Author Archives: Leonardo De Chirico

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:




      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

        [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 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 .

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

        [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 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                                                                                            



            129. Roman Catholic Theology after Vatican II: An Interview

            October 1st, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            4. How is Pope Francis changing things now?

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

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

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

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

            Certainly, with Vatican II a different period began that needs to be understood. It is wrong to have a flattened or static view of Catholicism. On the other hand, Vatican II and Pope Francis, who is its most successful incarnation, are only the latest evolutionary step in a system that was born and developed with an “original sin” from which it has not yet been redeemed, but which instead has been consolidated. No ecumenical diplomacy will be able to change it, nor will even the addition of a new Evangelical offer to the traditional menu. The real new time, God willing, will be when Roman Catholicism breaks the imperial ecclesiological pattern and reforms its own catholicity, basing it no longer on its assimilation project, but on the basis of faithfulness to the gospel.

              128. How Does the Catholic Church Rejuvenate?

              September 1st, 2016

              Hierarchical. Institutional. Sacramental. Traditional. This set of markers defines the essence of the Roman Catholic Church as a permanent, conservative, top down religious organization. This is only one side of the coin, however. Rome is also home to movements and groups that express a different sociological outlook. Especially after the Second Vatican Council, many new forms of community have blossomed in the Catholic world: think of the Charismatic Renewal movement, the Focolare movement, the Neocatechumenal way, Communion and Liberation, Cursillos de Cristanidad, just to name a few of the most known Catholic groups that involve millions of people around the world. Today, these movements attract growing numbers of people and are the means by which the Roman Catholic Church, particularly in the West, counters the decline. While the traditional parish model hobbles these movements generally flourish. Serving the “missionary” input encouraged by Pope Francis, they are able to attract new people or to re-engage disconnected Catholics.

              The relationship of these two components of the Catholic Church has not always been easy. The territorial dimension of the hierarchical church, centered on the authority of the bishop, has found it difficult to come to terms with the charismatic energy of the movements, more inclined to follow their own lay leaders than the local bishops. The well established patterns of the former have at times clashed with the innovative ways of the latter. The remoteness of much nominal Catholic practice appears to be very different from the intensity offered by the movements. Tensions were experienced to the point of undermining the unity of the Roman Church.

              Iuvenescit Ecclesia

              After years of gradual and progressive integration of the movements in the sacramental and institutional structure of the Roman Church, it is no surprise to find that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the highest authoritative Vatican voice in matters of doctrine) recently came out with a document addressing this very topic (May 15, 2016). Iuvenescit Ecclesia (the Church rejuvenates) is a detailed study on how the hierarchical and charismatic gifts need to match in the life of the Church. The whole point is to show the necessity and compatibility of both. According to the document, the church is hierarchical in its nature. It is in and through the hierarchy that the Church is also sacramental, i.e. the church dispenses God’s grace through the sacraments, the Eucharist being the most important one, and lives out its peculiar form of communion, i.e. the church being cum Petro (with Peter, with the Pope) and sub Petro (under Peter, under the Pope). Quoting Vatican II but failing to support it biblically, the Vatican Congregation argues that “Jesus Christ Himself willed that there be hierarchical gifts in order to ensure the continuing presence of his unique salvific mediation” (14). What that means is that Christ’s mediation is made present in the hierarchical structure of the Roman Church.

              While re-affirming the absolute necessity of the hierarchical nature of the Roman Catholic Church, the document also speaks of “coessentiality” (10) in introducing the charismatic gifts. Both the hierarchical and the charismatic dimensions are essential for the church to be such. Applying this theological point to the issue at stake the document argues that the present-day ecclesial movements are legitimate expressions of the charismatic dimension of the church. They are corporate manifestations of the inner vitality of the hierarchical Church. The only way to secure the “harmonic connection” (7) is to serve the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the church centered on the Pope and the bishops. If this point is preserved, the movements have freedom to exist within the Roman Catholic Church.


