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Evangelical Catholicism: The Past, Present, and Future of Christian Reunion

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 14, Number 4, September 2013
pp. 26-27 | 10.1353/hsp.2013.0042

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Evangelical Catholicism:
The Past, Present, and Future of Christian Reunion

In 1933 Francis Pickens Miller announced that a "third great period" of Christian history was at hand. In this new epoch, he predicted, Protestants and Catholics would "pool spiritual resources" and become "united in one community."1 That might seem a surprising claim coming from a lifelong southern Presbyterian. But Miller made that statement while serving as chairman of the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF), an interdenominational ecumenical movement whose implicit mission was to replicate and ultimately replace Catholicism's planetary presence. For Miller, the geopolitical times now demanded that Rome and Geneva repent of their historic habits. Vatican centralism and Protestant individualism had both become hindrances to the advance of a world Christian civilization. Each had to give way to the formation of a new borderless Christendom. It would still take thirty more years and the reforms of Vatican II for Miller to see his way fully toward the reunion of Christianity's classical combatants. "If John XXIII's goals can continue to be realized," Miller concluded in his 1971 autobiography, "the Roman church will resume its traditional leadership of Christendom and the Church Universal which will then emerge—including the Roman, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions—will constitute the best hope of mankind."2

Miller's remarkable confessions were manifestations of "Evangelical Catholicism." Because of historians' relative inattention to Protestants of Miller's liberal, ecumenical persuasion, Evangelical Catholicism is being touted today as the wave of the future. In the past few years, there has been an explosion of websites dedicated to discussing and tracking the Evangelical Catholic crusade from within Catholicism. Perhaps nothing is bringing more attention to the trend than George Weigel's Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church (Basic Books, 2013). Conservative evangelicals, one of Weigel's non-Catholic constituencies, have a strong recent history of interest in Catholic theology and practice. Although Evangelicals and Catholics Together lost momentum after its 1994 declaration, signatories have continued to champion evangelical-Catholic cooperation into the new century—including Weigel, the late Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson, and those affiliated with the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. Leading evangelical and Catholic conservatives remain partners in defense of nuclear family values, while younger Catholics and evangelicals appear more and more comfortable trading spaces out of a common quest for authentic, non-politicized faith.

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A 1942 postcard of the towering, gothic Riverside Church in New York City.

Given the seemingly bright future for Evangelical Catholicism, it is even more urgent for historians to chart and assess its long past. Though the origins of the phrase are unclear, Evangelical Catholicism has been in circulation among European and American Christians since at least the 19th-century. Parish-based Catholic revivalists employed the term to distinguish themselves from rival evangelists like D. L. Moody. Some German and French Protestants also invoked Evangelical Catholicism. As one explained in an 1895 letter, "the Church will be Catholic or it will not be the Church. The Christian will be Protestant or he will not be a Christian."3 At the dawn of the 20th century, American theologian Newman Smyth announced the end of the "Protestant era" in lieu of "coming Catholicism."4

Among American Protestants, Lutherans have been the most outspoken users of Evangelical Catholic rhetoric since World War I. Speaking on behalf of the ecumenical Theological Discussion Group in 1936—whose members included Miller and celebrity thinkers Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, among many others—Samuel McCrea Cavert (executive secretary of the Federal Council of Churches, or FCC) proclaimed Evangelical Catholicism the new Protestant watchword. "They are eager to identify themselves with the whole stream of life that has come down through the Church," he testified of his friends. "Nothing less than such a corporate and catholic Christianity is regarded as an adequate expression of religion in the modern world."5 Tillich echoed Cavert in a 1937 article for the WSCF's journal the Student World, revealingly titled "The End of the Protestant Era." He, too, regarded Evangelical Catholicism as the vanguard faith for economically, morally, and culturally...