comments powered by Disqus
Kristin RudolphJune 4, 2012
Two prominent liberal evangelicals recently asserted that evangelical and Catholic leaders were increasingly agreed on social justice but local church people aren't always politically following. Since 2008, the Berkley Center at Georgetown University has joined with Eastern University to sponsor a dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals in pursuit of shared ground to further the common good. The dialogue continued this year, with an event on May 30, 2012 discussing “Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue: Lessons Learned and Ways Forward." Representing evangelicals were Ron Sider from Eastern University and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Glen Stassen, an ethicist at Fuller Seminary. The Catholic representatives were John Borelli of the Berkley Center, and M. Cathleen Kaveny of Notre Dame University. “It wasn’t so long ago [Catholics and evangelicals] were saying unkind things towards each other,” Sider said. But now the two groups have found common principles that enable them to “work together more effectively.” This discussion is important, he explained, because “about half the voters in this country are Catholics and evangelicals.” This dialogue has been fruitful, Sider said, because now “at the leadership level there is enormous overlap” on a variety of social and political issues. But despite agreement at the “leadership level,” on issues relating to sanctity of life, immigration, poverty, nuclear weapons, and health care, Sider bemoaned that “large numbers of laity in both the evangelical world and the Catholic world don’t understand or vote the way that their leaders suggest that they ought to.” Answering where Catholics and evangelicals still differ, Sider said: “[The] first difference is evangelicals rely more on biblical revelation, where Catholics look to natural law.” Further, according to Sider, Catholics tend to be more open to government structures, where evangelicals are resistant. He speculated that evangelical suspicion of government has less to do with foundational theological reasons, and more with “historical experience.” Glen Stassen noted that “evangelicals are starting to develop a tradition." And both Catholics and evangelicals emphasize that “all persons are created in the image of God,” and believe in “human dignity and therefore human rights for all.” He explained: “Human rights include the right to life and also justice needs like a home, food, health care, and so on, that are necessary for life. Secondly, this includes the right to liberty,” such as religious liberty and civil liberties. He summarized: “A consistent ethic of life and justice for the poor really runs through for both of us.” Another major point Catholics and evangelicals both focus on, Stassen said, is “the suffering of Jesus … which also relates to a sensitivity to people who suffer.” He asserted: “Evangelicals are somewhat more individualistic than Catholics who place an emphasis on community, but evangelicals are seeking to correct that.” Answering the second “framing” question, “Where do the greatest divisions remain,” Stassen said the differences are not as much between Catholics and evangelicals as a whole, but rather within the traditions. “Those evangelicals and Catholics who have a very individualistic … ‘my rights let others fend for themselves’ kind of a loyalty,” differ from others who emphasize ‘social justice’ in the form of government welfare programs, Stassen said. He further claimed the views of those who are skeptical of government structures are "not faithful to either of the traditions.” He concluded: “We just need to persuade [those who think this way].” Sider agreed with Stassen: “The differences within the Catholic community on the issues we’re talking about, and the [disagreements] within the evangelical world are much greater” than the disparities between the official teachings of each tradition. The public policy goals espoused by the Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue, protecting life, eliminating poverty, and pursuing international peace, are shared by most leaders and laity within both traditions. The disagreements emerge over how to accomplish these goals. The panel also discussed threats to religious freedom posed by the Health and Human Services contraception coverage mandate, and the Obama Administration’s narrow definition of which religious institutions are exempt from it. Sider said a discussion about religious freedom has become an important issue among Evangelicals, even though most don’t believe contraception is wrong. According to Stassen, the issue is complicated because there is a legitimate human right to religious freedom, and at the same time, “many people feel … that a human right to health care is important to the right to life. But then a small part of health care, is there a right to contraception?” According to Stassen, for many Evangelicals, the answer to this question is “yes.” Ultimately, the panel found much to agree about despite the rocky history of Evangelical-Catholic relations. They agreed there is unity between Catholics and Evangelicals on issues like protecting life and caring for the poor, but deep divisions remain regarding what exactly to do about these important matters.
The Institute on Religion & Democracy
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2601
P: (202) 682-4131 F: (202) 682-4136