179. After 150 Years of Papal Infallibility, What?

On 18 July 1870, one hundred and fifty years ago, the First Vatican Council (Vatican I) approved the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, issued by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) in the solemn yet nervous atmosphere of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The political situation around the Pontifical State was extremely tense and the prospect of the end of an era was felt as imminent. In fact, at the battle of Sedan (1-2 September 1870) the Prussian army defeated Napoleon III, the principal defender of the pope, thus leaving the pope without the French military protection from which he had benefited in the past. Napoleon III’s capture meant the end of French support and paved the way to the “breach of Rome”, i.e. the entry of the Italian army in the city of Rome (20 September 1870) and the proclamation of Rome as the capital city of the Italian kingdom. The Council was therefore abruptly interrupted and suspended. It is striking – if not tragically ironic – that as the Pontifical State was about to collapse, the pope and the Roman Catholic Church felt it necessary to proclaim a new dogma, i.e. the infallibility of the pope. The initiative was largely driven by political concerns. That doctrine was elevated to a dogmatic status (i.e. being part of core, revealed, unchangeable and binding teaching) and used as an identity marker and a symbolic weapon to fight against a political and cultural enemy.

A Window on the Council
A recent book by John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2018), focuses on the historical context of the Council and the theological significance of the discussion that took place around the infallibility of the pope. The Jesuit historian O’Malley is not new to writing re-assessments of pivotal events of modern Roman Catholic history. One can think of his important volumes on What Happened at Vatican II (2010) and Trent: What Happened at the Council (2013), which have proven to be trend-setting in their interpretation of present-day Roman Catholicism. In this new book on Vatican I it is as if he has completed the trilogy on the three modern councils.

More negative readings of Vatican I than O’Malley’s have been provided by A.B. Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion (1981), and H. Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (1983). O’Malley’s strength lies in the comprehensiveness of his historical reconstruction, whereas his reading of the doctrinal significance of the Council is only mildly critical and within the “progressive” side of Roman Catholic studies. He signals that the basic problem of Pastor Aeternus is its “historical naïveté” (p. 197), i.e. that it ignored historical differentiations and froze every possible development in the institutional outlook of the Roman Catholic Church. It is true that a century later Vatican II (1962-1965) softened the mode of papal authority but did not (could not) change its basic theological framework.

What Happened at Vatican I
There were external and internal pressures that drove the Roman Catholic Church to issue the dogma of papal infallibility. As for the former, in the 19thcentury the Papacy had to face two staunch adversaries that were able to challenge its survival. On the political level, there was the absolutism of the princes and European states that claimed authority over the Church, thus bringing into question the difficult balance between powers that had been struck in previous centuries. The popes were perceived as being part of the Ancien Régime (Old regime) which the modern world would soon overcome on many fronts.

On the philosophical front, the spread of the French Enlightenment clashed with the traditional worldview of the Papacy. The insistence on the prominence of “reason” over the “superstition” of religion, the growing importance of evolutionary theory over more static accounts of reality, and the diffusion of socialist ideas against mere protection of the status quo caused popes to react strongly in order to safeguard their share in the established system of power. This negative attitude reached a climax in 1864 when Pius IX issued the Symbol of Errors, a list of statements that were condemned as incompatible with Christianity. Apart from banning modern philosophical ideas, religious freedom, and the activities of Bible societies, the Symbol included the following statement that the pope rejected: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization” (80).

The clash could not have been more strident. In O’Malley’s words, papal infallibility was seen “as the only viable answer to the cultural, political and religious crisis ignited by the French Revolution and its pan-European Napoleonic aftermath” (p. 3).

As far as the internal pressures are concerned, O’Malley surveys the confrontation between two tendencies that were especially strong in France (but had ramifications all over Europe) and polarized the debate: “Gallicanism”, stressing the freedom of particular churches over against Rome, and “Ultramontanism”, exalting the central authority of the pope over national churches. Fearing that “Gallican” positions – marked by the questioning of centralized power structures – would make inroads in the Roman Church, Pius IX pushed the consolidation of the pope’s absolute authority as the source from which everything else flowed. His conviction is well captured by Joseph de Maistre’s words: “The pope governs and is not governed, judges and is not judged, teaches and is not taught” (p. 65).

The Meaning of Papal Infallibility
The cultural siege mindset was the background of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). O’Malley speaks of “an anxiety-ridden defensiveness” (p. 227). The felt danger of being assaulted by the modern world pushed Pius IX to insist that the Council clearly specify the juridical primacy of the pope as far as the leadership of the Church is concerned and proclaim the infallibility of his teaching under certain conditions. After issuing Dei Filius, the dogmatic constitution against atheism, pantheism, and materialism (and making them originate from Protestantism!), the Council was ready to address the ecclesiastical issue of papal infallibility. Here is what Vatican I declared:

“If anyone, then, shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the Pastors and the faithful; let him be anathema” (III).

Notice:

  • The pope’s authority is “full and supreme over the Universal Church”, no mere oversight or moral leadership: it is a political role.
  • Its comprehensive scope, i.e. not only faith and morals, but also discipline and government: it entails the whole of life instead of accepting limitations and checks and balances.
  • Its “fullness”: you either accept it in total or you deny it.

As to papal infallibility, Pastor Aeternus defines it this way:

“We teach and define that it is a divinely-revealed dogma: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex Cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. But if anyone — God forbid — should presume to contradict this Our definition; let him be anathema” (IV).

