Over the coming days, First Things will present a set of reflections on Evangelicals and Catholics Together, originally commissioned for publication on Reformation21. Read an introduction from Reformation21 editor Mark McDowell here, and find the first installment, by Timothy George, here–Ed.

I would like to begin by thanking Mark McDowell, the editor of Reformation 21, for commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) in the pages of this journal. Founded in 1994 by Chuck Colson, the great evangelist and preacher, and Richard John Neuhaus, the Lutheran pastor who later became a Catholic priest, ECT continues today to bear good fruit in its witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel.

When ECT was founded twenty years ago, Evangelicals and Catholics were largely strangers to each other. Some Evangelicals wondered whether Catholics were really Christians, thinking that the Catholic emphasis on the Mass, Mary and the saints tended toward superstitious idolatry rather than biblical Christianity. Some Catholics wondered, in turn, if Evangelicals were much more than literalist yahoos, ardently reciting Scriptural passages, but with little serious reflection on fundamental theological and historical questions.

As Colson and Neuhaus remarked in their 1995 volume, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, ECT was intended as “an invitation to reexamine stereotypes, prejudices and conventional ideas that have been entrenched, in some cases, for almost five hundred years.”[1] In that same book (published just a few months after the controversial statement, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” was issued), the founders of ECT agreed that, despite the firestorm of criticism that had erupted in some circles, the original statement was only a beginning. They did not know where ECT would lead, but they did know, and gratefully so, that “a conversation has been started and that conversation bears the promise of multiplying the power of gospel proclamation to a world increasingly threatened by a culture of decadence and death.”[2]

So has ECT understood itself in the ensuing twenty years: As a proclamation of the gospel to a world increasingly wedded to a culture of decadence. Soon after the original statement of 1994, Colson and Neuhaus assembled a team of theologians to continue the conversation between Evangelicals and Catholics. Over the past two decades, we have deepened our identity as brothers in Christ, discovering, despite our theological differences, important patterns of similarity and union in our fundamental Christian beliefs.

Since ECT was founded twenty years ago, this ecumenical initiative has traveled along two tracks: a theological path and a theologically-informed cultural one. The need for a strong Christian witness in the public square was certainly one factor that impelled the formation of Evangelicals and Catholics Together—and that element continues to be an important dimension of ECT’s work. But Colson and Neuhaus were convinced that solidarity on cultural issues was, if taken alone, insufficient. As they wisely wrote in their introductory volume, “Christian engagement in the great cultural, social and political tasks of our time would be largely futile, even counter-productive, unless that engagement was grounded in shared spiritual commitment and gospel truth.”[3]

What, then, have been the accomplishments of ECT over the past two decades? They can only be briefly and incompletely recounted here.[4] In the first place, we have sought to witness together to the mission and teaching of Christ Jesus. In service to that mission—and, increasingly, in opposition to contemporary North American culture—we have jointly affirmed that all are called to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, particularly the elderly, the handicapped and the unborn. We have also argued for the foundational importance of religious freedom: men and women possess the right to exercise their religious faith in every aspect of their lives, both privately and in the public square. We have further affirmed that the only true and possible understanding of marriage is as the permanent bond between a man and a woman—a truth that has been acknowledged for millennia across innumerably diverse cultures. (The ECT statement on marriage is slated to be published in the March, 2015 issue of First Things).

Secondly, we have come to significant agreement (although surely with differences remaining) on profound theological issues: on our justification by faith through grace in Jesus Christ; on the proper relationship between Scripture and tradition; on the communion of saints and the universal call to holiness; and on the role of Mary in the life of the Christian and of the church. In each of these topics—themes which go to the very heart of the Gospel—there materialized no quick or facile agreement. Rather, we engaged in years-long theological discussions before a common statement emerged.

But ECT is not solely about the past; it is decidedly about the future as well.

Where is Evangelicals and Catholics Together going? What will the next twenty years offer in terms of theological and cultural witness?

