Catholics, evangelicals & Promise Keepers

Even critics of the Promise Keepers movement would have to concede that its leaders have shown an uncanny knack for crunching complex issues into mantras that men can chant in stadiums or, this Saturday, on the National Mall.

A classic example occurred at last year's rally for 42,000 clergy in Atlanta.

The movement is built on seven promises about faith, marriage and family life. The sixth commits a Promise Keeper to reach beyond any "denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." Thus, superstar writer and preacher Max Lucado asked each pastor in the Georgia Dome, on the count of three, to shout his denomination's name. The created a verbal train wreck. Next, he asked them to name their savior, which drew a unified shout -- "Jesus!" -- followed by lots of hugs.

It was a joyful moment linked to a painful reality. Any movement that asks believers to pray, witness and work together will eventually be accused of watering down essentials of the faith. This is especially true on the conservative side of the ecumenical aisle, where evangelicals, fundamentalists, charismatics, Calvinists and Catholics keep bumping into one another. Some barriers are higher than others.

"I think we have a lot in common. But there are some obvious communications problems to overcome," said evangelist Jim Berlucchi, who this summer became the first Catholic to play a high-profile role in several Promise Keepers rallies.

Earlier this year, business leader Michael Timmis of Detroit also became the first Catholic on the group's board of directors. Timmis will be a featured speaker during the five-hour "Stand in the Gap" rally in Washington, D.C. Catholics also have been taking another look at Promise Keepers after a positive report on the movement from the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family Life.

"I think, initially, that Catholic leaders perceived Promise Keepers to be just what it was - an evangelical Protestant movement," said Berlucchi. "It certainly wasn't connected to the Catholic faith. ... But there was something about these big events that was very appealing to all kinds of men -- including Catholic men -- even though the whole style was so evangelical."

Catholic leaders knew that many Catholics were going to Promise Keeper events with Protestant friends. Some observers put the Catholic participation figure as high was 10 and 20 percent of those in attendance. Reports circulated that some Catholics were making decisions to change their lives - including changing churches. Many noted that Promise Keeper founder Bill McCartney was an active Catholic, before joining an independent charismatic congregation.

"But the more Catholic leaders looked at Promise Keepers, the more they saw themes they obviously could affirm," said Berlucchi. "Catholics are all for men taking responsibility, caring for their wives and families, being willing to take more of a leadership role in their own homes and seeking accountability and spiritual direction."

This doesn't mean everyone is ecstatic. The Fundamental Baptist New Service issued this warning: "The Bible commands us to mark and avoid those who cause divisions contrary to the doctrine which we have been taught in God's Word. ...Certainly this means that God forbids us to fellowship with a movement which accepts Roman Catholic bishops and priests as brothers in Christ."

Meanwhile, Catholic progressives -- especially feminists -- distrust Promise Keepers as much as do their secular counterparts. The group's success also reminds the hierarchy that U.S. parishes have, in recent decades, had trouble appealing to men. There is, noted Berlucchi, a "certain lack of virility" in much of today's worship. Thus, many Catholics have embraced the take-no-prisoners style of music, prayer and preaching at Promise Keepers events.

"The messages are very challenging and in-your-face," he said. "They take on issues that men know are real. Men like that. They look around those stadiums and see thousands of other men responding to that. ... And all of this is taking place in the context of a wider cultural crisis and great confusion about what it means to be a man. Catholics are not immune to that."