Notice:

  • The emphatic subject “we”, i.e. the pope as head of the Church; no higher authority is invoked because on earth there is none;
  • The theological framework, i.e. “supreme Apostolic authority”: the papal office is mainly characterized in terms of “power”;
  • The dogmatic content, i.e. “infallibility”; a divine prerogatory is attributed to a man;
  • Its scope, i.e. when the pope speaks “from the chair”, i.e. exercising his ultimate prerogatives;
  • Its unchangeable nature, i.e. “irreformable”: it is a permanent mark of the Roman Church;
  • and the issuing curse on those (e.g. Protestants) who do not accept this doctrine: they are still under that curse issued by the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level with an irrevocable dogma.

These are strong terms that committed the Church of Rome to an extremely awkward doctrine that no “ecumenical” reading can soften. The only Biblical argument given to support this dogma is the citation of Luke 22:32 (Jesus says to Peter: “I prayed for you, so that your faith will not falter”). Yet, this citation does not support any of Pastor Aeternus’s definition in that Jesus in no way warrants Peter’s future infallibility and absolute power, and even less so the infallibility and powers of future popes, admitting and not granting that there is a relationship between Peter and subsequent leaders of the Church in the city of Rome. As it is the case with much of the doctrine of the papacy, this last doctrinal formulation is also founded on extra-Biblical arguments.

The First Vatican Council provided the most comprehensive and authoritative doctrinal statement on the papacy in the modern era. Instead of taking into account the Biblical remarks legitimately offered by the Protestant Reformation, and instead of listening to certain trends of modern thought that advocate freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, Vatican I further solidified the nature of the papal office as a quasi-omnipotent and infallible figure. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest doctrinal authority, i.e. the promulgation of a dogma, a binding, irreversible, unchangeable truth, to cement the institution of the papacy by furthering its absolute nature.

When Was Papal Infallibility Implemented?
Only a month after the solemn pronouncement, Rome was no longer under papal control and the Council left an unfinished work. However, what it did decide upon proved to be of great significance, the greatest result of which is that the “Ultramontane Church” (i.e. pope-centered, Rome-led) became the present-day Roman Catholic Church (p. 242). After documenting the different phases leading to the promulgation of Pastor Aeternus, O’Malley deals with the aftermath of Vatican I. There were of course political consequences that needed decades to be settled in different national contexts. Another lasting consequence was that “The popes achieved a strikingly new prominence in Catholic consciousness for the ordinary believer” (p. 240). After being declared “infallible” and at the center of an absolutist power system, “an almost personal devotion to the pope became a new Catholic virtue”. It was the beginning of the celebrity culture attached to the papal office and to the person of the pope that spilled over into the 20th century.

There is yet another important observation that O’Malley omits but that is necessary to make. Vatican I restricts the pope’s infallibility to when he speaks “ex cathedra”, i.e. from the chair. The question is: When did he speak in such a way? What are the papal pronouncements – among the dozens of 19th and 20th century papal encyclicals and documents – that are endowed with the “infallibility” that Pastor Aeternus grants to the pope? Even in Catholic theological circles the issue of the extension of infallibility is debated.

Logically speaking, Pastor Aeternus must be one of them. The papal document defining papal infallibility must be considered infallible, otherwise the whole argument undergirding it collapses.

While there might be different opinions about the exercise of infallibility, there is at least one clear example of a subsequent papal teaching that Roman Catholics must take as infallible.

It was in 1950 that Pius XII issued the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary as a binding belief for the Roman Catholic faith. With the dogmatic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Rome committed to it:

“We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (44).

This is clearly the formula of a papal infallible, “ex cathedra” statement. No Roman Catholic theologian can question it. In passing, the Bible is not interested in the final days of Mary nor in the way she died. She must have died like anyone else, and yet here we are confronted not with an opinion but with a dogma. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest magisterial authority to formulate a belief that the Scriptures are silent on, to say the least.

On the basis of a non-biblical dogma, i.e. the pope’s infallibility, another non-biblical dogma, i.e. Mary’s assumption, was built, thus becoming part of the binding and irreformable teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Biblically speaking, one could say: from bad to worse; but this is what Rome is committed to and will continue to be committed to, in spite of all “ecumenical” developments and friendlier attitudes. The flawed Roman Catholic theological system operates in this way: not reforming what is contrary to Scripture, but rather consolidating it with other non-biblical doctrines and practices. After the 150 years since Vatican I, the only hope for change is a reformation according to the biblical gospel that will question and ultimately dismantle and reject papal infallibility.

171. The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI: Looking for a Deeper Protestant Evaluation

Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) is one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. Born in 1927, his impressive biography includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), holding various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957-1977), being Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), to eventually becoming Pope (2005-2013), and since 2013, Pope Emeritus. His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth. Needless to say, one cannot think about seriously dealing with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his work.

His stature makes his reputation spillover from the Roman Catholic world. So a book on The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, ed. T. Perry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), is no surprise and is a welcome contribution to approaching the work of Joseph Ratzinger from the outside. The volume contains 15 articles written by Protestant authors who cover various aspects of his work, especially in the areas of dogmatic and liturgical theology, offering an entry point into his theological vision. The overall tone of the articles is generally informative and understandably appreciative, as the subtitle indicates.

