New document looks at Catholics through Evangelical eyes

Different understandings about Mary and the communion of saints were explored during an Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue public event held in October 2016 at St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in Saskatoon. A new June 2019 national document released by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada looks at the Catholic Church through Evangelical eyes. (Photo by Kiply Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News)

By Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa – CCN, July 16, 2019] —A new document published at the end of June by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) reveals the Roman Catholic Church through Evangelical eyes.

Though a positive reflection and the fruit of 10 years of dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals and formal ecumenical dialogue since 2011, the resource also deals candidly with concerns and differences in belief and practice.

“To be sure, there are some Evangelicals who are convinced the Catholic Church is a false church with which true believers have nothing in common,” the document called Our Roman Catholic Neighbours says. “Some would go so far as to see Catholicism as a wholly different religion.”

“Many others, however, have Catholic relatives, neighbours, friends and co-workers who share a common vocabulary and are devoted to Jesus Christ, even if some of their Catholic beliefs and practices seem different from – sometimes even contradictory to – Evangelical beliefs and practices,” it said.

The latest EFC document is a response to Our Evangelical Neighbours, published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in 2016.

“Both these resources are tangible fruits of our growing commitment to see in one another fellow disciples of Jesus Christ,” said the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil. “I recognize that for many Evangelicals this resource could be a significant starting point for greater understanding and deeper appreciation of their Catholic neighbours.”

“The resource represents another step forward on our ecumenical journey, an additional reason to celebrate the things we have in common and to continue in truth and charity to discuss matters where disagreements still persist,” Bishop Gendron said.

In Saskatoon, an Evangelical-Catholic dialogue met from 2011 to 2016, with a number of grassroots meetings, includingone on common mission in February 2015: News Archive

The Saskatoon Evangelical-Catholic dialogue produced a joint statement in June 2015: Called to Common Witness

Aileen Van Ginkel, a member of the formal Roman Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue and co-facilitator along with Kyle Ferguson of the CCCB, said dialogue began in 2008 with the formation of a working group, which led to a formal ecumenical dialogue in 2011.

Nothing surprised any of the members working on the document, she said. The conversations began with all the questions about each other’s faith traditions members have always wanted to ask, with an attitude of “just get it out there,” Van Ginkel said, pointing out Catholics had different concerns than those of Evangelicals.

Among the questions Evangelicals have about Roman Catholics are: the extent of papal authority, which calls into question the authority of Scripture; prayers to saints and Mary’s role as an “intercessor to Christ”; and a stress on faith and good works that challenges Evangelical understanding of faith alone as justifying.

“While there has been an abundance of materials from Evangelical perspectives that engage in critique of Catholic theology and practice, fewer publications exist that attempt to find places where there is significant overlap,” the document says.

“Consequently, the focus of this publication is not to pretend serious differences between Catholics and Evangelicals do not exist but to encourage readers to become aware of the commonalities we share with our Catholic friends and neighbours.”

The 15-page document includes a history lesson and shared beliefs about the founding of the Church and the development of the Nicene Creed and its Trinitarian understanding of God, shared by all Christians. It explains the meaning of the word “catholic” in the creed as “universal.”

Our Roman Catholic Neighbours  explains the structure of the Catholic Church, noting there are many non-Roman Catholic Churches that are also in communion with the Pope.

It also explains differences in the understanding of sacraments.

“Evangelicals tend to think of their faith in Christ as being individually or personally experienced first and corporately experienced (in worship together with other believers) as a consequence or follow-up to faith,” it says.

“Catholics, however, also think of their faith as a corporate participation in Christ through ongoing and historic sacramental practices followed up by personal acts of service and devotion in their day-to-day lives outside of the Church.”

The sacraments are “essential” to living and strengthening a Catholic’s faith, “without denying the importance of individual practices such as prayer, service, Scripture reading, etc., that can foster faith apart from the sacraments themselves.”

Evangelicals range from those “deeply suspicious” and “militantly opposed” to the Catholic Church to those who have investigated its teachings and become Catholic, the document said.  It examines what the attraction is for the latter group.

“For many Evangelicals who have not been accustomed to participating in a church that places a deep value on its own history, Catholicism offers a depth of connection to the whole history of the Church back to the New Testament era which is rarely, if ever, emphasized in Evangelical churches,” the document says.

“For many Evangelicals who feel their faith lacks a sense of deep roots, the Roman Catholic Church and its long history and set of traditions, therefore, can be greatly appealing.”

Most Evangelical denominations “look back at best only to the Protestant Reformation for their foundational roots – that is only about 500 years of a 2,000-year history of the church.”

“Contrast this with the Catholic Church which traces its theological heritage right back to the Apostles themselves, and one can see why such a deep sense of history and tradition can be so appealing to Evangelical Christians who often have heard little about Church history at all, other than perhaps a short history of their own denomination,” it said.

The document also discusses the aesthetic appeal of Roman Catholic liturgies that “better capture a sense of ‘reverence’”; and the Church’s authority in the interpretation of Scripture.

“Weary of the endless debates about correct interpretation that sometimes occurs in Bible study groups, or alternatively, the appeals that are made to one prominent Bible teacher or theologian over another, some Evangelicals have been drawn to the relatively clear ways in which the Catholic Church declares the proper interpretation of Scripture and how that applies to doctrine and ethical issues,” it says.

“The thing that has always pulled it together and made it possible to move forward is a strong emphasis on prayer and coming together in worship,” said Van Ginkel. “It’s informal, we take turns leading our prayer time.”

The late Margaret O’Gara, a professor of theology at St. Michael’s College, who died in 2012, “was so instrumental in shaping that dialogue” and making prayer “an essential part of it.”

“It has not just been about studying or acting together in relation to a particular issue or mission, but coming together as disciples of Christ in prayer.”