I sometimes read the Calvinist blog known as the Pyromaniacs. That is not by any means to say that I agree with everything there, as this very column will show. But it is sometimes entertaining Christian blogging, sometimes right on the money, and the periodic quotations from Charles Haddon Spurgeon are well-chosen and often inspiring.
Recently the subject of Protestant-Catholic co-belligerence has arisen there via, of all people, Rick Warren. The Pyros, as they are known, as fiery Protestants and apparently consider the Roman Catholic Church to be utterly apostate. This time, they were very frustrated with Rick Warren for saying some positive things about Catholicism. The video that upset Dan Phillips of Team Pyro can be found here.
I'm no great fan of Rick Warren. In fact, I've criticized him pretty harshly both here at W4 and also at my personal blog over the years. Here I said that he appeared to have told a lie to cover himself for having said something silly. Here I gave him some hard knocks for wimping out on his previous defense of Proposal 8 in California. And I'm sure I've found at least one place (though I cannot now find it again) where I publicly called him a fool. I just don't think very highly of the guy. I think that he's been elevated above his abilities and that this has been bad for him and caused him to dodge on important issues. I think he tries too hard to be liked by both sides of a divide--e.g., by left and right on the political spectrum. Warren's comments about Catholicism are probably, as a psychological matter, part and parcel of this same niceness disease with which he has a major problem.
That being said, though, Warren's comments themselves to which Phillips so strongly objected are actually almost wholly unobjectionable. I would say that I agree with 95% of what he says and even what he implies. I can find only two things in that clip to quibble about. One is that I think he's oversimplifying on the issue of prayers to the saints, where I do disagree with the Catholic practice. I've had a long and amicable discussion of this issue quite recently here and here. The other point is that his statement that "If you love Jesus, we're on the same team" is simplistic and to some extent clashes with his earlier, commendable emphasis upon Trinitarianism and Mere Christianity. For I suppose it would be possible for an Arian or a Jehovah's Witness to love Jesus. That kind of syrupy soundbite about loving Jesus is, unfortunately, the sort of thing to which Warren is all too inclined.
Aside from that, however, what Warren is articulating here is quite sensible. In making an ecumenical statement, he even emphasizes specific doctrine rather than putting everything on the level of "believing in prayer" or "believing in God." He emphasizes the Trinity, the resurrection, the authority of Scripture, and salvation through Christ, which is doing pretty good as a doctrinal foundation for ecumenical joint action. Warren is also right to emphasize that this sort of ecumenism helps us to know that we are not alone.
Moreover, what he is saying is old hat to anyone who has been in the pro-life movement for the past several decades. The Protestant-Catholic ecumenism of the pro-life movement has been the best sort of ecumenism. It has not required us to pretend that our differences of doctrine are non-existent. But we have recognized each other as brothers in Christ and as sharing important common ground on this incredibly important social issue of our day. And the same could be said of co-belligerence regarding marriage.
In passing I note that Warren seems to have rediscovered his spine on the marriage issue right here, right now, in the very context of cooperating with those "apostate" Catholics, and that's a welcome change. It seems to me to represent a severe lack of perspective to be more interested in raking Warren over the coals for being too cozy with Catholics rather than hailing his renewed willingness to fight on the marriage issue.
It is true and must be admitted that this Protestant-Catholic ecumenism and co-belligerence does imply some theological content--such as, for example, the notion that Catholics are really Christians because they share Mere Christianity with Protestants. (I suppose some hard-line Catholics might be bothered about the parallel implication from the opposite side.) Whatever a hard-liner might say, it does not follow that the differences between us are unimportant, much less non-existent, but it does seem to imply that they are less important than what unites us and less important than many hard-liners believe that they are.
It will come as no surprise to readers of What's Wrong With the World (especially) that I have no problem with that implication. I think it's true that what I have in common with Catholics is more important than what divides us and more important than hard-liners think it is. I also believe in the importance of Mere Christianity, which is why I regard many as Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, despite serious theological disagreements with them.
There is a real danger in anti-ecumenism (that is to say, opposition to the kind of unflaky ecumenism I'm endorsing here) that one will go even beyond hard-liner-ism to extreme heretic hunting and absurd degrees of separation. Unfortunately, this tendency is manifested in the Pyro post linked above. Not content with saying that, because of his comments on Catholicism, Rick Warren "has no business anywhere near a Christian pulpit," Phillips goes farther and presses John Piper for (apparently) having said some nice things about or associated with Rick Warren in the past:
[A]nother person John Piper elevated despite a flood of pleas and warnings was Rick Warren. I wonder if this will bring a "Do you regret partnering with Rick Warren"/"I don't regret befriending Rick Warren."
