Threat to Liberty is an Opportunity for Unity

At the end of the Old Testament story of Joseph, the patriarch tells his brothers, who had sold him into slavery out of jealousy for their father’s love, that their actions did not thwart the plan of God.  “What you meant for evil,” he said.  “God meant for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Right now, Catholics in America have an opportunity to redeem an evil situation for a greater good.

Although the HHS mandates handed down by the Obama administration pose a real threat to religious liberty in America, they also provide an unparalleled opportunity for the American Church.  United by a common concern, Catholics and Protestants in the United States have demonstrated an impressive amount of solidarity.  Even denominations that, historically, have not exercised warm relations with the Catholic Church—and have even regarded her with suspicion and disdain—have rallied to stand together.  The 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, which often targets Catholics for evangelization, issued a proclamation last week, directing its members to join with Catholics in the fight for religious liberty.

“We took an unprecedented action at the convention this year,” said Dr. Richard Land, head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “Our booth is one of the most popular — we probably had six or seven thousand people stop by. We passed out information about how to get on the USCCB web site and how to adapt what they have for the Fortnight for Freedom for Southern Baptists.”

“We stand with the bishops on [religious liberty],” Land said. “The United States government is attempting to make people do what they believe is unconscionable. For Catholics, it’s contraception. For Southern Baptists, it’s abortifacients. We find it utterly unacceptable.”

Since the Southern Baptists—and other Christians—have offered to stand alongside the Catholic Church in this moment of trial, we should take the opportunity to dialogue with our separated brothers and sisters.  We should go deeper in our relationships with them, so that “we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

Speaking as a former evangelical Protestant, and a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I’d like to suggest four ways you can better connect with non-Catholic Christians:

1. Approach every situation with humility.  Are you a member of the “one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?”  Fantastic.  But be mindful that although it is accurate to call it “the one, true Church founded by Jesus Christ,” the average Protestant or evangelical will think that smacks of pride.  The only way for us to counter that perception is to model the poverty of spirit Jesus urges in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3).   Be humble.  After all, we have no cause for pride.  You and I don’t deserve to belong to the Catholic Church. We’re here because of God’s grace.

2. Understand what the Church teaches about “separated brethren; i.e., non-Catholic Christians.  Many Catholics are confused about this issue.  Some don’t think we need to call non-Catholic Christians into full communion at all.  Some think all non-Catholics Christians are schismatic, heretical, and therefore going straight to Hell.  Neither conclusion is correct.  To avoid misunderstanding and unnecessary conflict, take time to educate yourself.  Some of the best resources include:  The Catholic Catechism’s statement on “the Sacred Mystery of the Church’s Unity,”  Lumen Gentium:  The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (especially chapter 2, sections 13-17 on “the people of God,” and Ut Unum Sint:  On Commitment to Ecumenism by Blessed John Paul II.

3. Listen—and ask questions.  In his new book Power Listening, former surgeon and business consultant Bernard T. Ferrari says that the most influential people practice the 80/20 rule.  They listen eighty percent of the time and speak twenty percent.  Then, he adds:  “and most of that twenty percent should be spent asking questions.”  This approach is supported by Sacred Scripture.  Proverb 10:19 states:  “when words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise.”  In the same way, St. James writes, “everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak” (1:19).  And if you read the gospels, you’ll discover something significant about Jesus:  he taught by asking questions (e.g., Matthew 6:28; 12:48-49; 16:13-14; Luke 12:24-26).  By listening and asking questions, you’ll understand non-Catholic Christians better.  And you’ll be able to provide responses that promote unity and brotherly love.

4.  As you talk about your faith, put Jesus front and center.  One of the most frequent complaints of evangelicals and Protestants about Catholics is “that they talk about Mary (or other saints) more than they talk about Jesus.”  Before I joined the Church, I read Patrick Madrid’s Any Friend of God is a Friend of Mine.  I came to understand how the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints pervades every aspect of Catholicism.  The Church is a family; so, when we love and adore the Blessed Mother and the holy saints and apostles, we love and adore Jesus himself.  There is no dichotomy.  But, for the most part, evangelicals and Protestants do not understand this.  A good way to be sensitive to them—and to make it more likely they will come to value your faith and The Most Holy Faith—is to make Jesus the focal point of your “faith talk.”  In your speech with separated brothers and sisters, put Christ front and center.

Again:  While not minimizing the serious threat the HHS mandates pose to religious liberty, we must rejoice that what others mean for evil, God means for good.  Let’s work to redeem the opportunity presented by this crisis.  In his providence, God has a way of using persecution to test our faith and refine our character.  He also wants it to unite his Church.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.