Catholics, Evangelicals make common cause

By Dennis Gruending

mark_noll_1501.jpgEvangelical Protestants and Catholics have a history of mutual mistrust and suspicion but they are now engaged in a growing collaboration in the United States and Canada. Mark Noll, a Canadian religious historian who teaches at Notre Dame University in Indiana, published a book in 2005 called, Is the Reformation Over? Noll focuses particularly upon the U. S. since the 1960s, a time when leading evangelicals opposed John Kennedy’s candidacy for president because they believed he would take his orders from Rome. The situation has changed immeasurably since that time. “Especially on pro-life and pro-family questions,” Noll writes, “the difficult thing to imagine now is how evangelicals and Catholics could ever have been at odds.”

Noll points to cooperation on a number of fronts and at varying levels. Following the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Catholic Church began discussions with other world religions and denominations, including evangelicals, Pentecostals and Baptists. In the U.S., Charles Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus launched a group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) in 1992. Years earlier Colson had been sentenced to prison for his activities on behalf of the Nixon administration and later he experienced a religious conversion. Father Neuhaus is a convert from Lutheranism and a leading neo-conservative thinker and writer.

Noll also refers to Canadian research that places the evangelical-Catholic collaboration into a social science perspective. In the 1990s, Queen’s University history professor George Rawlyk and pollster Andrew Grenville measured the presence of evangelicalism in Canada and the U.S. They found, for example, that about 20 per cent of Canadian Catholics could be described as evangelical Christians according to a widely accepted definition of that term, which includes having had a born again conversion experience. Rawlyk referred to those people as “Catho-evangelicals”. His research also indicated that many evangelical Protestants feel more at home with conservative Catholics than they do with mainline Protestants.

Religiously conservative Catholics and evangelicals in the U.S. and Canada have made their definition of sexual and family issues the litmus test of orthodox belief. Among Catholics, this has arisen to a great extent from the deliberate emphasis that Pope John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI placed upon issues such as same sex marriage, homosexuality, abortion, and family planning. The bishops’ conference in the U.S. decided in 1994 that individual bishops could refuse communion to any politician who supported a pro-choice position. Same sex marriage was later added to the list of prohibitions. Some Canadian bishops have also attempted to force politicians into line with church teaching. Three New Democratic Party MPs were denied full participation in their church because of the position they and their party had taken on the same-sex marriage legislation. The bishop of Calgary also talked about Catholic politicians, including Liberal Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, jeopardizing their salvation. More recently Ottawa’s Catholic archbishop told an audience that he would refuse communion to any Catholic politicians who support access to abortion if they couldn’t be persuaded to change their mind.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops once participated in coalitions with mainline Protestant denominations on a range of social justice initiatives. In recent years that collaboration has withered to be replaced by a growing partnership with religious conservatives on so-called family issues. The bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), for example, have cooperated in the Inter-faith Coalition on Marriage and the Family, appearing jointly as intervenors in court cases regarding legislation on same sex marriage.

There are other on-the-ground connections as well. Derek Rogusky heads the Ottawa-based and socially conservative Institute of Marriage and the Family Canada. The group has been deeply involved in research, messaging and lobbying on a number of political issues, most notably the same sex marriage legislation. Rogusky says, “We’re seeing a real coalescing of between evangelicals and conservative Catholics. We’re starting to see them engage in issues much more than they did 10 years ago.” This co-operation is based on a shared agenda anchored in opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, publicly funded childcare and other social programs

The prime minister and other Conservative politicians have courted evangelical, as well as conservative Catholic and Jewish voters. Religious conservatives account for only a minority of Canada’s voters and they are distributed among diverse denominations, but groups that are organized and committed can have a significant impact on public life, particularly in an era of fractured parliaments and minority governments.

Despite these trends, there is no way to predict the future. Churches and religious organizations are not monolithic in their thinking and action. For example, the inter-faith group Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) is a progressive organization that focuses on issues such as poverty and the environment, but it was created through the Christian Reformed Church, which is considered to be religiously conservative. CPJ has just hired well-known Catholic activist Joe Gunn as its executive director. The Catholic Church in Canada is divided along ethnic and ideological lines and contains many individuals who do not agree with the focus of its hierarchy on moral conservatism. The Canadian Religious Conference, for example, has taken progressive positions on a number of issues on behalf of its members in religious congregations of sisters, brothers and priests.

Progressive Christians, in Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical congregations, have been marginalized in recent years and are now working diligently to have their voices heard by politicians and the Canadian public.

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Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer, blogger and a former member of Parliament