183. Defining Roman Catholicism: An Evangelical Attempt

Defining something is a bold undertaking. Yet “naming”, and by extension providing an appropriate description of things, is an integral part of the human vocation that cannot be escaped. Like it or not, we always operate with explicit or implicit, accurate or gross definitions.

The next question here is the following: is it possible to define Roman Catholicism? Is it possible to capture the heart of the Roman Catholic worldview in a short description? Obviously “Roman Catholicism” is an extremely rich and complex universe. The risk of oversimplification, if not caricaturization, is always a trap to be avoided.

In recent decades, important heavyweights in Roman Catholic theology have helpfully contributed to the task of identifying the core of Roman Catholicism: think of Karl Adam (The Spirit of Catholicism, 1924, Eng. ed. 1929), Romano Guardini (Von Wesen katholischer Weltanschauung, 1924), Henri de Lubac (Catholicism, 1938; Eng. ed. 1950), Hans Urs von Balthasar (In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic, 1975; Eng. ed. 1988), Walter Kasper (The Catholic Church, 2012; Eng. ed. 2015), just to name a few. This is to say that the question of singling out the gist of Roman Catholicism is deeply felt within Roman Catholicism itself.

Therefore, the search for a definition of Roman Catholicism is not a weird idea. The best minds of contemporary Roman Catholicism have tried to analyze what is essential to Roman Catholicism. What can evangelical theology say about it? Can we participate in the discussion on the nature of Roman Catholicism? In times marked by ecumenical correctness, can we say something about it that dares to be biblically critical? Can evangelical theology take on the responsibility of distilling the tenets of the Roman Catholic system in a brief definition that is both descriptive and evaluative?

Dialogue is best served by transparency and honesty. It is more respectful to speak the truth in love than to hide it behind a screen of “being nice” that fails to address the decisive issues, even if they are painful to tell and listen to. With great approximation and also with a certain amount of courage given the complexity of the task, I suggest a provisional definition. Here it is:

Roman Catholicism is a deviation from biblical Christianity
consolidated over the centuries
reflected in its Roman imperial institution
based on an anthropologically optimistic theology and on an abnormal ecclesiology
defined around its sacramental system
animated by the (universal) Catholic project of absorbing the whole world
resulting in a confused and distorted religion.

In suggesting this definition, we are addressing Roman Catholicism as a system from an evangelical viewpoint. We are not dealing with Roman Catholic people (more on this in the final section). Let us provide a brief treatment of each line.

1. A Deviation from Biblical Christianity
This statement breaks a well-established narrative in the self-understanding of Roman Catholicism, namely that Roman Catholicism is, due to the mechanism of apostolic succession, the legitimate and orthodox embodiment of apostolic Christianity. Others are schismatics (Eastern Orthodox) or heretics (Protestants), as they broke the unbroken line of Roman Catholicism and strayed from its trunk. The truth is, as was already argued by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, this reading must be reversed. Roman Catholicism is not biblical Christianity in its apostolic form, but a departure from it. Its sacramental, hierarchical and devotional developments were consolidated in its dogmatic (tragically irreformable) structure, which took leave of the Gospel. Roman Catholicism turns out to be a deviation furthered hardened into a non-biblical dogmatic system (Marian dogmas, papal infallibility), intertwined with a political state (the Vatican) with which the church must not be confused, in view of a vision that is more similar to the aspiration of an empire than to the mission of the church of Jesus Christ.

In his Treatise on the True Church and the Necessity of Living in It (published in Geneva in 1573), the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) defended exactly this point: “we (the Protestants) did not leave the church, but rather went to the Church”. The Protestant Reformation was necessary to return to the gospel that the Roman system had corrupted to the point of being removed from it. Biblical Christianity, never dormant in history despite the presence of multiple corruptions, did experience a new flourishing at the Reformation and subsequent Evangelical Awakenings.

