A Brave New Ecumenicalism

Yesterday, the Family Research Council took a bold new step in the Protestant-Catholic reconciliation—they released a letter to President Obama insisting that he repeal the birth control mandate for religious institutions under the Affordable Care Act.  Given the social politics of Protestant Evangelicals and the Catholic Church, this shouldn’t be a surprise.  What is a surprise—indeed, shocking—is the language that the FRC (and the purported 2,500 signees) use:

Worse still is the fact that the mandate essentially ignores the conscience rights of many Catholic and Protestant Americans.

…This mandate is all the more egregious for including drugs and devices that are known and scientifically shown to function in ways that can cause abortions, including varieties of the morning-after-pill, both before and after implantation. The conscience rights of those who object to such drugs, let alone object to being forced to cover such drugs, is clearly violated by the Administration action.

…Due to significant opposition to this mandate, many people of faith hoped that the Administration would chose [sic] to protect the conscience rights of all people who have moral or religious objections to covering contraceptives and sterilization procedures and accordingly submitted comments to your Administration totaling over 200,000.  In the face of this outcry, your Administration issued a press release on January 20, 2012 that offers groups only a one year reprieve on being forced to violate the tenants [sic, or Freudian slip?] of their faithWorse still, the decision includes a new requirement that all such religious organizations will be required to refer for that which they find objectionable in the first place.  (Emphasis added)

Now, there are several squirrelly statements in the quote above, as well as in the full letter itself.  First, this letter doesn’t address the compromise that Obama announced on February 10; however, according to Tony Perkins, the FRC president, the compromise doesn’t change anything anyway.  Note also the mention of abortion-causing drugs, a reference to Plan B, the only FDA approved “morning-after-pill” (which actually doesn’t cause abortions and contains a concentrated dose of the hormones contained in oral contraceptives).  By tying this contraceptive mandate to abortion, the FRC is stoking the fires of the issue on which Catholics and Evangelicals most closely work together.

Far more interesting, however, the letter acts as if Catholics and Protestants share similar theological objections to the use of contraception, an utter fabrication.  Catholics have longstanding institutional objections to the use of contraceptives.  But only isolated pockets of Protestants object to its use, primarily on the individual level.

This represents a bold new communion for Evangelicals and Catholics in the U.S.  As any student of church history will tell you, Protestants and Catholics have not had the friendliest of histories.  The religious wars that ravaged Europe following Martin Luther’s 95 Theses are a testament to this.  Regularly, U.S. Protestants have referred to the Roman Catholic Church as “the Whore of Babylon,” a reference to the apocalyptic book of Revelations.  (Indeed, fringe fundamentalist pastor John Hagee still uses this phrase, though he’s had to backtrack from it some due to his political agenda.)  Catholics in the U.S. have been mistrusted historically and had their patriotism called into question given their loyalty to the non-American pope.  This resentment gave rise to the Know Nothing Party in the 1850s and fueled much of the rage of the Ku Klux Klan, who equally hated Catholics and Jews with the same fervor as African Americans.

History notwithstanding, conservative Evangelicals have been willing to work with the Catholic Church more recently on shared social issues—particularly abortion.  But, lest one think that this theological resentment has disappeared, consider the words of Evangelical pastor and leader John MacArthur in a 2009 interview:

In an article that followed that up in Christianity Today [sic], J. I. Packer said, “We should acknowledge as brothers and sisters in Christ, anyone who lives to the highest ideals of their communion.” My response to that is the opposite. I maybe could fellowship with a bad Roman Catholic, that is, one who has rejected the system, but was still in the church and came to know Christ. But one who holds the highest ideals of Roman Catholicism—on what grounds do I have spiritual unity?

but we can’t really throw our arms around each other in a common effort because that confounds the issue of spiritual truth.  (Emphasis added)

This history is what makes the FRC’s letter remarkable.  It represents a fundamental shift in Evangelical-Catholic relations.  The issue in question is no longer collaboration on social issues but theology.  The FRC letter does not establish a posture of Evangelical solidarity with Catholics; rather, it places them under the same threat of persecution by the Obama Administration for shared religious convictions—in other words, spiritual unity.

A decade ago, this would not have been predicted.  However, it is clear that contemporary politics—and in particular the issue of sexuality—has trumped 500 years of Christian theology and history.  What happens next remains to be seen.


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