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

176. “Totus tuus” (to Mary). The Unsettled Legacy of John Paul II One Hundred Years since His Birth

Karol Wojtyła (1920-2005), since1978 better known as Pope John Paul II, has been one of the most influential men of the 20th century. The centenary of his birth is a useful opportunity to reflect on his legacy. A quick look at the titles of biographies about him shows the magnitude of the man: The Man of the End of the Millennium (L. Accattoli), Witness to Hope (G. Weigel), The Man of the Century (J. Kwitny), Pilgrim of the Absolute (G. Reale), The Defeater of Communism (A. Santini). As is always the case with human analyses of human biographies, celebrative voices abound as well as critical readings, especially coming from progressive sectors of the Roman Catholic Church and from left-wing analysts. Other titles point to the controversial aspects of his life: Victory and Decline (C. Cardia), The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy (J. Cornwell), The Wojtyła Enigma (J. Arias), The Last Pope King (L. Sandri).     

His life was at the centre of the major affairs of the 20th century: the tragedy of Nazism and the trauma of the Second World War, the apex and fall of Communism, the Second Vatican Council and its debated implementation, the apparent triumph of Western democracy and the oppressive costs of globalization for the Majority world, the fracture of ideologies and the rise of secular hedonism. Wojtyła played a significant role in all these major events. Supporters have acclaimed his achievements in terms of navigating, surviving and overcoming the dangerous streams of our post-something world. Critics have pointed out the double-faced, contradictory trajectory of his life and his very backward-looking Catholic outlook.

How do we assess John Paul II’s legacy? Because of the stature of the man, the question is overwhelming in every respect. Amongst the vast amount of books available, one guide worth noting in particular is Tim Perry’s edited book The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (2007). The chief point of interest is that it is one of the few attempts to provide an evaluation from an Evangelical point of view. The book bears witness to the fact that it was under John Paul II that Evangelical attitudes toward Roman Catholicism began to change and become friendly, if not even cooperative. This Pope was the one who called his Church to be engaged in mission, encouraged the pro-life front, welcomed some of the Evangelical concerns related to Bible literacy and liturgical variety, and seemed to be closer to the Majority world than his predecessors. It also witnesses to the fact that some Evangelicals today speak of the Pope as “Holy Father” (e.g. Timothy George, pp. 309-312) – something that is not biblically natural. Moreover, in evaluating the overall theology of his 14 encyclicals, some Evangelicals can say that it is “Bible-based, humanity-focused, Christ-centered and mission-attuned” (e.g. J.I. Packer, p. 8) – something that sounds like a full endorsement.

Certainly there has been a significant shift of attitude, and John Paul II has made quite an impression on many Evangelicals. The book edited by Perry contains positive comments on each encyclical signed by Wojtyła, and the tone is close to admiration, with some minor criticism. Of course much of it is a fair summary of what the Pope wrote, if selective in many ways. For instance, there is no mention that each encyclical ends with an invocation to Mary, which does not represent a Christocentric and biblical pattern. Moreover, there is little recognition of the fact that, besides the Bible, papal encyclicals quote sources of the tradition of the Church even more extensively. The Bible is only one source amongst many, and apparently not the decisive one. On specific contents, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason, 1998) combines Aristotelian reason and Thomistic faith, a choice that leaves out many Biblical strands. Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church from the Eucharist, 2003) reinforces the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, its re-enactment of Jesus’ death and the practice of adoration of the host. Ut Unum Sint (That They Be One, 1995) claims that the Pope is willing to change the forms of his universal ministry, but not the substance of his petrine office that supplements the headship of Christ over the church. Redemptoris Mater (The Mother of the Redeemer, 1987) is a Marian-centered re-telling of salvation history, which is something that the Bible does not encourage, as the Bible wants people to see Christ (not Mary) in all the Scriptures. The list could go on and on. On the whole it seems that the Evangelical writers of these chapters only want to look at the alleged “common ground” that they find in the writings by John Paul II, and are unable or unwilling to see what is contrary to basic gospel truths, let alone to denounce it. The book is therefore informative but of limited use for an evangelical evaluation of the legacy of Karol Wojtyła.

One final point must be further elaborated. Marian devotion was a characterizing feature of John Paul II’s life. He believed the so-called secrets of Fatima, in which Mary played a decisive role, deviating the bullet when the Pope was shot in 1981 by the terrorist Ali Ağca. Apparently, the Pope believed in Marian providence, considering Mary a major player in world affairs, both earthly and cosmic, both material and spiritual. For this reason he was able to dedicate planet earth to her at the beginning of the new millennium, along with the human family and new century, pleading for protection and guidance all the while. Moreover, his personal motto was totus tuus, totally yours, with “yours” referring to Mary.

His legacy is therefore difficult to square with the “Christ-centered” focus that some would want to see in it. John Paul II embodied a full Roman Catholic mindset, apparently strong on every aspect of the Roman Catholic identity. He has been very “Roman” and very “Catholic” at the same time.

