Evangelicals have been going through a major change of heart in their view of Catholicism over the past 15 years or so. In the 80’s when I was in college I lived in the Biblebelt and had plenty of experience with Evangelicals–much of it bad experience. The 80’s was the height of the “Are you saved?” question. In Virginia, the question often popped up in the first 10 minutes of getting to know someone. As I look back, Isurmise that this was coached from the pulpit or Sunday school as it was so well coordinated and almost universally applied. It was a good tactic for putting Catholics on the defensive even before it was known that they were Catholic—“ummmm, uhhh, well no, I’m not sure, I’m Catholic.” Then a conversation about works righteousness or saint statues would ensue. Yeah, nice to meet you, too.
Thankfully, those days are pretty much over. We now have formerly rabid anti-Catholics apologizing and even praising the pope. Catholics and Evangelicals have both learned that we have much in common and need each other to face the secular culture with a solid front. But, where did this detente come from? I think there is a real history to be told here and a book should be written. Let me give my perceptions of 7 major developments since 1993, which I regard as the the watershed year for the renewal of the Catholic Church in the United States.
1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1993. When this document came out, it was uncertain that even Catholics would read it. We should have known that something was up when the French version hit the top of the bestsellers charts in France and stayed there for months. The English version did the same in the US. Catholics were reading the Catechism, forming study groups and challenging errant professors in the classroom.
2. World Youth Day, Denver 1993. Catholic youth and youth ministers woke up. Suddenly, Catholic youth ministers realized that the youth loved the pope. And they loved him all the more because he did not talk down to them or water down the faith. He challenged them. Gone now were the pizza and a video parish youth nights. Furthermore, youth and young adults took up the challenge to evangelize. One of those youth heard the message and started a website, New Advent. Catholic youth were now becoming zealous for the Catholic faith in its fullness and were not going to be swayed by an awkward conversation that began with “Are you saved?”
3. Scott Hahn. While the Catechism is great for expounding the Catholic faith, it is not a work of apologetics itself. It is not written to expose the flaws of Evangelical theology. It is not written to defend the Church against the attacks of Evangelicals per se. It just would not let them get away with misrepresenting the Catholic faith. But Scott Hahn hit the scene at about the same time with Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1993). I first heard his testimony on cassette tape in 1996. It blew my mind. Suddenly, Catholic apologetics, which is as old as the Catholic Church itself, got a leg up and there was an explosion of books, magazines and websites that effectively undercut the arguments of the 5 Solas. For the first time in America, there was a cadre of Catholics well enough informed to defend their faith.
4. The Internet. The Net started exploding from 1993 to 1996. I had my first account in ’94. Compuserve was horribly basic, but by ’96 I had AOL and the religion debates raged instantly. Catholics who had just been given the most powerful weapon in the arsenal in the war against misinterpretation of their teaching were learning to type on a forum while balancing their catechisms on their laps. Of course, online versions came out, as well. But, no Evangelical bent on getting Catholics out of the arms of the Whore of Babylon could expect to do so without himself have a copy of the Catechism, knowing it inside out and pouring over it for the errors and horrors he would surely find. Evangelical apologists were confronted with a coherent and beautiful presentation of the Catholic faith that they were ill equipped to argue against. They learned that Catholics, too, loved Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The Catechism had arrived providentially just before the internet and had turned the tables in just a few short years. With the apologetic movement hitting at the same time, Evangelicals were also confronted with Catholics who could argue from the Bible defending their faith and demonstrating the weaknesses of Evangelical interpretations of scripture.
5. Early Church Fathers. One fruit of the Apologetics movement has been a flowering anew of Catholic interest in Patristics. This is happening at every level from armchair apologists to doctoral studies. It is suddenly all about Patristics, whereas in the 70’s-90’s the academic focus had been on Karl Rahner and Liberation Theology.
6. Evangelical Third World Experience. Evangelicals have had a field day in Latin America among the poor who are not part of the internet conversation and are distant from the study of apologetics. But, Evangelicals have learned from their experiences abroad an essential aspect of the Gospel they were missing: the Works of Mercy. Once haughty with their criticism of “works righteousness,” they have learned one cannot attend to the spiritual needs of the poor without attending to their bodily needs. Catholics have always understood this. Now, the Evangelicals are coming around. I haven’t heard an Evangelical Televangelist speak on works righteousness in many years.
7. Secularism. With the collapse of the liberal Mainline churches as the backbone of American religion over the past thirty years (since about 1975), Catholics and Evangelicals are the only ones left standing in this country to present the Gospel. Secularism is on the rise and is ruthless. Evangelicals are now learning that only Catholicism has the intellectual resources to combat the present secular age. And, with the pope, we have a pretty effective means for communicating the faith and representing it to the world. There is no single event an Evangelical can put on that will match the power of one World Youth Day.
With such an array of Providential developments, Evangelicals as well as Catholics have come to appreciate the depth and the breadth of the Catholic faith. It is far more difficult for them to honestly dismiss Catholicism as the work of Satan as once they did without qualm. There have been apologies and there have been calls for a new partnership. Let us hope these developments will bring about a new moment of understanding for the Glory of the Lord.