Tim Perry, the editor of the book, is not new to initiatives aimed at building an ecumenical bridge between Evangelicals and Catholics. One can think of his editorship of The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (2007), in which Pope Wojtyła was assessed in extremely generous terms– so generous that the analysis seemed to be selective and forgetful of major critical points of his legacy (e.g. see my review asking questions about John Paul II’s alleged but idiosyncratic “Christ-centered legacy”). Other volumes by Perry (e.g. Mary for Evangelicals, 2006, and with D. Kendall, The Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013) also show his desire to wet the evangelical appetite for Roman Catholic doctrine and spiritualità (e.g. Mariology) while not always indicating what is biblically at stake in them. His chapter on Mary in the book (pp. 118-135) confirms his desire to find ways to “redeem” the Catholic Marian dogmas and practices for evangelical readers, even when they should be simply rejected from a biblical standpoint.

In his introduction, Perry looks at the (ecumenical?) future and singles out four ways in which Ratzinger’s theological wisdom can be useful for tomorrow’s church. Learning from Benedict, the church will:

1. find her strength in holy Scripture;
2. affirm that Christian faith is reasonable;
3. depend much more on the visible holiness of her members; and
4. be humble (pp. 7-9).

These are all important points. However, on either side of the Tiber (Protestant or Roman Catholic), who can be against them? They are so generic that even along the liberal-conservative dividing line within various Christian groups, who could say anything contrary? The problem is: does this list fairly and accurately represent, if not the whole, at least the heart of Ratzinger’s theology? Would Benedict himself summarize his work in these points? Are we sure that his message to the churches can be separated from the sacramental, hierarchical, and institutional nature of the Roman gospel and Rome’s “thick” claims on ecclesiology, soteriology, the papacy, Mariology, etc.?

The intention of “appreciating” Ratzinger’s theology is evident, but what about the ability to penetrate it? The impression of a similar gap is confirmed in other chapters of the book. For example, Ben Meyers and Katherine Sonderegger helpfully discuss the relationship between faith and reason in Ratzinger (11-25 and 28-45). The rationality of faith is certainly a theme dear to him, but as clearly demonstrated in his famous 2006 Regensburg Lecture “Faith, Reason and the University”, Benedict builds this rationality on the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” and firmly rejects what he identifies as the “programme of dehellenization” of the faith. According to him, this programme took place on the 16th century “Scripture Alone” Protestant principle, continued through 19th and 20th century theological liberalism, and eventually resulted in present-day relativistic multi-culturalism. One would have thought that in a book that presents a “Protestant” voice, someone would take issue with Benedict for his totally negative assessment of Sola Scriptura, one of the pillars of classic Protestantism, which he considers to hold the main responsibility for the wreckage of the Christian faith. Instead, the overall “appreciation” for Ratzinger’s defense of the rationality of faith over and against the “Scripture Alone” principle takes precedence over a truly Protestant analysis, thus skipping the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue (which involves biblical critique done in a gracious yet firm way).

Another example of this weakness of the book has to do with Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology. In his chapter on the topic, Fred Sanders commends his “powerful set of Trinitarian commitments” (p. 136), a common theological foundation that is often praised in the book as something that Ratzinger shares with Protestants. Because of his Trinitarianism, Ratzinger is presented as an ecumenical theologian from whom Protestants must learn. Staying on the surface of Trinitarian theology, this might be true, but as soon as one begins to dig deeper, things significantly change. In presenting his liturgical vision, Peter Leithart quotes Ratzinger talking about the Eucharist:

The Eucharistic Prayer is as entering into the prayer of Jesus Christ himself, hence it is the Church’s entering into the Logos, the Father’s Word” (p. 197).

The Church enters into the Logos! This is a view of the Eucharist that is heavily embedded in a Trinitarian framework and implies that there is an organic “Christ-Church interconnection” (an expression used by Gregg Allison, p. 63), which is biblically disputable. Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology demands that the Church enters into the Logos, thus becoming one with Him and claiming to prolong (so to speak) His incarnation in her teaching and her sacramental and ruling offices. This view is based on a Trinitarian argument, but runs contrary to the standard Protestant view of the Church and her relationship with Christ.

Or again, in skillfully dealing with Ratzinger’s theology of the Word of God, Kevin Vanhoozer quotes Benedict saying:

As the Word of God becomes flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 69).

The theology of Scripture is set in the context of Trinitarian theology, and the Church is embedded in this Trinitarian dynamic as if she were the mother of the Word because the presence of the Spirit is intrinsically tied to her. The link between the Holy Spirit and the Church is so organic that “for Benedict, Scripture, tradition, and the Roman magisterium always coincide because they are guided by the same Spirit” (p. 85). His Trinitarian theology leads Ratzinger to “dismissing” (p. 68) and “explicitly” denying Sola Scriptura (p. 75), which is one of the tenets of the evangelical understanding of the gospel.

The question is: if Catholics and Protestants have the same Trinitarian foundation (as many chapters of the book assume), how is it that they come to very different accounts of Revelation, the Bible, the Church, the sacraments, salvation, … the gospel? If we have this foundational commonality, why does Ratzinger argue in (his) Trinitarian terms that “Scripture Alone” is – for example – the main cause of the departure from the rationality of faith (e.g. in the above mentioned Regensburg Lecture) and is to be rejected in order to embrace a proper view of the Eucharist and Revelation? Are we not dealing with gospel issues that stem from different Trinitarian views, which look similar in language and on the surface but are undergirded by different core commitments and result in ultimately different accounts of the gospel?

