The ties that bind Catholics and Evangelical Christians

Question: I hear the term “Evangelical Christians” used a lot, but I am not sure to what or whom this refers. Can you enlighten me?

Name withheld, via email

Answer: Thirty years ago Protestant denominations were largely broken into two groups: the more socially conservative “fundamentalists,” and the more liberal, both socially and theologically, “mainline” denominations such as: Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians. The fundamentalists tended to draw their numbers more from the more conservative Baptist congregations, and a wide variety of independent and nondenominational groups.

What tended to divide fundamentalists from mainline Protestants was how the Scriptures were to be interpreted. Fundamentalists tended toward a more literalist adherence to the text that was more suspicious to applying historical context or other interpretive principles for understanding the text.

The mainline denominations moved rather dramatically toward such interpretive keys, so much so that many of them have arguably move beyond the text itself, and, as such, have no problem permitting things which biblical texts unambiguously forbid, such as homosexual acts, homosexual marriage and women clergy.

During the 1970s and 80s, there was a protracted campaign in the media and wider culture to discredit fundamentalism as rigid, pharisaical and out of touch.

Fair or not, the fundamentalists began to adopt the term “evangelical” in response. While today’s Evangelical Christians are not simply synonymous with the “fundamentalists” of the past, the term “fundamentalist” has largely been replaced by the term “evangelical.”

Today, despite theological differences between Evangelicals and Catholics, there is a lot of common ground on the moral issues. This has led to greater unity, and one of the most fruitful sources of converts to the Catholic Church is from Evangelical Christian denominations today.

These closer relations have led to the description of “Evangelical Catholicism,” which places emphasis on the scriptural and apostolic origins of our holy Faith.

Is the Church shrinking?

Question: I keep hearing that the Church is both declining and increasing in numbers. Which is it? Are we going up or down?

Alfreda Johnson, Libertytown, Md.

Answer: To understand the numbers, it is helpful to make a distinction between nominal and practicing Catholics. Nominal Catholics are those who call themselves Catholic, but are not practicing or living the Faith in any real sense. This number is going up as our population continues to grow. And that growth is mainly from immigrants — the majority of whom are at least nominally Catholic. Thus the overall number of Catholics is growing. But to be a nominal Catholic is not necessarily to be a practicing Catholic.

And, though here in America, the overall number of Catholics is growing, the number of practicing Catholics does seem to be declining overall.

Sadly, only about 25 percent of Catholics go to Mass each Sunday (down from close to 80 percent in the 1950s). 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.