As a deviation from biblical Christianity, Roman Catholicism is not even one of the many legitimate “denominations” through which the church has expressed itself over time. Given that its dogmatic system (blurred at crucial points), its institutional structure (with a political entity at its core) and its devotional practices (many of which are borrowed from paganism) have departed from the truth of the biblical gospel, the Roman Catholic Church cannot be considered to be one “denomination” among others. While evangelical theology has its own biblical standards by which it accepts Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, “independent” declensions, etc. of the church, the Church of Rome belongs to another category. No “denomination” has a religious head and political leader, no “denomination” has non-biblical and irreformable dogmas, no “denomination” has an “imperial” structure like Rome. Therefore, Roman Catholicism is not one “denomination” among others.

Roman Catholicism relies on a mechanism of institutional succession that has guaranteed monarchical continuity (from one pope to another through a well-refined system), but on the level of adherence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and fidelity to the Word of God, it is a deviation that has become a self-referential system.

2. Consolidated Over the Centuries
After arguing that Roman Catholicism is a deviation from biblical Christianity, it is time to consider the historical claim according to which it has “consolidated over the centuries”. There is no date of birth for Roman Catholicism, a precise moment to coincide with its beginning. Rather, there have been historical phases and transitions that have had a particular impact on its development.

Surely the “Constantinian shift” of the fourth century was one of the key moments. In this century, which culminated with the promulgation of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius I (380 AD), the church gradually took on a “Roman” institutional form, increasing the power claims of the center over the peripheries. It was Roman bishops like Damasus I and Siricius who assumed for themselves the role of “popes”, which resembled that of an ecclesiastical emperor. After this crucial passage, the imperial cloths taken on by the Roman church have never been abandoned. On the contrary, they have been legitimized by an ecclesiology that has considered them part of the God-given nature of the church. The departure from the biblical form of the church (i.e. made up of converts to Jesus Christ, practicing the priesthood of all believers, in networks of churches connected but not within a hierarchical structure) was gradual, progressive and, tragically, irreversible for Roman Catholicism. Starting from the claims of authority by Damasus and Siricius, to the self-attribution of the “two swords” of the government of Boniface VIII, and arriving at the dogma of papal infallibility of 1870, the supporting structure of the Roman Church was (and still is) imperial.

Another defining moment in the deviant parable of Roman Catholicism was the way in which the title of Mary as “mother of God” (theotokos) was received and developed. That pronouncement of Ephesus (431 AD) gave rise to an explosion of Mariology that was twice elevated to the rank of dogma: in 1854 with the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary and in 1950 with the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary. From a title intended to support the full divinity of Jesus Christ, Roman Catholicism has made Mariology a non-biblical pillar of its dogmatic and devotional practice, with important repercussions on Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology; in short, cascading over the whole of faith. This deviance too is irreversible and has made Roman Catholicism porous to the absorption of pagan elements.

A third crucial step was the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when the Church of Rome officially rejected the message of the Protestant Reformation, anathematizing the call to return to the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone on the basis of the teaching of Scripture alone. “Tridentine” Catholicism (i.e. Roman Catholicism relaunched at Trent) has thickened the Roman deviation, making it tougher and more unwilling to listen to the appeals of the Reformation – indeed consolidating its non-biblical commitments in every area of Christian theology, from the doctrine of salvation to that of the church, from Christology to spirituality.

Finally, the long parable of deviations cannot omit the last mile in the history of Roman Catholicism, i.e. the one following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Without denying anything of its past, the Roman church has “updated” and further “developed” it in a dialogical, absorbing, encompassing, but not purifying, way. All the heavy Roman structure of the past has been reaffirmed by juxtaposing it with a “Catholic” profile: soft, ecumenical, open to absorbing everything and everyone. To many, the changes introduced by Vatican II seemed like a real turning point; in reality, it was just a further stage in the self-centering of a system that does not want to reform itself according to the Word of God, but to relaunch itself in a new historical phase without losing any of its unbiblical tenets.

