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.

131. Is Pope Francis Making the Catholic Church Protestant?

December 1st, 2016

The recent commemoration of the Reformation (Lund, Sweden, 31 October 2016) is only the tip of the iceberg in Pope Francis’s ecumenical efforts. His relentless activity in meeting with Christian leaders (from the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow to mainstream Protestant denominational leaders and several Pentecostal pastors) is a qualifying mark of his pontificate that is beginning to raise concerns inside the Catholic Church. His constant remarks about the need to speed the way towards unity appear to soften, if not downplay, the traditional conditions for such unity according to Rome. Some Catholic critics are worried that the Pope seems to spend more time with non-Catholics than with people of his own church. Especially after his recent appreciation of Martin Luther, in an interview given to the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire (summarized in English, too) the blunt question was asked: is the Pope making the Catholic Church Protestant?

In Step with Vatican II

Rejecting the view according to which commemorating the Protestant Reformation was an unwarranted “forward flight”, Pope Francis defended his actions by referring to Vatican II as the framework for his ecumenical initiatives. No surprise: Vatican II (1962-1965) sought to re-orientate the ecumenical direction of the Roman Catholic Church by recognizing signs of the true church in other communities and by calling non-Catholics “separated brethren”. One of the goals of the Council was to encourage full unity among Christian churches and communities, all reconciled with the theological outlook and ecclesiastical structures of the Roman church. Nothing new under the sun then. What Francis is doing in the sphere of ecumenism was all prepared by and previewed at Vatican II. Each one in his own way, John XXII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, have tried to implement the ecumenical thrust of the Council. Francis confirms to be the Pope who without necessarily quoting Vatican II at length, perhaps embodies its “spirit” more than his predecessors.

More specifically, Francis makes reference to the 50 year old dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans culminated in the 1999 Joint Declaration on justification signed under John Paul II under the leadership of then Cardinal Ratzinger. For Francis this document settles the main theological issues raised by the Reformation, paving the way for even fuller unity. After this landmark agreement, nothing of significance is left of the Reformation apart from regretful political attachments of self-referential churches that are entrenched in their past.

Parameters of Unity

The Pope rejects the idea that he is making his church more Protestant and appeals to Vatican II as the large theological canvas of which the Joint Declaration represents the new ecumenical fruit. He sees himself as standing in a long-term trajectory. Moreover, the fact that he approaches other Christian traditions and communities (e.g. the different bodies of Eastern Orthodoxy) with similar if not more intensive fervor indicates that he is not particularly attracted to Protestantism only. His ecumenical zeal goes even beyond the borders of Christianity and spills over to the world of religions and the secular world. He takes unity, i.e. Christian unity, as part of a larger goal that has to do with the unity of mankind.

Going back to the question about the Protestantization of the Catholic Church, there is a major argument running through Pope Francis’ assessment of the Reformation in the context of his ardent desire for unity. His interpretation of the history of the Reformation and its on-going significance de facto eliminates theology from the picture and replaces the driving force of unity with doing things together and praying together. In other words, Scripture alone (the Bible has supreme authority over the church), faith alone (salvation is a gift received by believing in Christ and trusting Him), and Christ alone (the whole Christian life is centered on Him) are nothing but relics of a distant past. According to the Pope, the Roman Catholic Church has already absorbed these concerns and those who want to continue to wave the Reformation flag are seen as wanting to continue a power game based on church politics. Is this really the case? Of course, the Reformation had political overtones. However, as the recent statement Is the Reformation Over? – signed by dozens of evangelical theologians and leaders worldwide – argues, “In all its varieties and at times conflicting tendencies, the Protestant Reformation was ultimately a call to (1) recover the authority of the Bible over the church and (2) appreciate afresh the fact that salvation comes to us through faith alone”. These are standing and unresolved issues in the present-day relationship between Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians. Church politics, although inextricably interwoven, was not the main reason and is not the main legacy of the Reformation.

With Pope Francis the Roman Catholic Church is not becoming Protestant. It is simply becoming more “catholic”, i.e. embracing and absorbing all, without losing its being “Roman”. It is still embedded in the theological and institutional outlook that the Protestant Reformation called to renewal according to the Gospel.

Is the Reformation Over? A Webinar with Leonardo De Chirico (24 Nov 2016)

Date & time: 24 Nov 2016, 18:00 GMT | Speaker: Leonardo De Chirico | Duration: 1 hour 30 min

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Evangelical Christians around the world have the opportunity to reflect afresh on the legacy of the Reformation for the worldwide church of Jesus Christ and for the development of Gospel work.

After centuries of doctrinal controversies and strained relationships between Evangelicals and Catholics, the present-day ecumenical climate has created ripe conditions for figures in both camps to argue that the Reformation is all but over.

But have we really come to agreement on the formal and the material principles of the Reformation?  What are the issues at stake?