The “appreciative” tone of the book shies away from asking the question, let alone responding to it, with exceptions and with some interesting hints. The chapters by Allison and Vanhoozer point to the idea that something deeper than acknowledging generic commonalities runs in the Roman Catholic and Protestant theological basic orientations. As Carl Trueman rightly observes in his chapter “Is the Pope (Roman Catholic)?”,

Roman Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with a different set of doctrines. It is a different way of thinking about Christianity, a way that draws a very tight connection between Scripture, tradition, and the doctrine of the church in a manner alien to Protestantism” (p. 153).

“A different way of thinking”. Finally, someone in the book indicates what is at stake in dealing with Roman Catholicism in general and with Ratzinger in particular. “A different way of thinking” that has some overlap in the use of biblical and theological language but is constructed with a different blueprint and results in a different answer to the ultimate questions about God, the world, and eternity. “A different way of thinking”. This is a clue that helps us to appreciate Benedict’s theology much more than lazily praising what we Protestants have in common with it. I think Ratzinger would agree more with this “different way of thinking” type of appraisal than with words of praise that do not go deep enough in the analysis of his theology. Trueman quotes him saying:

The way one views the structure of Christianity will necessarily affect in some measure, great or small, one’s attitude to various particular matters contained within the whole” (n. 26, p. 163).

The book The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation contains several “particulars” of Ratzinger’s theology from a Protestant viewpoint, but the “structure” of his view of Christianity is only touched upon by few of them and is left as a homework that is still to be done. The “appreciation” of the book should be heard, but not at the expense of neglecting the fact that Benedict and Protestants have different views of the “structure of Christianity” that impact the whole of their respective faiths.

P.S. On Ratzinger’s theology I have also written an “appreciative” (I hope) yet evangelically critical article: Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger in Evangelical Perspective, “Perichoresis” 6.2 (2008) pp. 201-218.

167. Why Do They Cross the Tiber? Stories of Evangelical Conversions to Rome

Leonardo De Chirico’s note: I am thankful to my friend and colleague Clay Kannard for contributing with this fine article to the series of Vatican Files. Clay is a pastor sent to Rome to be a resource for the Italian evangelical church. He serves as a deacon of the church Breccia di Roma, Communications Director of the Reformanda Initiative and is a co-host of the upcoming Reformanda Initiative podcast.

The following post comes from a paper that was delivered at the 2019 Rome Scholars & Leaders Network in Rome, Italy.

MIND, HEART, & SOUL: INTELLECTUALS AND THE PATH TO ROME: A BOOK REVIEW

Mind, Heart, & Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome by R.J. Snell and Robert P. George is a collection of sixteen stories of individuals who have converted to Roman Catholicism. The interviews are conducted by intellectuals who are Roman Catholic converts, and as the title of the book suggests, each convert interviewed is a public intellectual and notable expert and/or leader in his or her field of study. Each interview recorded in this book provides insight into the converts’ religious backgrounds, personal experiences that led to conversion, the intellectual hurdles or obstacles faced in the journey towards embracing the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, life after conversion and post-conversion struggles, and suggestions of resources for other intellectuals who might be considering the next step on their own path towards Rome.

There is no doubt that the individuals selected to provide a testimony in this book are to be considered brilliant minds, members of the elite intellectual class within Western culture. Each chapter begins with a biography of both the interviewer and interviewee. Immediately the reader is met with impressive resumes of the people offering their personal stories of conversion to Roman Catholicism. These are the conversion stories of leading theologians, a former megachurch pastor, philosophers, ethicists, a novelist and syndicated journalists for major news outlets, political analysts and theorists, historians, legal scholars, constitutional lawyers and policy creators, and even an accomplished astronomer. The majority hold post-graduate level degrees from the most prestigious universities in the West, such as Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge where many serve as faculty members and leaders of various university programs. They are no doubt scholars of the highest caliber and undoubtedly influential intellectuals who have demonstrated a commitment to life-long learning and engaging culture in the public square.

Mind, Heart and Soul is an apologetic work. The testimonies within this book demonstrate that faith is not an enemy of reason, intellectual fervor or a threat to scientific innovation, but they do so, for the most part, without diving deeply into the details of the theological, philosophical and intellectual arguments these converts wrestled with. Regardless, these stories demonstrate that faith involves the rational mind in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.[1] What is also evident in every testimony is that these intellectuals were not left alone in their quests for spiritual truth, but were aided through the contributions of those who had come before them. The works of other intellectual Catholics served as powerful resources in capturing these converts minds, hearts and souls for the Roman Catholic faith.

Intellectuals mentioned within these testimonies have successfully convinced countless others to embrace the Roman Catholic worldview. For example, the work of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the once Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic priest and who will soon be canonized as a saint in the RCC, is mentioned time and time again in these conversion stories as one of the major influencers on decisions to cross the Tiber.[2] Other intellectual influencers mentioned throughout these conversion stories include the theological and philosophical works of Joseph Ratzinger and Peter Kreeft, the literary works of Flannery O’Connor and Oxford inklings such as G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien, and while not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis. A reading of the Church Fathers and the intellectual tradition of Thomas Aquinas played a significant role in convincing many of the converts that the Roman Catholic Church is correct in claiming to be the one true, historic and Apostolic Church.

