181. “All Brothers”: The Unbearable Cost of Roman Catholic Universalism

 Image source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

It has been rightly called the “political manifesto” of Pope Francis’s pontificate. In fact, there is a lot of politics and a lot of sociology in the new encyclical “All Brothers”, a very long document (130 pages) that looks more like a book than a letter. Francis wants to plead the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. To do this, he speaks of borders to be broken down, of waste to be avoided, of human rights that are not sufficiently universal, of unjust globalization, of burdensome pandemics, of migrants to be welcomed, of open societies, of solidarity, of peoples’ rights, of local and global exchanges, of the limits of the liberal political vision, of world governance, of political love, of the recognition of the other, of the injustice of any war, of the abolition of the death penalty. These are all interesting “political” themes which, were it not for some comments on the parable of the Good Samaritan that intersperse the chapters, could have been written by a group of sociologists and humanitarian workers from some international organization, perhaps after reading, for example, Edgar Morin and Zygmunt Bauman.

Much Politics, Little Theology
These are the themes that Pope Francis has disseminated in many speeches and in his other encyclical, “Laudato si'” (2015), on the care for the environment. Not surprisingly, he himself is by far the most cited author in the work (about 180 times), which evidences the circular trend of his thinking (the need to be self-strengthening) and the “novelty” of his teaching with respect to the traditional themes of the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The vision proposed by “All Brothers” is the way in which Rome sees globalization with the eye of a Jesuit and South American pope.

It is only in the eighth (last) chapter of the encyclical that the pope deals with the theme of fraternity with religions, and here the document becomes more “theological”. This section can be considered to be an interpretation of the “Document on human fraternity for world peace and living together” that Francis himself signed in Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in 2019. More than just a reflection, this section is a jumble of quotations (better: self-quotations) which, by overlapping plans and juxtaposing issues, end up confusing rather than clarifying. Despite this, its basic message is sufficiently clear: we are all brothers as children of the same God. This is Pope Francis’ theological truth. The best comment on this aspect of the encyclical comes from Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, who spoke at the official presentation at the Vatican. Here is what he said: “As a young Muslim scholar of Shari’a (law), Islam, and its sciences, I find myself – with much love and enthusiasm – in agreement with the pope, and I share every word he has written in the encyclical. I follow, with satisfaction and hope, all his proposals put forward in a spirit of concern for the rebirth of human fraternity”. If a convinced and sincere Muslim shares “every word” of the pope, it means that the writing is deist, at best theistic, but not in line with biblical and Trinitarian Christianity.

When “All Brothers” talks about God, it does so in general terms that can fit Muslim, Hindu, and other religions’ accounts of god, as well as the Masonic reference to the Watchmaker. To further confirm this, “All Brothers” ends with a “Prayer to the Creator” that could be used both in a mosque and in a Masonic temple. Having removed the “stumbling block” of Jesus Christ, everyone can turn to an unspecified Divinity to experiment with what it means to be “brothers” – brothers in a Divinity made in the image and likeness of humanity, not brothers and sisters on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ who has died and risen for sinners. “All Brothers” has genetically modified the biblically understood meaning of fraternity by transferring it to common humanity. In doing so, it has lost the biblical boundaries of the word and replaced them with pan-religious traits and contents. Is this a service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

What Is at Stake Theologically?
Many people, the vast majority of people, will not read Pope Francis’ long encyclical “All Brothers”. They will only hear a few sentences or lines repeated here and there as slogans. However, what everyone will retain lies in the effective opening of the document: “All brothers” – we are all brothers (and sisters). It is a very powerful universalist and inclusive message that communicates the idea that the lines of demarcation between believers and nonbelievers, atheists and agnostics, Muslims and Christians, Evangelicals and Catholics, are all so fluid and relative that they do not undermine the bonds of fraternity that they all share. The French Revolution had already launched “fraternity” as a secular belonging to human citizenship (together with “freedom” and “equality”), but now the pope defines it in a theological sense. We are “brothers” not because we are citizens, but as children of the same God. According to Pope Francis, we are all children of God, therefore brothers and sisters among us.