175. Why Evangelicals Must Engage Roman Catholicism

As I speak to different audiences and at various conferences, the question comes back over and over again: why should Evangelicals bother engaging Roman Catholicism? Let me suggest four reasons.

It’s a Global Issue
Wherever you go in the world – North and South, East and West – you will find people who call themselves Roman Catholics and with whom all of us will interact in one way or another on matters of faith. You will also encounter the Roman Catholic Church through its institutions and agencies: parishes, schools, hospitals, charities, movements, etc. According to the 2020 edition of the Pontifical Yearbook, Catholics around the world amount to 1.329 billion people, by far the largest religious family within Christendom and the biggest religious organization on the planet. The Pope, though living in Rome, is a global figure who attracts a lot of attention from the media. The Roman Church, through its documents and initiatives, is a world-level player in major debates related to inter-faith relationships, mission, the environment, ecumenism, etc. Whether you live in a majority Roman Catholic region or in an area where Catholics are few, the presence of the Roman Catholic Church is pervasive. Unless you crouch in your little corner, not wanting to engage the world around you (wherever you are), you must deal with Roman Catholicism.

It’s a Theological Issue
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation was a movement of God that recovered and reaffirmed the biblical gospel centered on the authority of the Triune God in biblical revelation (Scripture Alone); the sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ (Christ Alone); the free gift of salvation for those who believe (Faith Alone); and the call to live for God and worship Him in whatever we do (To God Alone be the Glory). Roman Catholicism stood against these truths and condemned those who embraced them. After Vatican II, Rome has somewhat changed its posture; the tones are friendlier and the lines are blurred. However, Roman Catholicism is still NOT committed to Scripture alone, Christ alone, or faith alone, and its devotions are not dedicated to God alone. The Roman Catholic gospel is different from the biblical one. None of the non-biblical dogmas, practices, and structures have been obliterated, although they may have been reframed or developed. The Reformation is not over, the gospel is still at stake, and all those who want to stand firm in the truth should grasp at least something of what Roman Catholicism stands for.

It’s an Evangelistic Issue
Because of the massive number of Roman Catholics around the world, there is a high probability that all of us have neighbours, friends, family members, and colleagues who are such. In majority Roman Catholic contexts, this often means that people identify themselves as Catholics because they were born into a religious family or because the cultural milieu they live in was shaped by Roman Catholicism, but there is no basic gospel awareness. Many Catholics believe and behave like most Western secular people do: without any sense of God being real and true in their lives. In other words, they are not born again, regenerated Christians. Devout Catholics may be religious, yet entangled in traditions and practices that are far from the biblical faith. This brings wide-open evangelistic opportunities. The gospel can and must be taken to them too. We must try to enter the Roman Catholic mindset and gently challenge it with the gospel. In order to do so in a spiritually intelligent way, we must come to terms with what Roman Catholicism is all about.

It’s a Trying Issue
Roman Catholicism brings a further challenge to evangelicals today. In the past, Rome considered other forms of Christianity (e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Protestants) as heretical or schismatic; it was Rome that distanced outsiders from itself. After Vatican II (1962-1965) they are thought of as being still defective but “imperfectly united” with Rome. Rome has become very ecumenical, wanting to come alongside other Christians in order to bring them cum Petro (“with Peter”, i.e. in peace with the Catholic Church) and sub Petro (“under Peter”, i.e. somehow embraced by its structures). The same is true with other religions. Prior to Vatican II they were condemned as pagan and heathen; now they are viewed as legitimate ways to God and their followers are called “brothers and sisters”. Rome is working hard to bring all religions together around its leader, the Pope. This is no conspiracy theory: it is the universalist agenda of present-day Roman Catholicism which has been in operation since Vatican II. Evangelicals should be aware of where Rome is going. We don’t want to become part of a “catholic” project that curtails gospel mission aimed at the conversion to Jesus Christ of people who do not believe in Him. The unity we aspire to is the unity of God’s people under the Lord Jesus, not the generic unity of the whole of mankind under Rome.

For missiological, theological, evangelistic, and strategic reasons, Evangelicals must engage Roman Catholicism in today’s world. 

174. Rosary, Indulgences and Humanism. How is Italian Roman Catholicism facing the Coronavirus Crisis?

A version of this article in Italian appeared on Ideaitalia (21st March 2020)

Under pressure, the true and deep commitments of the heart are exposed. When facing hardships, we reveal what is really important for us. In these weeks of the Coronavirus emergency, the message that Roman Catholicism is giving is a disarming detachment from the basic principles of the biblical faith. This should come as no surprise. What is happening belongs to the core of Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, as they are taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and as they are lived out in Roman Catholic parishes. However, given the favor with which even some Evangelicals view the self-styled “renewal” of Roman Catholicism and the action of Pope Francis, it is worth mentioning the spiritual regression we are witnessing in the midst of the pandemic crisis that is severely hitting Italy.

