166. Pope Francis Fears for the Planet, But Where Is the Gospel?

Europe, sovereignism (the “us first” type of politics), migrants, glaciers, the Amazon … these are the topics covered in a recent interview given by Pope Francis to the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa (8th August 2019). It is a fairly long conversation that mirrors the concerns the Pope has in looking at today’s global world: he begins with Europe and stretches to the Amazon, touching on social, political, environmental, and ecclesiastical issues. Some of the topics are politically controversial and divisive even among the Roman Catholic constituency. Beyond confirming stances on which the Pope is strongly convinced, however, what is striking in the interview are his silences.

The Biggest Fear for the Planet
None of the things that Francis said were really new. There have been multiple occasions at all levels in which the Pope has expressed his views on sovereignist ideology (“it leads to war”), the populist tendency in the public opinion (“It leads to sovereignism”), the migrant issue (the four imperatives are to “receive”, “accompany”, “promote”, and “integrate”), the exploitation of natural resources (“the Overshoot Day: On July 29th, we used up all the regenerative resources of 2019… It’s a global emergency”); the challenges that the Amazon region is facing (“deforestation means killing humanity”, “the issue of open-cast mines which are poisoning water and causing so many diseases”, “the issue of fertilizers”, “the economic and political interests of society’s dominant sectors”).

These are all serious points, most of which the Pope touched on in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ on “care for our common home”. They have to be thought through and acted upon. They are real emergencies. However, something is missing in the answers of the Pope. Reaching the climax of the interview, the question comes up: “Your Holiness, what do you fear most for our planet?”. The Pope’s answer is striking. Here it is: “The disappearance of biodiversity. New lethal diseases. A drift and devastation of nature that can lead to the death of humanity”.

The disappearance of biodiversity, new lethal diseases, a devastation of nature. These are the things that the Pope fears the most for the world. Again, these are real and scary threats. But isn’t there something missing from a Christian point of view? If Jesus were asked such a question, what would His response be? If Paul, John, Peter, and James were asked such a question, what would their response be? In the Pope’s answer, there is no mention of Christ, sin, the cross, repentance, conversion, God’s judgement, grace, the gospel. And yet he claims to be the “vicar of Christ”!

The question opened up wonderful opportunities to reply in such a way that those fears could be approached and framed in terms of the gospel, rather than in terms of a merely humanistic worldview. In what he said and what he didn’t say, Pope Francis acted as if he were the spokesperson of a secular NGO focused on humanitarian and environmental issues, rather than a Christian who is passionate to tell the whole world the biblical message of God’s creation, human sin, and redemption in Christ alone and to work out its implication for the church and the world.

Where is Christ in all this?
Actually, Christ is not only missing in this answer – He is never mentioned in the whole interview. Greta Thunberg, the young ecologist activist, is referred to by name, but Jesus isn’t. One might say: but the Pope wasn’t asked direct questions about Christ. That’s true; but it was a long interview with lots of questions, full of entry points for the gospel to be announced. These opportunities were all missed by the Pope. In reading the interview the reader is not at all challenged by the gospel. He or she is instead alerted to some pressing environmental and political issues that an informed and cunning politician could have raised. Does his silence say tell something about the kind of “gospel” the Pope has in mind?

Expressing concerns for the Amazon region, the interviewer talked about the upcoming Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon that is going to take place at the end of October 2019. At this point the Pope shared what is going to be the highlight of the Synod: “The important thing will be the ministries of evangelisation and the different ways of evangelising”.

Evangelisation and evangelising. One is left wondering what evangelisation even means to Francis. In the long interview the Pope does not spell it out. The only hint he gives is to “dialogue”:

This is crucial: starting from our own identity we must open to dialogue in order to receive something greater from the identity of others. Never forget that ‘the whole is greater than the parts.’ Globalisation, unity, should not be conceived as a sphere, but as a polyhedron: each people retains its identity in unity with others.

This is what the Pope says: we open up dialogue in order to form a polycentric unity with the people we dialogue with. Again, there is no reference to the biblical content of the “good news” (i.e. the message of salvation in Jesus Christ), nor the biblical expectation that conversions to Christ will result out of dialogue. For the Pope, the outcome of dialogue is an expanded, polymorphic unity among people. In the Bible, however, evangelisation entails dialogue, but also proclamation, preaching, persuading, etc. (e.g. Acts 17:16-31 ). These elements are totally missing in the Pope’s view of evangelisation. Moreover, the Bible is also soberly aware that when and where evangelisation takes place some refuse the gospel, and some believe it (e.g. Acts 17:32-34). No greater unity within humanity is expected, but the conversion of the lost is the goal of evangelism. This should be the greatest concern for all Christians: taking the gospel to the ends of the world so that those who believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the Pope’s vision, although he claims to be the highest representative of Christ on earth.

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165. What is the Essence of Roman Catholicism?

What defines Roman Catholicism? Is there something that qualifies not only parts of it, but the whole of what Roman Catholicism stands for? Is there a core element that shapes all components in a distinct way? On this question, scores of heavyweight theologians have written masterful analyses over the centuries and up to this day. From John Henry Newman to Romano Guardini, from Adam Möhler to Karl Adam, from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Henri de Lubac, from Avery Dulles to Walter Kasper, dozens of books have tried to identify what makes Roman Catholicism what it is. Despite the different suggestions provided, the common assumption is that Roman Catholicism is an interconnected whole and that its identity is pervasively present – though with different intensities – in all its expressions.

The latest attempt to identify the theological DNA of Catholicism comes from the pen of Karl-Henzi Menke, professor of theology at the University of Bonn and one of the most authoritative voices of present-day Roman Catholic theology in Germany. His book Sakramentalität. Wesen und Wunde des Katholizismus (2015) (English: Sacramentality: The Essence and the Wounds of Catholicism) exactly tackles this issue and is a useful new contribution to the whole discussion.[1] A full review of the book is beyond the scope of this short article, but at least two points are worth exploring.