Go here to register: http://www.foclonline.org/webinar/reformation-over




131. After Lund, What Remains of the Protestant Reformation?

November 9th, 2016

While Pope Francis was taking part in the ecumenical events in Lund and Malmoe commemorating the Protestant Reformation, the giant screens in St. Peter’s square – the heart of the Roman Catholic Church – invited all to assemble around the statue of St. Peter to recite the Holy Rosary. Mere coincidence? Perhaps. It is striking, though, to notice that in Lund the intention was to bridge over the distance between Rome and the Protestant Reformation, while in Rome the clear indication was of a strong commitment to the Marian and Petrine marks of the Roman Church, that in modern times have been defined in light of all that the Reformation stood for. In assessing the ecumenical scene, the risk of looking at Lund without being aware of what happens in Rome is real. Yet both belong to the ecumenical landscape of our time.

So, after Lund what remains of the Reformation? The document “Is the Reformation Over?”, signed by dozens of evangelical theologians and leaders around the world, clearly suggests that the Reformation is in fact not yet over. The question is open though. In a pointed article in First Things, for instance, Dale M. Coulter criticized the statement of being theologically outdated and typifying an unhelpful bunker mentality. According to him, the document “seeks to define Protestantism over against the Catholic Church out of a concern that evangelicals do not have a clear view of Catholic teaching”. In doing so, “It simultaneously sets forth a misguided view of sola scriptura as implying that tradition has no role to play in Protestant understandings of authority and interpretation, and a reductive view of Catholicism that extracts papal infallibility and Marian dogma out of the hierarchy of truths and the structure of Catholic teaching within which they fall”.

The reality is that the document affirms that the main thrust of the Reformation was mainly theological and in essence centered on the recovery of the authority of Scripture and the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone. These two pillars of the Christian faith are its standing legacy after 500 years. This is the theologically positive thrust of the Reformation, both then and now. As a matter of fact, to be protestant does not primarily mean reacting against something but standing for something. In the XVI century pro-testare meant testifying to the truth of the gospel. The Reformation was a positive affirmation of what the church needs always to be reminded of: God’s written Word is the supreme norm for the whole of life, and salvation is a God-given gift from beginning to end. The word protestant, therefore, has a theologically positive tone. In this sense, all Christians need to be protestant, i.e. affirming, witnessing, and publicly heralding the gospel.

With various degrees of theological consistency, the Reformation tried to define itself according to the teaching of Scripture. At least in principle, it was Scripture that determined what was acceptable and what was not acceptable in the Roman Catholic Church of the time. The Reformation did not pit the Bible against tradition in abstract terms, but being fully aware of the unavoidable role of tradition anchored it to the sure foundations of the Bible. For the Reformers sola Scriptura was an issue of authority, not of hermeneutics. They accepted tradition and practiced it insofar as it was under God’s written Word. This is its standing legacy. It is also the vantage point from which all churches and traditions ought to critically assess themselves in light of Scripture. That is, “Is the Reformation Over?” document does not attempt to defend the Protestant Reformation per se. Instead it simply seeks to re-affirm in our age the two main commitments which are integral to the Christian faith.

The Council of Trent provided alternative accounts of the authority of Scripture and salvation by faith alone and condemned Protestant positions. The reverse was true as well. Protestant confessions condemned Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. Since then, however, much water has flown through the Tiber River. It is a given, though, that the three Roman Catholic modern dogmas (Mary’s immaculate conception, 1854, and bodily assumption, 1950, and papal infallibility, 1870) rest on tradition as their supreme authority, thus running the opposite direction than that of the Reformation. Tradition has become magisterial rather than ministerial.

The post-Vatican II Roman Church, while being more open and nuanced (might we say more ambiguous?) towards biblical authority and salvation by faith alone, still retains a significantly different theological orientation from the classical understanding of Scripture and salvation of the Reformation. Dei Verbum (the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation) is a masterful exercise of theological aggiornamento according to the “both-and” pattern of Roman Catholicism at its best. Still, it’s not what the Reformation understood concerning Sola Scriptura. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), signed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans, comes close to what the Reformation stood for in recovering the good news of salvation as a Christ-given gift, but it tends to blur lines on significant points. As evangelical theologian Mike Reeves has shown, in JDDJ “the matter of the Reformation was not accurately addressed there, and still stands: are believers justified through faith in Christ alone, or is eternal life ‘at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits’?” This is why the Reformation is not over.

“Is the Reformation Over?” is a statement characterized by a biblical “parrhesia”, i.e. the bold conviction deriving from being persuaded by the gospel truth which, after all, was recovered at the Reformation. The document reaffirms that on these two issues the Reformers were simply recovering the biblical gospel, and therefore so should we. After suggesting what was at stake during the Reformation and why it is still relevant, the last section of the document “looks ahead” towards better clarification and cooperation on the basis of the gospel, while recognizing the value of respectful and friendly dialogue and even cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church. Contrary to Coulter’s straw man, there is no bunker mentality in the statement, but instead a willingness to engage Roman Catholicism.

Returning from Lund to Rome, pope Francis remarked in his in-flight interview that “In Catholic ecclesiology there are two dimensions to think about. The first is the Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter, and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops. The second is the Marian dimension, which represents the feminine dimension of the Church.” The Reformation, on the other hand, would recommend the biblical dimension, and that dimension alone as sufficient. In a nutshell this is why the Reformation is not yet over.

130. Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger

November 1st, 2016

The last conversations. This is the title of recently published interviews with pope emeritus Benedict XVI and German journalist Peter Seewald. In the book Ratzinger reviews many episodes of his life and gives insights on this theological career and journey. The title suggests that this is probably the last book by Ratzinger. It seems then fitting to reproduce in the Vatican Files collection an article I published few years ago on Ratzinger’s theology.

“Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger in Evangelical Perspective”, Perichoresis 6.2 (2008) 201-218.

The second half of the XXth century saw different popes leading the Roman Catholic Church through and beyond the most significant event of its recent history, i.e. the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). John XXIII (1958-1963) was the theologically conservative, yet pastorally alert pope who saw the need to end the introspective age of Vatican I and to develop a new phase in the life of the Church in confronting the modern world. Paul VI (1963-1978) was the thoughtful intellectual who had to administer the most difficult part of Vatican II (i.e. the final years) and oversee the beginning of its controversial implementation.

The reign of John Paul I (1978) passed unnoticed for its sheer brevity. John Paul II (1978-2005) was the genial interpreter of Vatican II, conservative in doctrine and morals, and progressive in social issues and world appeal. With him, the Church regained centrality in the world, re-launching the task of a “new evangelisation” and Catholic presence. Whereas the pre-Vatican II Church was living a process of gradual decay, she was revitalised by this pro-active pope and stirred to recover the centre stage in the global world. A Thomistic philosopher and charismatic leader, Wojtyla in his pontificate embodied the aggiornamento (i.e. updating) that was encouraged by Vatican II without losing the organic ties with tradition.

Now, the election of Benedict XVI represents an interesting development in the same line, i.e. the reception, elaboration and application of Vatican II with its message of gaudium et spes (joy and hope) for the world through the lumen gentium (light of all nations) who is the Christ represented by the Church.

1. Ratzinger’s Theological Catholicity

Joseph Ratzinger’s image before the public opinion is that of a conservative theologian who is opposed to liberation theology, cultural relativism, modern liturgical trends which downplay the mystery of the Mass and the solemnity of the rites, and Eucharistic inter-communion with other Christians.

The press has depicted Ratzinger as a grown old reformer who has become disillusioned and suspicious of any change. However, the image of the “enforcer of the faith” is just half of the truth.[1] The other side is perhaps less known, but still important. For example, Spanish reformed theologian Jorge Ruiz recalls Ratzinger’s role within the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the Eighties in officially endorsing an accommodating view of the Bible with respect to liberal understandings of Biblical revelation. As far as the Bible is concerned, Ratzinger represents “a moderate view within the liberal orientation of the Roman Catholic Church of Vatican II”.[2] The 1993 document by the Pontifical Biblical Commission – at the time headed by Ratzinger – “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” is an example of the reception of liberal presuppositions within the overarching exegetical tradition endorsed by the Church. Even the acclaimed new book on Jesus of Nazareth, while criticising radical applications of historico-critical methods, still encourages research to be pursued within their confines in a milder way.[3]

Early Evangelical reactions to his election to the papacy have applauded his “Bible-focused” theology.[4] His commitment to the Bible, however, must be understood in the context of his moderate liberalism as far as Biblical revelation is concerned. Moreover, his views of Scripture stem from traditional Catholicism which combines the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church. According to Vatican II language, they “are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence” (DV 9). In this sense, he is a modern conservative within the boundaries of a revitalised Roman Catholicism.

Ratzinger, in fact, has been one of the pivotal figures in the theological and ecclesiastical scene following Vatican II. As a young and brilliant theologian at the Council, he significantly contributed to the implementation of its main directives, while not relinquishing the traditional dogmatic outlook of the Church. He has been considered “progressive” in his youthful theological engagement for the renewal of the Church, and then “conservative” in his long-term service to his Church as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Ratzinger is often pictured as if he were the left wing theologian who became right wing in his mature years. These labels, of course, do not account for the “catholicity” of Ratzinger’s theology which is both traditional and aggiornata (updated). In assessing Ratzinger’s Roman Catholic theology, it is dangerous to contrast traditionalism and progressivism as if they were disrupting and conflicting trends within his work. There may have been different emphases and concerns between various stages of his career,[5] but the tale of the conversion from radical theologian to the inflexible watchdog of orthodoxy is naïf.

How do we account then for this change of attitudes and concerns? It depends on what kind of paradigm we use to interpret the theological flow of a Church or a theologian. In its theological genius, present-day Roman Catholicism is “catholic” in the sense of embracing both the highest respect for the given heritage of the Church and the strenuous attempt to find new ways of articulating it and living it out. The outcome is a dynamic synthesis which holds different elements together within the all-embracing system. Ratzinger well epitomises this kind of catholicity – strongly rooted in the tradition of the Church and yet also vigorously engaged in accomplishing her mission before the challenges of the modern world.

The motto of the theological journal Communio with which he has been associated since 1972 neatly sums up his theological vision: “a program of renewal through the return to the sources of authentic tradition”. In other words, aggiornamento is done through ressourcement (i.e. the fresh re-reading of biblical and patristic sources) since the two belong together. This appears to be the theological profile of Pope Benedict XVI.