The richness and influence of the Roman Catholic intellectual world is undeniable in these stories, thus providing a useful list of resources for those on similar journeys. But it was not only the brilliant minds throughout history that are seen to have influenced conversions. There is also the influence of community and a sense of belonging. Many of these testimonies describe a positive experience within a community of like-minded, intellectual Roman Catholics who lived a lively faith, or participation as students in Roman Catholic university clubs. But perhaps the most attractive sense of community came from belonging to a church that claims a doctrinal unity visible under the authority of the Pope, the head of a single, historic, and seemingly unified church.

The religious backgrounds vary among the converts. The majority of the testimonies come from individuals whose religious background was a form of nominal Protestantism. Of particular interest are the testimonies given by those who either grew up in a family with an evangelical religious background, or whose initial experience in the Christian faith took place within an evangelical context. Therefore, this book serves as a useful read for evangelical leaders, scholars, and pastors in seeking to understand common themes or potential weak points that might help to understand what influenced an evangelical intellectual to cross the Tiber and embrace the Roman Catholic Church.

EXAMPLES OF EVANGELICAL CONVERSIONS TO ROME

Ulf Ekman[3]
Former evangelical Megachurch pastor, Ulf Ekman, helpfully summarizes his attraction to Rome using four words: historicity, apostolic continuity, authority, and sacramentality. Ekman admits that in his camp there was a general lack of knowledge regarding church history and at times even an “open scorn for the long history of the church” (50). Ecclesiology was defined, not through a noted historical connection to a global and universal church sharing a common confession of faith, but through isolated independent congregational churches that held a “pragmatic look at the present and a futuristic eschatology” (Ibid).

As Ekman studied church history, he discovered a church with a much higher ecclesiology claiming apostolic continuity and unity under the Petrine authority of the pope. In the midst of liberal protestant developments, Ekman was attracted to a historical tradition of Rome that held an unwavering commitment to her traditional dogmas. He began to realize that his Protestant prejudices towards Rome stemmed from a lack of knowledge regarding the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and he ultimately rejected the Reformation doctrines stating that,

I used to believe the four “sola” tenets of the Reformation…more or less out of Protestant habit or tradition. Step-by-step I started to see how the Protestant mindset has an overriding attitude of “either-or” while the Catholic mindset, as well as the Hebrew, is more of “both-and” (56).

Yet of the aspects of Rome that attracted Ekman the most, it was the sacramental element of the Catholic Church that began to draw him into the Tiber.

Matthew Schmitz[4]
Matthew Schmitz grew up as an evangelical, believing that Catholics were probably not Christians and that the Church of Rome’s teaching was at odds with Christianity. As a child he participated in the Gothard Seminar, a program designed by evangelical Bill Gothard in which biblical morality is taught and encouraged. What Schmitz encountered was a very legalistic form of American Christianity that did not seem to demonstrate grace.

By the age of seventeen, Schmitz had rebelled against this legalistic program but not against the evangelical faith. While on a summer work assignment in Washington, DC, he began attending Capitol Hill Baptist Church. The pastor, Mark Dever, introduced Schmitz to Calvinism by gifting him a book written by J.I. Packer. Soon the young Matthew considered himself among the young, restless and Reformed, although he confesses never making it past page 70 of Calvin’s Institutes. Regardless, this newfound identity led Schmitz to begin reading anything that would be considered “both solidly “Christian” and undeniably great” (122). He began reading both post-Reformation authors as well as some older “Catholic things”, such as Augustine’s Confessions.

Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of Scripture was very appealing to Schmitz, helping him to overcome one of his biggest intellectual problems regarding the Christian faith, evolutionary theory. The literal interpretation of Scripture Schmitz had been taught did not allow for evolution, unlike the allegorical reading of Scripture used by Augustine. He began to embrace a Roman Catholic hermeneutical approach to Scripture.  Schmitz was,

…ceasing to be a Protestant, at least to be a pure kind of Protestant. I was becoming a more complicated kind of Protestant, or a more Catholic kind of Christian. I was looking for ways of reading Scripture, which, though I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, were more traditional and ecclesial (122).

Then while studying at Princeton, Schmitz was faced with the emergence of the gay rights movement. In seeking to defend a traditional Christian understanding of sexuality, he read Roman Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay titled, “Contraception and Chastity”. What Schmitz discovered was a powerful defense for the Christian worldview on sexuality within the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This surprised Schmitz because he had always considered the Church of Rome as having erred in so many things. The discovery of a certain truth within Catholicism led him to begin looking more seriously at the Roman Catholic faith. Schmitz states that eventually his reason was well disposed towards the Roman Catholic Church and he ultimately became Catholic, “just by beginning to view things in the way Catholics viewed them. All I had to do was relinquish my opposition” (126).

Joshua Charles[5]
Charles crossing of the Tiber began with his doubting the doctrine of sola scriptura, which he ultimately rejecting it 2015. While studying Scripture, Charles came to view the recorded words of the living authorities captured in Scripture as problematic for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. He reasoned that the words of God spoken by men in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter, Paul), words that were later written down as Scripture, had to have been authoritative when spoken and therefore indicated a living authority outside of the Scriptures. Charles then found himself trying to identify which living authority should be trusted, and therefore which biblical canon was correct. Was it the Protestant canon, or the Roman Catholic canon? He asked himself, 

Who do I trust to get that canon correct? Who is the divinely ordained authority by which we may be certain that we have the correct canon? Myself? Scholars at universities? The Jesus Seminar? I concluded that my appeal must be to nothing more and nothing less than the authority we see exhibited throughout the Scripture, but particularly in Acts 15, and that is the Living, Authoritative Church that began at Pentecost (102).