In “All Brothers” there is the understandable anxiety aimed at dissolving conflicts, overcoming injustices, and stopping wars. This concern is commendable, even if the analyses and proposals are political, and therefore can be legitimately discussed. What is problematic is the theological key chosen to overcome divisions: the declaration of human fraternity in the name of the divine sonship of all humanity. The pope uses a theological category (“all brothers as all children of God”) to create the conditions for a better world.

What are the theological implications of such a statement?? Here are a few. Firstly, “All Brothers” raises a soteriological question. If we are all brothers as we are all children of God, does this mean that all will be saved? The whole encyclical is pervaded by a powerful universalist inspiration that also includes atheists (n. 281). Religions in the broad sense are always presented in a positive sense (nn. 277-279) and there is no mention of a biblical criticism of religions nor of the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the key to receiving salvation. Everything in the encyclical suggests that everyone, as brothers and sisters, will be saved.

Then there is a Christological issue. Even though Jesus Christ is referred to here and there, his exclusive and “offensive” claims are kept silent. Francis wisely presents Jesus Christ not as the “cornerstone” on which the whole building of life stands or collapses, but as the stone only for those who recognize him. Above Jesus Christ, according to the encyclical, there is a “God” who is the father of all. We are children of this “God” even without recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is thus reduced to the rank of the champion of Christians alone, while the other “brothers” are still children of the same “God” regardless of faith in Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, there is an ecclesiological issue. If we are all “brothers”, there is a sense in which we are all part of the same church that gathers brothers and sisters together. The boundaries between humanity and church are so nonexistent that the two communities become coincident. Humanity is the church and the church is humanity. This is in line with the sacramental vision of the Roman Catholic Church which, according to Vatican II, is understood as a “sign and instrument of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1). According to the encyclical, the whole of the human race belongs to the church not on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, but on the basis of a shared divine sonship and human fraternity.

The theological cost of “All Brothers” is enormous. The message that it sends is biblically devastating. The public opinion inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church will see the consolidation of the idea that God ultimately saves everyone, that Jesus Christ is one among many, and that the Church is inclusive of all on the basis of a common and shared humanity, not on the basis of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Roman Catholic Ecumenism Embraces the Whole World
The tragic irony of this pope is that if, on the one hand, he presents himself as the herald of the relaunch of “mission” and the “church which goes forth” (“Evangelii Gaudium“, 2013), on the other hand, he is the pope who, with his Jesuit ambiguity and now with his Roman Catholic universalism, has made authentic Christian mission more complicated than it was. He uses the words “mission”, “announcement”, and “missionary church”, but he has emptied them of their Evangelical meaning, removing their biblical reference and filling them with empty and harmless content. “All Brothers” shows that the mission that Pope Francis has in mind is not the preaching of the Gospel in words and deeds, but the extension to all of a message of universal fraternity.

After the Council of Trent (1545-63) and up to Vatican II (1962-1965), Roman Catholicism related to the “others” (be they Protestants, other religions, or different cultural and social movements) through its “Roman” claims and called them to return to the fold. The “brothers” were only Roman Catholics in communion with the Roman pope. The others were “pagans”, “heretics”, and “schismatics”: excluded from sacramental grace, which is accessible only through the hierarchical system of the Roman Catholic Church. With Vatican II, it was Rome’s “catholicity” that prevailed over its “Roman” centeredness. Protestants have become “separated brothers”, other religions have been viewed positively, people in general have been approached as “anonymous Christians”. Now, according to Francis’s encyclical, we are “all brothers”. The expansion of catholicity has been further stretched. From being excluded from the “Roman” side of Rome, we are now all included by the “catholic” side of Rome.

After “All Brothers”, will Evangelicals better understand that Roman Catholic ecumenism is within an even greater plan that embraces everyone and everything so that the whole world comes cum et sub Petro (with and under Peter, the Roman center)?

180. “Season of Creation”: The New Ecological-Ecumenical Agenda?