Who Really Cares for the Country?
After the outbreak of the Coronavirus, at the peak of it, there has been a flourishing of public dedications of Italy to Mary’s protection (Pope Francis) and of Rome to the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, i.e. the icon of Mary the Pope is deeply committed to. The Archbishop of Milan dedicated the city to the “Madonnina”, the statue of the Virgin on the top of Milan’s Duomo. In Venice, the local bishop, Patriarch Moraglia, dedicated his city to Our Lady of Health. In Naples, Archbishop of the city, Cardinal Sepe, dedicated the city to the care of San Gennaro, the protector and patron saint of the city. During the lockdown, in a deserted Rome, the Pope walked the empty streets to the church of Saint Marcello to pray for the end of the pandemic. He did so in front of the “miraculous crucifix” that is kept there in memory of past miracles that supposedly happened through it.

Examples can be easily multiplied. Throughout the country, with these actions of devotions to Mary and the saints, Roman Catholicism has shown what pillars remain stable and reliable when everything else trembles: the maternal care of Madonna and the intercession of the saints. The explicit message that was communicated is that Mary and the saints are always “near” to those who suffer, always at hand and ready to intervene. The climax of this explosion of Marian devotions culminated in a nationally broadcasted rosary (i.e. a Marian prayer) led by the Pope himself, where the deep unbiblical commitments of Roman Catholicism were again on display.

The question that needs to be asked is: if when in trouble we have to look for help through human mediators, where is Jesus Christ in all this? Is Jesus Christ not alive and powerful to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25)? Is the Holy Spirit not fully active and interested in being involved in our intercession (Romans 8:26)? Is the Father not attentive to our prayers (e.g. 1 Peter 3:12) and ready to act upon them? With the flurry of all these Roman Catholic devotions it is as if the Triune God is sleeping and in need, like the baal in Elijah’s time (1 Kings 18), to be awakened by human mediators.

Puzzling Interviews
The second area of perplexity has to do with two public statements by Pope Francis. He was interviewed by two Italian newspapers on two almost consecutive days. At Repubblica (18th March), he unveiled a concentration of humanism and universalism. Without ever speaking of Christ, of the sin and salvation that is received by repenting and believing in him, he gave voice to something that does not even resemble the biblical gospel. Here is an example:

How can those who do not have faith have hope in days like these?
Here is the Pope’s answer: “They are all God’s children and are looked upon by Him. Even those who have not yet met God, those who do not have the gift of faith, can find their way through this, in the good things they believe in: they can find strength in love for their children, for their family, for their brothers and sisters. One can say: ‘I cannot pray because I do not believe.’ But at the same time, however, he can believe in the love of the people around him, and thus find hope”.

“We are all children of God”, “one can believe in the good things he believes in”, these things being love for one’s own dear ones; “one can believe in the love of people around us and find hope in it”. These are not statements stemming from the biblical gospel but from a man-centered message. The Pope had millions of readers and he spread a message that reinforced them in whatever they believed, rather than presenting the gospel.

Then, in an interview with La Stampa (20th March), the Pope once again reiterated that “we are all children of God” and that, after the crisis will be gone, we have to re-start our life by re-appreciating our “roots, memory, brotherhood and hope”. Here too it is a humanist and universalist message devoid of any gospel meaning centered on Jesus Christ and the need for repentance and faith. The reader (millions of them) is left with the conviction that whether or not she believes in whatever she believes, she is all right before God. No one is challenged to face the Coronavirus crisis by repenting and trusting Christ’s alone who saves and heals.

Outpouring of Indulgences
The icing on the cake of Roman Catholicism in times of pandemic is the granting of plenary indulgences to “the faithful suffering from COVID-19 disease, commonly known as Coronavirus, as well as to health care workers, family members and all those who in any capacity, including through prayer, and care for them”. An indulgence is a remission of the temporal sin administered by the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of the merits of the saints. Practically it is a “work” that needs to be done in order to receive a benefit from the church. The whole of the indulgence system denies that we are forgiven of our sins by God himself through the sufficient and complete work of Christ. Martin Luther and the whole Protestant Reformation strongly opposed indulgences, rightly seeing in them as a denial of the gospel. The Pope is offering an outpouring of this medieval practice even to those who will listen to a special vigil of prayer (live from TV sets, the internet, etc.) scheduled for 27th March where he will impart a special blessing. What kind of gospel is this?

What future can Italy have with such a message coming out of Rome? For this reason, the need for a robust, biblical witness is as relevant as ever. The “renewal” that Roman Catholicism is going through will not make it change according to the Word of God. It will empower it to inoculate words that may appear as close to the good news but are, instead, nowhere near to the biblical gospel. In addition to the health emergency of the pandemic, we are living in times of a greater spiritual emergency.