Author Archives: Leonardo De Chirico

140. Is the Roman Catholic Church Now Committed to “Grace Alone”?

August 1st, 2017

Many commentators with good intentions, even on the evangelical side, have rightly given attention to what seems to be the heart of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation. No. 15 solemnly says:

By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

If read out of context and in a theologically naïve way, this sentence could be a relevant and pointed summary of the biblical message concerning the mode of justification (by grace only and not based on merits), the means of justification (by faith alone), the grounds of justification (the saving work of Christ), and the consequences of justification (divine adoption and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the renewal of the heart and the activation of the Christian life). However, every sound exercise in theological hermeneutics, including the reading of the documents of the ecumenical dialogue, must take into account the immediate and more general context, the meaning of the words used, and the consequences of what is being claimed. Taken out of context, No. 15 would make much sense from an evangelical perspective. Yet it must be considered as an integral part of the JDDJ and therefore must be understood in relation to the whole document.

Sacramental Grace

Presenting the various aspects of the doctrine, the Catholic and Lutheran Churches agree on a sacramental understanding of grace. It is this sacramental framework that qualifies the reference to the expression “by grace alone” contained in No. 15. Together, in fact, they declare that “by the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they (the sinners) are granted the gift of salvation” (No. 25), thus undermining the idea that it is only by grace that God saves sinners through faith alone. Lutheran theology, with its theology of regenerational baptism, actually runs this risk. Later, in No. 28, the JDDJ states (always with both parties affirming this together) that “in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person”. It is not surprising, however, that the Catholic clarification on this point forcefully underlines that “persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it” (No. 27). On the one hand, then, JDDJ wants to affirm the importance of the declaration of the righteousness of God received by faith. On the other, though, it reiterates the need for sacramental action through the mediation of the church as essential for justification and, therefore, for salvation.

The Catholic point is further reinforced through the claim that Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ is “imparted” in baptism (No. 30). According to this view, grace is not received by faith alone, but is granted by God through the Church that administers it in baptism. This statement cannot be reconciled with the view according to which salvation is by grace alone apart from works, even sacramental ones. So for all the good intentions expressed and the admirable effort in dialogue, the result is below expectations and beyond an obedient adherence to the biblical Word of God. In contemporary Roman Catholicism we see a total consistency with respect to the traditional doctrine, that is, that justification occurs at baptism by a sacramental act.

Stretching Trent Rather than Reforming Rome

For the Catholic Church, the “by grace alone” of No. 15 means that grace is intrinsically, constitutionally, and necessarily linked to the sacrament, and thus to the Church that administers it and the works implemented by it. In this view, salvation cannot be by grace alone, unless “by grace alone” is understood as the same grace being organically incorporated into the sacrament of the Church. We are evidently in the presence of a different concept of grace. In JDDJ there is an attempt to re-describe this theological understanding of salvation in language that looks like the Lutheran one (which the Catholic Church appropriates through the use of such expressions as “by grace alone” of No. 15 and the recognition that works “follow justification and are its fruits” of No. 37). However, this new description does not give the impression of changing the theology of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), according to which grace is sacramental and seen inside of a synergistic dynamic of the process of salvation. This understanding of grace appears to be more in line with the Catholic heritage of the Council of Trent, in an updated form, than with classic Protestant theology. In this sense, JDDJ is a clear exercise in an increased “catholicity” (i.e. the ability to absorb ideas without changing the core) on the part of Rome, which has not become more evangelical in the biblical sense.

You may want to read my comments on the endorsement of the World Communion of Reformed Church to JDDJ, posted on the website of the World Reformed Fellowship.

    139. Would You Ever Ask Muslims to Pray for You? Pope Francis Did

    July 1st, 2017

    In our fragmented and violent world, peaceful and respectful relationships between people of different religions can be crucially important. Such relationships can help us avoid tragedies of religious extremism, such as terrorists attacking their neighbors or political authorities mistreating religious minorities. Pope Francis is working hard to establish and maintain friendly relationships with peoples of all religions, Muslims in particular. In his 2013 programmatic document, he wrote that “interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition for peace in the world, and so it is a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities” (The Joy of the Gospel, 250). His relentless encouragement for mutual listening and even cooperation is a clear indication that this is one of the top priorities of the pontificate.

    More than Friendships

    But there is another side of the coin. Based on Pope Francis’ words and his inter-faith activities and dealings, it is evident that something more is at stake than an attempt at fostering peace and freedom in our world. In a video released in 2016, the Pope appeared with several religious leaders. One after another, each leader affirmed his or her beliefs in a celebration of religious pluralism and fraternity. At the end of the video the Pope concluded by arguing that “there is only one certainty we have for all: we are all children of God”. The message could have hardly been clearer. “We are all children of God” sounded like an endorsement for a pluralistic religion whereby all different theologies and worldviews are legitimate and truthful ways to live out one’s own faith, with the Pope of the Roman Church ultimately endorsing their validity.