Season of Creation” is the latest ecumenical initiative sponsored by the mainline ecumenical bodies such as – amongst others – the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC). This initiative covers a period of one month (from 1st September to 4th October, St. Francis’ day in the liturgical calendar), has a focus on creation care issues, and includes a variety of activities. The Celebration Guide is full of suggestions for common prayers and common actions. The aim is to unite all Christians in prayer, strengthening their commitment in favor of the environment. The tone is especially indebted to Laudato si (Praise Be to You), Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on “care for our common home”. In that document, Pope Francis delineated his concerns for the deteriorating health of planet earth and called on humanity to take action in order to stop the degeneration process. The remedy to the downgrade trajectory was deemed to be the adoption of an “integral ecology”, i.e. the blending of green and missiological concerns in the context of Roman Catholic social doctrine. Integral ecology has become a buzzword in present-day ecumenical language and “Season of Creation” is a direct response to what Laudato Si’ called for.

What is particularly interesting is that “Season of Creation” includes among its sponsors a significant representation of the global evangelical movement, such as the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the Lausanne Movement through the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network. While evangelical networks have cultivated informal relationships with other bodies and have taken part in a number of dialogues for a long time, it is nonetheless significant that they are fully on board with this initiative where – as the official presentation states – “sisters and brothers in the ecumenical family join into common prayer and action for our common home”.

“In Caring for Creation, One Must Exercise Discernment”
The involvement of global evangelical networks at the forefront of “Season of Creation” did not go unobserved in the evangelical world. A statement from the Italian Evangelical Alliance (1st September 2020) is worth considering because it helpfully highlights some critical points that need to be dealt with. Here is the English translation of the text:

Having read the program of the initiative “Season of Creation”, the Federal Executive Council of the Italian Evangelical Alliance encourages the whole church to pray, meditate, and exercise spiritual discernment in these matters, based upon the revealed Word of God. The Italian Evangelical Alliance:

– supports every evangelical initiative aimed at understanding God’s plan for His creation, at the confession of our sin and our responsibilities in abusing it, at the development of educational, social, political and entrepreneurial initiatives in our relationship with creation according to the requirements of the Gospel, in view of the hope of Christ who said: “I will make everything new”!

– is grateful for the evangelical documents already firmly established as being part of contemporary evangelical thought on the theme of creation and creation care, such as: the WEA-related “Statement on the Care of Creation” (2008) and the Lausanne-related “Jamaica Call to Action” (2012).

– supports co-belligerent initiatives for a common and shared purpose (by religious and/or secular bodies) aimed at the care and development of creation, even where the faith and worldview of the subjects and participants involved are different.

– distances itself from the ecumenical initiative “Season of Creation” supported by the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network and does not consider itself represented as it believes that it is neither possible nor biblical to unite in prayer to God with men and women representing religious institutions and bodies who profess a flawed gospel that is different from the gospel proclaimed by the evangelical faith.

– encourages the evangelical bodies involved to exercise discernment so as not to gradually slip into an ecumenical project that goes well beyond the care of creation and invites them not to confuse the right attention for creation with an ecumenical initiative.

The Evolution of the Ecumenical Challenge
These comments by the Italian Evangelical Alliance contain several points worth considering. They reaffirm the evangelical commitment to creation care as part of the evangelical calling to live faithfully and responsibly in God’s world. They also show the awareness of important evangelical documents predating Pope Francis’ encyclical and provide a solid platform for evangelicals to promote creation care without unnecessarily “borrowing capital” from papal documents. Evangelicals do have a pool of helpful resources that are biblically framed and practically oriented. The Italian Evangelical Alliance’s comments also witness to the evangelical openness towards co-belligerence on specific issues, such as creation care, with initiatives and networks bringing together people of different religious and ideological backgrounds. Evangelical ethics and mission do allow and – indeed – demand believers in Jesus Christ to work together and alongside non-evangelicals in areas of common concerns on the basis of gospel convictions related to the biblical doctrine of common grace. Co-belligerence is a well-established practice in the evangelical ethos that does not confuse collaboration on specific issues with unity in the gospel and/or sharing a common gospel mission.  

The point of the statement is therefore not to deny the importance of creation care nor to discourage evangelical participation in collaborative initiatives with people of different backgrounds. The main concern has to do with the “ecumenical” framework in which “Season of Creation” was planned and is presented.

