A Southern Baptist View

In four very aggressive days in mid-August, Pope John Paul II, a Church leader with international stature rivaled only by Billy Graham, charged full-tilt into the culture war that is straining American society. With a passion and moral authority almost forgotten by modern America, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church attacked the “culture of death” in America that denies “the sacred character of human life” and which hails the “slaughter of innocents” — that is, “the actual killing of another human being” by abortion and euthanasia — “as ‘right’ and [as] solutions to ‘problems.'” Against this he promoted a “culture of life” involving a bold “new evangelism” that takes the Gospel “out in the streets and into public places like the first apostles,” all supported by prayer as “the first and most important means” for responding to evil. Then he went on to attack a long list of other evils eroding the heart of American moral identity and fracturing the American family in the process: sex abuse (by priests and, by implication, other professionals as well), pornography, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence in the streets and the media.

Apart from his vestments and the fact that his main address was a Mass honoring Roman Catholic belief in the bodily ascension of a sinless Mary, the message Pope John Paul II delivered to America, and personally (in part) to President Clinton, could easily have been mistaken for a Southern Baptist revival sermon. Southern Baptists, I think, can and should take three important lessons from the Pope’s recent visit to our shores. First, without compromising essential doctrinal distinctives, we can recognize that we share with Catholics a common moral authority in the revelation of God’s moral standards in the Bible. Second, we can be inspired by the courage and clarity of the Catholic leaders’ call to public witness (both moral and spiritual), despite a culture that grows less and less friendly even as it slowly sinks into a “culture of death.” With him, we must affirm: “This is not a time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is a time to preach it from the rooftops.” Third, and finally, we should be challenged by the opportunity to form alliances of co-belligerents fighting on the same side of the culture wars now dividing America and challenging the heart and future of American society.

While Southern Baptists will continue to disagree with Roman Catholics on matters such as their doctrine of Mary and the sacramental efficacy of the Lord’s Supper, we can and must nevertheless respect their moral courage to speak boldly and clearly for the modern relevance of God’s moral standards, and must marshal forces with these moral allies to promote a “culture of life” in the public square.

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At the time this article was published, Dr. Daniel R. Heimbach was associate professor of Christian Ethics at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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