    For those Christians who are committed to the words of Jesus as the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and the words of the apostles according to whom there is no other name (i.e. Jesus Christ) by which men can be saved (Acts 4:12), Pope Francis’ statement that “we are all children of God” was puzzling and perplexing to say the least.

    “Pray for Me”

    A new and surprising instance of the Pope’s inter-faith theology came more recently. While meeting a delegation of Muslim leaders from Great Britain (April 5th, 2017), and after praising the value of listening to one another as “brothers and sisters”, Francis ended his brief speech by saying: “When we listen and talk to each other, we are already on the path. I thank you for taking this path and ask almighty and merciful God to bless you. And I ask you to pray for me.” The official text of the Pope’s greeting is in Italian and was published in the daily Vatican bulletin.

    “Pray for me”. The audience of this prayer request was a group of Muslim leaders, worshippers of Allah, bound to the authority of the Koran, denying the Triune nature of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, following a work-based religion. The Pope went beyond diplomatic politeness or even the cordial, inter-religious tone of the conversation. He addressed these Muslims by asking for their prayers, using language that is ordinarily used among fellow Christians.

    Massive Implications

    The theological implications of this prayer request are massive. Let’s briefly point to some of the most obvious ones. “Pray for me” is an expression of deep fellowship among fellow believers. Pope Francis often asks people to pray for him, but the general context in which this request normally takes place is when he gathers with those who share his faith. This time it happened in the context of an inter-religious meeting. This request shows that when the Pope talked about all religious people being “children of God” he did not simply mean members of the human family. He meant those belonging to the same spiritual family, all part of the same people of God. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, etc. are all “children of God” to him. Biblically speaking, however, does the “children of God” include all religious people, in spite of their beliefs and allegiances?

    “Pray for me” also implies that when Muslims pray they pray to the same God of the Bible. This is the conviction held by the Pope from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), according to which Muslims “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day” (Lumen Gentium, 16). With his request, however, the Pope goes even further, inferring that the God of the Bible is not only worshipped by Muslims, but He even responds to their petitions as if they were His children. Does not the Scripture teach that our confidence in prayer lies in Jesus being the High Priest and in whose name we can boldly approach the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:14-16)?

    Asking Muslims to pray for you goes way beyond the good intention of cultivating friendly and peaceful relationships. It is a theological statement that impinges on basic biblical doctrines such as the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, the authority of Scripture, and salvation in Jesus Christ alone. In other words, the very biblical Gospel is at stake. The Pope’s dismaying request has significantly distorted it.

      138. Marian Prayers As Shapers of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice

      June 1st, 2017

      This is an excerpt from the forthcoming book by Leonardo De Chirico, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Mary: the Mother of God? (Christian Focus).

      Mariology is not a peripheral part of spiritual life for many religious people around the world. Intertwined with lofty dogmatic definitions, it is the practice of devotional and popular Marianism that largely defines the religious experience of many Roman Catholic faithful who pray to her and are devoutly committed to her. The Catechism goes as far as saying that “the Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship” (971). It also implies that when dealing with Marian devotion, one touches a central nerve of the whole of Christian spirituality, not something that can be dealt with independently. So far, in looking at the development of Mariology throughout the centuries, and the incremental theological significance attached to it, the focus has been both historical and theological. At this point, we want to concentrate on the manifold aspects of Marian devotions to appreciate their phenomenological variety, religious depth, and social pervasiveness in people’s lives.

      Prayers

      Prayer to Mary is what quintessentially defines Marian spirituality. Mary is perhaps the most invoked figure in many religious quarters. As an acclaimed mother, she is movingly sought by those seeking help and strength. As she is eminently given veneration, she is approached with reverence and awe. As she is magnified with extravagant titles, she has centre stage in peoples’ hearts.

      An entry point into the world of Marian prayers is the collection put together by Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). Liguori, an Italian Catholic bishop who was proclaimed saint in 1839 and eventually Doctor of the Church in 1871, spent many years gathering the best material on Mary he could find from various sources that were used in the liturgical practice of the church.[1] In his book, Liguori explains that Mary is “our life, our sweetness and our hope,” and goes on to argue that Mary’s intercession on our behalf is powerful to the point of enabling sinners to regain the state of grace. Mary can be approached confidently because she can obtain for us from her divine Son anything she asks for. Moreover, devotion to her is a most certain mark of eternal salvation. This book has been shaping Marian devotions since becoming the reference point for subsequent Mariological reflection. Against the background of such deep theological and devotional vision, the list of prayers mirrors a Marian-centred spirituality: “Hail Holy Queen”, “Regina Coeli” (Queen of Heaven), and “Ave Maris Stella” (Hail Star of Ocean) are only few of the most common and popular Marian prayers.