When one is told that “sisters and brothers in the ecumenical family join into common prayer and action for our common home”, there are several implicit/explicit points that are signaled. There is a significant ecumenical meta-narrative that is smuggled in.

1. The language of sisterhood and brotherhood indicates the existence of spiritual ties between those who take part. Question: are we sure that all those participating at “Season of Creation”, be they coming from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or liberal backgrounds, are born-again believers in Jesus Christ according to the biblical gospel and therefore “sisters and brothers” in the Lord? The impression that is given is that all those who are interested in this environmental initiative are intrinsically “sisters and brothers” despite their spiritual standing before God and in spite of their different and differing views of the gospel.

2. The reference to the “ecumenical family” further strengthens the impression that an ecumenical agenda is being pushed here beyond the shared concerns on creation care. The “ecumenical family” includes all the institutions sponsoring “Season of Creation”, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church and WCC. Because we are part of the “ecumenical family”, not only do we need to recognize other individuals participating as “sisters and brothers”, but we are also implicitly pressured to recognize the institutions involved as “sister” churches. Once you accept belonging to the “ecumenical family”, all family members – e.g. the Roman Church as institution, Orthodox churches, liberal churches, etc. – are legitimate Christian expressions of the “one” family. Is this an evangelical belief?

3. The insistence on “common prayer” in the form of “ecumenical prayers” communicates the idea that all who pray them are brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing the same Christian faith, belonging to the same “ecumenical family”, and are therefore different only on secondary, non-divisive issues. It smuggles in the idea of “spiritual ecumenism”, i.e. praying together, experiencing unity at the grassroot level, accepting the idea that we are all “one” despite our differences. Apparently the initiative is on creation care, but there is much of the ecumenical project that is embedded in it. The ecumenical agenda is subtly advanced within evangelical circles even if the issue is not formal ecumenism.

Present-day ecumenism is evolving. It is integrating environmental concerns and joint prayer initiatives on creation care into its activities as a means of advancing the cause of the “ecumenical family”. Evangelicals need to discern what is happening and to understand what is at stake. On the one hand, they need to be good stewards of God’s creation who are willing to work together with all those who are similarly concerned for its care. On the other, creation care does not require “spiritual ecumenism” with non-evangelicals in order to be pursued faithfully and responsibly. Co-belligerence is sufficient for it.

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.

178. Why J.I. Packer Signed “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) (and Why He Was Inconsistent)

The global church owes a debt of gratitude to James I. Packer (1926-2020). Together with giants of the caliber of Carl Henry (1913-2003) and John Stott (1921-2011), during the second half of the 20th century he has embodied Evangelical theology at its best, especially on issues like the authority of Scripture, penal substitutionary atonement, the interplay between theology and spirituality, the connections between the historical church (especially the Puritans) and our time, and the call to holiness. His lucid and profound writings have nurtured at least two, if not three generations of Evangelicals and challenged them to stay faithful to the historic biblical faith. Together with millions of Christians, the reading of Knowing God as a young believer was a milestone in my life. I consider Jim Packer to be a “father” of present-day Evangelical theology, along whose trajectory I also wish and hope to be identified.

This is to say that if I dare critique one minor – albeit significant – instance of his theological involvement, I do so out of immense respect and hopefully with a similar courtesy that characterized Packer in his own way of handling controversy.

It is no secret that in Packer’s theological biography his involvement with the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative has puzzled many of his admirers. How such a solid theologian could be prone to sign theologically blurred documents and encourage confusing ecumenical activities has been a standing question in many people’s minds. The purpose of this article is to discuss the reasons why Packer signed ECT and to offer some critical remarks in considering them.

