Pope Francis Welcomes Evangelical Leaders in Vatican to Discuss Religious Freedom

Leaders of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) met with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Thursday to discuss closer cooperation with the Catholic Church, particularly regarding issues of religious freedom and Christian persecution around the world.

The head of WEA, Bishop Efraim Tendero, spoke to Vatican Radio of his experience with ecumenical relations in his native Philippines, where there is strong practical cooperation on a number of shared moral issues.

Curiously, last summer, two close advisers of Pope Francis published an article criticizing historical relations between American evangelicals and Catholics in the United States, labeling their collaboration as an “ecumenism of hate.”

In an article in the Jesuit-run Italian journal La Civiltà Cattolica, Father Antonio Spadaro and Rev. Marcelo Figueroa decried those “who profess themselves to be Catholic” but express themselves in ways “much closer to Evangelicals.”

The authors found particularly upsetting that evangelicals and Catholics should work together on moral issues that they hold in common.

“They are defined as value voters as far as attracting electoral mass support is concerned,” the authors wrote, and engage in a dangerous “ecumenical convergence” over shared objectives “around such themes as abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters generally considered moral or tied to values.”

Particularly interesting in the light of the Pope’s meeting with evangelicals over the question of religious liberty was the harsh rebuke offered by Spadaro and Figueroa over common collaboration between Catholics and evangelicals in this area.

“The erosion of religious liberty is clearly a grave threat within a spreading secularism,” the authors stated. “But we must avoid its defense coming in the fundamentalist terms of a ‘religion in total freedom,’ perceived as a direct virtual challenge to the secularity of the state.”

Shortly after the article’s publication, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput issued a sharp criticism of the essay, saying that the authors were guilty of “dumbing down and inadequately presenting the nature of Catholic/evangelical cooperation on religious freedom and other key issues.”

“Dismissing today’s attacks on religious liberty as a ‘narrative of fear,’” as the La Civiltà Cattolica article does, Chaput says, “sounds willfully ignorant.”

The Rev. Thomas K. Johnson, WEA’s Religious Freedom Ambassador to the Vatican, told Vatican Radio that evangelicals have always been made to feel “very welcome in the Vatican,” despite the fact that some misunderstanding still exists between evangelicals and Catholics in certain countries.

Johnson said he has particular interest in Catholics and evangelicals publishing educational materials together and looks forward to “a broader coalition over years.”

“Christians of all varieties need to be protecting each other in the public square,” he said.

The mixed messages emerging from the Vatican, however, suggest the need for greater coordination regarding what the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals should look like.

While the Pope’s outreach to evangelicals is encouraging to all, he may need to reign in close confidants who seem suspicious of this relationship and publicly denounce such alliances in the public square as an “ecumenism of hate.”

In his words to Vatican Radio, Bishop Efraim said he was issuing a “call for closer partnership” with Catholics in protecting religious freedom, a theme that has been at the forefront of religious news in recent times.

The WEA represents more than 600 million evangelical Christians worldwide, from Protestant churches in 129 nations.

It is increasingly important to “look for a common agenda” rather than “focus on what differs and what pulls us apart,” the bishop said.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on TwitterFollow @tdwilliamsrome.

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