      Rosary

      Another significant form of Marian prayer is related to the Rosary. The word rosary means “crown of roses”. The conviction behind this expression is that Mary has revealed to several people that each time they say a “Hail Mary” they are giving her a rose and each complete Rosary makes her a crown of roses. The rose is the queen of flowers, and so the rosary is the rose of all devotions and therefore the most important one. The Holy Rosary is considered a perfect prayer because within it is the awesome story of salvation retold in a way that highlights Mary’s central role in redemption. With the Rosary, devotees meditate on the mysteries of joy, sorrow, and the glory of Jesus and Mary, thus internalizing the blurred analogy between Mary and the Son.[2] Gone is the story of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection as the Bible tells it. Instead, the Rosary is a powerful tool to shape one’s own imagination in terms of the pervasive presence and agency of Mary in whatever the Triune God is and does. The whole orientation of Roman Catholic “biblical theology” is inherently Marian, in that Mary is thought of as sharing the prerogatives and roles of the Son.

      Marian devotions profoundly shape the life of prayer, religious arts, the arrangement of sacred space and time, the imaginations and emotions of people, even becoming a reference point in mapping global territory. In all its theological force and devotional ramifications, Mariology is an inescapable, all-embracing, and fundamental tenet of Roman Catholic theology and practice. Moreover, it is a deeply troubling development because it is impossible to see a linear and coherent connection between this Marian devotion and the more sobering account of what the Bible actually says about Mary.

       

      [1] Part of this collection can be found in St. Alphonsus Liguori, Hail Holy Queen. An Explanation of the Salve Regina (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publ., 1995).

      [2] A full explanation of the significance of the Rosary can be found in John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter  Rosarium Virginis Mariae (2002): https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/2002/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_20021016_rosarium-virginis-mariae.html.

        The Need for Clarification: Is the Reformation Over?

        Five centuries ago the Reformers re-discovered the Bible and its powerful and joyful message that salvation comes to us by faith alone. Last October the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement was released by the Reformanda Initiative, which clarified why Evangelicals affirm the Reformers’ convictions that our final authority is the Bible and that we are justified by faith alone. Hundreds of Evangelical leaders and scholars from around the world signed the Statement.
        But not everyone was positive toward the Statement “Is the Reformation Over?”  Some have criticized it harshly and even accused the signers of bearing false witness.  Thus we thought that a response to these accusations and criticisms was not only appropriate, but necessary. We believe that the hundreds of Evangelical leaders and scholars from across the world who signed the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement would have been tarred by these false accusations if a response was not provided.

        For this reason the Reformanda Initiative believed it right to write “A Need for Clarification: Is the Reformation Over?“. We believe, however, that this article can have a purpose beyond the immediate controversy.  As the article explains,

        Our hope is that this article may serve a wider audience. Because the topic of the relationship between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism is crucially important, especially given that this year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, our anticipation is that this article may be useful to clarify why the Reformation is not over and what both Roman Catholics and Evangelicals actually believe.

        Please visit our website, http://isthereformationover.com/, read the article, sign it, and share it!

         


          137. Sanctuaries As Places of Evangelization. Are They Really?

          May 1st, 2017

          Evangelization seems to be a popular word. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (often referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization”. It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel.

          The word “evangelization” is therefore used across the spectrum of the Christian world. The question is: What is the meaning of it? How is it defined? What does it refer to? In his last motu proprio (i.e. a document signed by the Pope on his own initiative) on April 1st, 2017, Pope Francis opens a window on what he has in mind when he speaks about evangelization. The document is entitled Sanctuarium in Ecclesia (The Sanctuary in the Church) and transfers the competences on the sanctuaries to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Vatican department inaugurated by Benedict XVI. The basic idea is that sanctuaries and shrines are thought of as being primary places where evangelization takes place and must be encouraged.

          Focus on Sanctuaries

          What is a sanctuary? Fatima, Guadalupe, Aparecida, Lourdes … these are places where major sanctuaries attract millions of pilgrims and visitors every year. These are shrines dedicated to Mary or to a particular saint, at which special devotions are practiced and promoted in the form of rosaries, prayers, pilgrimages, contemplation of sacred images, etc. They are home to popular forms of spirituality that endure in spite of the steady decline of religious practice associated with the local parish.

          Francis explains that sanctuaries are places “where popular piety has felt firsthand the mysterious presence of the Mother of God, the saints and the blessed”. In approaching and entering them, many people “deeply experience the closeness of God, the tenderness of the Virgin Mary and the company of the Saints: an experience of true spirituality that cannot be devalued”. God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are all considered to be part of the same spiritual experience. Moreover, “many Shrines have been perceived as part of the lives of individuals, families and communities to the extent that they have shaped the identity of entire generations, even affecting the history of some nations”.