Part of ECT Since Its Beginnings
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) is the title of a document released in 1994, but it is also the name of an on-going informal dialogue that has been taking place in the US context ever since. Initiated by Chuck Colson and Richard Neuhaus, it gathered Christians who are confessionally divided but who share similar concerns for the falling apart of the Christian ethos of American society under the attack of relativistic trends of thought. In this violent “culture war”, Evangelicals and Catholics found themselves fighting on the same conservative side and discovered a new kind of possible rapprochement, “an ecumenism of the trenches”. The convergence, however, is not simply a common view on social issues, but is said to be “a theologically rooted alliance”. Thus, the ECT section “We Contend Together”, which is centered on “culture war” issues, is preceded by the section “We Affirm Together”, where a basic confession of faith is reported. This is followed by the programmatic section “We Witness Together”, where a common commitment to Christian mission is envisaged, entailing the goal of non-proselytization between professing Christians (thinking especially of Latin America in areas of tense relationships between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals). The “We-Together” pattern is pervasive in ECT and contains the indication of a significant shift in the Evangelical perception of Roman Catholicism.

I have explored elsewhere the historical context and the theological flaws of the ECT initiative, i.e. “Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: A Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Dialogue”, Evangelical Review of Theology, 27:4 (2003) 337-352. There is no need to repeat such an assessment. On the whole, ECT sentimentalizes the sense of “togetherness” at the expense of theological clarity and confuses the necessity of co-belligerence on moral and social issues with a call to unity and common mission between Evangelicals and Catholics. These two faults are serious matters. For the purpose of this article, what is striking to observe is the active participation of Jim Packer in the whole of the ECT initiative thus far. His signature appears at the end of all ECT documents up to 2012: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994), “The Gift of Salvation” (1997), “Your Word is Truth” (2002), “The Communion of Saints” (2003), “The Call to Holiness” (2004), “That They May Have Life” (2006), “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life” (2009), and “In Defense of Religious Freedom” (2012). While other Evangelical signatories have come and gone, appearing and disappearing (some perhaps feeling perplexed about ECT over time), Packer has been a faithful and convinced supporter of ECT. Why is it so?

“Why I Signed It”
Of course, the participation of Jim Packer in the ECT initiative has stirred much controversy among Evangelicals from the very first day, especially as far as his endorsement of the first two statements are concerned: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) and “The Gift of Salvation” (1997). The criticism after the first statement led him to write an article entitled “Why I Signed It” (Christianity Today, 12 Dec 1994, pp. 34-37) to respond to it. His reasons are worth considering because they unfold Packer’s approach to issues broadly related to unity and cooperation.

After expressing surprise “at the violence of initial Protestant reaction”, Packer states what he considers possible and feasible: “I have long thought that informal grassroots collaboration with Roman Catholics in ministry is the most fruitful sort of ecumenism that one can practice nowadays”. Notice three points:

  1. The level of collaboration he envisaged, i.e. grassroots, informal, and personal, rather than institutional and ecclesiastical.
  2. The partners involved, i.e. individual Roman Catholics rather than the Roman Catholic Church as such.
  3. The type of relationship with Roman Catholics, i.e. collaboration understood as a form of “ministry” and “a sort of ecumenism”.

Then Packer goes on by arguing why “the Roman system” is “unacceptable”. He is aware that Roman Catholicism is an integrated whole that is “theologically flawed”, especially because it misconceives the nature of the Church, blurs justification by faith, and attaches infallibility to church pronouncements. As a matter of fact, “Protestant and Catholic church systems stand opposed”. Packer shows awareness of the systemic nature of Roman Catholicism, its unbiblical tenets, and its opposed stance with regards to the Evangelical Protestant faith. In an interview a few years later, Packer argues: “Roman Catholicism as a system has defined itself in a way which is out of step with the Bible on a whole series of key issues relating to the Christian life and faith and it defined itself irreformably” (“Discipline of Debate”, Evangelicals Now, Nov 2000, p. 13).

Having said that, in the “Why I Signed It” article Packer thinks that “good Protestants and Catholics are united in the one body of Christ”. As already seen, Packer distinguishes between individual Catholics and the Catholic Church. If the Roman Church as system is “unacceptable”, who are these “good Catholics”? They are “Bible-believing, Christ-honoring, Spirit-empowered Christians who will together resist the many forms of disintegrative theology – relativist, monist, pluralist, liberationist, feminist, or whatever – that plague both Protestantism and Catholicism at the present time”. In other words, they are “spiritually alive” and theologically conservative Catholics.