2. The Catholic Church and Its Robust Self-Understanding

Even a scant look at Ratzinger’s massive bibliography indicates the width of his production and the spectrum of his expertise.[6] While it is impossible to isolate a single dominant theological theme, it is nonetheless comparatively easy to appreciate its main focus. Throughout his career as University professor and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, the prominent theological interest of Ratzinger has been the doctrine of the Church. Being a theologian of Vatican II and being the Council an ecclesiological council, Ratzinger himself has worked on the reception of the ecclesiological significance of Vatican II for a reinvigorated Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Through the prism of ecclesiology, it is therefore possible to sketch out Ratzinger’s theology in terms of a robust Roman Catholic orthodoxy. Although this approach is selective, it is not a distortion.

2.1 “The People of God”: the Augustinian Heritage

The first aspect to underline for this introductory survey combines methodological and historical elements. As a doctoral student, Ratzinger started his theological career by reflecting on the patristic sources of the doctrine of the Church. His first significant contribution dealt with the self-apprehension of the Roman Church in the history of theology. Well before Vatican II would emphasise the image of the Church as the people of God (e.g. LG 9-17), in the early Fifties Ratzinger wrote his doctoral dissertation on Augustine’s view of the Church as the people and the house of God.[7] Not only did he anticipate the Council as far as ecclesiological themes were concerned, but in this first academic contribution, he also shared and consolidated the trend of ressourcement which the Roman Church was experiencing between the two World Wars. The early influence of Augustine strongly marked Ratzinger’s successive work to the point that he is considered an “Augustinian theologian”.[8]

Ratzinger’s study on Augustine’s ecclesiology is fascinating. He studied it against the background of Tertullian’s and Cyprian’s concepts of the Church. He highlighted the importance of the Donatist controversy and the confrontation with Paganism in the shaping of it. He then investigated the dogmatic significance of the populus Dei and concluded by establishing connections between Augustine’s view and an ecclesiology of the people of God. He pursued similar interests in further studies on the new people of God and the relationship between Israel and the Church.[9] The self-understanding of the Church as the people of God is spelt out in quasi-ontological terms, even though the metaphor is biblical. The ecclesiological profile is very high and her salvific mission and hierarchical structures are strongly defended.

In reading Ratzinger’s work on Augustine, one is reminded of B.B. Warfield’s interpretation of the great Latin Father. Warfield argues that there are two Augustines in Augustine, or rather, there are two main Augustinian theologies in Augustine himself. On the one hand, there is the Augustine who argues for a centripetal church which is invested with divine power to administer God’s grace. On the other hand, there is the Augustine who stresses the doctrine of divine free grace to lost and undeserving sinners. According to Warfield, the ambivalence in Augustine is resolved at the Reformation where his ecclesiology is seen in the context of the doctrine of grace, whereas the Roman Catholic tradition gives priority to the ecclesiastical administration of grace.[10] Ratzinger’s treatment of Augustine is perfectly in line with the traditional Roman Catholic reading of him.

Timothy George rightly remarks that Ratzinger’s theology is “Augustinian in perspective”.[11] This is true. It must be borne in mind, however, that the kind of Augustinianism that Ratzinger embraces is the ecclesiocentric Augustinianism which strongly underlines the centrality of the Church, rather than the Pauline, grace-oriented Augustinianism which was championed at the Reformation. The great Augustinian heritage is twofold. Ratzinger’s interpretation endorses the “catholic” Augustine at the expense of the “protestant” one. His Augustinianism recalls the ecclesiology which was questioned by the Reformation and is still a matter of theological division.

2.2 “Catholica”: Church, Churches and Ecclesial communities

Another prominent feature of Ratzinger’s ecclesiology is his interpretation of the marks of the Church, especially with regard to its catholicity. According to the Apostles Creed, the Church is “catholic” and the significance of this mark of the Church has been subject of intensive debate in the history of theology.[12] Though acknowledging its widely accepted strands of meaning (e.g. in the whole world, according to the whole counsel of God, in fellowship with the whole Church), there is an important nuance which is added and which further qualifies this nota ecclesiae.

According to Ratzinger, the catholicity of the Church is intertwined with the episcopalian structure of the Church.[13] The former is an expression of the latter in two ways. First, the presence of the bishop is essential to define the Church itself. There is no church if there is no valid bishop presiding over her. The implication is that those Christian groups which do not recognise a properly ordained bishop in their ecclesiastical outlook cannot claim the status of a church, but can be defined “ecclesial communities”, i.e. gatherings of Christians enjoying ecclesiality to some degree but lacking the fullness of the blessings of being a church. Second, the catholicity of the Church means the union of all the bishops whose fellowship is presided over by the bishop of Rome. It is not enough for a church to have an episcopalian structure: it must be in fellowship with the See of Rome which exercises the primacy. Unless a church is in fellowship with all other bishops and with Rome, it cannot be fully recognised as being part of the Catholic Church. Catholicity then is understood in terms of Roman episcopacy.