          Therefore, given their inspirational and symbolic importance, “walking towards the Sanctuary and participating in the spirituality expressed by these places is already an act of evangelization that deserves to be valued for its intense pastoral value”. It follows that “the Shrines, in the variety of their forms, express an irreplaceable opportunity for evangelization in our time” and “a genuine place of evangelization”.

          What Evangelization Are We Talking About?

          We come back to the question previously asked. The word evangelization is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.

          According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation”, “historical and biblical Christ”, “persuasion”, “personal reconciliation to God”. None of these elements can be found in what happens in and around the shrines according to the Pope. There is no proclamation of the biblical gospel, but rather contemplation of sacred images and the practice of other forms of Catholic piety. There is little focus on the biblical Saviour and Lord, but rather devotion to Mary and the saints. There is no persuasion to abandon one’s own idols to turn to the living God, but rather encouragement to cultivate deeply entrenched forms of spurious spirituality. There is little or no talk of the necessity of being reconciled to God, but rather the reinforcement of the idea that pilgrims and nations already “belong” to God.

          What evangelization are we talking about? The word is the same, but the meaning is far different. In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that the Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for.

            136. The Gospel of Solidarity: The Future of Roman Catholic Mission?

            April 12th, 2017

             by Reid Karr

            Leonardo De Chirico’s note: I am thankful to my friend and colleague Reid Karr for contributing with this fine article to the series of Vatican Files. Reid is co-pastor of the church Breccia di Roma, Associate director of the Reformanda Initiative (www.reformandainitiative.org) and a Ph.D. candidate working on the theology of evangelization in post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism.

            Here’s a loaded question for you: What is the state of missiology today? Of course the answer to this question depends on any number of variables, such as geography, culture and religion. No doubt it is a difficult and complicated question to answer, and undertaking such a task requires courage and determination. Charles E. Van Engen has accepted this challenge and attempts to respond to this question with his aptly titled work The State of Missiology Today: Global Innovations in Christian Witness. The book represents a collection of papers presented at Fuller Theological Seminary in commemoration of the School of Intercultural Studies’ 50th anniversary. The contributions focus on the School’s fifty years of innovation in mission, and look to the next fifty years, thus presenting a general state of missiology today.

            One of the presentations delivered for the anniversary celebration is the focus of our attention here. It is a contribution by Mary Motte, who is a sister of the Franciscan Missionary of Mary and director of the Mission Resource Center in North Providence, Rhode Island. Her article is titled “Emergence of New Paths: The Future of Mission in Roman Catholicism.” Her thoughts are examined here because from an Evangelical, gospel-centered point of view, they are alarming and disconcerting. While it is true that Motte’s is only one voice among many, she accurately captures a very Franciscan (in reference to the Pope) approach to mission and Roman Catholic theology, post Vatican II. Hers is a voice that has been molded by the current Pope and is a clear indication of the direction the Catholic Church is heading in. With that said, we can now ask ourselves, “So what exactly is the future of mission in Roman Catholicism?” The following is a Franciscan answer to this important question.

            Missing Vocabulary

            When considering a biblical understanding of mission, there are certain words that come to mind as being essential if one hopes to remain faithful to Scripture. For example, it would be impossible to talk about the mission and purpose of God’s people in the world – past, present and future – without considering sin and its devastating effects on mankind. If we avoid sin, then we might as well avoid the cross as well, for it was at the cross where Christ paid the price for our sin. In her article Mary Motte avoids both. The word “sin” is not found once. The closest word she incorporates is “sinfulness,” and is in reference to Pope Francis’s awareness that he is a sinner. The word “cross” is completely absent, and so too is the good news of what Christ accomplished there on our behalf. Not surprisingly then, the word “salvation” is also entirely absent. What about forgiveness? It is used only once, and again is a passing reference to Pope Francis’s awareness that he needs forgiveness. The death and resurrection of Christ are central to the gospel and therefore to the church’s mission. This gospel essential, however, is absent from Motte’s writing, and the word resurrection is never used. Furthermore there is no concept of biblical redemption at all, and the word “redemption” is also nowhere to be found.

            The word “grace” is used three times by Motte. With each use, however, there is no attempt to articulate how grace is meant to contribute to the future of mission in Roman Catholicism, nor what role it plays or how it should be understood. The reader encounters the word “gospel” several times, however it is never defined. Despite the lack of definition the reader can easily determine what Motte has in mind when she references the gospel, and perhaps this is why it is never clearly expounded. Whereas a biblical attempt to define the gospel would most certainly include the words discussed above, Motte’s understanding of the gospel does not, so this begs this question: What exactly is the gospel according to Motte, and how does it contribute to the future of mission in Roman Catholicism?

            An All-Encompassing Solidarity?