              Following Vatican II, the documents applies the integration process that has been characterizing Roman Catholic theology and practice since its beginnings. The system opens itself up to the point of integrating the new point, the new emphasis, the new movement, making sure that it does not harm its stability but serves its expansion. Each movement captures a new form of spirituality, a specific devotional emphasis, a distinct way of living out the Roman Catholic faith, and inserts it into the wider synthesis held together by the hierarchical Church. The stability of the institution is matched with the dynamism of the ecclesial movements. The vertical and hierarchical structure of the former is countered by the horizontal breadth of the latter. The absorption of these movements is the last instance of the catholicity of Rome expanding its platform without renewing its core.

              The current flurry of activity within Roman Catholic movements does not indicate, in and of itself, that there is hope for a biblical reformation within the Roman Catholic Church in an evangelical sense. It will only be as these movements 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 according to the Gospel. In today’s scenario, these movements, although interesting, seem to promote the Roman Catholic project of integration rather than that of biblical reformation. As the document makes it clear, these movements are meant to rejuvenate Rome, not to reform it biblically.


                127. Is the Ecumenical Martin Luther the Real Luther?

                August 1st, 2016

                As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is approaching, it is no surprise to find books wanting to offer fresh accounts of Martin Luther’s theology and legacy. Who was this man? What was his message then and how do we understand it five centuries after? Walter Kasper’s recent volume on Luther (in German: Martin Luther. Eine ökumenische Perspektive,; in Italian: Martin Lutero. Una prospettiva ecumenica) is a valuable contribution to the on-going discussion on the historical and theological significance of the beginnings of the Reformation. Cardinal Kasper is one of the most authoritative living theologians in the Roman Catholic Church and he is highly appreciated by Pope Francis because of his work on the theology of mercy, the center of Francis’ pontificate. Since Kasper was President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 1999 to 2010, his analysis of Luther is also worth reading because it gives voice to widespread ecumenical evaluations and concerns.

                Dialectical Interpretation

                Kasper’s book focuses on Luther’s remoteness with regards to our contemporary culture. From the introduction onward Luther is painted as being a “stranger” for the modern public opinion. Very few people nowadays understand his existential questions framed with the language of sin, a guilty conscience, and the fear of divine judgment. Those theological categories and the controversies around them seem “irrelevant” today. These are “outdated” issues coming from a démodé character immersed in medieval mysticism and anti-scholastic polemics. Yet, according to Kasper, Luther was grappling with the “question of God” in his own cultural ways and patterns. He is outdated but his basic concerns are perennial. They need to be heavily decoded in order to be represented in a more palatable way and eventually appreciated.

                Kasper’s interpretation of Luther is therefore dialectical: on the one hand, Luther appears to be very far and in need of significant filtering to be dealt with; on the other Luther is asking the vital questions provided that one understands what he is saying. There is truth in this, of course. As it is the case with any historical character, Luther belongs to a remote world and cultural bridges are necessary in order to meet him. The Cardinal, though, seems to distance the reader from approaching Luther in his own terms by encouraging her to apply a deconstructive interpretation that will tame the German reformer and make him closer to us postmodern Westerners. The impression is that Luther needs to be freed from his idiosyncratic edges and this is something that an ecumenical reinterpretation of him may help doing.

                Kasper suggests many cautionary remarks in encountering Luther, perhaps too many to allow Luther to speak for himself. For example, are we sure that Luther’s concerns (sin, guilt, judgment and therefore grace, faith, the gospel) belong to a buried theological baggage in need of being updated with friendlier present-day standards? Wasn’t Luther rediscovering biblical truths that were blurred in medieval Christianity but are central for the Christian faith in all ages? Ultimately, the issue at stake is whether or not Luther is to be rescued from himself in order to be heard by the church and the world. Kasper seems to pit the confessional “bad” Luther against the ecumenical “good” Luther. Is this a fair way of coming to terms with Martin Luther?

                Reformation or New Evangelization?

                After Vatican II (1962-1965), Roman Catholic scholarship on Luther has seen a significant change of perspective. For centuries he was blamed with all possible theological evils (e.g. being a heretic and schismatic) and personal failures (e.g. prone to drunkness, chasing women). Since the work of church historians like Joseph Lortz, Luther has been mildly appreciated as a sincere reformer who has tragically gone astray. Nowadays, Catholic scholarship considers Luther as a wayward child of the church, provided that his work is excised of all hard line Protestant elements. This is also what Walter Kasper is convinced of.