More recently, Ratzinger has come back to these important ecclesiological themes issuing the declaration Dominus Iesus (6th August 2000)[14] when he was still Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. While the document mainly deals with the relationship with other religions and the challenges of inter-religious dialogue, it also contains sections on the true meaning of the marks of the Church (e.g. n. 17). In critically addressing some practices and beliefs in the Roman Catholic Church, Ratzinger recalls what has been already pointed out in the last paragraphs. The Church is where there is a valid bishop, but there is also a further ecclesiological qualification. According to Dominus Iesus, the Church is where the mystery of the Eucharist is kept in its integrity, i.e. where it is celebrated according to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and sacramental representation of the sacrifice of the cross.[15] Moreover, as far as the primacy of the Pope is concerned, Ratzinger argues that the papal office is given “objectively” and therefore cannot be changed to the point of losing its objective nature. The papacy has a quasi-ontological status which pertains to the realm of objective, essential things. The implications for non-Catholic Christians are evident. In fact, those Christian groups which do celebrate the Lord’s Supper in other ways and with a different theology are not considered as churches properly defined. They are “ecclesial communities” and the condition for them to become part of the Church as particular churches is to come in full fellowship with Rome. Only a church in communion with Rome is a catholic church. This is Ratzinger’s interpretation of this mark of the Church.[16]

In his first speeches after being elected, pope Ratzinger has made it clear that he wants to commit himself to the ecumenical cause, i.e. the full restoration of the unity of the Church. This wish has been received in very positive terms by non-Catholics and even Evangelicals.[17] There is a problem, however, and it has to do with the meaning of the unity implied by Ratzinger. Given the quasi-ontological self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church and the “objectivity” of her structures, what openness is given to Biblical reformation according to the Gospel? If Ratzinger’s ecclesiology reflects and implies the “objectivity” of the Roman Catholic Church as it stands, unity means adhering to this objective model by submitting to it. This way is not an Evangelical option.

2.3 “Salt of the World”: the Church and the World

The relationship between the Church and the world has been a matter of sustained concern for Ratzinger as theologian, Cardinal and then Prefect. His ecclesiological reflection is not only interested in reinforcing the self-understanding and practices of the Roman Church, but also to address critical issues concerning the place and mission of the Church in a global world. This side of his ecclesiological interests has been developed in a series of interviews in which Ratzinger has offered his thoughtful insights in a popular style.[18]

Ratzinger’s analysis of the modern world is fascinating. In particular, it underlines the challenges of the progressive erosion of the Christian heritage by the project of modernity. It also warns against the dictatorship of relativism and the danger of alien ideologies such as Marxism and liberalism, collectivism and radical individualism, atheism and a vague religious mysticism, agnosticism and syncretism. In critical dialogue with post-secular philosophers like Jürgen Habermas, he calls the Church not to be marginalized by secular trends and to launch afresh a strong Christian vision and initiative for a decaying world.[19] This is particularly true as far as Europe is concerned.[20]

Perhaps, an interesting case-study of Ratzinger’s convictions on these matters is the attempt to evaluate the first world-wide event in which the Pope took part after his election. This approach may speak better than many essays since Roman Catholicism is a highly symbolised and dramatic religion as well as having a sophisticated theology. It is in terms of a worldview that Ratzinger’s thought can be best assessed.

More than one million young people took part at the World Youth Day (WYD) in Cologne (Aug 16th-21st 2005) with pope Benedict XVI. It was an impressive gathering and a highly significant programme. What was its main message? It was the occasion to celebrate the catholicity of the Church of Rome. Every aspect was wisely organised to underline the centrality of the Church, its project and the importance to belong to it. At the heart of Europe, the Church attracted the attention of the whole continent. The pope was treated as past emperors were,[21] arriving on a boat on the river Rhine with crowds greeting him. The Church played the role of the privileged dialogue partner of Islam, one the most worrying concerns of the West. Whereas other Western agencies find it difficult to come to terms with Islam, Rome apparently does not.[22] Thinking of the future, a message was launched that Rome is the “home” of young people. Everybody is welcome in this large home, where you find fun, the Eucharist, music, friendship, devotion to Mary, etc. The Church provides everything. Participants could even benefit from plenary or partial indulgences that were issued by the Pope for the occasion. They took part in an open air Eucharist where the sacrifice of the cross was represented through the offering of the Church. The Church combined Middle Age practises and postmodern habits. Different speeches, homilies, and talks seemed to have Christ at the centre, but at a closer look, it was the Church that received centre stage.

Probably, not all the youth there will live out their faith in the coherent way they were encouraged to do. Many will continue to nurture their pick-and-choose spirituality. This is not the main point, however. The young people went back home with a solid impression of the power of the Church of Rome, a Church that has a youthful profile, which offers spiritual engagement and a cultural sense of belonging. It is not the case that their Christian identity will be strengthened, but their Catholic identity will. Perhaps, they will not consider themselves more Christian, but certainly more Catholic. The Roman Church aimed at giving a powerful boost especially to the European imagination. The message was conveyed in symbols and words. Here it is. The future of the continent (i.e. the youth) is with Rome. What else can be a reference point for them in this terrifying world? Who else can comfort them, give them fun and instruction in a safe environment? Moreover, before the pressing challenges of our day (e.g. Islam, peace and justice), Europe can rely on the Roman Church. She can act as representative of all and do the job better than any other else. Why not trust it? Finally, with the outstanding personalities of the previous pope and the present one, Europe has a loving father who is wise enough to be listened to. With all the uncertainties and bad teachers around, why not trust him? Is not Roman Catholicism the Christian option that better suits the continent? This is the question that was asked in Cologne by Benedict XVI. Did Evangelicals understand the grand theological vision behind WYD? Is it good news? Is it a promise? Is it a challenge? Is it a problem?

