May 1st, 2016
A talk given to the Annual General Assembly of the Italian Evangelical Alliance (Rome, April 8th 2016)
Is this a new era for Evangelicals and Catholics?
To give an answer we need to place this question in a wider historical and theological context, because otherwise we risk reducing everything to the here and now. This preliminary observation about method is always valid, but even more so when analyzing Catholicism, which is an institution that boasts two thousand years of history with its doctrinal, institutional and cultural heritage. Roman Catholicism has to be assessed using macro-categories able to hold together the largest possible number of elements. Failing to do this will lead to a collection of fragments, just pieces of Catholicism, which will not allow a real understanding of its dimensions, depth, connections and projects. A “spiritual” assessment cannot ignore the fact that while we are dealing with a system made up of people, they are in fact people within a framework that has a history, a doctrine, a bond to the sacraments, a political commitment, a financial system, popular piety, a plurality of spiritual expressions, etc., all of which are nonetheless connected to an institutional centre and a theological heart. To speak of a “new era” it is important to remember that along the course of its history Catholicism has known some particularly significant eras. Here is a brief summary:
The Era of Imperial Catholicism
After the Constantinian turning point Catholicism quickly transformed into a religious empire, forged in the institutional mold of the empire and animated by an imperial ideology. From the ashes of the Roman Empire rose the imperial church that assumed a pyramidal institutional structure clothing it with Christian language and symbols. The imperial hubris of Roman Catholicism (that is, its desire to be both church and state) is its original sin which has never been seriously questioned, let alone refuted. The orthodoxy of primitive Christianity has been gradually broadened in the attempt to assimilate new beliefs and new practices, causing the Christian faith to become contradictory. The desire to represent all of humanity has moved the point of entry into the church from conversion to Christ to the baptism administered by the church, leading to the establishing of a church composed of baptised people and not of believers. Biblical revelation has in fact been relativised due to the growing role of the church’s tradition. The church has become a nominal church made up of baptised people who are not necessarily believers. The grace of God has become the property of a religious institution that claims it can administer and dispense it through its sacramental system. The imperial era has given rise to an imperial DNA that Catholicism has never laid aside. In this era all Biblical renewal movements were either fought against or assimilated through a policy of domestication to the imperial ideology. Niches of different forms of spirituality were carved out so as to be inoffensive and lifeless and thus maintain the status quo.
The Era of Oppositional Catholicism
The second great age was that of the Counter-Reformation, structured around two central moments: the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the Vatican (1869-1870). The Roman Catholic Church’s long trajectory is characterised by a doctrinal trend which is at the same time abrasive, dulling, and interested in affirming the centrality and superiority of the church. It is the age in which the modern Catholic doctrine based on the prerogative of the church as alter Christus is formed; it is the age in which the doctrine of the two sources of Revelation is expressed: Scripture and tradition; it is the age in which the church elevates itself to the point of thinking that its imperial structure is the divine will of God. Confronted with the Protestant Reformation that invited the church to rid itself of its self-referentiality and rediscover the gospel of God’s grace, Rome strengthened a sacramental system that made the church mediator of divine grace. Confronted with modernity that pushed for a review of the prerogatives of the church over people’s consciences and society, Rome elevated its main institution (the papacy) to an even more accentuated role, as well as dogmatizing some Marian beliefs without any Biblical support whatsoever. This recovery of a robust identity also led to a missionary expansion of Catholicism and the development of mystical and Marian forms of spirituality.
The Era of a Compliant and Captivating Catholicism
The oppositional method led to isolation and a marginalised role for Catholicism. The change took place with Vatican II (1962-1965). The new era began there, when instead of siding against the modern world, Rome changed strategy, choosing to assimilate it, to penetrate it from within without changing in its own essence. Now it adopted the method of “updating”: adjustment without structural reform, incorporation without loss or cost, expansion of the system without purification, development without renunciation of tradition, a continuous adding without subtracting anything. Vittorio Subilia has rightly spoken of the “new catholicity of Catholicism:” a different posture, a new style, a new language. In every direction, however: in the direction of theological liberalism, making room for a critical reading of the Bible and universalism of salvation; in the Evangelical direction, learning the linguistic code of Evangelical spirituality (personal relationship with Christ, etc.); in the direction of Marian theology, traditionalism, ecumenism, etc. A 360-degree expansionary catholicity, that still maintains the sacramental, hierarchical, devotional and imperial structures (certainly made more discreet but definitely still present), and all of which revolve around an abnormal and dilated ecclesiology, and around the fundamental pillars of traditional doctrine.