Looking at Roman Catholicism as a Whole
Menke speaks of the essence of Roman Catholicism in terms of its “thought form” and “life form”. Quoting Greshake,[2] he agrees with his approach:

The Christian faith is not a jumble of single truths: here a dogma, there a dogma, here an exegetical point, there a moral norm, etc. Faith is rather a structured and coherent whole. This has important consequences for the inter-confessional theological dialogue: in the end it is of little use to talk from time to time (only) about individual topics and to seek consensus about them, rather one must ask: what is the ultimate reason for the different view about this or of that single theme? If we proceed in this way, we will come across an ultimate diversity in the overall conception of revelation, a diversity that is concretized in the various individual categorical differences. This means that among the individual confessions, in the final analysis there are no differences but there is a fundamental difference which then unfolds in a series of differences. (p. 12)

Since the context of this argument deals with the differences between Roman Catholicism and the Protestant faith (although he has primarily in mind liberal Protestantism), there are several points to be highlighted here: 1. Faith is a “structured and coherent whole”; 2. The dialogue between Evangelicals and Catholics must seek to identify the ultimate motif of the respective faiths and conduct it accordingly; 3. This ultimate motif is apparent in all expressions of theology and practice; 4. The difference between confessions (i.e. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism) is traceable to a “fundamental difference” that unfolds in a “series of differences”.

It is important that Roman Catholic theologians of this caliber suggest such a clear view of what is at stake. Often times, people who are involved in ecumenical dialogue show little awareness of the “systemic” (my word, not Menke’s) nature of one’s own faith and the other’s. The popular version of this superficial approach is when it is argued that as far as Evangelicals and Catholics are concerned, “we agree on Christology, we disagree on soteriology and ecclesiology”, or “we agree on the Trinity, we disagree on Mary”, as if theology were made of a bunch of isolated pieces. If we follow Menke and Greshake, it is not theologically feasible to hold such an “atomistic” approach (again, my term, not Menke’s), as if doctrines were disconnected bits and pieces. On the contrary, the Roman Catholic views of salvation, the church, and Mary are shaped around Roman Catholic accounts of the Trinity and Christ. Doctrines and practices cannot be disjoined as if they were independent silos, but must be seen as mutually influencing one another. In other words, Roman Catholicism is a coherent and unified whole, and therefore must be seen as stemming from the “overall conception of revelation” that leads to an “ultimate diversity” with regards to the Evangelical faith.

Sacramentality as the Essence of Catholicism
Given the theologically unified and coherent nature of Roman Catholicism, what is its essence then? According to the Bonner theologian, the essence lies in the “thought form” (Denkform) that is shaped by sacramentality: “the Catholic thought form and life form is essentially sacramental” (p. 14). Again, “the sacramental thought form of Catholicism is the difference that contributes to explain all the rest” (p. 27).

There are three sides to his understanding of sacramentality:

  1. The sacramental representation of the church of Jesus Christ in space and time.
  2. The sacramental actualization of the humanity of Jesus Christ through the liturgy, ministry and dogma of the church as institution visibly united in the successors of the apostles.
  3. The sacramental presence of the absolute in the story of Jesus (original sacrament) and his church (fundamental sacrament) (p. 40).

There is a whole theological universe here that would need a lot of unpacking. Simply put, the essence of Roman Catholicism is its view of the relationship between Christ and church in terms of sacramental representation; the relationship between the humanity of Christ and the institutional and hierarchical church in terms of sacramental actualization of the former in the latter; and the relationship between Christ and whatever the church is and does in terms of sacramental presence. The sacramentality of the church is the mode of Christ’s presence in the world in and through the Roman Catholic church.

The point is that Roman Catholicism has its core in the interconnection between Christ and the Church, between Christology and ecclesiology. Everything else stems from this “essence” that makes Christ and the church co-inherent and their relationship sacramental. The sacramentality of the Roman Church does not entail the seven sacraments only, but the whole of the Church in its self-understanding, life, and practices.

There are far-reaching consequences for an Evangelical assessment of Roman Catholicism. Among other things, this means that the “essence” of Roman Catholicism is its account of Christology, and therefore the Trinity, and the way in which it shapes the broad reality of the Church. This is not a secondary issue. It lies at the heart of the faith: the Roman Catholic account of the person, the work, and the doctrine of Christ. The problem of Roman Catholicism does not primarily lie in its Mariology, its unbiblical folk devotions, or in papal infallibility. These, and many others, are all variations that arise from the ultimate difference that has to do with the account of Jesus Christ himself and his relationship with the Church.

According to Menke, Protestantism is a “wound” of the faith. In his view, the Evangelical insistence on Scripture alone, Faith alone, and glory to God alone are ways in which the Roman sacramental link is severed. There is an element of truth in this analysis. According to the Evangelical account of the gospel, Christ stands above the church through Scripture exercising His authority over his people; Christ stands above the church in having accomplished the work of salvation and granting its benefits to the believers; Christ stands above the church by leading the church to the worship of the Triune God away from idolatry. The essence of Roman Catholicism is ultimately different from the essence of the Evangelical faith. Menke argues it. I agree.


[1] I had access to the Italian translation: Karl-Heinze Menke, Sacramentalità. Essenza e ferite del cattolicesimo (Brescia: Queriniana, 2015). Quotations will be taken and referenced from this translation.

[2]Gisbert Greshake, Was trennt? Überlegungen zur konfessionellen Grunddifferenz, “Theologie der Gegenwart” 49 (2006) 162-174, quotation from p. 162s.

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