The exact words snarkily attributed to Piper here are an allusion to a tedious brouhaha surrounding now-downfallen superstar preacher Mark Driscoll. I do not intend to get into any of that. The point is that Phillips is dragging Piper in in the course of excoriating Warren (are you following this?) because Piper has been, in Philips's opinion, too positive about Warren in the past. Evidently the fact that Warren has now made what Phillips takes to be disastrously bad comments about Catholicism has triggered a "gotcha" moment against Piper! Phillips is now suggesting that Piper should distance himself decisively from Warren for not distancing himself enough from Catholicism. With any luck, Piper won't be bugged by this, as it is buried in a blog post, but this secondary separation anxiety is rather absurd even if Piper never hears about it.
This sort of thing does not even follow from the position that Catholicism is Very Bad. Consider: I think Islam is extremely bad. (I trust readers find my credentials on this point to be impeccable!) I therefore have little patience with Peter Kreeft's "ecumenical jihad" nonsense. In fact, I think all of that is pernicious. But suppose that I knew of someone else, some person B, who had previously been positive about Kreeft--maybe praising Kreeft's Socrates books, for example, or inviting Kreeft to speak at a college on some topic other than Islam. Now suppose that Kreeft made some new, muddle-headed remark about Islam and how much we conservative Christians have in common with Muslims. It would be both churlish and childish for me to take that as an opportunity to ask, snarkily, whether B will now recognize how wrong he has been to associate with Kreeft and will now distance himself from Kreeft! No matter how much I despise Islam, why drag B into the matter? And how many degrees of separation are enough? Should one refuse to associate with Piper because he refuses to disassociate with Warren because Warren associates too much with Catholics?
Yet, though it doesn't follow from the belief that the Catholic Church is apostate that one must engage in secondary and tertiary separation from those who are "too friendly" with Catholics, I'm afraid that there is that temptation. An extreme view of the Protestant-Catholic divide has a sociological tendency to metastasize. It's also human to want people to agree with you, and the Internet makes that desire for agreement extremely strong, sometimes to the point of obsession. It really bugs people on the Internet when they disagree, and there's a sense in which, the more you respect someone, the more it bugs you if he disagrees with you. So if Dan Phillips really cares about John Piper's opinion and thinks that what Rick Warren said about what Protestants have in common with Catholics is really bad, it really bugs him that John Piper might not agree with him in writing off Warren for that reason. All the more so since Piper was (Phillips says) previously warned against Warren, though, I gather, not for reasons having to do with Catholicism. But that temptation to get bent out of shape about secondary disagreements needs to be resisted.
My own experiential sample may be non-representative, and maybe I'm not even tallying that experience accurately, but at a rough estimate it seems to me that many of the conservative Catholics I know and know of "do" ecumenism better than the conservative Protestants. Again, by "ecumenism" I don't mean the silly kind where you hold hands with Muslim terrorists and sing "Kumbaya." I mean the kind of Catholic-Protestant co-belligerence we have in the pro-life movement. My Catholic friends seem to grok this to an extent that my Protestant friends often don't. To be sure, there is intolerance on the Catholic side as well, and I've condemned that here.
But I want to call particularly upon my Protestant readers to reconsider if you are opposed to some kind of moderate, Protestant-Catholic ecumenism of the kind Warren endorses, and on two levels. First, if you are sympathetic to the secondary separation worries I've highlighted in Phillips's comment about John Piper, please ditch that right away. It's indefensible.
Second, if you really are offended or angered by Warren's comments about Catholicism, ask yourself whether you are overreacting. Again, I'm not endorsing prayers to the saints. I've made that clear both here and elsewhere. But ask yourself if you really want to condemn the kind of co-belligerence Warren is calling for. If you're pro-life, I have to ask where you've been for the past thirty years, because that's pretty much how we've been thinking all along--our Trinitarian commonalities and our passion for the sanctity of human life and (more recently) for marriage are more important than what divides us. I think you should believe that, and I'm willing to stand up for that.
In the immortal words of Gandalf, "The laughter of Mordor will be our only reward if we quarrel."