The late Pope John Paul II frequently called for a “new evangelization,” by which he meant the renewed preaching of the Gospel in regions long assumed to be Christian, like Europe and the Americas. Pope Benedict XVI continues these efforts. On Sept. 29, presidents of the 34 European episcopal conferences met to discuss strategies for evangelization in their countries. Pope John Paul II’s intellectual biographer, the Protestant church historian George Hunston Williams, once wrote that in many respects John Paul was closer in outlook to American evangelical Protestants than to European neo-Thomists like his predecessors, Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI.
For many American Catholics, however, the new evangelization was a hard sell. The British apologist Msgr. Ronald Knox had taught a generation of educated Catholics to suspect revivalist movements and emotive religion. Bred in the rituals of a sacramental faith, Catholics found evangelical prayer styles alien. Until recently, moreover, evangelical religion was often intermixed with anti-Catholicism.
Trends in church life following the Second Vatican Council also made for cognitive dissonance with respect to overt evangelization as a centerpiece of church life. For one, the council brought about a shift in Catholic missionary work. Instead of sending missionaries abroad, one-time “sending” churches now lent their support to indigenous, local churches. In the United States, the remarkable popularity of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults also fostered a steady stream of converts.
Furthermore, the rise of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue created a climate of appreciation both for other Christian communities and for world religions. Finally, Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) put the defense of human rights at the heart of the Catholic evangelizing strategy. That commitment continues to be a source of conversions in many places.
Pope Paul’s teaching, as much as his successor’s evangelical style, is the starting point for a social ecumenism between Catholics and evangelicals that cuts across political divides. Over the years I have worked with many evangelicals: with Jim Wallis of Sojourners on peace and nonviolence, Bob Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement on religious liberty, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action on the role of religion in politics. In the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, I have planned and prayed with Cliff Benzel and Cal Dewitt, members of the Evangelical Environmental Network. David Neff, the editor of Christianity Today, is leader in an interfaith initiative for peace in the Middle East. Many leaders of evangelical social movements, like Wallis, Seiple and Sider, are admirers of Catholic social teaching.
Last year, in an effort that brought together conservative and progressive evangelicals, the National Association of Evangelicals published a platform for Christian advocacy on public policy called “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” Its themes will strike a responsive chord among Catholics: religious freedom, family and children, the sanctity of human life, justice for the poor, human rights, peace and the environment.
There are points that Catholics will find less congenial. Christian tradition and church teaching are not sources for evangelical social action. One senses an implicit nationalism and an echo of the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric that are at odds with Catholic universalism; but there is also a plea for humility and civility in the public square that should not only be reassuring but should set a standard for Catholic activists as well.
It has become a commonplace in religious commentary that there is greater coherence on the part of conservatives and liberals across denominational lines than within churches themselves. Politics has intruded to divide church members from one another. “For the Health of the Nation,” with its broad, unifying message and obvious parallels to Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless garment, the Catholic Common Ground project and the U. S. bishops’ quadrennial reflections on political responsibility, suggests that social action has enormous potential to unite people both within and across churches. It offers the promise of a new social ecumenism, in which faith can be a source of civic renewal rather than an occasion for strife.
You can read “For the Health of the Nation” on the N.A.E. and E.S.A. Web sites, and in Toward an Evangelical Public Policy (Baker, 2005), a follow-on volume edited by Sider and Dianne Knippers.