3. “Faith, Reason and the University”: the Clash with the Reformation

There is yet another important window on Ratzinger’s thought that can be opened in this introductory survey. It has to do with the rather unfortunate speech delivered at the University of Regensburg on 12th September 2006 on the topic “Faith, Reason and the Universities. Memories and Reflections”.[23] This lecture caused widespread turmoil in some countries where Muslims felt offended by the reference made by the Pope to the dialogue between emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian man in 1391 on the subject of Christianity and Islam. For some Muslims, the Pope did not distance himself from Manuel’s words concerning the coercive and violent nature of Islamic expansion at the expense of the use of reason. International media immediately mounted a case that turned this reference to an instance of Byzantine history into a political and diplomatic issue. The Pope had to rephrase his speech, reassuring Muslims of his un-offensive intentions as well organising an official event with ambassadors of majority Muslim countries where he underlined his appreciation for Islam and commitment to inter-religious dialogue.[24]

Unfortunately, much attention has been devoted to this rather secondary aspect of the lecture with the result of obscuring and downplaying its real content. What is really at stake in Ratzinger’s speech is his view of the relationship between faith and reason as championed by the Biblical faith and Greek reason. For Ratzinger, Christianity stems from the “inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical enquiry”. This “synthesis” is already envisaged in the “I am” saying of Exodus whereby God reveals Himself in a way that overcomes mythology and the Johannine prologue whereby the logos is both word and reason.[25] The instance of Paul’s mission whereby the Macedonian man appears to the apostle to plead with him to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10) is considered a vivid picture of the “intrinsic necessity” of the rapprochement. In Medieval Christianity the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” finds its culmination and it is “an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion”. For Ratzinger this “convergence” is quintessential for Christianity, not only in terms of its historical past but also as a matter of its overall theological profile.

In the course of the lecture, Ratzinger singles out the main threats that this synthesis has encountered since Medieval times onto modernity and beyond. There have been attempts to “dehellenize” Christianity which the Pope considers to be dangers and fatal mistakes. First, Duns Scotus’ voluntarism sunders the synthesis whereby God’s transcendence is so exalted to become unattainable and hidden to reason. The analogy of being is therefore broken. Secondly, the XVI century Reformation with the sola Scriptura principle. In Ratzinger’s words, according to the Reformation “faith no longer appeared as a living historical Word but as one element of an overarching philosophical system”. The Pope thinks that Christianity needs such a system in order to be Christianity. Sola Scriptura is therefore a dangerous undercutting of the hellenized version of the Christian faith. The third threat comes from Liberal theology of the XIX and XX centuries. Harnack epitomises another facet of the “programme of dehellenization” whereby Christianity wishes to return simply to the man Jesus and his simple message underneath the accretions of hellenized theology. The final danger for the synthesis between faith and reason is “cultural pluralism” which argues that the hellenization of Christianity was an initial inculturation which is not binding on other cultures. Il va sans dire that Ratzinger rejects all these threats in order to safeguard the embrace between the Bible and Greek philosophy.

A critique of Ratzinger’s views on faith and reason as presented in this lecture would require much work which is not possible to do here. Suffice it to mention his negative consideration of the sola Scriptura principle which clashes with his profound convictions on the relationship between faith and reason. He is right to say that the Reformation wanted to re-discuss the relationship between Biblical and philosophical presuppositions as far as the Christian faith is concerned. He is right to see the Reformation as a threat to this balance. In this respect, Ratzinger comes very close to Cornelius Van Til, though from the opposite direction. For Van Til, Roman Catholicism is the historical outcome of a process of assimilation of mainly Aristotelian thought-products which have led to a radical transformation of the Christian faith. In arithmetical terms, traditional Roman Catholicism is “a synthesis of Aristotle plus Christ”.[26] In fairness to him, Van Til maintains that “Romanism has in it a large element of true Christianity”. The problem is that this healthy part is nonetheless “counterbalanced and modified by so much taken from non-Christian philosophy”.[27]

What Ratzinger perceives as an essential and inherent part of the Christian faith (i.e. the Greek reason combined to Biblical faith), the Reformed faith considers it the basic problem of Roman Catholicism. What Ratzinger perceives as a dangerous threat to the synthesis (i.e. sola Scriptura), the Reformed faith accepts it as the vital principle for the Christian faith. Christianity rejects all idolatry and stands solely on the Word of God. Ratzinger has an altogether different view than that of the Reformation.

4. Dealing with a Robust Roman Catholic Orthodoxy: Is the Reformation Over?

Joseph Ratzinger represents post-Vatican II Roman Catholic orthodoxy at its best. It has recovered the importance of Biblical revelation and patristic sources. It has restated its commitment to creedal orthodoxy and opened itself to ecumenical relationships. It is in critical dialogue with secular modernity, and nurtures a strong Christian worldview for a pluralistic world in turmoil. In light of these developments, the focus should be expanded to more general and important issues concerning Roman Catholicism as a whole. The issue is not merely academic, as if we were discussing Ratzinger’s theology in isolation from the significance of the Church he now represents at the highest level. The question whether the Reformation is over has been asked and seems to be something that many Evangelicals are asking, either implicitly or explicitly.[28] In other words, is there any reason to keep on opposing, questioning, distancing oneself from Roman Catholicism given the many positive things that can be seen in Rome today? To borrow Vittorio Subilia’s title, is the “problem” of Catholicism solved? [29] It is still there or not? If yes, to what degree?

