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A Catholic-Protestant Encounter in Dallas
by Kathryn Collmer
When I heard about a planned “Protestant-Catholic dialogue” in Dallas, I expected that no more than a handful of Dallasites would choose to spend a beautiful spring weekend afternoon sitting indoors in cramped seats to listen to six hours of heavy theological discussion.
Surprise! Some 4,000 people packed into Southern Methodist University’s Moody Coliseum on April 12 to hear three prestigious Protestant scholars and three equally renowned Catholic scholars face off on the issues of justification, the Eucharist, and doctrinal authority. Of the 4,000 people in attendance, probably no more than a hundred were clergy, including a Baptist pastor and an Orthodox priest. The vast majority were lay people. This was ecumenical dialogue for the masses, and evidently the masses were hungry for it.
The sponsoring organization was the Young Serra Community of Dallas, a group of enthusiastic young Catholic lay people devoted to Catholic evangelism, primarily among their fellow Catholics. The Young Serrans, mostly people in their twenties who had never been involved in organizing an event on this scale before, were the sole organizers. Though the local Catholic diocese had given its approval, it had not committed funding or leadership—nor had the Young Serrans asked for any. They had not, however, wished to be the only sponsors. The group had tried for nearly a year to recruit several large mainline Protestant churches in Dallas to co-sponsor the dialogue. Indeed, two of the largest Baptist churches in Dallas had agreed to co-sponsor it, only to drop out just weeks before the event. The audience turned out to be only about 20 percent Protestant.
The dialogues themselves were exceptionally balanced and fair to both sides. Instead of bringing in professional Catholic-vs.-Protestant debaters, the Young Serrans enlisted six individuals who spend most of their time explaining their respective faiths to their own co-religionists and who try to live out that faith in practice.
The dialogue on justification (“faith alone” vs. “faith and works”) matched Dr. Scott Hahn, director of the Institute of Applied Biblical Studies at Franciscan University, with Rob Bowman of Reflections Ministries and Luther Rice Seminary. The next dialogue, between Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, director of spiritual development for the Archdiocese of New York, and Dr. George Logan, of the Presbyterian Theological Hall in Brisbane, Australia, treated the subject of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper. The final dialogue, on the subject of doctrinal authority (“scripture alone” vs. “scripture and tradition”) featured Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ, professor of theology at the University of Dallas, and Ken Samples, founder of the Augustine Fellowship Study Center and professor of philosophy and religion at Cerritos College.
Each pair of speakers was well-matched in terms of each speaker’s knowledge of his subject and his ability to communicate that knowledge to the audience. This allowed listeners to focus on the theology itself rather than to be swayed by the strengths or weaknesses of one speaker relative to another.
All three of the Protestant speakers were raised as Catholics. Unlike many former Catholics, however, these men vented no bitter feelings against the church of their youth, rather they outdid each other in trying to give the Catholic Church credit where they felt credit was due. Avowed Calvinist Rob Bowman, for instance, quoted one of Calvin’s leading followers, Charles Hodge, as acknowledging that the key elements of the gospel are indeed preserved in the Catholic Church. Even George Logan, who compared Catholic views of the Eucharist to “idolatry” and “cannibalism,” was aware of how offensive his words must have sounded to Catholic ears, and couched his statements amidst gracious apologies and earnest avowals that he was not trying to offend but only to explain the Protestant point of view. In his closing comments, Logan’s voice choked with emotion as he thanked his Catholic hosts for their kindness.
I wish I could report on the content of the dialogues as a dispassionate observer. Instead, I was listening to them with a vested interest in the outcome, since I am a Sunday school teacher in an Anabaptist church who has been investigating Catholicism and Orthodoxy for over a year. So eloquent and persuasive were all the speakers, so substantive and well-reasoned their arguments, that my initial reaction upon leaving the conference was one of some dismay, as I realized I was now more ambivalent than ever. Both camps had, it seemed to me, so much truth on their side.One reason that so many truths came to light was the deliberate decision of the organizers to exclude church history and politics from the discussion. Theology, and theology alone, was to be the subject. What emerged, among other things, from this singular focus was an awareness of just how much common ground is shared among all orthodox Christians, including both Protestants and Catholics, especially against “liberals” in their respective denominations.
Rob Bowman reminded the audience that most of the people in our churches today “do not have a firm, sound grasp of the Christian faith.” Those at this conference were, at least, in agreement on the core doctrines of Christianity, such as the Virgin Birth, the atonement for our sins by Jesus’ death on the cross, his physical Resurrection and his Ascension into heaven.
Nonetheless, crucial differences remain. In one of the most poignant, even painful, moments of the day, Bowman reminded Hahn, a former Protestant who converted to Catholicism, of the great numbers of people moving the opposite direction. Bowman said that he himself had left the Catholic Church because he didn’t find the gospel there. Instead, he said, “I found Christ through the ministry of the Word in an evangelical church.”
I’m sure that many of the devout Catholics in the audience would have taken issue with Bowman at that point, attesting that they encounter Jesus in the Catholic Church as they do nowhere else, because of his Real Presence in the Eucharist. But the fact remains that the Catholic exodus to evangelical and fundamentalist churches has reached alarming proportions in many places. Bowman described a real problem that Catholic leaders ignore to their Church’s peril. I was reminded of Peter Kreeft’s words at the 1995 Rose Hill conference: “When I ask ‘my Catholic students’ . . . why ‘God’ should take them into heaven, nine out of ten do not even mention Jesus Christ. . . . So I seriously doubt God will undo the Reformation until he sees to it that Luther’s reminder of Paul’s gospel has been heard throughout the [Catholic] church.”