Perhaps it is relevant to just these questions to mention my last conversation with Chuck Colson in December of 2011, a few short months before he passed on to God. Chuck 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 before us, Catholics and Evangelicals must stand side by side in their public witness to biblical truth. Particularly admirable was Colson’s fortitude in pressing ahead with Catholics as brothers in Christ even when this was not a popular position in all sectors of the Evangelical world. As Timothy George has written, some Evangelicals reacted toward Colson with anger and recrimination because of ECT. Colson himself admitted that he had felt “some estrangement” from Neuhaus when the latter became a Catholic (in 1990). But Colson ultimately reasoned that fraternity in Christ continued, even amidst theological differences. And this fraternity impelled Chuck’s ardent commitment to Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Although he was in exceptional demand as a preacher and lecturer throughout the world, Chuck never missed an ECT meeting in the course of almost two decades.

My last communication with Richard Neuhaus occurred just a couple of weeks before his death in January, 2009. Realizing that his strength was quickly ebbing away, Neuhaus asked Timothy George and me to bring the ECT statement on Mary to successful completion. It should be remembered that, years before, Neuhaus had almost single-handedly challenged the notion of the “naked public square”—the reduction of religious belief to private worship, surgically separated from the precincts of secular society. Neuhaus effectively argued that the notion of a naked public square was entirely foreign to any Christian—or American—self-understanding. Separation of church and state could never mean the separation of religion from public life. The most deeply held beliefs and values of American citizens could not and should not be quarantined from the life of the contemporary polis.

Like Colson, Neuhaus believed that ECT was a powerful weapon in our common witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, capable of challenging a culture which had gone badly astray on fundamental issues, abandoning both the gospel and, indeed, clear thinking itself.

What, then, does the future hold for ECT?

Unfortunately, contemporary culture presents us—all too insistently—with issues which require a determined biblical and theological response: the continuation of the abortion regime; the intensifying pressure to acknowledge the legitimacy of same-sex “marriage”; the attacks on the religious liberty of Christians, forcing them to support practices offensive to their faith; and, most recently, “assisted suicide” now masquerading under the name “the right to die with dignity.” Proclaiming the gospel in a society that has forgotten its moral foundations will continue to be a significant task of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

But, as Colson and Neuhaus remarked, common witness in the public square must be founded on the gospel. Our contending together must be grounded in our shared faith. We have covered much ground already, but there remain important challenges ahead. Can there be, for example, a common Evangelical and Catholic notion of doctrinal development, one modeled on the early Church’s gradual progression from the Bible to the creeds of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381)? Can we say something important together about authority in the Church, and the nature of Christian ministry? Can we offer a joint reflection on the Reformation, whose five hundredth anniversary is almost upon us? These are just a few issues, among many possible ones, which can deepen our spiritual and theological communion.

As someone who has been a member of ECT since 1995, I am pleased to say that we have come a long way together. Catholics have been gratified to find in Evangelicals true brothers in the defense of human life, in the defense of religious freedom, and in the defense of the institution of marriage. If contemporary culture is to be renewed, it must be led by Evangelicals and Catholics, with their firm commitment to the truth of the gospel.

Catholics have also been pleased to see all they share theologically with their Evangelical brethren, particularly their devoted witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and their faith in the Holy Trinity. These are the bedrock affirmations on which our Christian fraternity has been built. Neither Evangelicals nor Catholics have ever pretended that there are not abiding differences in what we believe and confess. At the same time, we deeply appreciate each other’s vibrant commitment to the Christian faith and continuing desire to live out Christian discipleship to the fullest.

We thank the Lord of heaven and earth for the many gifts he has bestowed on Evangelicals and Catholics Together. May this holy work continue to bear fruit in service to Christ and to his truth.

Rev. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J. He has been a member of ECT since 1995 and the Catholic co-chairman since 2009.

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[1]Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, eds., Evangelicals and Catholics Together:Toward a Common Mission (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), ix.

[2] Ibid., ix.

[3] Ibid., x-xi.

[4]A volume commemorating the twentieth anniversary of ECT, including the nine agreed statements and their theological and ecumenical significance, is slated to be published by Brazos in late 2015. The book is tentatively entitled, Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: The History, Successes and Future Prospects of ECT.

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