Evangelical Catholicism: Finding Commitment beyond Belief
By Mark Edwards
The recent informative posts on early American Catholic history got me thinking about the long history of Protestant and Catholic interrelations in this country. True, a lot of it we’d like to forget. The numerous stories of burrowing and borrowing between the two traditions still needs to be remembered, however. That is notably the case with the twentieth century, when Protestant-Catholic engagement became the most self-conscious and sincere. On the Protestant side, ironically enough, attraction to high-church forms became greatest in what many have assumed to be a premier expression of liberal (i. e., non-nativist) anti-Catholicism, the ecumenical movement.
From a planetary perspective, it looks at present as though the twentieth century was not kind to ecumenical Protestants. Forget the religious right for just a minute. Consider that, during the past century into today, the Christianization of the Global South has largely been carried out by Catholics, Anglicans, and the Orthodox churches—the “high” traditions. Where does that leave the “low” Protestants—the Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, and so on—in groups like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches? Viewing ecumenism as a defensive posturing against a perceived global Catholic takeover is not without warrant. Certainly, leading American ecumenists like Charles Clayton Morrison and Henry Van Dusen were also outspoken liberal anti-Catholics. But, wait a minute, Anglicans and Episcopalians (and some Anglo-Catholics) were often crucial supporters of Protestant ecumenism nationally and globally. What difference did their presence in the movement make? Actually, a lot: They were the vehicles by which traditionally Catholic forms, ideas, and identities entered liberal and moderate mainline institutions.
Long before there was Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), an “Evangelical Catholicism” fired American Protestant imaginations. That phenomenon also went by “Protestant Catholicity” and “Catholic Protestantism.” I first learned of those strivings while studying liberal religious leaders like Van Dusen, Morrison, Paul Tillich, Walter Marshall Horton, Francis Miller, and H. Richard Niebuhr. I eventually decided that those terms expressed the general faith-orientation of entire networks of liberal religious thinkers, including the New Haven-based Theological Discussion Group, which Heather Warren first wrote about in Theologians of a New World Order (Oxford, 1997). I also discovered that those persons didn’t start Evangelical Catholicism, it was a longstanding collaborative project of pastors, laypersons, religious educators, church administrators that my subjects either grew up in or grew into.
Since Evangelical Catholicism is a centerpiece of my book, The Right of the Protestant Left (Macmillan, 2012), I can’t give too much away here. Put simply, Evangelical Catholicism represented for its many practitioners a synthesis of the best that Protestant and Roman Catholic history had to offer—Miller, as head of the World Student Christian Federation, predicted in 1933 the birth of a “third great epoch” of Christian history during which Protestants and Catholics would “pool resources.” In big-picture terms, Evangelical Catholicism aimed at reconciling evangelical individualism and congregational autonomy with the high churches’ emphasis on universality of expression. For some ecumenical Protestants, it was imperial nostalgia: Take up the mantle of catholicity in order to condemn Rome for failing to be truly universal. For others, like the Baptist-Congregationalist-Unitarian-become-self-professed-”liberal Catholic” Horton, it was outright admiration: As he wrote in a 1938 study of European theology, Roman Catholicism “knows where it stands and why, and so holds steady in a world shaken to its foundations.” Vatican II only deepened liberal and moderate mainline appreciation for Catholic expressions and self-concept. One of my conclusions (admittedly more provocative than proven at present without further on-the-ground research) is that mainline churches today constitute the catholic wing of American evangelicalism.
Frankly, I’m still struggling with how to account for the rise of Evangelical Catholicism as well as its present and future. T. J. Jackson Lears wrote on this topic some time ago in No Place of Grace (Chicago, 1994), and I’m always tempted to surrender to his verdict. He was most interested in the attractive power of the Episcopal church and the Middle Ages for middle-class persons inhabiting the urban-industrialization of 1880-1920. Essentially (and this may be too simplistic on my part), Lears concluded that Americans’ sentimental medievalism was an escape, a way to not deal with mounting socioeconomic and political problems. Does that mean that United Methodists go goth today in order to “get away from it all?” To be sure, ecumenical Protestants have been more successful at promoting interracial cooperation and at leveling gender distinctions within their own walls than they have been at challenging racialization and persistent patriarchy within American society. Yet for my intellectuals, I think the rationale for Evangelical Catholicism was different: They were trying to figure out how one could remain a Christian while admitting the damage done to the evangelical movement by historical relativism and evolutionary theory. Many of them were self-professed “Christian agnostics” looking for the way forward, first and foremost for themselves. What they found in high-church tradition was a way to remain theologically and morally uncertain, to admit (for them, gradually) the irreducible pluralism of the human condition, while still being faithful to the historic global Christian community. In other words, they found what the liberal Protestant apologist Donald Miller once termed “commitment beyond belief.”
My work focuses more on how Theological Discussion Group members sought to politicize Evangelical Catholicism as a response to the rise of totalitarian nationalism. David R. Bains’s excellent dissertation, “The Liturgical Impulse in Mid-Twentieth-Century American Mainline Protestantism” (Harvard, 1999), as well as his article, “Conduits of Faith: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Liturgical Thought,” Church History 73 (June 2004): 168-94, considers these issues in a more comprehensive way and at a more popular level. David Hollinger noted recently that ecumenical Protestantism has served as a “half-way house” to secularism. Might it also have been and currently be a bridge to Catholicism?
(PS My cover photo of the 1948 First Assembly of the WCC only cost $40.00, the equivalent of five years of royalties, but I find myself missing the grandeur of the original black and white)