It was at this point that Charles set out on a quest to read the Church Fathers. In doing so, he was “absolutely slapped across the face” by church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. According to Charles, these early leaders of the faith seemed to have a more Roman Catholic understanding of theology and practice than did the evangelical tradition in which he grew up—an American Evangelical/Protestant Christianity he claims seemed to be in chaos (102).

Upon reading the Church Fathers, Charles claims to have discovered strictly Roman Catholic teachings such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Eucharist as sacrifice, the authority of the bishops, and apostolic succession (104). Charles even states that in reading the Church Fathers, there was an absence “of any distinctively Protestant doctrines among their writings, and the presence of a great deal of distinctively Catholic Doctrines” (106).[6]

Charles claimed to have found continuity. Namely, that while Roman Catholic doctrine has developed and been refined over time, it is fundamentally still the same, something that Charles states cannot be the said for the thousands of Protestant denominations (111). And yet, while he had recognized various problems within the Protestant tradition, Charles had never previously considered Catholicism because he never properly understood it. He states,

In short, what I thought I knew about Catholicism just wasn’t true. I realized that the Catholic intellectual tradition is extremely powerful, and I studied what the Church actually said about herself and her own dogmas rather than seeing them through an oftentimes erroneous and misunderstanding Protestant lens (117).[7]

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP and Douglas M. Beaumont[8]
In his first years of college, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP began to explore metaphysical frameworks offered by different religious traditions. While reading Flannery O’Connor’s Letters to A, White encountered the name of Karl Barth. He then went to the library, located and read Barth’s Introduction to Evangelical Theology in one sitting. On that day White claims to have received the gift of faith and was soon after baptized as a Protestant, even though he had not yet determined to which church he would belong.[9] Realizing that there were many expressions of Christianity, White set out on a journey to understand his new faith by studying its history.

White enrolled in a Church History course at his university and begin reading the writings of Origen and Augustine. He then read Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, whose emphasizing the combination of philosophy and theology was very appealing to White. He began reading more modern Roman Catholic theologians such as Balthasar, Rahner, de Lubac and John Paul II, in whose writings he found a deep continuity with the Church Fathers. Then during his senior of college, White read John Henry Newman, came to view the Roman Catholic Church as the historic faith and converted to Roman Catholicism.

White began pursuing his MPhil in patristic theology at Oxford where he discovered Aquinas and was trained in Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. White describes Aquinas as a “deeply grounded philosophical realist, a deeply grounded theological realist, and a mystic; it’s a very powerful combination” (70). For White, Aquinas offered a unified system for understanding all of reality within the context of the Roman Catholic Church. According to White,

St. Thomas’s philosophy of nature, metaphysics, understanding of the human person, epistemology, logic, and ethics make sense even independently of divine revelation while being deeply compatible with it. He also articulates an understanding of revelation which assimilates his realistic philosophical approach to the world (71).

In other words, for Fr. White, Aquinas’ philosophical and theological framework offers a unified system for understanding all of reality and that can be fully experienced within the sacramental economy of the Roman Catholic Church. A complete package rooted in an ancient intellectual tradition is very attractive to intellectuals on a quest for spiritual truth.[10]

This was especially true for Douglas M. Beaumont. Beaumont did not grow up in a religious environment, and although he had attended vacation Bible schools as child, it was not until college that he began his “faith life” (233). He admits to having strong sentiments against the Roman Catholic Church prior to his conversion, but without truly understanding it. The more he began to study Catholicism though, the more he began to view shared foundations with Protestantism that had really only diverged in application.[11] While studying apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Beaumont was introduced to the writings of Thomas Aquinas through Professor Geisler, who often assigned the reading of Aquinas to his students. Aquinas’ natural theology was influential in professor Norman Geisler’s classical approach to apologetics. Beaumont immediately came to appreciate Aquinas’ philosophical, careful and systemic thinking.

Beaumont continued to study Church History as part of his role as research assistant to Norman Geisler, who at the time was working on his Systematic Theology series. Beaumont was tasked with finding quotes from Church Fathers that would support Geisler’s beliefs, but he found it very difficult to identify continuity with the early Church Fathers when it came to an Evangelical ecclesiology and eschatology. The longer Beaumont studied Church History, the more he began to agree with John Newman, that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. Ultimately, Beaumont embraced the long intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, her claim to apostolic unity and continuity with the ancient Church, and a sacramental system structured around a Thomistic intellectual tradition and metaphysical understanding of nature and grace.[12] Dozens of other seminarians from Southern Evangelical Seminary have since followed in his footsteps.