                According to the Cardinal, Luther belongs to a cloud of witnesses who across the centuries have sought to introduce measures of renewal in the church. Kasper mentions St. Francis of Assisi as one of them preceding Luther. The German reformer went further though, and dramatically so. With his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers he undermined the sacramental structure of the church. With his insistence on the primacy of grace he severed his theology from the optimism of Christian humanism. Instead of exercising patience and longsuffering, Luther changed an emergency situation of tensions within the church in an ordinary condition of separation and controversy. The result was schism and the beginning of a fractured confessional age that now needs to be overcome by the ecumenical age. The question is: have Luther’s basic questions been settled to move from conflict to communion?

                Kasper is convinced that if Luther would appear today he would support the New Evangelization that the Roman Catholic Church is engaged in, i.e. the attempt to draw baptized but not practicing Catholics back to the Church by reaffirming the traditional body of Catholic teachings and practices. The book is an attempt to save Luther from himself and to facilitate his symbolic return to the Roman Catholic Church, dropping his teachings on grace alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone. The New Evangelization is the Roman Catholic re-packaged program of inner renewal that has absorbed some Reformation inputs while rejecting its main doctrinal outlook. Would Martin Luther accept the deal? Perhaps the book speaks more of Kasper and present-day Roman Catholic reinterpretations of history than of Luther and his permanent call to retrieve the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

                  126. What Does It Mean to be Catholic? A Book Review

                  July 1st, 2016

                  Jack Mulder Jr., What Does it Mean to be Catholic? (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2015) 226 pp.

                  What does it mean to be Catholic? The question is simple but the answer is fraught with complexities. Is there a recognizable core, a pervasive blueprint, a distinct pattern of what Roman Catholicism is all about? The issue is worth tackling, especially in times like ours where confessional identities are often blurred and flattened. The merit of this book is to present a comprehensive, albeit short and readable, introduction to what is constitutive of the Roman Catholic identity. The intention of the Author, an associate professor of philosophy at Hope College (Michigan, USA), is to show “a small glimpse of the internal coherence, the beauty, and the depth of the Catholic faith” (p. 9). Rather than testing Roman Catholicism in terms of biblical truth or gospel faithfulness, the primary interest is to underline the coherent nature of Roman Catholicism in terms of its aesthetical attraction and profound structure of thought. In itself this is already an indication of what it means to be Catholic: looking for coherence, beauty and depth, not necessarily according to and under God’s revealed Word. The Author was raised in the Protestant faith and converted to Roman Catholicism in his adulthood. So he knows the evangelical subculture quite well. In presenting his newly found faith he often and interestingly interacts with concerns and questions that are normally asked by evangelical protestants.

                  Catholic Distinctiveness

                  The opening sentence of chapter 1 well captures the essence of what Roman Catholicism is all about in its practical outworking. “In my wallet I carry a little card with a picture of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and a tiny piece of cloth laminated to it. Next to the cloth it reads: This piece of cloth has been touched by his relics” (p. 11). What used to be thought of as being the quintessence of idolatry, i.e. the reliance on pictures, relics and saints, is now seen as expressing the genuine longing of the Catholic faith: the blessed presence of divine grace accessed through tangible objects and human holy mediators. The Author readily acknowledges that in order to make sense of this practice one needs to have a wider concept of Divine Revelation than Scripture alone. According to Roman Catholicism, Scripture and tradition are streams of the same wellspring of Revelation that the Church is given the task to rightly interpret and duly apply, thus governing the “development” of doctrine and practice. From the religious point of view, carrying the card with St. Thomas Aquinas makes sense given the fact that the “formal principle” of the Roman faith is not Scripture alone, but Scripture as interpreted as part of a bigger Tradition ultimately received and spelt out by the teaching office of the Church. As it was the case in the XVI century, the evangelical “Scripture alone” is utterly incompatible with Roman Catholicism.