The Question for Us
Without quoting it often, Pope Francis incarnates the catholicity of Vatican II: open to dialogue, merciful, pleasing, but without paying any dogmatic, theological or spiritual price. The imperial and Counter-Reformation framework of the former ages remains, only “updated” to the new requirements of the contemporary global world. He speaks all languages, Evangelical, ecumenical, interreligious, secular, traditional. He seems to draw close to everyone without actually moving. He seems to reach out to everyone without going very far. And then, the fact that everyone (from secularists to Muslims, and including liberal Protestants and Evangelicals) considers him close to them must make us ask: Is he really near to anyone? In other words, the strategy of the “polyhedron” seems to be the instrument of catholicity that has its roots in Vatican II and that fulfills it: all have to relate to a Roman church that has axes of various lengths in order to reach everyone, but without shifting its centre of gravity. Rome has already reached such a well-oiled homeostatic balance that it can play on more than one table at the same time without altering the overall framework.
In this climate, some people claim that the Reformation has practically finished because there no longer exists the oppositional Catholicism that rejected it. Catholicism has widened its synthesis and has also made room for the concerns of the Reformation, though trimmed of their groundbreaking character and bent to enable them to co-exist, to cohabit, to live side by side with other demands opposed to the gospel within a Catholic system which is even more eclectic and plural but still Roman and papal. Catholicism continues to add places to the table and extend the menu; it variegates more and more the codes, to fulfill its vocation to unite the world inside the net of catholicity and under the effective or honorary jurisdiction of a head.
In the new era of captivating catholicity there will be a niche for the Evangelicals who have made peace with the imperial structures of the church of Rome and its abnormal theology, and who are no longer concerned about a comprehensive reform in accordance with the gospel. These Evangelicals instead are content to be able to integrate their own spirituality into a system that is more fluid but still vertebrate, that is programmatically open to everything and yet opposed to everything. The criterion of the system is not the gospel of Christ, but a version of the gospel that guarantees the universalist and Rome-centred strategy of Catholicism.
The new era between Evangelicals and Catholics requires us to ask the question which is both old but also relevant for every generation of believers: can the church of Rome be renewed in accordance with the gospel from within, or do we have to envisage moving past it and leaving it behind in the name of the gospel? With its encumbrance of unreformable dogmas, imperial institutions, projects of omnivorous catholicity, can the church of Rome be impacted by the gospel in its propulsive heart? In other words: is the gospel just one option amongst many possibilities, or is it the radical “yes” to the Word of God that says “no” to all forms of idolatry? Can a church, whichever one it is, be programmatically open to a multitude of offers, or, if it wants to be a church, must it be founded exclusively on the Biblical gospel?
Thus, Evangelical theology has the necessary instruments to focus consistently on the gospel without degenerating into sectarian and spiritually autistic attitudes. As is stated in the document An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism (1999):*
12. What refers to the Catholic Church in its doctrinal and institutional configuration cannot necessarily be extended to all Catholics as individuals. The grace of God is at work in men and women who, though considering themselves Catholics, entrust themselves exclusively to the Lord, cultivate a personal relationship with Him, read the Bible and live as Christians. These people, however, must be encouraged to reflect on whether their faith is compatible or not with belonging to the Catholic Church. Moreover, they must be helped to critically think over what remains of their Catholic background in the light of Biblical teaching.
Criticism of the Catholic system must not indiscriminately group together all people on their spiritual journeys. Furthermore, it is possible, and even necessary, to create opportunities for cobelligerence in areas of common commitment:
13. In fulfilling the cultural mandate there can be agreement, collaboration and communal action between Evangelicals and people of other religious and ideological leanings. Wherever shared values in the ethical, social, cultural and ideological fields are at stake initiatives of cobelligerence are desirable. These forms of necessary and inevitable cooperation must not be mistaken for ecumenical initiatives, neither must they be considered expressions of a new-found doctrinal consensus.
A new era between Evangelicals and Catholics? A long look at history, the spiritual discernment of the gospel, the overall view the Spirit leads us to answer “yes” and “no”. Certainly, with Vatican II a different period began that needs to be understood. It is wrong to have a flattened or static view of Catholicism. On the other hand, Vatican II and Pope Francis, who is its most successful incarnation, are only the latest evolutionary step in a system that was born and developed with an “original sin” from which it has not yet been redeemed, but which instead has been consolidated. No ecumenical diplomacy will be able to change it and not even the addition of a new Evangelical offer to the traditional menu. The invitation of the Lord Jesus applies to everyone: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14). The real new time, God willing, will be when Roman Catholicism breaks the imperial ecclesiological pattern and reforms its own catholicity, basing it no longer on its assimilation project, but on the basis of faithfulness to the gospel.
* http://www.alleanzaevangelica.org/cattolicesimo-romano/1999-1_cattolicesimo_orientamenti.htm. “Orientamenti evangelici per pensare il cattolicesimo”, Ideaitalia III:5 (1999) 7-8 [trad.: “Le catholicisme romain: une approche évangélique”, Vivre, 8-9 (2000) 10-14 e Fac-Réflexion 51-52 (2000/2-3) 44-49; “Ein Evangelikaler Ansatz zum Verständnis des Römischen Katholizismus”, Freie Theologische Akademie, 2000 and Bibel Info 59/3 (2001) 10-13; “An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism”, Evangelicals Now, Dec 2000, 12-13; European Journal of Theology X (2001/1) 32-35].