theology of Italian Reformed Protestants (as de Chirico’s commentary implies) and more about past issues over religious freedom for Pentecostals who had only been in Italy for twenty years in 1928.
What is the way forward? First, we should pray that the private meeting between Pope Francis and Giovanni Traettino during the Holy Father’s visit to Caserta this past weekend bear fruit. Traettino, a personal friend of the pope, is a leading advocate for dialogue between Catholic and Protestant charismatics and he knows well the history of Pentecostal and Catholic relations in Italy.
Second, we should become more historically and theologically sensitive to the differences between parts of global evangelicalism. All ecumenical statements issued by groups of evangelicals should be viewed as speaking from parts of evangelicalism to the evangelical world. They should not be interpreted as speaking for the communities from which they come. This is how Evangelicals and Catholics Together understand all of their documents since there is no ecclesial authority governing evangelicalism as a whole.
To take one example, at the end of June there was a joint conference between European Pentecostals and charismatics and the Catholic community of Chemin Neuf at St. Niklausen. Italian Pentecostals were part of this meeting, the theme of which was the ecumenical challenge of Pentecostalism. Such meetings represent a very different approach to ecumenical relations. Even with a magisterium, Catholicism has its own internal debates as to what weight to give to what authorities and how to interpret them in light of one another. In ecumenical conversations, it matters immensely who sits across the table and how that person understands his or her own tradition.
Finally, we should be mindful of the pitfalls of reading online. Historical contexts and theological nuances can be easily lost when debates in one place are referenced to guide debates elsewhere. This puts a responsibility on all of us to become more sensitive to global dynamics and the local histories that inform them.
Most of all, the statement by Italian evangelicals reminds us to pray that God might use these conversations to demonstrate to the broader culture how persons of faith can have deep disagreements and yet remain committed to one another. We have a common witness and a common mission to bear in the world. Let us do so as friends who bandage one another’s wounds and hear one another’s hurts, even as we work toward a common future. After all, we all are members of the City of God.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University School of Divinity.