In the second part of the article, Packer recalls three recent examples of collaboration between Evangelicals and Catholics preceding ECT and therefore paving its way forward:

  1. Francis Schaeffer’s “co-belligerence” on the abortion front, which saw Evangelicals and Catholics working side by side;
  2. Billy Graham’s cooperative evangelism, which included churches of whatever stripe; and
  3. The Charismatic get-togethers where the distinction between Protestants and Catholics vanished.

In light of these precedents, in Packer’s view ECT should be considered a legitimate and timely development that tries to formulate “at the level of principle a commitment which many have already entered at the level of practice”. Packer is aware of the need to further reflect on the issue. This is the reason why, at the end of the article, he makes reference to a study document, i.e. “Resolutions for Roman Catholic & Evangelical Dialogue” (Modern Reformation, 1994), drafted together with Michael Horton to provide some “agenda suggestions” for the future. With the help of this seven-point document – which Packer takes credit for (“drafted by Michael S. Horton, revised by J.I. Packer”) – we shall now evaluate his own reasons for signing ECT and for being involved in the whole ECT initiative. The assessment will try to be fair to Packer’s theological criteria as they are presented in these “Resolutions”.

Why Was He Inconsistent?
As I wrote in the introduction, I consider Packer a giant of present-day Evangelical theology, from whose scholarship and spirituality we all have a great deal to learn. Still, I think that his “ecumenical” involvements have shown a significant weakness in his overall premier theological stature. His own “Resolutions” show a degree of inconsistency between what he affirms there and what he did in and through ECT.

Point N. 1 of the “Resolutions” clearly argues that “while both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics affirm the ecumenical Creeds, we do not see this catholic consensus as a sufficient basis for declaring that agreement exists on all the essential elements of the Gospel”. While much of the ECT initiative makes a great deal of the alleged “common creedal basis” between Evangelicals and Catholics, Packer here readily acknowledges that whatever we can make of that supposed commonality, it does not show that the two constituencies adhere to the same Gospel. Point N. 6 clearly denies that “in its present confession (the Roman Catholic Church) is an acceptable Christian communion”. The alleged “consensus” between Evangelicals and Catholics is not on the “essential elements of the Gospel”, but ECT argues the contrary. The Packer of the “Resolutions” is in conflict with the Packer of ECT.

Point N. 2 stresses the crucial importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. “While gladly noting in modern Roman Catholic exposition a growing emphasis on Christ and the biblical promises as objects of faith and trust, we see justification by faith alone as an essential of the Gospel on which radical disagreement continues, and we deny the adequacy of any version of the Gospel that falls short at this point”. This is the historic Evangelical position. Unfortunately, Packer signed in 1997 the ECT “The Gift of Salvation” document which, without recanting Trent and the traditional Roman Catholic teaching on justification, says that the controversy on it is over. There is a clear contradiction between what he wrote in the “Resolutions” and his signature under the ECT text.

Point N. 3 points out that “we radically disagree with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that unbelievers may be saved by their good works, apart from faith in Christ”. Fair enough, but this teaching was endorsed by John Paul II and especially Pope Francis, under whom the whole ECT initiative has taken place. This non-biblical teaching of Rome is another blow to the ECT claim that Evangelicals and Catholics can affirm together enough of the Gospel to be united in common mission.

Point N. 4 argues that while common causes on moral and cultural issues in society are warranted, “it is incorrect to regard such cooperation among Christians as common ecclesial action in fulfilling a common ecclesial mission”. The “Resolutions” argue that cooperation is one thing, mission is another. As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, while “co-belligerence” is possible among people of various persuasions, Gospel “mission” is only possible among believers in Jesus Christ on the basis of the Gospel. The two must be theologically and missiologically distinguished. However, the ECT documents commonly confuse and blur them. Even Packer conflates the two in his “Why I Signed It” article when he speaks of “collaboration”, “ministry”, and “ecumenism” interchangeably, as if they are the same (which they are not). This is perhaps one of the most negative long-term effects of the whole ECT initiative, i.e. blurring the language of Christian unity and Gospel mission by confusing co-operation in social and cultural battles with unity in Gospel mission. In this respect, Packer has not properly helped Evangelicals to discern the issues at stake. His widely acknowledged precision in theological language was not consistently practiced in ECT.

