The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives


Christian Unity

Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Christian Unity Index

Towards an American Baptist - Roman Catholic Dialogue

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

John A. Hardon, S.J., professor of systematic theology at Bellarmine School of Theology, North Aurora, Ill., presented this article as one of the introductory papers at the first conversation between Roman Catholics and American Baptists in DeWitt, Mich.

Any approach to a dialogue between the American Baptist Convention and the Roman Catholic Church should begin with some understanding between the two traditions. Without such mutual understanding, there is a risk that the intended dialogue might become a disputation, or, at the other extreme, might never come to grips with those essentials to which we are deeply committed as Christian communities.

Immediately a problem poses itself. How, in so brief a space, can we do justice to the centuries of Catholic and Baptist history or even summarize the highlights of their different theology? I have decided to do the brave thing and presume to state briefly what I consider the fundamentals of Baptist faith and polity, which I will then examine in the light of Catholic thought. My hope is that in this way we shall have some common ground for further discussion, building on principles that are of common concern to all Christians interested in religious unity.

Distinctive Features of Baptist Belief

Historically the most striking feature of the Baptist churches is their doctrine and practice regarding baptism. They have consistently held that believers’ or adult baptism was the only form sanctioned by the Scriptures, and for more than four hundred years this has been the single most characteristic aspect of their tradition. Unfortunately this preoccupation has been misunderstood. It has been easy for religious historians, and even theologians, to take believers’ baptism out of context and not see it as part of a larger issue that goes deep into the roots of the Christian religion.

The cardinal principle of the Baptist ethos, I believe, is spiritual liberty:

Where the freedom professed and safeguarded covers the whole spectrum of man’s personal and social existence as a religious being.

In Baptist parlance, a man is free when he is not under the control of some person or abritrary power; when he is able to think and act as a Christian without compulsion or restriction, according to the inner light and motivation that comes of the Spirit residing in the soul of every believer.

  1. Consequently, his acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior should not be predetermined, as happens where children are baptized in infancy; nor assumed to be present when they reach maturity. But each one must himself make a personal commitment to the Christian faith, and receive baptism only when he comes to the age of discretion and has been duly instructed in the Gospel.

  2. As he enters adulthood, the Christian should not be required to join a particular religious body, although conditioned by his environment or sanctioned by society. He ought to be free to enter into voluntary association with persons of kindred spirit, even though their number is small and their degree of agreement on religious matters may be limited. Implicit here is the idea that religion is part of the continuum of human existence. If a man is free to marry whom he wishes, live where he wants, associate with whom he pleases and form whatever organizations he desires, he should be not less but more free to do the same in things of the spirit. Baptists have followed the principle of voluntary association with great fidelity and often at great sacrifice, as in their Separatist and Non-Conformist days in England.

  3. Consistent with the freedom of religious association is the notion of liberty of ecclesiastical affiliation, where the stress is on the absence of church authoritarianism. Each local congregation has the right to its own autonomy. There must be no agency above the group of covenanted believers with a right to dictate policy or determine organizational structure.

    The local church, therefore, is regarded as a gathered company of believers, which is itself a manifestation of the one church of God on earth and in heaven. But above this localized segment of Christianity, no earthly power may claim divine authorization to govern the members of the congregation. If larger groups are formed for reasons of efficiency or good order, they are at most federations of individually sovereign communities whose privilege of self-rule is a divine mandate.

  4. In the same category is the absence of binding creeds. All the great statements of Baptist belief are carefully identified as “confessions of faith,” no more and no less. When a group of believers join beliefs in fellowship to form a congregation, it is assumed they share certain beliefs and may verbalize their agreement. They may even concretize the agreement on a broad scale to include many congregational bodies. But the resulting statement is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and more a reflection of shared religious attitudes than a credal profession of required articles of faith.