COMMON THEMES AND WEAK POINTS NOTED IN EVANGELICAL CONVERSIONS TO ROME

Each of these converts above was attracted to one or more of the four words mentioned by Ulf Ekman: the historicity, apostolic continuity, authority, and sacramentality of the Roman Catholic Church. There is only one word missing that must be noted, intellectuality. The previous conversion stories are not isolated. Many other examples can be found elsewhere, e.g. Beaumont’s book, Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome. A very helpful analysis on evangelical conversions to Rome has also been provided by Kenneth J. Stewart in his book, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis.[13]

What repeating themes do these evangelical conversion stories reveal that should be noted by evangelical pastors, leaders and scholars? This section does not attempt to provide an in-depth theological analysis of the arguments given by evangelical converts for their crossing of the Tiber. For an excellent psychological, theological, and sociological analysis on what has been labeled, “Convertitis”, check out the new series by the Davenant Institute titled, “Why Protestants Convert“. What we are addressing below are common themes and weak-points identified in testimonies of those who have had a case of convertitis. Our desire is to continue a conversation as to why Roman Catholicism becomes so attractive to some evangelicals and what can we do about it.

1. Weak ecclesiology with no or little historical formation or depth
Every single testimony seems to indicate a weak ecclesiological background. Converts describe evangelicalism in terms of isolated evangelical church expressions with no connection to a historic and global Christian faith. There was no mention of intentional discipleship and theological formation taking place within the context of the local church. In these testimonies, a study of Church history usually took place independently or through Evangelical Bible Schools and Seminaries. In Beaumont’s case, his seminary did not even offer a Church history course for graduate level students, not even as an elective! How is this possible? Our own research has found that many seminaries lack courses on Roman Catholicism. The result is a generation of evangelical leaders who, like majority of the converts in this book, did not really understand Roman Catholicism.

What needs to be done in our institutions to help raise awareness of church history and the evangelical connection to the historic Christian faith? More importantly though, what needs to be done in our churches? Helping evangelicals to grasp and identify with a historic and biblical faith should not be left to Bible schools and seminaries alone. Perhaps there could be a regular recitation during times of worship that include not only Scripture but historic creeds and confessions stretching from the Apostles Creed, to the reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Confession of Faith, etc., to even more modern global evangelical confessions such as those created by the Lausanne Movement.

2. Superficial and individualist expressions of faith
We cannot ignore the American consumeristic and individualistic cultural influence on those who attend our churches or seminaries. Unfortunately, this cultural influence can also be seen within many Evangelical church models today. Many churches have been designed to deliver an experience, having created attractional means in which the attendee can experience their faith, be entertained and consume religious content without being a contributing member or participating in the life of the church. This allows for the development of a shallow, individualistic and consumeristic expression of faith.

When one becomes aware of the superficiality of the experiential expression of faith found in many evangelical churches, a Christianity that provides a way to have an experiential faith through a mystical sacramental system rooted in an ancient, historic and global tradition that claims to be united becomes very appealing. Additionally, when one sees an apparent lack of unity resulting from isolated inwardly focused congregations, the global, ancient and seemingly unified nature of Rome becomes very attractive.

3. A Gospel-less Evangelical/Protestant church experience
Looking back to the testimony of Matthew Schmitz, it appears that his experience within a very legalistic (fundamental) evangelical context played a factor in his journey towards Rome. Others experienced a liberal form of Protestantism which also indicates a lack of the biblical Gospel.

Those growing up in a more legalistic context, like Matthew Schmitz, seem to be attracted to the Church of Rome’s commitment to its historic doctrines maintained under the authority of the Pope and the teachings of the Magisterium. This was in contrast to an apparent Protestant pick-and-choose or “have it your way” menu of churches. These converts found solace in a unified, non-democratic and traditional dogmatic system defined by the Church.

Something that is important to note in these conversion stories is that while there was much positivity regarding the unity of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted to a divided Protestantism and Evangelicalism, there was very little discussion about the divergent theological expressions within Roman Catholicism, both historically and currently at odds with one another. Some of the conservative converts who were put off by the liberalization of many Protestant denominations, often leading to splits and the creation of new denominations, seemed to lack any previous conversion knowledge of the various movements within Roman Catholicism that are at odds with one another. This is also true for the more progressive-leaning converts. For example, in chapter 6, Kirsten Powers openly shared about her post-conversion crisis of faith when she discovered a conservative/progressive divide within Catholicism that is marked with infighting (94-95).

4. Attraction to Roman Catholic intellectual tradition and a lack of biblical discernment when reading the Church Fathers, Church History, and Catholic intellectual giants
There is always a need to recognize our presuppositions on the quest for truth. For evangelicals who hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, we understand that the Bible is the starting point through which truth claims are to be examined. This equally applies when reading, or leading others through a reading of the Church Fathers, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, Chesterton, etc. It is not sufficient to take a merely philosophical approach or a realist approach, evangelicals must take a biblical approach. When it comes to reading these ancient intellectual giants and Church Fathers, is there is a need for greater evangelical scholarly assessment of church history carried out with a greater discernment and theological alertness?

What scholarly work is still left for evangelicals to do in order to address this weak point? What scholarly and literary works have already been done using a heightened theological alertness based on the authority of Scripture to evaluate the writings of the Church Fathers, Church councils and growingly popular intellectual traditions? Has there truly been enough work to study, recognize and indicate where our earliest brothers deviate from Scripture? This kind of work always carries the risk of being labeled historical revisionists, but evangelical scholars must be willing to take that risk and boldly identify where Church Fathers influenced a decision, made a decision or wrote a statement that set a trajectory towards what would ultimately result in unbiblical theology and practice.

Another question we must ask is: How does the local church address this weak point? In Schmitz’ testimony, it is not even clear whether or not he returned from his Summer stent in Washington DC to a local church that could have or would have helped him practice discernment. Was he left to himself as he began reading Augustine and embracing a Roman Catholic hermeneutical approach to Scripture? There is no mention of anyone helping him in this process.

