In its long history, Roman Catholicism has assimilated different philosophies and spiritualities as it expanded worldwide.
Is evangelical Protestantism next in line for such assimilation? That is the intriguing question asked by sociologist Gustavo Benavides in pondering the future of Catholicism in Latin America in the current issue of Social Compass (December), an international journal of the sociology of religion. In noting the sharp Protestant growth and the decline of liberation theology in Latin America, Benavides writes, “The question now is whether the church will be able to neutralize or assimilate Protestantism.
What is likely is that, with liberation theology exiled to the safety of the universities and publishing houses of the United States, the church will undertake a new Counter-Reformation, attempting to incorporate as many of the characteristics of evangelical Christianity as possible.”
He adds that a renewed Counter-Reformation is already taking place, with the Vatican encouraging the growth of such conservative movements as Opus Dei, which preaches personal discipline and productivity — the same values Protestantism has sought to cultivate among members as they participate in a capitalist economy. Benavides may attribute too much power to the Vatican, but his forecast of an increasingly “evangelical Catholicism” emerging in Latin America doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
The weekly Brazilian magazine IstoE recently ran a survey showing that seminary students are closer to the evangelical-oriented charismatic movement than to liberation theology. The article, cited in the National Catholic Register (Jan. 18), reports that in 1994, there were four million charismatic Catholics in Brazil; now there are eight million. The dominating presence of charismatics in Catholic broadcasting in Brazil also shows this movement’s strong evangelistic thrust.
An attempt to strengthen evangelical-Catholic relations seems to be an important part of Catholicism’s new approach to Protestantism, both in Latin America and in other parts of the world. In First Things magazine (January), Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, the Vatican official on ecumenism, states that evangelization efforts and ecumenical activity in Latin America should go hand-in-hand. In order for such a new ecumenism to develop, Cassidy calls each tradition to recant the historic incriminations — and, in some cases, government restrictions — against each other. Cassidy says that Catholics and evangelicals should evangelize “with each other” rather than “against each other.
It is worth noting that the cardinal’s article is from an address he made to a gathering of the Latin American bishops and North American evangelicals and Catholics who had just signed a statement called the “Gift of Salvation.” The statement, organized by neoconservative Catholic leader Richard John Neuhaus and evangelical spokesman Charles Colson, finds basic agreement on the doctrine of salvation.
In 1994, Neuhaus and Colson drew together evangelical and Catholic leaders for an agreement on basic Christian doctrines and common social concerns such as abortion. The new agreement, as published in the same issue of First Things, goes a step further, stating that both traditions teach that salvation is the gift of God and that such an “understanding is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone.”
In fact, the language of the agreement, whose signers included Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ and Catholic theologian Avery Dulles and charismatic leader Ralph Martin, is strongly aimed toward evangelical sensitivities and concerns.
So, what is the the connection between the “The Gift of Salvation” statement and the evangelical-Catholic conflict in Latin America and other countries? If it can be shown that Catholics and evangelicals are in basic agreement about how one achieves salvation, then there would be no need for either group to target each other for evangelism or missions.
The statement is not official (although it has received support from some of the American Catholic hierarchy) and has already drawn fire from Catholics and, to a stronger degree, evangelicals. Yet it serves to show how the Catholic Church both in the U.S. and abroad is trying to make peace with evangelicalism and drawing upon the concerns and language of their “separated brethren.”
(Social Compass, 6 Bonhill St., London EC2A 4PU England; First Things, 156 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010)