                  Having clarified this foundational epistemological point, the rest of the book aptly presents the Roman Catholic faith, introducing topics as central and diverse as The Church and her Magisterium, God and Humanity, The Person and Work of Christ, Mary and the Communion of the Saints, The Seven Sacraments, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, The Human Person. All in all, the Author well manages to navigate the complexities of Catholic doctrine and practice, always trying to trace their doctrinal development and pointing to the coherence of the whole in terms of the present-day teaching of Roman Catholicism. He does a great job in expounding the coherence of the system given its wide foundations which go well beyond the Bible. The problem is: is it what the biblical Gospel is all about? Once established that the normative reference point is not Scripture alone, every point he deals with raises serious concerns from a biblical perspective.

                  A Gradualist View of Salvation

                  A test-case of the deviant direction of Roman Catholicism has to do with the view of salvation as having a universal scope and a hopeful end for all. The Author sides with the post-Vatican II account whereby there are circles of salvation which ultimately embrace the whole of humanity. Quoting Paul VI and John Paul II, but evoking standard Vatican II teaching, “There are four concentric circles of people: first, all humanity; second, the worshipers of the one God; third, all Christians; and fourth, Catholics themselves” (p. 9). Salvation is seen as a gift that people receive in different degrees depending on the circle they chose to identify with or find themselves in. Roman Catholics receive God’s grace in the fullest measure through the sacraments administered by the (Roman) Church under the Pope and the bishops who are the successors of the apostles; other Christians receive God’s grace to a lesser extent because they retain true elements of the faith but lack the fullness of it in not being in full fellowship with the Church of Rome. Religious people receive it because they have a sense of the divine, although they miss important aspects of the faith. Finally, the whole of humanity receives it because they are human and therefore existentially open to God’s grace which works in mysterious ways. Ultimately, “the only real way to get outside of God’s grace is to expel oneself from it” (p. 190). The conditions for such self-expulsion are so remote and limited that practically there is hope that all will be saved. This is quite different from clear biblical teaching that turns the picture upside down. According to Scripture we are all by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), all sinners (Romans 3:23), all under his judgment (John 3:18). It is not us who exclude ourselves from God’s grace. Because of sin we are all born into this condition. Roman Catholicism turns the argument around and believes the contrary, i.e. we are all born into God’s grace albeit at various levels of depth and at different degrees.

                  As an aside comment, the Author interestingly says that “when evangelical leader Rob Bell came out with a book called Love Wins, which only raises the possibility of everyone ending up in heaven, and never definitively claims that this will happen, controversy erupted in evangelical circles, but Catholics took very little notice” (p. 187). This is no surprise given the hopeful scope of the Roman Catholic gradualist view of salvation for all.

                  The book is very honest in presenting the Roman Catholic faith and not hiding points of controversy with other Christian traditions. Contrary to some attempts to blur the lines, this volume does a good job in highlighting what is distinctive of Roman Catholicism and therefore in showing how it is different from the evangelical faith. Even in its post-Vatican II outlook, Roman Catholicism is still idiosyncratic to Scripture alone, Christ alone and faith alone.


                    125. What Happened to Justification by Faith?

                    June 1st, 2016

                    A talk given to the Resolved! Conference of Acts29 Europe (Rome, April 4th, 2016). The video can be watched here:

                    The evangelical understanding of the gospel stands on two pillars: the authority of Scripture as God’s word written (the formal principle) and justification by grace alone through faith alone (the material principle). Scripture is the norm of the Christian life; justification is the ground of it. Without the norm of Scripture, our lives are shaped by false standards and deceived by false narratives. Without the ground of justification, our lives are built on sinking sand and will ultimately collapse under the righteous judgment of God.

                    In J.I. Packer’s lucid way of condensing Biblical teaching, justification is “God’s act of remitting the sins of, and reckoning righteousness to, ungodly sinners freely, by his grace, through faith in Christ, on the ground not of their own works, but of the representative righteousness and substitutionary blood-shedding of Jesus Christ on their behalf”[1].

                    Historically, justification has been the landmark of the evangelical faith since the times of the Apostles. The Church Fathers maintained it, and while it was not their main concern, they fully endorsed it. The Reformation did not invent it. Simply it restated it in more biblical and coherent terms, in times in which it had been obscured by medieval opacity. Reformed and Lutheran orthodoxies embraced it wholeheartedly. Giants like Jonathan Edwards and the British Puritans preached it with full conviction. German Pietism shaped its spirituality around it. Great preachers like C.H. Spurgeon made justification by faith central to their preaching and that pattern continued up to the times of John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Even Billy Graham’s message fully stands within the parameters set by justification by faith. The sinner is saved by grace alone through faith alone, apart from good works without any merit on our part. This has been a fundamental mark of the biblical faith throughout the centuries because it lies at the heart of the biblical gospel.

