OTTAWA — The Catholic Church in Canada has agreed to begin a formal theological dialogue with evangelicals. The first set of meetings will take place March 24-25 in Toronto.
"It's a new thing in Canada," said University of St. Michael's College (University of Toronto) theology professor Margaret O'Gara, who has been involved in Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox dialogue for the past 35 years.
O'Gara will be among the Catholic participants.
"We all have the expectation that this will be a personally enriching experience and that, hopefully, we will contribute to the strength of the Church in Canada," said David Freeman, who is strategic interface vice-president for the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada.
He will be the evangelical co-chair of the dialogue. Regina Archbishop Daniel Bohan is the Catholic co-chair.
"Evangelical churches are full of vitality," O'Gara said. "Many of them are growing."
"They are an important group of Christians that should be in dialogue with the Catholic Church," she said. "A lot of evangelicals are interested in Catholicism; they share a huge amount of doctrinal teaching."
"Evangelicals have great skill with their ministries working with youth, something the Catholic Church admires in their work," O'Gara said.
Evangelicals and Catholics have been meeting informally since 2008 to explore whether to enter into formal talks. Both have agreed to begin an official dialogue. Each side will have four participants in the dialogue plus a staffperson.
Freeman said a consensus began to emerge from the preliminary gatherings: they "resulted in rich personal relationships;" members began to learn about the respective traditions and what they can offer each other; and that "ongoing conversation needs to be rooted in ministry together, in cooperation, and not just dialogue."
But Freeman admits not all evangelicals will understand the reasons for a formal dialogue with Catholics.
"Some would have great concern about theological differences and others would question the ability of Catholics to be culturally relevant, something which evangelicals have tried to address," he said.
"However, there are many evangelicals who appreciate the continuity they see in the Catholic Church and there is an increasing appreciation of historic expressions of spirituality reflected in Catholic worship."
"So to begin, we need to understand one another and be willing to learn from one another," he said.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada have participated together in interventions before various courts.
They have also participated side by side in the public square on issues such as traditional marriage.
But O'Gara said the theological discussions will not be issue-driven but probe the theological foundations they both share as well as explore where they disagree.
It will explore questions such as "Who is Jesus Christ?" "What does it mean to believe in God?" and "How can the Christian faith be preached in Canada?"
Catholics and evangelicals agree on the basics of the Christian faith: they share the same beliefs in Christ, in the Trinity, in the nature of God, in what it means to be human and that God created the world, she said.
Catholics and evangelicals believe everything in the Creed and have a lot of common teaching on moral issues. They share views on human sexuality and the importance of justice, she said, noting that an emphasis on justice as social is a "more recent emphasis for evangelicals."
"Catholics and evangelicals share a strong emphasis on the truth," she said. "Both are interested in truth claims: the Christian teaching is true; it's not just a nice way to live."