In recent months, conservative Catholics and Protestants have been reminded of the important ground they share on matters of public import. Together we read the Supreme Court’s majority opinion redefining the institution of marriage. Together we watched the video footage of Planned Parenthood executives and medical staffers speaking so flippantly about taking the lives of unborn children and selling the dismembered body parts—and were together unsettled to find that many of our fellow citizens consent to such practices.
I mean no disparagement toward the many Protestant Christians and public theologians who have spoken on public square issues, but an honest assessment reveals that for nearly half a century, Catholics have most often been the ones best prepared to speak to issues like these and have taken the lead in speaking out in the public square. Thank God they have.
What do I want from Catholics? I want them to continue to stand in the public square and speak with moral clarity and conviction. I hope Catholics will continue to produce many of the nation’s most compelling and articulate opponents of abortion and marriage redefinition—just as, in decades past, they produced many of the most powerful and compelling opponents of Communism. I hope they will continue fostering an ecclesial environment that yields such public intellectuals as Richard John Neuhaus, Robert P. George, R. R. Reno, and David Mills.
God help us Protestants if they do not. The late Jewish sociologist Philip Rieff was right to say that the cultural elite are producing “deathworks”—works that instead of enriching the culture, inevitably leads to its death—because they define social order without reference to sacred order. Rieff focused on the deathworks produced by artists and writers but the boldest creators of deathworks today are lawyers (such as the Supreme Court justices) and medical professionals (such as Planned Parenthood). The cultural medium differs, but the deleterious effects on society are the same.
Surrounded as we now are by deathworks, Catholics and Protestants need to prioritize a sturdy and practical ecumenism. As the Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George puts it, we need an “ecumenism of the trenches.”
The differences between Catholics and Protestants are real, and deep, but they must never prevent us from locking arms as we face a disintegrating society and culture. Imagine being on a beach on North Carolina’s Outer Banks and seeing four bystanders risk their lives to rescue a drowning swimmer caught in a dangerous riptide. We find that three of them are rosary-carrying Catholics and the other a strong Bible-believing Southern Baptist. I’m a strong Bible-believing Southern Baptist and I’d be proud of him for joining the others to save the woman. Should Protestants be any less grateful for Catholics who have been lifeguards for a nation caught in a moral riptide? It’s that simple.
Ecumenical cooperation on public matters is a perennial need in the Church, but there has never been a more pressing time for such cooperation. The places of cultural power are increasingly occupied by men and women whose creativity and power are exercised in the service of disorder and death rather than order and life. Many of them will not be satisfied until all dissent is quashed. What I want from Catholics is that they continue to hang with us, for if they don’t, we very well may hang separately.
Bruce Riley Ashford is provost, dean of the faculty, and professor of theology and culture at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Other articles in the series
David Mills’ What We Want from Protestants (Catholic)
Carl Trueman’s Be True, Not Paper, Roman Catholics (Presbyterian)
Christopher Jackson's More Good Bishops, and Better Eschatology (Lutheran)
Susannah Black’s Occupy the Public Space (Anglican)
Peter J. Leithart’s Become Protestant (Evangelical)
Jerry L. Walls’ Don’t Overreach (Methodist)
John Wilson’s Keep Doing What All Faithful Christians Have Done (Evangelical)
Bob Hartman’s Read the Bible More (Churches of Christ)