            Instead of saturating her articulation of mission and the gospel with words such as sin, forgiveness, the cross, grace, salvation, resurrection, redemption, etc., Motte frequently employs the word “solidarity” to characterize her Franciscan concept of the gospel and the way forward for Roman Catholic mission. In short, the future of mission in Roman Catholicism is to be found in seeking solidarity. Solidarity is the “new path” that has emerged, and represents the road that ought to be followed if the Church’s mission is to succeed. Whereas the words mentioned above (sin, forgiveness, etc.) are virtually absent from Motte’s work, the word “solidarity” is used seven times. The following quotation provides insight into Motte’s gospel of solidarity and how it relates to mission in Roman Catholicism. “Mission,” she suggests, “has gradually been transformed into fidelity to the people and involves walking with them in solidarity bearing witness to the gospel of Jesus” (location 4016, Kindle version).

            Mission, therefore, is fidelity to the people (people in general) and walking with them in solidarity. How, then, does one walk with another in solidarity? This is accomplished by working together on behalf of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. It is also accomplished by being with the poor and marginalized, along with the refugees and by praying and working together with others (see location 3933). It must be noted, however, that in praying and working together Motte states that proselytism must be avoided! In her own words she says, “The enormous significance of praying and working together and of avoiding proselytism continue to be sources of energy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (locations 3933-3943). Motte suggests, therefore, that attempting to convert another to one’s own faith or set of beliefs must be avoided, and that this is inspired and energized by the Holy Spirit.

            For Motte, synonymous to walking in solidarity is advocating for a “global spiritual community.” Citing Ewert Cousins, Motte notes that “Forces, which have been at work for centuries have in our day reached a crescendo that has the power to draw the human race into a global network and the religions of the world into a global spiritual community” (locations 3824-3834). Again, this is accomplished by confronting the “terrible suffering and losses of children, women and men in their excruciating experiences of migration, natural disasters, hunger, illness and death” (location 3834). In so doing, a “sharp awareness of the global leads us beyond boundaries to growing consciousness about human suffering” (location 3834). This represents Motte’s gospel of solidarity. It is the future of mission in Roman Catholicism. This is the gospel and is, in Motte’s words, “a revolution of mercy” (location 4085). What a fitting epithet to Pope Francis and his papacy.

            Motte is of course right to advocate for the poor and the marginalized. She is correct that the church must confront the terrible suffering unjustly endured by so many. Justice and peace define the God of the Bible, and therefore must define His church as well. Walking in solidarity with others, even those of different religious beliefs, is to be encouraged and pursued in order to promote justice and peace and to ease the suffering of the poor and to help the countless refugees and migrants who have been displaced. These are important tasks that require solidarity and collaboration. They do not, however, ultimately define the mission of the biblical church.

            The Heart of Mission

            The mission of the church is to preach Christ crucified. The church’s mission is to proclaim the good news that Christ defeated death and rose from the grave, thus securing salvation and the forgiveness of sins for those who place their faith in his atoning sacrifice. The mission of the church is to spread the good news that because of God’s tremendous grace we can receive this salvation as a gift. The mission of the church is to proclaim the good news that we are all dead in our sins, but because of what God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ, and through him alone, we can be made alive again and can have eternal life. The mission of the church is to preach this message to everyone in all places, seeking to communicate the gospel in a culturally relevant and effective manner that speaks directly to the heart of the recipient.

            For this mission solidarity is indeed essential, but it is a solidarity that is defined by the confession: “Christ is Lord!” Because in Christ alone our salvation is found, proselytism (i.e. preaching the gospel while being respectful of other religious views, but expecting people to turn to Christ without coercion) must never be avoided. How can it be if there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)? If Motte’s gospel of solidarity represents the future of mission in Roman Catholicism, then contrary to what she believes it is a mission that lacks the energy of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is neither present nor active in a mission in which sin and the cross of Christ are absent. The gospel is about forgiveness and salvation, it is about death and life, it is about grace and redemption. Proclaiming this good news is the mission of the church. It always has been, and it always will be.

              135. The Decentralization of Catholic Bioethics in the Time of Francis

              April 1st, 2017

              Since the beginnings of modern bioethics in the 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church has taken the hard line of defending human life from conception to natural death, protecting the concept of marriage between a man and a woman, and guarding the limits of scientific research within the parameters of human dignity. Not only did the Catholic Church strongly argue for traditional moral convictions over secular redefinitions of life and reproductive “rights”, but it also put such issues at the forefront of its action in the public arena. Those days are over. With Pope Francis we are witnessing a shift in the posture of the Catholic Church as far as public debates on bioethics are concerned.

              A recent study by Luca Lo Sapio (Bioetica cattolica e bioetica laica nell’era di papa Francesco, Catholic Bioethics and Secular Bioethics in Pope Francis’ Era) documents the transition we are witnessing in the attempt by Pope Francis to invest the public voice of his church away from bioethical controversies, which clash with secular culture, and toward a number of social issues (e.g. immigration, poverty, the environment), which seem to resonate with the secular world.

