The budding relationship between Catholics and evangelicals lost an important voice when evangelist Chuck Colson died at age 80 on April 21. 

Chuck Colson and Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali at the Washington, D.C., release last fall of the “Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience.” CNS photo

In a time when many evangelicals still did not consider Catholics to be Christians, Colson helped bridge the gap through his writings and public statements, especially in his efforts with the late Father Richard John Neuhaus to create the ecumenical project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together

“Chuck was a leading evangelical who treated Catholics as Christians, and Christians that evangelicals should treat as brothers. That meant a lot in itself,” said David Mills, executive editor of the interreligious journal First Things

Mills told Our Sunday Visitor that Colson showed how an evangelical-Catholic friendship could be crucial to the Christian witness in the public square. 

“In some ways that meant even more in improving the relations of evangelicals and Catholics,” Mills said. “He gave evangelicals permission to be so closely involved with Catholics. It was a kind of imprimatur, if you want to put it that way.” 

Willing to take heat

David Neff, editor in chief of Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, told OSV that Colson played a “very significant role” in the evangelical-Catholic dialogue. 

“I know Chuck deeply believed in what he was doing,” said Neff, adding that Colson received considerable criticism from evangelicals. 

“I remember when he started with Evangelicals and Catholics Together, particularly when they came out with the early statements on salvation in the Gospel, [Colson] took a lot of heat, even from people who had been close to him,” Neff said. 

In a letter to Father Neuhaus at the beginning stages of their ecumenical project, Colson wrote of being moved by the Holy Spirit to sense that they were engaging in something historic and monumental. 

Colson asked: “Dare we believe that God is calling us to make a bold statement that could influence the course of his church in the decades to come?” 

By that point, in the early 1990s, Colson had spent 20 years in evangelicalism, which he converted to just before he was sent to prison in 1974 for obstruction of justice in the Watergate investigation. 

Colson, a former special counsel to President Richard Nixon, emerged from his seven months in a federal prison a much different person than the self-described “hatchet man” once known for ruthless political tactics that included a plot to defame a military analyst for leaking the Pentagon Papers. 

Colson went on to found his non-profit ministry, Prison Fellowship, and visited an estimated 600 prisons in the United States and 40 countries. He also established the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, which encourages a Christian perspective in all areas of life. 

Going against the grain

In the area of ecumenism, Colson, whose widow, Patty, is Catholic, began thinking through the issues of Catholic-evangelical relations. Neff said Colson was influenced by several key evangelical figures in history, including Dwight L. Moody, a late 19th century Chicago preacher and publisher who donated money for Catholics to build a church, and Abraham Kuyper, a 19th-century Dutch theologian who saw Catholics as allies in public life. 

Still, Colson would be going against the historical grain of Catholic-evangelical relations in the United States. 

“Most evangelicals were critical of, if not hostile, to Catholicism, though they might know and like particular Catholics,” said Mills of First Things. 

“The barriers on the evangelical side of the ditch were a lot higher and a lot better armed than those on the Catholic side,” said Mills, who added: “If the two were going to sign a peace treaty, the evangelicals had to demilitarize the most.” 

Neff said that American evangelicals, generally, were suspicious of Catholic immigrants’ roots and thought their religious practices, especially those before the Second Vatican Council, to be strange. 

But in the past 50 years, several factors arose to help thaw the relationship. 

Neff mentioned John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960, particularly his speech that year in Houston to an audience of Baptist ministers where Kennedy vowed that he would respect the separation of church and state, and not take orders from the pope. 

Other developments, such as the growth of small group Bible studies in Catholic circles, and the Catholic charismatic movement, highlighted areas of agreement and commonality between evangelicals and Catholics, Neff said. 

The two communities were brought closer together during the pro-life movement, which Colson called the “ecumenism of the trenches,” and which helped prepare the groundwork for the ecumenical dialogue of the 1990s. 

Flourishing friendships

“Evangelicals and Catholics had been moving closer to each other for some time, for a lot of reasons, partly because each found themselves having to respond to aggressive secularism and found the other guys had the same problem,” Mills said. 

Through Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the initial 1994 statement that was signed by several prominent leaders on both sides, Colson helped to contribute intellectual rigor to the relationship, said Neff, who brokered meetings between the evangelicals involved in drafting the statement and those who opposed it. 

“I think we were able to restore relationships without those critics ever coming around to see Chuck’s way, but at least we were able to heal those relationships,” Neff said. 

Neff mentioned a recent informal public dialogue in Chicago between an Evangelical theologian and Francis Cardinal George, where both sat in easy chairs and discussed theology in a relaxed and friendly manner. 

“Evangelicals and Catholics Together was definitely a turning point. There had been alliances built with the pro-life work before, but not the kind of thing where you get to respect the other’s traditions,” said Neff, who hopes the ecumenical dialogue will continue. 

While saying that many evangelicals remain suspicious of Catholicism, Mills told OSV that people in both communities respect and understand each other in ways they never did before. 

“And it’s not just personal friendships, it’s a real respect for the other’s way of being Christians—not agreement, not by a long shot, but real respect and even affection,” Mills said. “And Chuck Colson and Richard Neuhaus were one of the big reasons we see that friendship flourishing today.” 

Brian Fraga writes from Texas.