What Can Catholics Learn From Evangelicals?

Part Four: From Mere Christianity to More Christianity

In the last article in this series, we finished by speaking of Catholic belief in the “infallible” teaching authority of the Catholic Church — and we asked: how can an infallible Church have anything to learn in ecumenical dialogue from anyone else?

I think we need to be careful with our semantics here. For the word “infallible” in the Catholic Tradition does not mean “comprehensive.” It is impossible for any individual, or for any community of faith, to have a completely comprehensive understanding and expression of the mysteries of the faith, simply because…well, because they are mysteries. Remember your rosaries: in the rosary we pray through the joyful, luminous, sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the Faith — the mysteries of the Incarnation and life and saving deeds of the infinite God in human flesh. No community of finite minds and chronic sinners can fully comprehend and fully express the infinite divine nature, or the unfathomable depths of His redeeming work and saving love. That’s why the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner once defined a holy mystery like this (in paraphrase): a holy mystery is not something we know nothing about; it’s something about which there always remains more to be said. Read that over again, and let it really “sink in.”

About all the doctrines of Christianity we can certainly know some things for sure: for instance, that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died for us and rose again. If, by Christ’s promise, the Church teaches “infallibly,” then that simply means that all of the things she teaches as definitively revealed by God are true and trustworthy, as far as they go. In other words, the definitive teachings of the Church, the Body of Christ, will not lead you astray. That’s why St. Paul referred to the Church in I Timothy as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (I Tim 3:15).

But even if these doctrines are all “true and trustworthy as far as they go” (and “infallible” in that sense), since they all concern holy mysteries revealed by God, there always remains “more to be said” about them. In other words, these truths can always be penetrated more deeply, expressed more clearly, and their implications unfolded more completely in every generation. The process of doing that, in every age of the Church, is what the Catholic Church calls the authentic process of “the development of doctrine.” It was made famous by an important book on the subject in the 19th century by an Anglican convert to Catholicism, Bl. John Henry Newman. But he did not invent the idea, for it has roots in Scripture (e.g. Eph 4:11-16), in the writings of St. Vincent of Lerins and St. Augustine among the early Church Fathers, and in St. Thomas Aquinas too. Here is how the Second Vatican Council put it:

This tradition [of apostolic teaching] which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

So how can this Pilgrim Church, ever “moving forward toward the fullness of divine truth” as Vatican II said, grow in its understanding of the Word of God in our time? One way is by pondering the mysteries of the Faith together with our Evangelical brothers and sisters: a gift and opportunity that God has given us in our ecumenical age, so that, by mutual listening and mutual enrichment, we can attain together a clearer, and more profound understanding of the holy mysteries of God’s love than ever before.

To me, that is what makes ecumenical dialogue so rich and fruitful:  it must be the case that some aspects of the Catholic Faith-Tradition lie dormant, half-forgotten or poorly expressed, never fully appreciated and under-developed, and our non-Catholic brothers and sisters can sometimes help us see how to develop these things further, through respectful dialogue and mutual searching (and this process has been going on for several decades now, thanks be to God!). This will enable Catholic doctrine and devotion to grow into an even greater fullness, and richness of insight and expression, in the generations to come, without necessarily contradicting what has gone before.

And to me, this is also the main thing about the Catholic Tradition that keeps me passionately interested in ecumenical dialogue, and full of hope for its promise.  For it means that ecumenism is not just about discovering our considerable “common ground,” the basics of Mere Christianity that we all share (although, thanks be to God, we now recognize and acknowledge that common ground, more than ever before: there truly is, I think, “more that unites than divides us,” as Pope St. John XXIII famously said). But ecumenism is also about reaching out for a deeper understanding and greater flourishing of revealed truth in the Body of Christ. In other words, it is not just about searching together for historic, mainstream “Mere Christianity,” but about searching together for “MORE Christianity”—its true Catholic fullness of expression, a fullness that no one can see clearly or in its entirety at present, because it is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our time.


Robert Stackpole, STD

© The Fellowship of Catholics and Evangelicals, 2016

Next time: Reflecting on Creation and the Cross with our Evangelical Friends