              What Happened to the Non-Negotiable Principles?

              The differences  between John Paul II and Benedict XVI, on the one hand, and Pope Francis, on the other, are becoming apparent. When dealing with bioethics, the two former Popes often spoke of “non-negotiable principles” in staunchly defending the Catholic positions on life issues. Moreover, they wanted these principles to be at the heart of the Church’s agenda in the modern world no matter how much controversy they generated in public opinion.

              The official teaching of the Church on bioethical issues supported the strong stance taken by these Popes. Encyclicals like Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth, 1993) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995), exhortations like Familiaris Consortio (The Family, 1981), documents like Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life, 1987) and Dignitatis Personae (The Dignity of a Person, 2008) all univocally pointed to the clear-cut teaching of the Church in dealing with abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering and the like, and showed the willingness of the Church to relentlessly advocate for it.

              Francis’ Detente Strategy

              The outcome of such a posture was an ongoing and intense “culture war” against secular bioethics. The Roman Catholic Church has been considered a “militant” army fighting for the sacredness of life on the battlefield of bioethics. With Pope Francis, Rome has significantly changed strategy. The over-arching narrative of the relationship with the world has been modified. One of his preferred metaphors for the Church is that of a “field hospital for the wounded”. The time of “culture wars” against the West is over and the task of the Church is to convey forgiveness and mercy. The secular world is not to be fought against but cared for. From being the bulwark of the defense of life, the Church is now a place where the wounds can be healed.

              How does this narrative work in his pontificate in relation to bioethics? Lo Sapio convincingly argues that Francis has little interest for “doctrinal bioethics” and is more concerned with concrete and individual life situations. His approach is existentialist, rather than theological (or content/truth-driven). He wants to be close to people, even at the cost of appearing to be less faithful to principles. He focuses on the primacy of conscience rather than the prescriptive nature of law. He wants to be a warm and welcoming pastor and has reservations over the dangers of being a cerebral and judgmental theologian. The center of gravity of his pontificate is forgiveness and mercy rather than truth and deontological ethics. His preference goes with the messiness of life rather than the neatness of systems. Rather than talking about embryos and stem cells, Francis often speaks of poor children, displaced people, and abandoned old people. Rather than condemning wrong actions, he looks for ways to go alongside people, notwithstanding the morality or immorality of their lives.

              Francis is not outspokenly changing the traditional Roman Catholic positions on bioethics. The official teaching is still there. What he is doing is decentralizing its role, de-emphasizing its importance, and displacing its centrality. His overall strategy looks for ways to engage the secular West on grounds that are more palatable to it, while leaving the controversial issues to the side. Where this strategy will lead the Roman Church is difficult to know. Certainly, all those who looked to Rome for clarity, vigor, and proactive actions on bioethical issues may find it necessary to look elsewhere. Pope Francis has little time for them.

                134. The “Uncertain Teaching” of Pope Francis

                March 1st, 2017

                Yes or No. This is the only way a Pope (or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office responsible for Catholic doctrine) can answer a question posed by a cardinal or group of cardinals if and when they inquire about the correct interpretation or application of Catholic teaching. Yes or No was the expected answer that never came to a letter written to the Pope by four cardinals in September 2016 pleading with him for clarity regarding the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The letter asked the Pope five short questions about the exact meaning of some statements contained in the document on whether or not divorced individuals living in new relationships can have access to the Eucharist. Given that different bishops around the world are giving different answers (some saying Yes, others No), the four cardinals addressed the Pope himself hoping to receive an authoritative and univocal interpretation of the matter.

                So far no answer has come, and the Pope has made it known that no answer will ever come. The Pope’s silence is causing perplexity and some worries in many Catholic circles. Is Catholic teaching becoming subject to many shades of grey? The incident also gives an opportunity to reflect on the Pope’s whole approach to the stability of doctrine. Is this absence of Yes or No only to be limited to this specific case, or is it a feature of an overall theological vision that lacks rigid reference points?

                Magisterium on the Move

                This is not an obnoxious issue. One of the most respected Roman Catholic theologians in Italy, Severino Dianich, asked the very question in his recent book Magistero in movimento (Magisterium on the Move). There are times in the Catholic Church that its teaching seems to be moving from well-established traditional patterns. The last season of movement was Vatican II when, for example, the church changed its mind on religious freedom (which had previously been strongly opposed) and the non-Christian religions (which had previously been given only negative assessments). Now, under the reign of Francis, Dianich argues that we are witnessing another phase of doctrinal movement. Moreover, echoing the title of a book published in the 1980s, Dianich asks whether we are witnessing an “uncertain magisterium”?