    This kind of ecclesiastical non-credalism should be carefully distinguished from personal libertarianism or disbelief. Baptists have been a remarkably believing people, and among Protestants some have been outstanding for orthodoxy. Yet they are poles apart from such bodies as the Lutherans, for whom the Confession of Augsburg and the Catechisms of Luther are normative of the faith, or the Presbyterians, whose recent approval of a restatement of doctrine after years of study and top-level discussion would be quite foreign to the Baptist mentality.

  5. Along with congregationalism and non-credalism is a preference for simple worship, or, put in another way, the avoidance of ritualism as practiced in other Protestant bodies, notably among the Anglicans and Lutherans. The Baptist interpretation of Christianity does not favor sacramental mediation in the strict sense. The primary accent is on the communion of the soul with God, which is of an inward and spiritual nature and is not brought about, even when greatly helped, by any sacraments or divine ordinances that effectuate the communication of grace. Thus, the ministry, though set apart with prayer and commonly with the laying on of hands, is regarded as functional rather than priestly. And the rites of Christian worship, including baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are not productive of grace ex opere operato by reason of any causality that is intrinsic to the rites themselves.

  6. Finally, the Baptists have always insisted on complete separation of church and state in order to free the church from coercion by the civil government in religious matters of conscience. This concern is more than the familiar church and state issue so much publicized today. It means the practical exclusion of civil authority from entrance into questions of morality and above all, of anything connected with an established church or preferential position of a single religious body as in England, Sweden and Spain.

    If I were to single out one feature of Baptists’ policy that best typifies them in the United States, I would say it was this concept of separation of church from the state, where the phrase “from the state” is crucial. Their desire for preserving the church’s integrity is so strong and their faith in its self-sufficiency so clear that they are willing to leave its future in the hands of God and not entrust it, even minimally, to the tender mercies of the state.

A Theological Analysis

I do not claim that the foregoing does full justice to the Baptist tradition, yet I feel it is substantially accurate as based on standard writers in Protestant religious thought. Surprisingly a Catholic is not uncomfortable with any of the six chosen features, including the one about confessions of faith. He can see in each one some aspect of his own beliefs and church polity, even though he cannot subscribe to the full implications of what Emil Brunner, referring to Baptist ecclesiology, has called “the unsolved problem of the Reformation.”

In the interests of our dialogue, it will be useful to look more closely at these Baptist characteristics, and view them in comparison with Catholic beliefs. A ready and up-to-date witness of Catholicism is the Second Vatican Council, on which I shall draw to make the comparison.

  1. In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, the Vatican Council made it plain that, although the church practices infant baptism, it recognizes as a basic principle of religion the right and privilege of every person to accept Christ as Lord and Savior with untrammeled freedom. It is one of the major tenets of Catholic doctrine that man’s response to God in faith must be free. Therefore, no one is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will. This doctrine is contained in the Word of God and it was constantly proclaimed by the Fathers of the church. The act of faith is of its very nature a free act.

    Man, redeemed by Christ the Savior and through Christ Jesus called to be God’s adopted son, cannot give his adherence to God’s revealing himself, unless the Father draw him to offer to God the reasonable and free submission of faith. [1]

    In the spirit of this freedom, the Catholic Church commonly reserves the sacrament of confirmation for more mature years, not unlike the years of discretion expected in the Baptist communion for believers’ baptism.

    On the more difficult question of whether the New Testament explicitly teaches infant baptism, Catholic theology would agree that the biblical evidence is not clear. At this point we enter the whole problem of scripture and tradition, which deserves careful exploration on both sides as we move into more intimate dialogue.

  2. Not unlike the preceding, Catholics are not at all committed to the kind of state-church against which the Baptists reacted when they first formulated their concept of voluntary, covenanted church association. In fact, the history of those years would show that Roman Catholics in many places were placed on the same footing as Baptist Non-Conformists and equally proscribed by the established church.

