129. Roman Catholic Theology after Vatican II: An Interview

October 1st, 2016

Excerpts of an interview published in Unio Cum Christo. International Journal of Reformed Theology and Life, Vol. 2, No. 2 (October 2016).

Since Martin Luther’s reformation, three major events in the life of the Roman Catholic Church have marked its reaction not only to Protestantism but also to developments in the modern culture: The Council of Trent (1545–1563), Vatican I (1869–1870), and most recently Vatican II (1962–1965). Whereas the first two are often considered as hardening the arteries of the church in their reaffirmation and defense of traditional doctrine, Vatican II is often seen as a renovation that makes the life blood of the Roman church flow swifter, opening a way to greater receptiveness to the world, bringing hope for a new ecumenical era with respect to Protestantism and openness to other religions. But since then, what has happened, and where is the Roman church headed?

1. How did Roman Catholic theology change in your country after Vatican II?

Vatican II brought significant changes in the theological landscape of Roman Catholicism. Catholic theology found itself pushed toward a season of aggiornamento (update). The retrieval of patristic influences introduced by the nouvelle théologie softened the rigidity of neo-Thomism as the main theological grid and nuanced many clear-cut boundaries that were prevalent before. Modern biblical criticism was introduced into biblical studies, thus blurring Rome’s previous commitment to a high view of biblical inspiration. After Vatican II, there has been practically no distinction between critical scholarship done by Catholic exegetes and that done by liberal Protestants in their study on Scripture. More broadly, after Vatican II, Roman Catholic theology connected with many modern trends like evolutionism, political theories, existentialism, feminism, and religious studies, all developed in a highly sophisticated “sacramental” way that is typical of Rome. Post–Vatican II Roman Catholic theology has become more “catholic” and diverse in the sense of being more open to anything, embracing all trends, and hospitable to all kinds of tendencies without losing its Roman institutional outlook. “Dialogue” seems to be its catchword: dialogue with religions, dialogue with other Christian traditions, dialogue with the sciences, dialogue with social trajectories, dialogue with the secular world…. We need to understand what dialogue means, though. I think it means expanding the boundaries, stretching the borders, rounding the edges, but not changing or moving the institutional center. Roman theology seems to reflect the catholicity project launched at Vatican II.

2. How has it continued to change, and what new directions do you note since the turn of the twenty-first century?

At times the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e., the former Inquisition) felt it right and necessary to warn about possible theological derailments. For example, the 2000 document Dominus Iesus reaffirmed the centrality of the role of the Roman Catholic Church in God’s salvific purposes, trying to silence dangerous moves towards universalism and relativism. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church tried to provide a comprehensive magisterial presentation of Catholic doctrine that would define and confirm the basic contours of Roman teaching in an age of much theological diversity and confusion. The catholicity of Rome does not mean that anything goes. It is always and organically related to the Roman center of the system. The former is at the service of the ever-expanding, universal scope of the catholic vision; the latter maintains the whole process connected to the sacramental, institutional, and political hardware of the Church.

With Pope Francis, a new development that can be seen is the increasing role of the “theology of the people,” a specific theological motif that has been shaping Latin American theology over the last few decades. It is a version of theology “from below.” Instead of jumping top-down from the official magisterium to the peripheries of the world, it makes the voices, concerns, and traditions of the “people” central for theology. This insistence on the “people” explains Francis’s endorsement of folk traditions and devotions, even ones that are idiosyncratic with regards to biblical teaching.

3. Are there signs of biblical renewal because of Bible reading by Roman Catholics?

After centuries of stigmatization if not prohibition of the use of Bible translations in the vernacular languages, the Bible is finally accessible to the people. Official documents are replete with Bible quotations. The present pope gives a short daily homily based on Scripture, focusing on a kind of sacramental-existential reading of it but often missing the redemptive flow of the Bible. There are some lay movements that encourage a spirituality that gives Scripture a significant role. The theological framework of Vatican II, though, while recognizing the importance of Scripture in the life of the Church, has placed it within the context of Tradition (capital T), which precedes and exceeds the Bible and which ultimately speaks through the magisterium of the Church. Besides these positive developments, post–Vatican II theology has increasingly aligned itself to a critical reading of the Bible: the last document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (“The Inspiration and the Truth of Sacred Scripture,” 2014) echoes the typical liberal skepticism on the reliability of the Old Testament stories, the miraculous nature of certain events, and the full inerrancy of the Bible, thus needing the magisterium to fill the vacuum with its authoritative teaching.

4. How is Pope Francis changing things now?

Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history. It is ironic that a pope who appears to be close to Evangelicals actually belongs to the religious order that was founded to fight Protestantism. The former soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1566) gathered a group of friends who called themselves The Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu), and eventually they were commissioned by the Pope to stop the spread of Protestantism. Their task was to imitate the strengths of Protestantism, that is, spiritual depth and intellectual brightness, but to use them as Catholic weapons against it. The Jesuit order provided the “alternative” catholic way to the Protestant faith. It comes as no surprise then that the first saint that Pope Francis proclaimed in 2013 was Pierre Favre (1506–1546), a first-generation French Jesuit with a “smiling face,” who more than others tried to look like a Protestant in order to drive people back to the Roman Church.

5. What can we expect from the Roman church in future?

In our fragmented and violent world, unity is one of the catchwords that many people are attracted to. Francis is strongly advocating for Christian unity and ultimately the unity of mankind. His passion for unity makes many Evangelicals think that he is the person who may achieve it. Francis developed his idea of ecumenism as a polyhedron, a geometric figure with different angles and lines. All different parts have their own peculiarity. It’s a figure that brings together unity and diversity.

Polyhedrons are fascinating figures, and Francis’s use of the image of a polyhedron is thought provoking. However, the problem for Christian unity lies primarily not in the metaphors used, but in the theological vision that nurtures it. The unity proposed by Francis still gravitates around the Roman Catholic Church and its distinct outlook, and not around the biblical Gospel that calls all Christians to conform to the mind of Christ.

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, nor will even the addition of a new Evangelical offer to the traditional menu. 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.

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