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This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), the groundbreaking ecumenical initiative founded by Fr. Richard Neuhaus and Chuck Colson in 1994. ECT made quite a splash in its debut, with many wondering how these two groups—frequent antagonists in the past—had now become ecumenical partners. Predictably, some saw ECT as nothing more than a pragmatic political alliance among conservative-leaning Christians. But that shopworn allegation, while still recycled from time to time, was always far from the truth. From the beginning, Colson and Neuhaus explicitly rejected the idea that ECT was based on cultural “co-belligerency.” On the contrary, both men were convinced that any fruitful ecumenical exchange must be founded on recognizing each other as brothers in Jesus Christ.

From the Catholic “side,” this was not a problem. Since the promulgation of the Decree on Ecumenism at Vatican II (1964), Catholics had been engaged in ecumenical dialogue with a wide variety of Christian churches and communities. And the council had taught that all those baptized into Christ Jesus belonged, at least in some measure, to his Church. So, few eyebrows were raised about ECT—at least from a strictly theological point of view.

But from the Evangelical side, there were rumbles of thunder. Some Evangelicals thought—and some think today—that, because of their beliefs, Catholics can never be true Christian brethren. Cultural alliances are fine, indeed desirable, but no union beyond that is possible. Even Colson spoke frankly about his original hesitations. In a 2009 interview with Christianity Today, soon after Neuhaus’s death, Colson noted that he had felt “some estrangement” when Neuhaus converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism, conceding that it 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.

Particularly admirable was Colson’s fortitude in pressing ahead with ECT, even when this was not a popular position in all sectors of the Evangelical world. As the current co-chair of ECT and former dean of Beeson Divinity School Timothy George has written, when this ecumenical initiative began, some Evangelicals reacted toward Colson with “anger, bombast and recrimination.” But Chuck forged ahead despite the attacks. When I last saw him, just months before his death in 2012, he pointedly pulled me aside and told me that Evangelicals and Catholics must continue to stand shoulder to shoulder, witnessing to biblical truth in contemporary society. I was impressed by his passion for ECT’s work.

ECT has had other antagonists over the years. Perhaps the most extensive critique of Evangelical-Catholic dialogue (without explicitly naming ECT) was a 2017 article by Antonio Spadaro, S.J., at that time editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Marcelo Figueroa, a Presbyterian pastor and editor of the Argentinian edition of L’Osservatore Romano. Their article was a pastiche of superficial charges, including the baseless allegation that those engaged in Evangelical-Catholic dialogue dream of a theocratic state. I responded to their unsubstantiated assertions here.

Over the past thirty years, ECT has issued statements on a wide variety of topics, including those issues deeply contested since the Reformation, such as the meaning of justification by faith, the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and the proper role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Christian life and faith. The dialogue has also issued statements on theologically informed cultural issues such as religious freedom, the nature of marriage, and Christian citizenship. Presently, ECT is working on a statement regarding the meaning and mission of the Church, the body of Christ.

From the beginning, Neuhaus and Colson hoped that, by establishing a serious theological dialogue between the two largest Christian groups in North America, ECT would advance unity and fraternity among fellow believers. Both men were concerned that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was being increasingly relegated to the margins of public life in the United States. They maintained, to the contrary, that the gospel is indispensable for addressing the complex social, cultural, and political challenges facing the nation.

And there was another factor central to the founding of ECT: Tensions between Evangelicals and Catholics had been proliferating in various parts of the world, particularly in South America. Colson and Neuhaus feared that such animosities “threatened to mar the image of Christ by turning Latin America into a Belfast of religious warfare.” By displaying honest theological collaboration, ECT could extend to the brethren in South America and around the world a model of hope and cooperation. The dialogue could overcome stereotypes and prejudices that had been entrenched for decades, if not centuries. It was with these goals in mind—working for Christian unity and living with a deep sense of fraternity—that Colson and Neuhaus founded ECT. 

One occasionally hears the comment that ours is a chilly age for ecumenical dialogue—with few significant breakthroughs. Perhaps. But ECT has issued statement after statement on a variety of theological and cultural issues, thereby manifesting a deep sense of Christian unity. Such serious theological activity must continue. As Walter Kasper, former head of the Vatican office for Christian unity, once stated, with prayer and work, unity will one day come—but it will be as unforeseen and unexpected as the collapse of the Berlin wall, a barrier that once appeared to be impregnable. 

Jesus himself prayed for the unity of his disciples (John 17). After thirty years, ECT continues to bear witness to the truth of the gospel and works unflaggingly to fulfill Christ’s will.

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

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Image by Dosseman, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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