    Again we have the Vatican Council speaking a language that must sound familiar to Baptist ears. The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious bodies are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself:
    Provided the just requirements of public order are observed, religious bodies rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles. [2]
    It is not always easy to distinguish the Baptist insistence on voluntary association from the corresponding stress on local church autonomy. Yet the two are quite different, and both have sympathetic recognition in Roman Catholicism. Catholics, no less than Baptists, plead for themselves and recognize for others the right to organize voluntarily into religious communities without constraint from a monolithic church established by political decree. They also vindicate among themselves, more than is commonly known, what may be called parochial autonomy and certainly agree that other church bodies enjoy this privilege in living out their particular polity.

    Anyone who knows the history of countries like Norway, Sweden, England and Denmark will vouch for the heavy price that the Catholic Church has paid for insisting on the right of voluntary association when the dominant religious culture was organized into a single ecclesiastical entity of which Catholics preferred not to become members.

  3. The concept of local church autonomy is derived by Baptist writers from the character of the church in apostolic times. In the words of Andrew Fuller, we learn from the Acts and Epistles that the first churches were congregations of faithful men; that they were governed by bishops and deacons of their own choosing; that the government and discipline of each church was within itself. [3]

    Catholic ecclesiology carries overtones on church polity that, while authentically Catholic, readily admit much of the Baptist view on local autonomy. In its Constitution on the Church, the Vatican Council spelled out this principle in clear terms.

    This Church of Christ is truly present in all legitimate local congregations of the faithful which, united with their pastors, are themselves called churches in the New Testament. For in their locality these are the new People of God called by God, in the Holy Spirit and in much fulness. [4]

    The privileged status of the local congregation, which can be traced to the New Testament, is balanced in Catholic tradition with cooperation among the parishes within a diocese and among dioceses under the Roman Pontiff. It would be mistaken however; to conjure up a Catholic church whose ultimate allegiance to the Pope reduces the autonomy of local churches to a mere shadow or denies their individuality.

    It is heartening, therefore, to read in present-day Baptist writers a growing desire for a corresponding equilibrium between congregationalism and some kind of associationism. They point out that originally the two concepts were looked upon as a sort of mutual counterpoise. According to Samuel S. Hill, Jr. and Robert G. Torbet, this assertion of the complete independence of a local congregation was foreign to early Baptists. They balanced the congregational principle of church life with a strong sense of interdependence among the churches. In the associations which they formed, they gave expression to their belief in the reality of the church universal to which all true Christians belong, and they confessed their need of the wider fellowship for purposes of mutual assistance, counsel, and fulfillment of the Great Commission. [5]

  4. As we approach the delicate question of binding creeds, any rapport between Baptists and Roman Catholics in the area where one tradition has no mandatory professions of faith and the other has the reputation of anathematizing anyone who refuses to subscribe to a defined article of belief would seem to be impossible a priori. Yet the dichotomy is less sharp than appears at first sight. There is a form of credalism among Baptists, and there is a deeper identification among Christians recognized by Catholicism than the familiar stereotype.

    Among Baptists the Bible is normative of the faith. If individuals differ widely in their interpretation, yet they share a vast body of revealed truth that is not always expressed in theological language but on closer-analysis is a genuine credo commonly (though not uniformly) held by covenanted believers. In fact, the typical Baptist attitude towards adult baptism illustrates the principle that some basic credal premises underlie the Baptist way of life, even though formalized creeds are avoided and confessions of faith are said to be only descriptive.

    On the Catholic side, credalism is balanced by a broad understanding of “Christian” that deserves to be better known. It would be hard to improve on the inclusiveness of the following statement of the Vatican Council in its Decree on Ecumenism:
    All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ. They therefore have a right to be honored by the title of Christian, and are properly regarded as brothers in the Lord by the sons of the Catholic Church. [6]
  5. Ritual simplicity has characterized Baptist churches from the beginning. No doubt this was partly explained by the “spiritualizing” accent in their tradition, which de-emphasized sacraments and what some have called “cultic mediation.”

