BWA-Catholic dialogue reaches midpoint

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--While some Southern Baptists may describe a dialogue between Roman Catholics and the Baptist World Alliance as possibly helpful, others question how much really can be accomplished.

Representatives of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Baptist World Alliance held the second meeting of a four-year dialogue Dec. 2-8 at the Vatican. The forum focused on baptism and the Lord's Supper (which Roman Catholics call the Eucharist). A previous meeting at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., Dec. 10-15, 2006, addressed the authority of Scripture and church tradition.

BWA spokesman Eron Henry said the Baptist World Alliance agreed to the dialogue because the organization's objectives affirm efforts "to unite Baptists worldwide, to lead in world evangelism, to respond to people in need, to engage in the defense of human rights and religious freedom, and to promote theological reflection."

"Our talks with the Roman Catholics and other Christian groups aim to fulfill these mission goals, but especially to aid in the promotion of human rights and religious freedom -– especially in countries and regions where Baptists as a minority are discriminated against -– and the promotion of theological reflection," Henry said.

The Baptist World Alliance would have no official statement on the substance of the talks until they end in 2010, he added. The Southern Baptist Convention ended its membership in the BWA in 2004 in favor of working directly with Baptists and other likeminded evangelicals around the globe instead of through the BWA.

Some Southern Baptists would affirm conversations that emphasize subjects on which they agree with Roman Catholics, Chuck Quarles, chairman of the division of Christian Studies at Louisiana College in Pineville, La., acknowledged.

"Discussions between Catholics and Baptists that affirm our shared views of Christian morality send a strong message to our decadent culture," Quarles said. "Dialogue intended to foster a greater commitment to principles of religious freedom and to discourage violence in areas where great tension exists between Catholics and Baptists is certainly in keeping with the teachings of our Savior, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount."

Quarles noted, however, that this particular series of dialogues is focused on theological issues, including "the place of Mary in the communion of the Church, and the nature of oversight and primacy in the Church's ministerial structure," as well as the relationship between Scripture and tradition and the understanding of baptism and the sacraments.

"Theological dialogue between Baptists and Catholics is also fully appropriate," Quarles said. "Before any meaningful dialogue can proceed, however, participants must agree to the terms of the dialogue."

Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed.

"We all desire to fulfill the Lord's desire for all Christians to be one in Him, and it is advantageous to join Roman Catholics in addressing issues about which we share similar values, especially concerning the sanctity of human life," Lemke said. "However, the theological issues on which we disagree are significant and non-negotiable. On these issues, Baptists may have dialogue with Roman Catholics, but must never compromise."

'DIFFERING GOALS'

The current series of dialogues is being held under the banner, "The Word of God in the Life of the Church: Scripture, Tradition and Koinonia." An earlier phase of Baptist-Catholic conversations, held between 1984 and 1988, resulted in a 1990 report titled "Summons to Witness to Christ in Today's World."

A participant in earlier Baptist-Catholic dialogues said he felt the two delegations had differing goals.

"I participated in a 'scholars' dialogue with Baptists and Catholics for about 15 years," said Don Kammerdiener, who served for almost 40 years as a missionary and administrator with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. "I don't regret the investment of time and energy, but frankly I don't know if there were many useful results.

"The only basis for useful dialogue is that the participants know what they believe, are prepared to share an open and complete testimony of their faith and that they go with a willingness to listen to the other participants," Kammerdiener said. "With some exceptions, I felt that the major issue in the discussions was to find agreement to tone down or eliminate Baptist witnessing, or 'proselytizing,' as some preferred to describe it."

'OPENNESS, RESPECT, FIDELITY'

Pope Benedict XVI met with the Baptist and Catholic delegations during their meeting in Rome, according to the Roman Catholic Zenit news agency. The pontiff said that for dialogue between Baptists and Catholics to move forward, points of disagreement must be confronted in a spirit of openness, respect and fidelity to the truth of Christ.

"It is my hope that your conversations will bear abundant fruit for the progress of dialogue and the increase of understanding and cooperation between Catholics and Baptists," Benedict said, according to the Zenit report. He added that the dialogue offered "a promising context for the examination of ... historically controversial issues."

