Evangelicals: Change of Heart toward Catholics

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.

14 Responses to Evangelicals: Change of Heart toward Catholics

  1. ultraguy says:

    “Providential events” indeed! The things you list are just the observable fruit. They do not explain the tree itself, how it has been tended, nor why it grows as it does.

    “where did this detente come from?”

    Short answer: God (and the Holy Spirit)

    “Rome Sweet Home” was actually recommended to me by an evangelical pastor friend. Go figure.

  2. Adrienne says:

    There has been a creeping acceptance to the veneration of Mary for the past 30 or 40 years. IMHO that has a lot to do with the Evangelicals “coming around.”

  3. Fr. J. says:

    Adrenne, just saw ur blog. Congratulations on your 18 years. They are their own reward, I’m sure.

  4. UG writes:

    “Rome Sweet Home” was actually recommended to me by an evangelical pastor friend. Go figure.

    Any chance you have picked a copy up just yet, Ultra?

  5. ultraguy says:

    Yep. Read it two weeks ago in one sitting. Also cruised through “The Woman and the Dragon” (David Michael Lindsey) in July. Currently working on “Blessed Among Women” (G. Scott Sparrow), and just started “City of God” (Augustine). “Climbing the Mountain” (‘Anne’) arrived in the mail about an hour ago. Other suggestions?

    (And here you were wondering why I was making such a pest of myself around here… :)

  6. Robert says:

    City of God is epic, and I wish I had time to read it now. Eventually, I suppose. I’ll note that Confessions is much shorter, and… it’s a conversion story. I’d love to discuss St. Augustine’s theology in Confessions if you happen to be interested in that.

    Whatever reading list will be recommended may need to be targeted based on what you find problematic in Catholic theology. For instance, if you were wondering what the deal with Eucharistic theology, I might recommend O’Connor’s “Hidden Manna.” But if you’re already good with that, I’d send you elsewhere.

    Of course, you might like browsing St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters, But in any case, tell us what you need, and we’ll do better with suggestions.

  7. (And here you were wondering why I was making such a pest of myself around here… :)

    I know this was said in jest, but I say in all seriousness, HARDLY!
    Everyone likes to get hits, but honestly, what we really love, what we live for at TBC are comments in the combox!

    Evangelical is Not Enough
    Apologia Pro Vita Sua

    See also: The Coming Home Network

  8. Robert says:

    asimplesinner is right. It gets lonely when we just talk among ourselves. Comments are very much appreciated. So, thanks for commenting, and to all you lurkers out there… we won’t bite.

  9. Thomas says:

    Speaking of Augustine’s Confessions, it is of course a conversion story. However, I think it is also useful to think of it as being in the broad genre of quest/journey stories such as those by Homer and Virgil and that it is not absurd to make the case that Augustine accomplishes a merging of that poetic tradition with Platonic philosophy, bringing elements of both within Christian tradition and making intellectually possible St Thomas’ subsequent integration of Aristotle, etc.

  10. Robert says:


    Your idea in general does not seem implausible, but perhaps you could write some more on this so I can understand it better. More specifically, I don’t understand the direct connection between the epics of Homer and Virgil, and perhaps you could draw connections to that.

    Note that St. Augustine’s Confessions is intensely critical of Roman society and Roman literary tradition. I do think he is making an intensely literary contribution with Confessions, but I’m wondering whether it is implausible to suggest that he is trying to merge the epic tradition with Christianity. This, of course, does not preclude despoiling the gold of the Egyptians, so to speak, but first melting down their idols. But I’m still not sure what reason we have to think so.

    The Confessions seems to be structured as a prayer to God the Father which renarrates, in a way analogous to the Old Testament, the history of Augustine’s life from the perspective of faith in the God of Israel. It seems to me to be such a Jewish/Christian way of looking at things that I’m not sure where the pagan epic tradition comes in. But I’d love to learn where it does, if it does.

    And of course, when you say that it makes possible St. Thomas’ appropriation of Aristotle, I am also very eager to hear this.


  11. Thomas says:

    I hope to say more about this, in a different venue. There is a certain deep division within Hellenic culture between poetry and philosophy that is, I think, near the center of a good bit of epistomology and metaphysics and which can not, in my opinion, be resolved within Hellenic culture or its Enlightment offshoots. However, this division (like others) is resolved in the Gospel. Our our searching and questing come to rest in the God and Father of our Lord, Christ Jesus.

    Since Aristotle builds on top of that Hellenic foundation, the underlying fracture had to be dealt with before Christianity could appropriate more of the goods of Greco-Roman culture and, in the European west at least, Augustine is a major part of that deal.

  12. ultraguy says:

    Robert, thanks for the recommendations. I’m not sure where (or even if) I’m hung up on any doctrine. Most of it makes a surprising degree of sense, frankly. It’s everything else that’s hard to work out (e.g., relationships, culture, upbringing, expectations, disdain for the church in a liberal milieu, etc.). Hahn speaks to all that quite directly and poignantly, but it’s only his story.

    a-simple: thanks for the hearty welcome. :)

    Something I’ve found interesting and instructive — and which I’ve hinted at in previous comments — is the reaction of fellow protestants (especially several clergy members) with whom I’ve spoken at various levels of disclosure/intimacy. They seem to fall into two categories:

    1) Casual, often derogatory dismissal (e.g., “yeah sure the Roman Catholic church is growing… but you have to be wary of those numbers because they have more babies… and haven’t you read the papers about the scandals? pshaw!”). That tactic immediately backfires as unfair and off-putting, especially to someone like me with Catholic family members and very dear friends.

    2) Secret adoration of the Catholic church, which they feel they have no opportunity to express (because they are protestant pastors!) Like Hahn, they feel ‘stuck’. Two remarkably powerful “on-fire” pastors I’ve spoken with in the past year have admitted to this. It surprised me and got me thinking…

  13. Fr. J. says:

    It’s been said many times, ultraguy, that Protestant pastors go to mass when on vacation. I doubt they go for the preaching in most cases, sadly. But, the Church at worship always evokes the eternal and ancient faith of the early church that cant be captured by the hymn sandwich.

  14. ultraguy says:

    Fr J – I sent you two e-mails. Did you get them?

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