The Post-Neuhaus Future of Evangelicals and Catholics Together
When Richard John Neuhaus died January 8, Prison Fellowship's Charles Colson didn't just lose a friend of 25 years. He also lost his partner in convening Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Since its first publication in 1994, "The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium," the group has issued other consensus statements on salvation, the relationship between Scripture and tradition, the communion of saints, and other issues. It is next set to issue a document on Mary, the Mother of Jesus. But can the movement continue without its chief Roman Catholic architect? Christianity Today international editor Susan Wunderink asked Colson, a Christianity Today columnist, what lies ahead.
How will Neuhaus' death affect Evangelicals and Catholics together?
It's a terrible setback because Cardinal Avery Dulles died a month before Neuhaus died. It was like a double-barreled blow. They were the principal leaders on the Catholic side of the dialogue. In some respects, those are two giants of the faith that you can't replace. But God in his sovereignty, his providence, knows exactly what he's doing.
The timing of Neuhaus's and Dulles's deaths is really significant when you realize that Pope Benedict on November 19 in what was otherwise a routine audience in St. Peter's square, gave a homily on justification and fully embraced the position that Evangelicals and Catholics Together had taken [in the 1997 document, "Gift of Salvation"]. He didn't identify it as such, but that's what he did.
Eleven years after that document was written, the Pope, the head of the church, concluded his homily by saying Luther was right, so long as you don't exclude charity, that is love, and the works that flow from love. Which of course none of us does.
Almost at the same time that statement was issued, the two Catholics who were willing to say they agreed with what the reformers meant when they said sola fide died. It's as if "Okay, you finished your task. The big issue that divided us in the Reformation has now been settled, so you guys can come home and rest."
It's a little bit eerie. The two of them going just weeks apart does not suggest to me that God does not care about the continuing work of ECT but that the first major breakthrough had been accomplished. It's amazing timing.
Do the Catholics in ECT right now take the same position on justification as Neuhaus and Dulles?
Oh yes. There are probably 12 to 13 other Catholic [leaders] who hold that position. And now of course the Pope holds it, so it almost doesn't matter who else holds it, in the way the Catholic Church is structured.
All shifts that take place in Catholicism happen very gradually. Vatican II was an exception. That's not the way in which theological development occurs within the catholic communion. It occurs in a gradual process in which the pope, and in this case, a cardinal and a couple priests see a way to express something differently and they would argue that there's no change.
Of course, if you compare it with Trent, there's a profound change. But they would see it as the development of doctrine. And if it's contrary to some church council — as this was, clearly — then nothing happens immediately.
Cardinal [Edward] Cassidy took ["The Gift of Salvation"] back to the Vatican in 1997 and was teaching it to the bishops. It sort of percolated through the church, and the Pope, who — significantly — was an Augustinian, picked it up. And then a decade later, it ended up in the catechism. That's just the way change occurs in the Catholic Church.