                To answer the question, Dianich examines the “classical” theological structure based on the argumentative patterns and thought-forms derived from the Graeco-Roman culture. This theological model was based on univocal and fixed meanings, and conveyed in juridical language. This structure has been paramount and unchallenged for centuries. Now, more than 50 years after Vatican II (1962-1965), the theological structure that Francis is giving voice to appears to be the result of multiple different languages ​​and contaminations of various genres. Dianich identifies a number of reasons that have accelerated the change: (1) the outgoing church that Francis has in mind needs to use simple language and popular media; (2) the attention given by him to people’s hearts rather than their minds or reason makes communication more “emotional” than “cognitive”; (3) his interest in the “theology of the people” makes him interested in the feelings and aspirations of the ordinary faithful rather than the intellectuals. All this makes his teaching less definitive, more evocative, less permanent, more hospitable, less rigid and more dynamic.

                Evolving Teaching in Terms of Both-And

                Together with other observers, Dianich also argues that Francis’ teaching is more “pastoral” than “doctrinal”. He is not interested in questioning traditional doctrine as such, although the style and content of his ministry are very different from the “doctrinal magisterium” of his predecessors, i.e. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He seems to be interested in moving in terms of making it become more “merciful” and open-ended. Programmatically, Francis said at the Conference of the Italian Catholic Church in 2015 that Christian doctrine “has no hard face; its body moves and grows, it has tender meat: Christian doctrine is called Jesus Christ”. Tender rather than hard meat. A person rather than a body of beliefs. This appears to be the meaning of doctrine according to the Pope. In light of these remarks, it is possible to argue that Amoris Laetitia applied this “pastoral” model to the issue of admission of the Eucharist to divorced persons. The Pope here does not formally deny any traditional teachings of the church (how could he possibly do so?), but makes them evolve pastorally towards more inclusive forms of access to the sacraments.

                According to Dianich the Pope is implementing “the most decisive consequences of the teaching of Vatican II”. The “pastoral” pope is applying the “pastoral” council. The outcome is that the teaching is moving on towards more embracing and “catholic” outlooks. The traditional theological structure was geared to give Yes or No answers. The post-Vatican II structure is more inclined to suggest Both-And types of answer on all kinds of issues. Pope Francis is embodying this new “pastoral” approach and this is the reason why he will not answer the five questions that were asked of him. The Roman Catholic Church used to be thought of as a bulwark of clear and definitive teaching, thus attracting many people looking for a safe haven in the turmoil of the modern world. Vatican II “updated” all this. Pope Francis is now showing what it means for the present-day Roman Church to live with a teaching that is “tender” and elusive.

                  133. What Kind of “Reformation” Does Pope Francis Have in Mind?

                  February 1st, 2017

                  “Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church. The question is: What kind of reformation does he have in mind?

                  The recent book La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Reformation and Reformations in the Church) helps answer the question. This is the publication of the proceedings of an international conference held in Rome in 2015 organized by the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica on the subject of church reform. The size of the book, containing 30 papers, and the proximity of the editors to the Pope (Spadaro is the Jesuit editor of the magazine and Galli is an Argentinian theologian) contribute to making the book an important tool to dig into what the Pope thinks of reformation.

                  Not a New Word

                  In the Western church, talks about reform have been going on since the Councils of Vienne (1312), Constance (1414-1418) and the Lateran V (1512-1517). The word is therefore part of the language of the Church, even before the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) used it abundantly to promote changes at the level of ecclesiastical organization. In subsequent centuries the word was treated with caution, if not suspicion, given its Protestant flavor. It was Vatican II (1962-1965) that began to circulate it (e.g. Lumen Gentium 4) also using “aggiornamento” (updating) and renewal. Typically the Catholic sense of reformation is continuity in change and change in continuity. Again, it’s Vatican II that sets the tone for interpretation when it says that “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). In reforming itself, the Roman Catholic Church does not lose anything of the past, but rather tries to become more faithful to what she is already. The criterion of reformation is not external and objective, as would be the case with recognizing it in the Word of God, but always internal and ecclesial, i.e. the Church itself setting the parameters of its own renewal.

                  Against this background, Pope Francis has been talking about reformation in the context of calling the church to re-launch its missionary impetus. No reformation of doctrine and devotions is in view. In the papal narrative, reformation means accelerating the process spurred by Vatican II.

                  Two Axises

                  Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of the Church has two main pillars. This book contains ample evidence affirming both. The first has to do with the increase of “synodality”, i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger part in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the local Church, to ensure that they act better together. In a programmatic summary the editors write: “the reform of the church is the synodical reform of local churches and of the whole church” (p. 12). Reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic that introduces some minor structural changes in the internal organization of the church.

                  The other axis has to do with the “revolution of tenderness” that Francis has been talking about since his election in 2013. According to this program, the primacy of mercy needs to be recognized and implemented at all levels. The recently-ended Year of Mercy has indicated the inclusive and embracing nature of what it means for the Pope to insist on mercy, at times neglecting aspects of the biblical teaching concerning repentance from sin and turning to Christ alone to be saved from our separation from God.