Quoting the Second Vatican Council, Benedict told the group that "the lack of unity between Christians 'openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and harms the most holy cause of proclaiming the good news to every creature.'" He noted that "issues such as these need to be faced together, in a spirit of openness, mutual respect and fidelity to the liberating truth and saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

'ECCLESIAL COMMUNITIES'

Despite the pope's professed openness to dialogue with Baptists, Lemke said he is pessimistic that the dialogue can produce any meaningful fruit.

"First of all, it bears noting that the pope initiated dialogue with Muslims before he did so with Baptists," Lemke said. "Secondly, in the light of Pope Benedict's repeated strong and unambiguous statements that Protestant churches 'suffer from defects' and 'cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called 'Churches' in the proper sense,' genuine dialogue appears to be impossible."

Benedict raised eyebrows this past June when he approved a document from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asserting the traditional Roman Catholic position that it alone is the legitimate heir to the church established by Christ because it asserts apostolic succession from the Apostle Peter down to the present. "Moderate" and liberal Catholics have backed away from that teaching since the Second Vatican Council.

While allowing that Christ works redemptively through Protestant and evangelical churches, traditional Catholic doctrine says they are "ecclesial communities," not proper churches because they reject the authority of the papacy.

'FINAL ARBITRATOR'

Among the Baptists participating in the dialogue are former BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz; Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School; Lilian Lim, president of Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary in Singapore; Nora Lozano of the Baptist University of the Americas in San Antonio, Texas; and Tomás Mackey of the Baptist Seminary in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

George's participation bodes well for the integrity of the process, Quarles said.

"The Protestant Reformers eagerly sought such dialogue as long as it could be mutually agreed that the Holy Scriptures were the final arbitrator in any disagreements," Quarles said. "I am confident that Timothy George, a highly respected Baptist historian and theologian, approaches these dialogues in the spirit of the Reformers."

George has openly called for what he describes as "an ecumenism of conviction" rather than one of accommodation, a unity of believers "that did not paper over serious differences but faced them honestly in a common quest for truth," Quarles said. "Such dialogue is in keeping with the teachings of the New Testament in passages such as 2 Timothy 4:24-25."

'SQUISHINESS'

Mark Coppenger, another participant in the earlier series of discussions, said he was surprised that Catholics who held strongly conservative positions on abortion and women priests took less than conservative positions on the Scripture.

"I see that, like the SBC team of the 1990s, the BWA team is discussing Scripture and the Word of God with the Catholics," said Coppenger, pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. "I hope these Baptists stand firm on biblical inerrancy, as we did in those earlier conversations.

"I suppose the greatest surprise I had in the four annual meetings I attended was the Catholics' eagerness to embrace what some call 'higher criticism,'" Coppenger recounted. "The popular New Jerome Biblical Commentary, which was edited by one of the Catholic team members, exhibited the same sort of squishiness that provoked the SBC Conservative Resurgence. Everywhere I turned, it was trito-this and J-that, here a redactor, there a regional myth, with a patronizing, scare-quote tone.

"I had trouble believing that the same people who hung tough on abortion and women priests could be so cozy with the errantists," Coppenger said.

'NON-NEGOTIABLE'

Meaningful dialogue on theological issues faces significant obstacles, Quarles noted.

"The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council outlined the terms for true unity between the Catholic Church and the churches of Western Protestantism: 'Their ecumenical action must be fully and sincerely Catholic, that is to say, faithful to the truth which we have received from the apostles and Fathers of the Church, in harmony with the faith which the Catholic Church has always professed, and at the same time directed toward that fullness to which Our Lord wills His Body to grow in the course of time,'" Quarles recounted.

On the other hand, Quarles continued, "Baptists must similarly reply that any ecumenical action on our part must be fully and sincerely Baptistic, that is to say, faithful to the truth received from the prophets and apostles in the Holy Scripture, which we believe has been accurately and faithfully expressed in our own historic confessions and for which many of our Baptist forefathers spilled their blood.

"On these terms, the dialogue would seem destined to result in a theological impasse," Quarles said. "Some of the cherished doctrines that separate Baptists from Catholics are fundamental and essential to the Gospel that we preach. These essential doctrines must be considered non-negotiable in any ecumenical discussions.

"We must avoid the pitfall of distancing ourselves from the teachings of Jesus and the Scriptures in order to feel closer to other people."

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Mark Kelly is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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