Evangelicals and Catholics: A New Partnership

We're fighting the culture war with 'an ecumenism of the trenches'

Roman Catholics in the United States have been in the middle of a passionate public debate lately, about the tensions between churchly authority and academic freedom in Catholic higher education. Since I am a seminary president, I have followed the debates with much interest--and I must also confess, with quite a bit of ambivalence. As an evangelical Protestant, I've never been tempted to pray that the pope and his bishops would get more clout. But neither do I think that the cause of Christian theology is well served by an "anything goes" notion of academic freedom.

The basic issue at stake in the Catholic controversy is how closely church officials should be able to monitor what gets taught by theologians in Catholic colleges and seminaries. The pope and some of the more conservative bishops insist that if a school is going to be supported by the Catholic church, the authorities have an obligation to see to it that the church's teachings are upheld in that school.

Even though we evangelicals do not have popes and bishops, we have some sympathy for that kind of argument. Churches support evangelical schools because they want them to stand for things that are ignored--or even opposed--in more "liberal" institutions. And they are right to expect scholars to work within the boundaries of a specific "orthodoxy."

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But we also know--or at least we ought to know--that a healthy church is one where theologians are encouraged to face intellectual challenges in an honest and self-critical spirit. The ability to live with this tension is itself a sign of spiritual health.

I have a vested interest in what goes on in contemporary Catholicism, having devoted considerable energy in recent years to evangelical-Catholic dialogue. Indeed, a willingness to engage in serious converations with Catholics has been one of the ways in which some of us have pushed at the boundaries of acceptable evangelical behavior. And like other evangelicals who have advocated friendlier relations with Catholics, I have received more than my share of angry letters from evangelical critics, some of them falling within the "hate mail" category.

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