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 mans personal and social existence as a religious
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Lords Supper, are
not productive of grace ex opere operato by reason of any causality
that is intrinsic to the rites themselves.
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 churchs 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
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 mans 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
Man, redeemed by Christ the Savior and through
Christ Jesus called to be Gods adopted son, cannot give his adherence to
Gods revealing himself, unless the Father draw him to offer to God the reasonable
and free submission of faith. 
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
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.
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
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
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. 
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.
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. 
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
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. 
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. 
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 Saviors 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. 
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 Gods. 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 churchs 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 states encroachment on
the churchs 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.
Declaration on Religious Freedom, 2:10.
Andrew G. Fuller, ed., The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, with
a Memoir of His Life (London, 1862), p. 286.
Constitution on the Church, 3:26.
Samuel S. Hill, Jr. and Robert G. Torbet, Baptists North and South
(Valley forge, Pa.: The Judson Press, 1964), pp. 118f.
Decree on Ecumenism, 1:3.
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