In order to address the issue, the other side of the same post-Vatican II Roman Catholic orthodoxy should not be neglected. The two belong to one another. Here again, Ratzinger’s theology magnificently epitomises it. For instance, the Bible is always read in light of the authoritative magisterium. Nicene Christology is always intertwined to “objective” Roman Catholic ecclesiology. The Apostles Creed is confessed as well as the Canons of Trent and Vatican I. The cross of Christ is always related to the representation of the sacrifice of the Eucharist. The Spirit is always linked to the hierarchical structure of the Church. Ecumenism is always thought of in terms of other Christians being defective and the Church of Rome being the “catholic” Church. The mission of the Church is always pursued having in mind the catholic project to embrace the whole world. The ecclesiastical outlook of the Church is inherently combined with its political role. The list could easily be lengthened so as to indicate the way in which the Roman Catholic theological system is built and works.

The point is that Ratzinger’s orthodoxy is qualified by its being peculiarly Roman Catholic. Contrary to powerful trends in modern ecumenical thinking, “mere orthodoxy” does not exist in this world. There are different types of orthodoxies. Ratzinger’s is just one of them and it is robust. If Evangelical orthodoxy loses its biblical sharp edges and becomes engulfed in a “mere orthodoxy” type of thinking, Ratzinger’s theology may sound thrilling and appealing. In this sense, the Reformation may be considered as over. If Evangelical orthodoxy keeps its foundational principles of the Reformation and Revivals, the Reformation is not over since the program of continual biblical reform is always a task before all of us, Ratzinger and the Roman Catholic Church included.

In conclusion, it may be appropriate to quote a document that was issued in 1999 by the Italian Evangelical Alliance on the relationships between Evangelicals and Catholics. It deals with general trends within Roman Catholicism, but what it says can also be applied to the theologies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI since there are striking similarities. Here it is: “The current flurry of activity within contemporary Catholicism (the return to the Bible, liturgical renewal, the valorisation of the laity, the charismatic movement, etc.) does not indicate, in and of itself, that there is hope for a reformation within the Catholic church in an evangelical sense. It will only be as these developments make changes in the structural elements underlying the nature of Roman Catholicism, not expanding it further but purifying it in the light of God’s Word, that they can have a truly reforming function. In today’s scenario, these movements, although interesting, seem to promote the project of catholicity rather than that of reformation”.[30] A robust Evangelical Orthodoxy is still needed and Reformed Christians have a vital and unique role to play in promoting it.

[1] This is the title that was given to him by a biographer. John L. Allen, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith (London-New York: Continuum 2000).

[2] Jorge Ruiz, “El eslabón perdido entre Castelar, Zapatero y Benedicto XVI”, Nueva Reforma 70 (Jul-Sept 2005) p. 12.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday 2007).

[4] Timothy George, “The Promise of Benedict XVI”, Christianity Today (June 2005) pp. 49-52. We should come back again to this article because it indicates the rather uncritical and positive impression that seems to be shared in some Evangelical circles.

[5] For instance, Ratzinger was on the editorial committee of Concilum, an international journal founded in 1965 wishing to promote the spirit of Vatican II. Dissatisfied with the liberal and radical tendencies within it, Ratzinger then resigned to support the more traditional journal Communio, founded in 1972 by Hans Urs von Balthasar.

[6] Ratzinger’s bibliography is extensive (more than 60 books and hundreds of articles) and the number of substantial studies on him is also impressive. For a survey of both primary and secondary sources, cfr. Aidan Nichols, The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger. An Introductory Study (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1988) and Andrea Bellandi, Fede cristiana come stare e comprendere. La giustificazione dei fondamenti della fede in Joseph Ratzinger (Rome: PUG 1996).

[7] Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirche, München 1954.

[8] Some observers have noticed the shift between the “Thomist” John Paul II to the “Augustinian” Benedict XVI as a promise of change in the theological orientation of the Roman Church.  These evaluations, however, fail to appreciate that Roman Catholicism is a vast synthesis of many different strands that coexist together. Any interpreter of the synthesis may bring his own emphases, but he is not supposed to alter it significantly.

[9] Das neue Volk Gottes, Düsseldorf 1969.

[10] Benjamin B. Warfield, Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (1930; repr. Grand Rapids: Baker 1981). For Warfield’s interpretation of Augustine, I am indebted to Luigi Dalla Pozza, “Warfield l’apologeta di Princeton”, Studia Patavina XLIX (2002/2).

[11] T. George, cit.

[12] e.g. Yves Congar, Sainte Église. Etudes et approches ecclésiologiques (Paris: Cerf 1963); Avery Dulles, The Catholicity of the Church (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1985).

