Category Archives: Vatican Files English

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

August 1st, 2017

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

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

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

Sacramental Grace

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

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

Stretching Trent Rather than Reforming Rome

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

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

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

July 1st, 2017

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

More than Friendships

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

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

“Pray for Me”

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

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

Massive Implications

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

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

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

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

June 1st, 2017

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

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

Prayers

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

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

Rosary

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

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

 

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

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

The Need for Clarification: Is the Reformation Over?

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

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

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

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

 


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

May 1st, 2017

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

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

Focus on Sanctuaries

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

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

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

What Evangelization Are We Talking About?

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

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

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