Point N. 5 underlines the Evangelical passion for Christian unity according to the Gospel. In this respect, it stresses the fact that “we deny that the defined doctrines of the church’s infallibility, Papal primacy, justification according to Trent, transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, and the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary, can be proved from Scripture, and we cannot accept any form of action that appears to imply agreement with them”. Therefore, visible unity is not possible not only with the institutional Roman Catholic Church, but also with people who are convinced of these non-biblical doctrines. This message is very different from the ECT type of ecumenism that Packer has been involved in, with staunch and devout Catholics who are 100% traditional Catholics in all of these non-biblical doctrines.

Point N. 6 expands what Packer does mean when he refers to “spiritually alive” individual Catholics. “We affirm that individual Roman Catholics who for whatever reason do not self-consciously assent to the precise definitions of the Roman Catholic Magisterium regarding justification, the sole mediation of Christ, the relation between faith and the sacraments, the divine monergism of the new birth, and similar matters of Evangelical conviction, but who think and speak Evangelically about these things, are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ, despite Rome’s official position”. It is striking to notice that all Roman Catholic signatories of ECT (e.g. Avery Dulles, Richard Neuhaus, Thomas Guarino) do not fit this category! They are all 100% convinced of every bit of Roman Catholic teaching (including the non-biblical parts) as it is officially defined. They are fully orbed Roman Catholics: papal, Marian, Tridentine, Vatican I and Vatican II Roman Catholics. They are not Roman Catholics “despite Rome’s official position”, but wholehearted defenders of it. They may “sound” Evangelical in certain respects, but they are fully Roman Catholic in all respects. ECT was not signed with “creative” Catholics, nor with Catholics critical of certain aspects of their church. When ECT speaks about unity and common mission it does so together with people who identify as 100% Roman Catholics, without any uncertainty about their Roman Catholic identity. Here Packer’s inconsistency with his own criteria is again evident.

Wrapping up the evaluation, it is fair to hear Packer again. In defending his involvement in ECT he wrote: “We do not seek Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth” (T. George, T.C. Oden, J.I. Packer, “The Biblical Gospel”, First Things, June/July 1998, p. 9). Elsewhere, he again wrote that his efforts were of the sort of “an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation” (“An Open Letter About the Gift of Salvation”, Christianity Today, 27 April 1998). This is all true. However, there were unrealistic evaluations and wrongheaded applications in his own dealings with Roman Catholicism. In the whole area of how to relate the Evangelical faith with conservatives of other Christian traditions (i.e. Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics, traditional Eastern Orthodox), he has not been a reliable guide for Evangelicals.

The Packer who helped Evangelicals to see and appreciate “the logic of penal substitution” did not help them to see “the logic of Christian unity” in the same helpful way. On the latter he was inconsistent to say the least. The Packer who so helpfully unpacked the riches of an Evangelical “systematic spirituality” did not help to appreciate its implications in the area of ecumenism. He was rather eclectic on the latter. While we celebrate the bountiful Evangelical legacy of Jim Packer in the desire to follow his steps, we should also be aware of his weaknesses, especially when he tried to work out what the Lord Jesus meant when he prayed “that they may be one” (John 17:21).

177. Inter-Faith Prayers for the Pandemic to Cease? What Is at Stake is Bigger Than What You Think

Can you imagine an Apostle Paul who, at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17), invites his listeners (followers of various philosophical schools and ancient cults) to unite in prayer, each to his own god/ideal as a sign of fraternity? Can you imagine an Apostle Peter who, in writing to Christians at the four corners of the Roman Empire (1 Peter 1:1), recommends that they raise petitions together with the faithful of the Eastern, Greek and Roman religions, to invoke the end of a pandemic? For those who have a basic grasp of the biblical faith, this is pretty absurd. Not for Rome, though. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church organized a “Day of Prayer and Fasting addressed to believers of all religions” (14 May) under the auspices of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity to pray together. Catholics, Muslims and people of other religions or of no religion were all encouraged to pray to her/his own god or personal ideal for the pandemic to cease. 
 