5. Atomistic or no understanding of Roman Catholicism
Every evangelical testimony in this book claimed to have known very little about Roman Catholicism prior to their conversions. There were at times atomistic approaches to understanding Catholicism, only seeing Rome’s teachings as isolated doctrines having minor or isolated disagreements with Protestantism. However, there seemed to be a complete lack of understanding Roman Catholicism as a complete theological system prior to conversion. It is only after crossing the Tiber that some of the intellectuals recognized the systemic nature of Catholicism, and by then they had already rejected the Reformation doctrines that would undermine such a system.

It would be interesting to conduct a poll to see how many of our Evangelical Bible schools, seminaries, and missionary training centers actually offer courses on understanding Roman Catholicism as a theological system, and if any of them do, if they would be required courses in the training of evangelical scholars, leaders, and pastors. I am afraid we already know how the results would look.

What is evident through a reading of these testimonies is that there is much work to be done. It can be unsettling for evangelicals when considering that this book is one among many. However, the crossing of the Tiber is not only unidirectional. We at the Reformanda Initiative have been encouraged time and time again by stories of Roman Catholics who convert to the evangelical/biblical faith of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in the work of Jesus Christ alone. Most recently, we were encouraged by the testimony of Onsi A. Kamel, Catholicism Made Me Protestant, recently published by First Things. Read it and be encouraged.

Our prayer is that God may provide the resources and people who would dedicate their lives to humbly work together in identifying, uniting, equipping, and resourcing evangelical leaders to understand Roman Catholic theology and practice, to educate the evangelical church, and to communicate the biblical Gospel of salvation over and against attractive yet deviating narratives. Will you pray with us?

 Bibliography

George, Robert P., and R. J. Snell. Mind, Heart and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome. TAN Books, 2018.


[1] Kristen Powers, states in chapter six that, “One of my struggles with Christianity was that I thought it was anti-intellectual…I really thought all intellectuals were skeptics too…”, 89.

[2] Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Grammar of Ascent are mentioned throughout this book as one of the most influential works that helped converts overcome intellectual challenges towards the Christian faith, and to embrace the Roman Catholic Church as the one true church.

[3] Ulf Ekman was born in Sweden where he was ordained as a Lutheran minister. In 1983 Ekman founded the charismatic evangelical church, Word of Life, which eventually grew into a Megachurch having an expansive outreach and global influence. In his thirty-plus years of ministry, Ekman founded several Bible schools and a seminary, organized and led conferences around the world, and authored over 40 books that have been translated into over thirty languages. Ekman valued the evangelical emphasis on reading and teaching the Bible, having a personal relationship with Jesus and the charismatic experience of faith.

[4] Matthew Schmitz is a senior editor of First Things and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Spectator and more. He holds an AB in English from Princeton.

[5] Joshua Charles is a historian, writer, and speaker. He holds an MA in government and a law degree. As a writer, he has written many articles for publications such as Fox News, The Federalist, and the Jerusalem Post and has authored and co-authored bestselling books on America’s Founders, Israel and the Bible. His testimony provides very little insight into the specifics of his previous religious experience, other than it was within a non-denominational Protestant Christian upbringing.

[6] Then on page 108, Charles gives an example, stating that “every single Church Father believed in baptismal regeneration…”.

[7] As Evangelicals, even the works of the earliest Church Fathers must be read in light of God’s Word as our ultimate authority—Sola Scriptura. In Charles’ case, he had already denied the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

[8] Fr. Thomas Joseph White is the director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum in Rome, professor of theology and a convert himself. Douglas M. Beaumont holds a Ph.D. in theology from North-West University and an MA in apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary. At Sothern Evangelical Seminary Beaumont served as assistant to President Norman Geisler and taught Bible and religion for many years. He is also the author of several books, including Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome.

[9] More details are needed, but how is one baptized by a church without yet having decided to what church one would belong to? What was the understanding of baptism by the church who administered this ordinance? Was there any evaluation of White’s claim of faith or any attempt to catechize him?

[10] It is important to note that while Fr. White would present a Thomistic understanding of the Roman Catholic faith, as a comprehensive theological system where everything is interconnected, most of the converts never had this understanding of Roman Catholicism prior to conversion. Rather, Roman Catholicism was approached or thought of through the typical atomistic approach—e.g. doctrine by doctrine. For more on this read Dr. Leonardo De Chirico’s dissertation, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Vatican II and Gregg Allison’s book, Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment.

[11] Beaumont provides examples stating, “immoral popes were no more of a problem than was St. Peter. The evil of Israel no more made it cease to be the people of God than evils committed by those in the Church made it cease to be the Church. These discoveries made me realize that often it was my inconsistent application of shared principles that made Catholicism seem as far off as I had been led to believe it was.” (226). Beaumont states that during his time at SES, Church History was not even taught for any of their graduate-level degrees, even as an elective (227).

[12] Beaumont understands very well the difference between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, from the systemic nature of Catholicism to recognizing that while we often use the same words (e.g. evangelize, works, grace), we have completely different understandings of them. See his concluding remarks on page 237.

[13] See chapter fifteen of his Stewart’s book, titled “Why Are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?”, specifically the section titled “Reasons Behind the Drift”.