                  Synodality and mercy are the two qualifiers of reformation the pope has in mind. There is no hint of what the Reformation of the 16th century meant for the church, i.e. the recovery of the supreme authority of the Bible and the message of salvation by faith alone. There is no hint of it in the papal dream for a reformation. According to Francis’ view, the future of the Roman Catholic Church will make room for more discussion and involvement of different subjects at all levels and will be marked by the pervasiveness of mercy. This is perfectly legitimate on his part and even admirable. The following question remains though: is this a reformation according to the Gospel? Does it really recognize the primacy of God to call the church back to the whole counsel of God, to repent from deviations from the Gospel and renew its commitment to be faithful to it? In its concerns with structures and attitudes, does it properly deal with the need for a reformation of doctrine and practice according to the Word of God?

                  Some evangelicals seem to be fascinated by the phenomenology of pope Francis although they do not always understand his theological vision. Addressing the issue of the “reformation” is a significant entry point in his world and gives to opportunity to begin to understand it. As the Pope commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, what he has in mind is an altogether different kind of reformation, i.e. a reformation that will make his church more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.

                   

                    132. “The Only Creature Without Sin” – Pope Francis on the Immaculate Conception of Mary

                    January 1st, 2017

                    On December 8th  each year, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated. On this occasion the Roman Catholic Church contemplates the belief that Mary was preserved from original sin. This view had been part of Roman Catholic teaching and devotional practices for centuries, but it was not until 1854 that the Immaculate Conception was officially  promulgated by Pope Pius as a dogma, i.e. a binding and un-reformable belief of the Church. Here is the precise wording of this dogma:

                    “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful”.

                    In spite of the bold and conclusive language (declaring, defining, asserting), Protestants find it difficult to come to terms with this Marian dogma. This is due to not finding even a hint of evidence for this belief in the Bible. “How can such a view be elevated to dogmatic status if the Word of God is at best silent on it?” they ask. So it is always interesting to listen to the way in which Roman Catholic theology argues for the Immaculate Conception of Mary by trying to relate it to Scriptural teaching.

                    Marian Solemnity

                    The last occasion for this was given by Pope Francis on December 8th. He spoke twice on the topic. The first was to a public audience in St. Peter’s square. He later spoke at a Marian prayer gathering in Piazza di Spagna, where a lofty statue of Mary towers above the space and where at the climax of the ceremony it is crowned with flowers. The Papal invocations to Mary appealed to her “immaculate heart” to learn how to love, to her “immaculate hands” to learn how to caress, to her “immaculate feet” to learn how to take the first step.

                    The special Marian day of the Pope also included a visit to the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major to venerate the ancient “Salus Popoli Romani” (health or salvation of the Roman people) icon of Mary. The Pope travels to the basilica before and after every international trip he takes in order to entrust the voyage to the care and intercession of Mary, typically with flowers in hand. This is to say that we are not confronted with a marginal belief, nor with a peripheral practice. Both the dogma and the devotions attached to it are encapsulated at the very core of the Pope’s spirituality.

                    No Space For Sin?

                    In his speech, the Pope argued that “Jesus didn’t come as an adult, already strong and full grown, but decided to follow the exact same path of the human being, doing everything in exactly the same way “except for one thing: sin.” Because of this, “he chose Mary, the only creature without sin, immaculate,” he said, noting that when the angel refers to Mary with the title “Full of Grace,” it means that from the beginning there was “no space for sin” inside of her. “Also we, when we turn to her, we recognize this beauty: we invoke her as ‘full of grace,’ without the shadow of evil.”

                    It appears that the biblical reference the Pope recalls is Luke 1:28, where Mary is addressed by the angel Gabriel as a “favored” one. The Vulgate, the late fourth-century Latin version of the Bible, translates this expression as “gratia plena” (full of grace), thus opening up all sorts of misconceptions, as if Mary possessed the fullness of grace in herself. This translation has been taken as implying that she was so full of grace that she must have been conceived without original sin. However, there is no hint in the text about the fact that Mary is “full” of grace and therefore “void” of sin. Being “favored” indicates that she is an unworthy recipient of God’s grace, just as the rest of us. This is further reinforced by the fact that Mary calls God her “Savior” (Luke 1:47), indicating that she thinks of herself as needing God’s salvation, just as the rest of us. There is nothing intrinsic in her apart from the divine favor and His presence with her. It seems, therefore, that a strong argument for the Immaculate Conception of Mary is based on a faulty translation of the passage, leading to an implausible doctrine impinging on anthropology and soteriology, i.e. something belonging to the core of the biblical Gospel.

                    The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is fully committed to the Immaculate Conception of Mary still represents a serious question mark for all those who want to ground their faith in what the Bible teaches. Evidently Rome is not based on Scripture alone but is on a trajectory in which devotions and traditions can have the final say above (and contrary to) the Bible.