The two denominations, America's biggest with 78 million members between them, share belief in central Christian doctrines but ecumenical contacts have been a sore point for some Southern Baptists.
``We're not ecumenists. We're evangelicals committed to sharing the Gospel,'' explained the Rev. R. Philip Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., who formerly handled interfaith relations with the SBC's North American Mission Board.
Though the denomination's 1994 meeting specifically endorsed talks with the Catholics, Roberts said ``many Southern Baptists became suspicious of these discussions.''
The SBC has taken increasingly conservative positions in recent years on such issues as evangelism, Bible inerrancy and the role of women, among others. Likewise, despite Rome's support for ecumenical dialogue, the Vatican last year issued a declaration that called all non-Catholic Christian churches "defective."
When the talks began in 1971, both sides saw them as an opportunity to understand agreements and differences, though there was never any prospect of organizational union between two streams of Christianity that differ on so much.
The Rev. Timothy George, like Roberts a participant in the talks on the Baptist side, noted that a small faction of Baptists had ``a strong and somewhat strident reaction against this.''
George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., said ``ecumenism is not a high priority for most Southern Baptists.''
Brother Jeffrey Gros, the bishops' liaison to the Southern Baptist dialogue, said the Catholic side would have no comment.
Before contacts end, two previously scheduled meetings of the 14-member panel will be held, one Sept. 6-8 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and a final session in 2002. The negotiators hope to issue a document on salvation and a summary report on their contacts.
The Southern Baptist-Catholic dialogue is one of eight official conversations with U.S. Christian branches that the Catholic bishops have established, carrying out the world hierarchy's decree on ecumenism at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
The Baptist dialogue produced three joint papers in the 1980s, then stalled for several years while Baptists focused on an internal political battle over the Bible. Since talks resumed in 1994 the group has issued only a 1999 statement defining different terms used concerning the Bible.
Even so, George said, the discussions were significant because they were an official contact between two major groups. ``I hope there will be open doors in the future,'' he said.
In their letter terminating discussions with the Catholics, the Southern Baptists said they would ``not rule out the possibility of future meetings.''