    At the other extreme, Catholicism has always been liturgical in the deepest theological sense of the term. Its seven sacraments and sacrifice of the Mass are central to the Catholic religion, and the current liturgical renewal only brings out in stronger relief the importance attached to lay participation in the ritual worship of God.

    There is no easy way of telling what liturgical developments are occurring among Protestants in the Free Church tradition, but all evidence seems to point in that direction. I have in mind several recent publications under Baptist auspices that recommend a reassessment of the centuries-old attitude to the contrary.

    Two dimensions of Christianity are here involved: the prophetic and the priestly. One stresses the sermons of Christ and the preaching of St. Paul, with insistence on change of heart, on faith, hope and the service of God. The other concentrates on the Savior’s dialogue with Nicodemus, who was told that the Kingdom cannot be entered except by baptism of water and the Holy Spirit, and recalls the practice described in the Acts of the Apostles, that on the first day of the week the early Christians would meet for the breaking of the bread and the Eucharistic liturgy.

    Where the Free Churches have been solicitous about the prophetic, I believe they are coming more and more to admit also something of the priestly. And the Catholic Church, while sacerdotal in the whole orientation of its thinking, neither forgets nor ignores the prior need of fidelity to the interior movements of the Spirit. John Smyth or Roger Williams might have written the caution: “The sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church. Before men can come to the liturgy they must be called to faith and to conversion.” Yet the warning was made by the Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Liturgy. [7]

  6. Separation of church and state is considered one of the pillars of the Baptist way of life. It came into existence from the sad experience of thousands of people in the Free Church movement who learned at first hand what it means when civil power insists on giving to Caesar the things that are God’s. This experience was not limited to England or the Continent; it was also part of Baptist history in the American colonies. Roger Williams, we recall, joined with others to form a church in Rhode Island on the basis of believers’ baptism and freedom of conscience. When he first came from England to Massachusetts, he had been a moderate Puritan, but not long after he became a convinced Separatist. Once he denied that civil authorities have a right to intervene in church affairs, he was expelled. Promptly he established a new colony dedicated to the principle of religious freedom.

    No doubt Roman Catholicism has been involved in church-state alignments that go back to the early Middle Ages. Names like Philip II and Charles V immediately come to mind. But this is not the whole picture, either of authentic Catholic history or of the church’s ecclesiology. Historically it is certain that civil and ecclesiastical powers were joined in a juridical solidarity favored by Rome. The Holy Roman Empire and pre-Reformation England in former times, and the modern states of Spain and Portugal illustrate the fact. But too often such combinations were caesaro-papalistic, where an apparent union of church and state was really a subordination of church to the state. Thomas à Becket and Cardinal Mindszenty are two examples spanning eight hundred years of courageous resistance to the state’s encroachment on the church’s divine prerogatives.

    In the light of their respective histories, therefore, the Catholic and Baptist attitudes towards separation of church and state are not so radically different as a more superficial comparison might suggest. Both have been deeply concerned over the Gospel teaching that the rights of God take precedence over the dictates of man; that Christians “must obey God rather than men.” And both have suffered much because of this concern. It will be a real tribute to the ecumenical movement if, out of their mutual dialogue; Baptists and Roman Catholics will discover in each other the workings of the same spirit of freedom, which is the Spirit of God.

[1] Declaration on Religious Freedom, 2:10.

[2] Ibid., 1:4.

[3] Andrew G. Fuller, ed., The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, with a Memoir of His Life (London, 1862), p. 286.

[4] Constitution on the Church, 3:26.

[5] Samuel S. Hill, Jr. and Robert G. Torbet, Baptists North and South (Valley forge, Pa.: The Judson Press, 1964), pp. 118f.

[6] Decree on Ecumenism, 1:3.

[7] Constitution on the Liturgy, 1:9.

Foundations: A Baptist Journal of History and Theology
Vol. 10 - #2, April - June 1967, pp. 150-158

Copyright © 1996 by Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of