Biblical Proximity Is Not Universal Fraternity
Before examining the theological problems behind the inter-faith prayer promoted by the Roman Catholic Church, it is important to be aware of the context of this initiative. The aforementioned Higher Committee for Human Fraternity was established in 2019, a few months after the meeting in Abu Dhabi between Pope Francis and Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Muslim University in Cairo (Egypt). That meeting was centered on the signing of the controversial “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together“. In spite of the praise gathered in inter-faith circles, it is a controversial document for a simple reason: it joins the commendable attempt to build a peaceful society (especially in areas where the relationship between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority is tense) with the idea that Muslims and Christians are “brothers and sisters” praying to the same God. In so doing, it wrongly exchanges proximity with fraternity, i.e. our being neighbors with all men and women, with our being brothers and sisters with those who belong to the family of God in Jesus Christ. While proximity connects people of different faiths and backgrounds and calls them to live in peace, fraternity is a spiritual bond that unites believers in Jesus Christ as brothers and sisters in Him.
 
The “Document on Human Fraternity” blurs the distinction and changes the meaning of fraternity, extending it to the relationships between peoples of different religions, as if Muslims and Christians are “brothers and sisters” praying to the same God.
 
An Ever Expanding “Catholic” Trajectory
This day of prayer witnessed the participation of believers of all religions, but also of those who do not believe, united “spiritually” to pray to their divinity or ideal, all pleading for the end of the pandemic. Each participant was called to address his god/ideal in a spirit of fraternity that embraced everyone. What is at stake theologically is enormous. Moving beyond the perimeter of the biblical faith, Roman Catholicism legitimizes prayers to other deities or religious ideals, silencing the prophetic message of Scripture that we either serve the biblical God or idols. It fails to bear witness to the claims of Jesus Christ as the God-man who came to save those who believe in him, and instead changes the meaning of fraternity by stretching it indiscriminately to all humanity, rather than believers in Jesus only. In so doing, the tenets of the biblical faith are trampled on.
 
This is a further move away from biblical Christianity. Not being anchored in Scripture alone, not being committed to Christ alone, Roman Catholicism is anxious to extend its ever-expanding catholicity (i.e. all-encompassing embracement) in all directions, even those clearly contrary to the basics of the Christian faith. This is not even something new that was introduced by the current Jesuit Pope with his “uncertain” magisterium. It is rather a confirmation of the slippery slope of the “development” of what is already contained in Vatican II (Lumen Gentium n. 16), with its universalistic bent, which was visually represented at the inter-religious prayer of Assisi (1986, convened by John Paul II) and then confirmed by Francis’ apostolic exhortation of 2013 (Evangelii Gaudium nn. 244-254), eventually culminating in the “Document on Human Fraternity” in 2019.
 
Present-day Roman Catholicism, while open to ecumenism with liberal Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals, does the same with Muslims, Buddhists, men of goodwill, etc. For Rome, unity is not only among Christians, but among all women and men as human beings. This “unity” is based on the “gospel” of our common humanity, to which everyone belongs regardless of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The question remains, though: Is this the biblical gospel?
 
Back to Paul and Peter
Biblical proximity does not require common prayer and does not entail fraternity. At the Areopagus, while respectfully engaging various people in various contexts, Paul preached the gospel by calling all to repent and believe in the Man appointed by the Father who was raised from the dead, i.e. Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). He was a good neighbor, but he did not call the Athenians “brothers and sisters”, nor did he ask them to pray with him. To the Christians scattered all over the world, Peter did not give the advice of uniting in prayer with the peoples around them, but he did teach them to always be prepared to make a defense of the gospel (1 Peter 4:15). Peter wanted them to be good neighbors (e.g. 1 Peter 2:12), but always ready to proclaim the excellencies of him who had called them out of darkness into his marvelous light. If Paul and Peter were informed of the “Day of Prayer and Fasting addressed to believers of all religions“, they would ask themselves: is this biblical Christianity?
 
-Leonardo De Chirico