                    Reactions Against Justification

                    However, there have been two strong reactions against justification. One the one hand, the Roman Catholic Church violently rejected it at the Council of Trent (1545-1562). Trent continued to use the word justification but filled it with a completely different meaning. For Trent, justification was a process rather than an act of God; a process initiated by the sacrament of baptism where the righteousness of God was thought to be infused; a process nurtured by the religious works of the faithful and sustained by the sacramental system of the church; a process needing to go through a time of purification in purgatory, before perhaps being enacted on judgment day. Rome reframed and reconstructed justification in terms of a combination of God’s initiative and man’s efforts, grace and works joined together resulting in an on-going journey of justification, ultimately dependent on the “clay and iron” of human works and ecclesiastical sacraments. What was missing was the declarative, forensic act of justification, the exclusive grounding in divine grace, the full assurance of being justified because of what God the Father has declared, God the Son has achieved, and God the Spirit has worked out. Trent came up with a confused and confusing teaching on justification that has been misleading people since.

                    The other objection to the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith alone came from theological liberalism since the XIX century. In this case, too, the word justification was maintained but the meaning of it was totally undermined and eventually redefined. By rejecting the biblical doctrine of sin as a tragic separation from God and rebellion against God, liberalism objected to the need for justification. According to liberalism, our problem is not so much us being sinner in the hands of a righteous God, but our call to be righteous people as human beings. Christ is the perfect righteous man whom we need to imitate if we want to become righteous. No atonement is needed, no sin is to be forgiven, no judgment is previewed. The liberal vision is to create a world where self-defined righteous people attempt to build a would-be righteous society marked by universal human brotherhood. This culture of self-righteousness has been damaging Western churches and society to the point of making them implode under the weight of unrealistic and false illusions.

                    While Evangelical Protestants have always advocated for justification, making it central in their preaching, pastoral practices and missionary endeavors for centuries, there have been contrary accounts of justification that have offered alternative accounts of it. Despite their differences, both the Catholic and liberal versions of justification significantly converge in presenting an inflated view of man’s abilities to do something for one’s own salvation (whatever salvation means for them), a defective view of sin, a rejection of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and an uneasiness towards everything related to God’s justice and judgment.

                    It is no surprise that in 1999 these Catholic and Protestant liberal accounts of justification merged together into the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. They were already close enough to finally come to the point of drafting a joint statement. The non-tragic view of sin is shared by both Catholic and liberal views; the necessity of the sacramental system of the church is what the Catholic part insists on while the liberal emphasis is on the universalist scope of justification. All are and will be justified because in the end God will have mercy on all. This is the present-day common understanding of justification shared by both the RC Church and the liberal churches. Next year (2017), these two bodies will celebrate the fact that the Reformation is over! And if justification is what they say it is, they are right! It is over indeed.

                    Church Planting and Justification by Faith

                    How are we then to plant churches in such a context? The church will continue to be founded on the authority of Scripture and justification by faith. There is no other recipe available for a healthy gospel church. There is no other gospel than the biblically attested message of Jesus Christ that saves unworthy sinners like us on the ground of his one-and-for-all work on the cross. We may and should be creative to find new and better ways to convey justification, to preach it, to apply it, to witness its living reality, but the Bible is crystal clear that we are either justified by God’s grace or we fall into a kind a self-justification that is a tragic deception. This is a false gospel. Any accommodation to the idea that we are ultimately capable of saving ourselves, any accommodation to the fact that salvation is not God’s gift from beginning to end is a slippery slope towards a false gospel. Do not think that justification is a theological relic of a distant past. It is indeed key to grasping the good news of Christ. May all church planters wholeheartedly embrace what the apostle Paul wrote: “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:8-9). Let us plant churches in Europe that faithfully and passionately reflect and embody this gospel!


                    [1] J.I. Packer, God’s Words. Studies in Key Bible Themes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988, p. 139.