I’m told that a piece that I wrote recently for The Christian Century has caused a little bit of a stir. Apparently some of the anti-Catholic bloggers have latched onto this as yet another example of evangelicals getting too cozy with Catholicism.
My topic in that article is prayers to the saints, and I use an example of a dialogue I had with a Catholic theologian to show that we often talk past each other on important topics where we disagree. The question of praying to the saints is a case in point: I argue that we evangelicals quickly zero in on questions about salvation, while our Catholic friends are thinking primarily about the communion of the saints. My article is accessible online at http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=3363.
I’ll offer another example here of the same pattern of talking past each other. I was once involved in a Catholic-evangelical dialogue where we invited two Hispanic pastors, one a priest and one a Pentecostal, to talk about tensions in their local community. The Pentecostal pastor told the priest that he had recently attended a funeral mass at which the priest had presided. A young man from a Pentecostal family was involved in gang activity, and one of his gang members had been killed; the pastor attended the service in support of the young man from his church. “I was upset that you did not preach the gospel,” he told the priest. “You had dozens of young gang members there, and you simply went through your liturgy without inviting them to get right with God.” The priest responded that using funerals as evangelistic events was not the Catholic approach. “We want to show them how we as a church community go about processing the issues of grief, of dealing with the issues of life and death in our worshipping practices.”
The difference was clear in that exchange. The evangelical wanted the priest to preach salvation. The priest wanted to expose the gang members to the fellowship of the saints. This is the point that I make using technical terms: where evangelicals think soteriology, Catholics tend to think ecclesiology—and so we proceed to talk past each other.
The argument between the two Hispanic pastors got heated, but toward the end the mood changed. The priest said to the Pentecostal that he had to admit that he did miss an important opportunity: in retrospect, he said, he wished that he had used his homily as an opportunity to call the gang members to commit their lives to Christ. Then the Pentecostal pastor responded: “I have to say that I did appreciate the dignity of your liturgy. There was something comforting and reassuring about the rituals in that service. I wish we Pentecostals had a little more of that kind of thing!”
I found that exchange very illuminating. There are very real differences between us. It isn’t all simply talking past each other. But there is a strong element of that, and when we recognize that element, it becomes possible to narrow the gap and get at the real issues.