Baptist-Catholic Dialogue

Someone drew my attention to this article from Baptist Press about Baptist-Catholic ecumenical talks that are currently underway in Rome. That reminded me of this story from Zenit back in December about the Pope's welcoming address to the same group.

Since the substance and results of the meetings are not yet known, the Baptist Press article mainly quotes other people who are not involved in the current talks. Their opinions generally boil down to this: "Sure, we can agree about abortion and stuff, but we'll never get anywhere on the theological issues. Those Catholics just won't admit they're wrong and we're right." Here is a good example from Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary:

"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."

I discussed the differences regarding the term "Church" in this post last summer. News flash: Catholics and Baptists actually believe different things! Why this would surprise a seminary professor is a mystery. No doubt Rev. Lemke thinks the Catholic Church "suffers from defects." That is why he is Baptist and not Catholic. Yet the fact that Catholics have similar thoughts about Baptists seems to aggravate him, enough so that he thinks "genuine dialogue" is impossible. Weird.

The shot about the Pope speaking to Muslims first also needs a response. I feel sure that the Pope would love to reach out to all other religions and the various branches of Christianity as quickly as possible. There are many branches, of course, so he has to prioritize. I can think of at least three reasons why dialogue with Muslims might be prioritized ahead of dialogue with Baptists:
  1. Muslims were first in line. Muhammad died in A.D. 632. The Baptist World Alliance was formed in A.D. 1905.
  2. There are more Muslims in the world than Baptists. Far more, in fact - over a billion Muslims vs. less than 100 million Baptists, depending which of the many sub-groups you include.
  3. Baptists are not currently engaged in acts of violence against Catholics around the world. Various groups of Muslims are. This lends a certain urgency to opening dialogue with Muslim leaders as soon as possible.
I'm sorry if Rev. Lemke feels that the Pope did not move quickly enough to begin these talks that Rev. Lemke has already decided will be useless. As you can see, Baptists are not the only group the Vatican has to consider. The important thing is that dialogue is now underway.

I think the Baptists who fret that such talks are a waste of time are missing the point. The Pope is well aware of the theological differences between Baptists and Catholics. He does not expect the Baptist representatives to compromise their beliefs. Likewise the Catholic delegates will defend their church's teaching.

The fact that Christianity is divided into so many factions is a great scandal. It prevents us from setting an example to the fallen world. If we want to follow Christ, we need to work toward unity, but without compromising Truth. What needs to happen is for all the different groups to come to the same understanding of what the Truth is. The way to accomplish that is to talk about it - not throw up your hands and say "This will never go anywhere."

What would be nice is for Catholics and Baptists to at least understand each other's beliefs. Having been on both sides of this divide, I can testify there are plenty of prejudices and misperceptions by Catholics and Baptists about each other. There are real differences, too. Removing the stereotypes is a necessary step toward discussing the more important issues in a serious way. This is why interfaith dialogue is useful even if no one changes his mind about anything.

Change comes slowly, bit by bit. Christianity was unified for its first thousand years. In that time, the Gospel spread like wildfire through the known world. The Great Schism and the Reformation were the result of human weakness. Putting the pieces back together is not an easy task. It may take another thousand years but it must be done, and the effort cannot be abandoned no matter how hard it looks. We have to keep planting seeds, even knowing that we may not live to see them sprout.

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