During the next dialogue, in which Fr. Benedict Groeschel and Dr. George Logan discussed the Eucharist, it was more difficult than ever to visualize a reversal of the Reformation. Logan delivered an enlightening discourse on the Jewish Passover, the Mosaic Law, and Jesus’ and the apostles’ thorough Jewishness to support his assertion that Jesus could not possibly have been speaking literally in John 6, the key Catholic text on the Eucharist. He concluded, “I don’t see the two [Protestants and Catholics] coming together. We are poles apart.”
Logan’s dismal assessment made my heart sink—until I remembered that our God is, after all, the God of continual surprises. As Peter Kreeft said at the Rose Hill conference, “[Christ] will heal [his church] as strangely and unpredictably as he founded it. We do not know how. Whatever he will do, it will be far better and wiser and more wonderful than the best any of us can imagine.” As Christians, we must keep alive our hope for that unity that for now, at least, remains veiled in mystery.
Fittingly enough, Fr. Groeschel’s counterpoint to Logan on the Eucharist centered on the Catholic and Orthodox concept of mystery. Groeschel reminded me a little of the Catholic nuns of my childhood who answered my endless questions about the mechanics of salvation with the same reply, over and over, like a mantra: “It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery.” I found that answer frustrating; evidently, so do most Protestants.Groeschel persisted, however. It is the fault of modernity, he claimed, that we have “this absurd idea that human beings can understand all things that can be perceived through the senses.” Certainly, the people of the Old Testament were no strangers to mystery. Perhaps the chasm between the Catholic-Orthodox embrace of mystery and Logan’s Calvinist view, which relied so heavily on Old Testament history and law, could be bridged in some future ecumenical dialogue by exploring the “sacraments” of the Old Testament—primarily the Passover, in which God’s deliverance was realized again and again for each generation of Israelites. The Catholic principle that the Eucharist makes Jesus’ redemptive act concretely present to us today might be seen, I believe, as a fulfillment of the sacramental principle that was already present in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament itself was a subject of contention in the final dialogue, between Ken Samples and Fr. Mitch Pacwa. Because of Pacwa’s decision to avoid the “hot-button” issue of the papacy, the dialogue on doctrinal authority, ironically, made no mention of this obvious issue that divides Protestants and Catholics, and instead focused on the formation of the biblical canon. Samples contended that the early Church only canonized what was already universally recognized as divinely inspired and therefore authoritative. Pacwa countered that the early centuries of Christianity were marked by widespread controversy over which books should be included in the canon, and that the decision was ultimately made by the bishops meeting in councils guided by the Holy Spirit.
Besides omitting the pope from discussion, the Dallas conference also left out the other major issue that continually sparks fireworks between Protestants and Catholics: Mary. (Actually, the Young Serrans originally had planned a dialogue on Mary, but they felt that a fourth two-hour dialogue would have made the day too long for the lay audience they were hoping to attract, so they decided to save the discussion on Mary for a future conference.) One wonders if the atmosphere in Dallas would have been nearly so amicable if “the P word” and “the M word” had not been off limits.Scott Hahn described Protestant-Catholic separation as “a luxury we can no longer afford,” given the formidable foes we face together, including secularism, the rise of Islam, a hardened Communist China, and, especially in America and Western Europe, what Pope John Paul II calls a “culture of death.” In his closing comments, Hahn issued a rousing challenge. After exhorting the Catholics in the audience to immerse themselves in the Bible and among non-Catholics who love the Bible, he stated his conviction that God’s purpose in the Dallas conference was to “launch a revolution. And if not here . . . in the Bible Belt, where you are surrounded by [Bible-loving] brothers and sisters . . . then where? If not now, when?”
Dave Tamisiea, head of the committee that organized the conference, echoed Hahn’s sentiments when I talked to him later. “Can you imagine what could happen if you combine Catholic truth with fundamentalist fervor? It would be awesome!”
Of course, this marriage will never happen on the basis of theological discourses alone. Something much more difficult is required of us: not merely discussing but actually living out our faith. This is why ecumenism happens more often in soup kitchens and crisis pregnancy centers—where Christians of every stripe work together to serve suffering humanity—than in university auditoriums.
Nevertheless, when Christians do engage in theological debate, “our means must be consistent with our message,” as Hahn pointed out. And the message of Christ is love. True Christian dialogue, therefore, involves both sides speaking the truth, as they discern it, in love. This was exactly what occurred in Dallas, and it was tremendously moving to be present amid what felt to be a powerful working of the Holy Spirit in his people.
Cassette tapes of the debate are available from St. Joseph Communications, P.O. Box 720, West Corrina, CA 91793, 1-800-526-2151.
Dave Tamisiea is available for consultation to groups wishing to organize ecumenical dialogues in their areas. Those interested may write to him at 6440 N. Central Expressway, Suite 514, L.B. 36, Dallas, TX 75206, or call him at (214) 368-5700.
Kathryn Collmer is a farm wife, mother, small business owner and freelance writer. She attends Salina Mennonite Church in Salina, Kansas, and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Minneapolis, Kansas.