Ultrasounds Help Bridge Evangelical and Catholic Theology

First Image, which operates four Portland-area pregnancy resource centers and Oregon’s first mobile ultrasound unit, recently received four new ultrasound machines—a donation worth more than $120,000.

To do so, the evangelical ministry first had to overcome a theological barrier to forge a deeper partnership with pro-life Catholics.

As an affiliate of the Care Net network, First Image’s statement of faith is adapted from the National Association of Evangelicals. Those beliefs are “not completely in accord with Catholic faith and teaching,” according to the Archbishop of Portland, Alexander K. Sample.

Yet after more than a year of dialogue between First Image and the archdiocese, the two groups signed an agreement that made a way for Catholics to further support the evangelical ministry’s outreach while preserving their doctrinal distinctions.

“Our posture has always been to collaborate with as broad a swath as possible while holding to our evangelical core,” said Larry Gadbaugh, First Image CEO and a former pastor. “We wanted to further the mission that we had a common conviction about.”

Their collaboration allowed 4US, a charity founded by Catholics, to donate the machines to First Image despite the theological disagreements over its mission statement.

“It’s been both a blessing and an unfortunate reenactment of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation,” said Diego Wendt, co-founder of 4US, which has donated 44 machines to clinics across America. “When we’re dialoging, sometimes I feel like we’re going back 500 years. But it’s been a very beneficial walk.

“We are seeing the unity in the body of Christ that all of us prayed for—that Jesus called for—in the pro-life movement.”

Though Catholics continue to dominate pro-life activism at events such as the March for Life, Wendt said Protestants are mostly the ones starting and staffing America’s thousands of pregnancy resource centers. Only about a quarter of all centers meet the medical requirements and regulations necessary to offer ultrasound services. In many regions, the only eligible recipients for ultrasound machine donations are evangelical ministries.

Care Net, which encompasses 1,100 centers in the United States and Canada, takes a more specific stance on theology than the largest pregnancy center network, Heartbeat International (which has about 300 more centers in the same area). Heartbeat allows partners to pick their own statement, such as the Nicene or Apostles’ creeds.

The very first line in Care Net’s statement of faith—We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God—can be a holdup for Catholic partners, who also affirm the authority of the pope and church councils.

“[For Catholics] you can’t interpret Holy Scripture without sacred tradition,” Wendt said. “We were going back to Martin Luther and the 95 Theses.”

For several years, Priests for Life leader Frank Pavone assured fellow Catholics that they could agree to the evangelical theological statement in good conscience. He even advised that Catholics should partner with Care Net with “eagerness and joy.” Yet individual bishops are responsible for making their own recommendations, and leaders like Sample disagree.

Todd Cooper, director of special ministries of the archbishop, said the agreement with First Image reflects the unity and openness among Christians, and “should be celebrated as something that is significant for… Catholic-evangelical relations around the issue of life.

“We’ve made an important step forward,” he said. “Our hope is at some point, Care Net [will] allow signing the Apostles’ Creed in lieu of its statement.”

First Image continues to require all board members, staff, and regular volunteers to affirm the evangelical statement. “The gospel is the reason why we love our neighbor. We will not separate that from how we minister,” said Gadbaugh. “There are some who say we could save more babies if we downplay the gospel, and we just disagree with that.”

First Image’s success stories extend beyond choosing life to securing safe housing, reconciling with families, and overcoming addictions. This philosophy is echoed in Care Net’s mission to not be just pro-life, but pro–“abundant life.”

Care Net president Roland Warren sees far more theological unity than tension between Catholics and local Care Net centers, especially as their pro-life work broadens beyond abortion prevention. “I have found a strengthening relationship around not just the sanctity of life, but the sanctity of marriage and family as God designed,” he said. “Those things are forming a tighter relationship between Catholics and evangelicals.”

Warren pointed out that Care Net was formed 40 years ago at the prompting of Catholic leaders, who called on former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and theologians Francis Schaeffer and Harold O. J. Brown to involve evangelicals in opposition to abortion.

“Care Net actually came about because Protestants and evangelicals were not engaged in the life issue,” he said. “Catholics had taken the lead on it. And when Roe v. Wade was passed, some Protestant denominations were pro-choice and many were silent. We had no real focus or engagement around the issue.” (Brown founded Care Net in 1975 as the Christian Action Council.)

Gadbaugh first became convicted on abortion through Koop and Schaeffer’s “How Should We Then Live” speaking tour, which stopped in Portland in the ’70s. Today he sees growing evangelical involvement in pro-life issues; but like Wendt and others, he also continues to see Catholics lead the movement through National Right to Life chapters and 40 Days for Life campaigns.

Focus on the Family president Jim Daly attended the March for Life—America’s largest pro-life rally—for the first time last year, as his organization and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission launched the first Evangelicals for Life conference. The event boosted evangelical attendance at the march, held each year in Washington, DC, around the Roe v. Wade anniversary.

“It’s our chance as committed, born-again believers to stand up and tell the world that the sanctity of life is something more than a political issue—that it is, in fact, an indispensable element of the gospel message,” stated Daly, who is scheduled to march again this year.

As evangelicals and Catholics partner more closely to minister to women with unplanned pregnancies, they are also more likely to stand side by side to rally for the cause. “There’s a vast difference, even over the past 10 to 20 years,” said Cooper. “We’re understanding and applying Christ’s call for unity.”