Evangelicals, Catholics, and the Ecumenism of Conviction

“We are committed to an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.” Those are the words of my friend, Timothy George, a Baptist theologian who serves as Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. He was referring to the signatories of “The Gift of Salvation,” one of the many statements issued by Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a group that was formed through the initiative of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson, both of whom are no longer with us.

I spent most of last week experiencing the delights of this “ecumenism of conviction” first hand. I delivered three papers at the 64th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, the academic association for which I served as president until resigning a week after I was received back into the Catholic Church in May 2007.  Two of my papers were given on panels that directly addressed issues over which Catholics and Protestants disagree.

One panel included the four primary authors of the book Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism (Zondervan). As one of the four, I opened up the session with reflections on the five years that have elapsed since my return to the Church. Following me was Gregg Allison, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who offered an Evangelical response.

After Fr. Wilbur Ellsworth (Eastern Orthodox convert) and his respondent, Craig Blaising (Provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) completed their session, the book’s other two primary authors (Chris Castaldo and Lyle Dorsett) joined all of us for an engaging, candid, and respectful discussion that included both audience queries and interaction among the panelists. I cannot speak for the other non-Protestant panelists, but I felt thoroughly welcomed. 

The other panel was on Jerry Walls’ marvelous book, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (Oxford University Press). Jerry, a philosophy professor at Houston Baptist University, is a Protestant (in the Wesleyan tradition) who defends Purgatory! I was invited by the panel’s chair, Mark Foreman (Liberty University), to offer a Catholic perspective on Jerry’s thesis. With the assistance of the other two panelists (Fred Sanders and Steven Cowan), an amazing conversation ensued.

Each of us – whether Wesleyan, Reformed, or Catholic – appreciated and understood that the problem for which Purgatory is offered as an answer (the problem of not being fully sanctified at death) needed a resolution. This was remarkable. Despite the fact that we disagreed, sometimes profoundly, on what constituted a satisfying solution, we were in heated agreement that this was an ecumenical problem that could not be ignored. 

Between these two panels, I delivered a third paper. I presented at the meeting’s bioethics session a critique of the article that was published online earlier this year in the Journal of Medical Ethics, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, written by the philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. (I briefly assessed this article in The Catholic Thing). My paper in this session represented the other side of the “ecumenism of conviction,” what we, as Catholics and Evangelicals, hold in common about the sanctity of life and our role in advancing its protection in the public square.

When I wasn’t delivering papers and engaging in panel discussions, I was attending other sessions, sharing meals and drinks with old and new friends (including the inestimable Carl Trueman), or perusing the book tables. What astounded me was the number of people who went out of their way to call me “brother,” to tell me that they were glad I was there, and to inform me that they were influenced in one way or another by my philosophical work.  I was deeply moved by these overtures of fraternal affection.

Yet we Catholics and Evangelicals have our differences that seem, on this side of eternity, insurmountable. Nevertheless, The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “‘many elements of sanctification and of truth’ are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: ‘the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.’” About this, I have never harbored any doubts.

Last week’s experience merely confirmed this conviction. And for this reason, I continue to hope and pray with our Lord, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).