[13] This connection between catholicity and episcopacy is already argued in Ratzinger’s widely acclaimed Introduction to Christianity (London: Burns & Oates 1969) which is a profound commentary to the Apostles Creed.

[14] See www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html

[15] On the theology of the Eucharist, see God is Near Us. The Eucharist, the Heart of Life (San Francisco: Ignatius 2003). Further reflections on the liturgy are in The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius 2000).

[16] This ecclesiological self-understanding as applied to ecumenical issues was recently reinforced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church” (29th June 2007). The document has stirred hot responses from different Christian bodies and is available at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html. For instance, William Taylor, on behalf of World Evangelical Alliance, has written “Evangelical reflections on Pope benedict XVI’s June 2007 affirmation on the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church” (28th August 2007). The useful paper is available at http://www.worldevangelicals.org/news/view.htm?id=1355 .

[17] e.g. Michael S. Horton, “What Can Protestants Expect from the New Pope?” (April 21, 2005) www.modernreformation.org/popedoc.htm.

[18] There are at least three such books: The Ratzinger Report. An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius 1985); Salt of the Earth. An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church at the End of the Millennium (San Francisco: Ignatius 1996), and the most recent God and the World. Believing and Living in our Time (San Francisco: Ignatius 2002).

[19] Their 2004 dialogue has been published in English in the book The Dialectics of Secularization. On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2007).

[20] See his recent book Europe. Today and Tomorrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2007).

[21] It must be borne in mind that, in his extensive writings on ecclesiology, Ratzinger never questions the foundational institutional ambiguity of the Roman Church in her being a Church and a state (i.e. the Vatican) at the same time. As pope, he is primate and head of state. In this respect, he is a monarch who can be payed tribute as such.

[22] Ratzinger deals with the theology of dialogue and its challenges in Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief And World Religions (San Francisco: Ignatius 2004).

[24] As a matter of fact, this amendment event has shown the Vatican ambiguity as far as the relationship between religion and politics is concerned. In order to present his apology, the Pope invited political representatives of national states, instead of Muslim religious leaders. The misleading given impression was that political authorities (i.e. ambassadors) represent religious adherents of one religion and not citizens of a nation in spite of their religion.

[25] The exegetical and canonical feasibility of these readings of the Biblical material is beyond the scope of this paper. However, this “metaphysical” hermeneutics leaning towards Greek categories have been and must be seriously questioned.

[26]  C. Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publ. Co 1969) p. 175. As for modern Catholicism, Van Til argues that “the former Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the former Kant-Christ synthesis have joined hands to form the Aristotle-Kant-Christ synthesis” (ibidem, 185).

[27] A Christian Theory of Knowledge, p. 168. More on Van Til’s approach to Roman Catholicism can be found in my book Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Frankfurt-Bern-Oxford: Peter Lang 2003) pp. 65-78.

[28] Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids: Baker 2005). Cfr. my review in Themelios 32/1 (2006) pp. 103-104.

[29] Vittorio Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism (London: SCM 1964).

[30] The full text can be found in “An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism”, Evangelicals Now (Dec 2000) pp. 12-13 or European Journal of Theology X (2001/1) pp. 32-35.

Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions

I am glad to share the following press release by the Reformanda Initiative.

Is the Reformation Over? – A Statement Release

 Rome, Italy – October 24, 2016 – The Reformanda Initiative is releasing a statement entitled, “Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions,” which affirms the principles of the Reformation, and calling on international evangelical leaders to sign it.

The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In recent times, ecumenical friendliness between Protestants and Catholics has created ripe conditions for some leaders in both camps to claim that the Reformation is over.  While the fact that dialogue has replaced persecution is something to be thankful for, the question remains:  Have the fundamental theological differences between Catholics and Protestants/Evangelicals disappeared?

The Protestant Reformation was ultimately a call to (1) recover the authority of the Bible over the church and (2) appreciate afresh the fact that salvation comes to us through faith alone. These theological differences remain to this day.

At the same time, what is true of the Roman Catholic Church as a doctrinal and institutional reality is not necessarily true of individual Catholics. God’s grace is at work in men and women who repent and trust God alone, who respond to God’s gospel by living as disciples seeking to know Christ and make him known.

We, as Evangelicals, affirm the following three principles:

1)      Encouraging Collaboration: Where common values are at stake regarding ethical, social, cultural and political issues, we encourage efforts of collaboration between Evangelicals and Catholics and also other religious groups.

2)      Maintaining Clear Gospel Standards: When it comes to fulfilling the missionary task of proclaiming and living out the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole world, Evangelicals must be careful to maintain clear gospel standards when forming common platforms and coalitions.

3)      Affirming the Reformation’s Core Principles: The issues that gave birth to the Reformation 500 years ago are very much alive today for the whole church. Evangelicals affirm, with the Reformers, the foundational convictions that our final authority is the Bible and that we are saved through faith alone.

Visit http://IsTheReformationOver.com/ to learn more.

Click here to read the full Statement.

Click here to see the current list of Evangelical leaders who have signed the Statement.

The Reformanda Initiative exists to equip and resource evangelical leaders to understand Roman Catholic theology and practice, to educate the evangelical Church, and to communicate the Gospel.

Contact:                                                                                                                                                            Reformanda Initiative