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In July, Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor and editor of the Argentinian edition of L’Osservatore Romano, published an essay about Evangelical-Catholic ecumenical dialogue that quickly prompted a wave of critical responses.

A few months’ distance allows for a more wide-ranging examination of the Spadaro-Figueroa piece. Their critique, sprawling in its indictment of “integralism” and “fundamentalism,” is a fallacious description of the nature and goals of contemporary Evangelical-Catholic dialogue. But it offers an opportunity to reflect on the foundational theological principles of ecumenism.

Surprisingly, the Civiltà essay never refers to Vatican II, or to the Council’s groundbreaking Decree on Ecumenism—the magna carta of Catholic involvement in the ecumenical movement. The decree wisely insists that every effort should be made toward the gradual realization of [Christian] unity, especially by prayer, by fraternal dialogue on points of doctrine and the more pressing pastoral problems of our time.”

This document was controversial at the Council, precisely because it called for a reorientation of Catholic teaching, which previously had kept the ecumenical movement at arm’s length. But Paul VI, together with the conciliar Fathers and theologians, refused to avoid the problem of Catholicism’s relationship to other Christian churches. Since the Decree on Ecumenism was promulgated in 1964, Catholics have entered into fruitful theological dialogues with many different Christian churches and communions, Evangelicals among them.

It would have been easy for Vatican II simply to proclaim Catholicism the true church of Jesus Christ, and to declare all communions outside it thoroughly ridden with error. But the Council decided instead to address the complex issue of how other Christian churches are analogically related to Catholicism. Vatican II did uphold the exceptional status of the Catholic Church—and pointedly so—but it did so in a theologically sophisticated way, making clear that other churches formally and intensively (though in a limited way) participate in the one Church of Jesus Christ. In so doing, the Council took the difficult but fruitful path of recognizing that all churches and communions hold important truths in common. From the Catholic side, then, Evangelical-Catholic dialogue is, first and foremost, the result of Vatican II’s unyielding commitment to Christian unity.

Though never mentioned in the article (which referred only to fringe movements), Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), an initiative founded by Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson in 1994, is arguably the most advanced Evangelical-Catholic dialogue in the world. During the course of more than twenty years, this ecumenical engagement has issued nine joint statements on a variety of theological and cultural issues (collected in the volume Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics). Spadaro and Figueroa appear to condemn all Evangelical-Catholic cooperation as nothing more than an ideological alliance among conservative political actors. This hoary charge is entirely without foundation.

A second major flaw in the Spadaro-Figueroa essay is its unsophisticated attack on the role of religion in public life. The authors argue that the very notion of “giv[ing] a voice to our churches” entails a “desire for some [Christian] influence in the political and parliamentary sphere and in the juridical and educational areas so that public norms can be subjected to religious morals.”

Two separate claims are at stake here. On the one hand, it is true that ecumenists such as Neuhaus and ECT have objected to the “naked public square.” They have done so for good reason. Religiously informed moral conviction cannot be barred from public life on the pretext that no interchange whatsoever can be permitted between public policy and the deeply held beliefs of a nation’s citizenry. In that sense, Evangelicals and Catholics do believe the Gospel can shed light on contemporary societal problems.

On the other hand, it is not true that Evangelicals and Catholics wish to subject public norms to religious morals. To argue, as Spadaro and Figueroa do, that Catholics and Evangelicals “promote an ecumenism of conflict that unites them in the nostalgic dream of a theocratic type of state” can only be described as fantasy. As ECT has often stated, Christians desire neither a naked public square nor a sacred public square. We seek, rather, a civil public square, so that citizens can live out their religious beliefs both in private and in society. The “free exercise” of religion cannot be limited to attending a house of worship. It must also mean the exercise of religious freedom in private and public life. This hardly entails the claim that public norms must be “subjected to religious morals.” It is to insist, however, that public norms must tolerate the religious beliefs and practices of a country’s citizens. The authors of the Civiltà article fail to make this distinction.

Third, though Spadaro and Figueroa concede that “the erosion of religious liberty is clearly a grave threat within a spreading secularism,” they counsel their readers to avoid any defense of religious freedom “in the fundamentalist terms of a ‘religion in total freedom,’ perceived as a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state.”

In fact, the authentic “secularity of the state” has not been challenged—not by the Catholic Church and not by Evangelical-Catholic dialogue. Vatican II itself invoked the traditional distinction between the legitimate autonomy of the civil order and a false autonomy which seeks to contravene divine law (Gaudium et spes, nos. 36, 41).

Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 speech at Westminster Hall illuminates this distinction. Does Benedict challenge the secularity of the state? Not at all—though he explains that a healthy secularism can neither deny nor abridge man’s transcendent nature.

And Benedict goes farther than that. He argues that even within the secular state, moral norms are visible. The pope constructs his argument by first posing a question: “By appeal to which authority can moral dilemmas [in secular societies] be resolved?” He continues:

If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the entire process becomes all too evident—herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

Benedict is hardly challenging the authentic secularity of the state. He is asking the state to recognize that the faculty of reason is capable of discerning moral truth. He continues:

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, [even] prescinding from the content of revelation.

I ask Spadaro and Figueroa to take note of Pope Benedict’s comments. Without attacking the secularity of the civil order—and certainly without seeking a confessional state—Benedict is arguing that the state itself can come to knowledge of objective moral norms through the proper exercise of reason. Any attempt by the state to organize the lives of its citizens around principles that deny such moral norms will ultimately result in a truncated anthropology and an untenable, harmful society. Benedict, then, does not challenge the state’s secularity; instead, he offers the state a reminder that objective moral norms, discernible by reason, make claims upon human behavior. This is a point ECT makes frequently: Reason, properly exercised, allows the state to recognize naturally visible moral truth.

I propose to Fr. Spadaro and Pastor Figueroa that they attentively read the nine statements found in ECT’s volume, Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty. They will find there not the political bogeymen they have created, but an extraordinary theological witness to Jesus Christ and his Church.

Fr. Thomas G. Guarino is professor of systematic theology at Seton Hall University and co-chairman of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

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