3. The Imperial Roman Structure
The Roman Catholic Church presents itself as a rigid hierarchical and top-down institution, divided between a (restricted) class of clerics and a (large) mass of lay people. The sacrament of order is reserved for the former (with the attached teaching and governing authority), while the latter are relegated to a sacramentally marginal (and in any case never substantial) role as executors. Already this subdivision between a large base of lay people and a small circle of clerics is against the biblical nature of the church, which is a body formed of various members all under one head (which is Christ) and at His service. The same hierarchical structure is found within the class of clerics divided between parish priests, bishops, archbishops and popes all strictly in a hierarchical line. Now this imprint of the ecclesial institution is not biblical, but imperial. It is the Roman imperial culture, and its concept of the exercise of power, that have decisively forged the structure of the Church of Rome and its corresponding hierarchical vision.

The papacy is the institution that best reflects this imperial origin. Even the most generous readings of Peter’s role in the first church described in the New Testament cannot in any way justify the emergence of the papacy as the apical office of the church. The papacy resembles the office of the emperor transposed to the reality of a religious institution. Many papal titles are ecclesiastical translations of imperial titles. Think, for example, of “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles (i.e. Peter)”, “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”, “Primate of Italy”, and “Sovereign of the Vatican City State”. They are imperial titles. They are political roles. In the language used and in the culture they underlie, they are indebted to the politics of the Roman Empire, not to the exercise of responsibility in the church according to the Gospel. Where does the Bible speak of a human head of the church who is “prince”, “pontiff”, “primate”, even “sovereign” of a state? It is clear that we are in the presence of a transposition of titles that are alien to the Church of Jesus Christ because they derive from the political ideology of a human empire.

Think of how the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) defines and describes the role of the Roman Pope. In paragraph 882 it says that “the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as Pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered”. Full, supreme and universal power: this is an imperial power, not defined by Scripture which, on the contrary, limits all powers, inside and outside the Church. See paragraph 937 where we read that “The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls”. Power is still talked about and defined in imperial terms, except to attribute it to the divine will!

The papacy is the child of an imperial conception, at the top of which is the emperor (pope) surrounded by a senate of aristocrats (cardinals and bishops) who govern free men (priests) and a mass of slaves (laymen). Roman Catholicism took over the imperial structure and reproduced it in its own self-understanding and in its internal organization. The tragedy is that it has also clothed it with a divine “imprimatur” as if it descended directly from God’s will and made it unchangeable. The attempt to biblically justify the imperial structure of the church is an after-thought that has tried, in vain, to see Roman Catholicism as the organic “development” of the New Testament church. The reality shows that the Church of Rome is the daughter of the Roman Empire. When the empire fell, from its ashes emerged the ecclesiastical structure that has perpetrated its ideology for centuries, up to the present day.

4. Optimistic Theology and Abnormal Ecclesiology
The time has come to deepen the theological foundation of Roman Catholicism: an anthropologically optimistic theology and an abnormal ecclesiology. These are the two main axes of the whole Roman Catholic theological system.

The first axis concerns, technically speaking, the relationship between nature and grace or, as Gregg Allison usefully called it in his book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (2014), the “nature-grace interdependence”. In its understanding of reality, Roman Catholicism recognizes God’s creation (nature) and has a sense of God’s grace. Nature (i.e. the universe, the world, humanity) exists, just as divine grace exists in relation to it. What is lacking in this scheme is a biblical, and therefore realistic, understanding of sin. In the biblical worldview, the first act is creation followed by the second act, the breaking of the covenant caused by sin, with devastating and cascading effects on everything. Roman Catholicism, though it has a doctrine of sin, does not have a biblically radical one. While it considers sin a serious illness, it does not consider it spiritual death. For Roman Catholicism, nature, before and after sin, is always “capax dei” (i.e. capable of God), intrinsically and constitutively open to the grace of God.

For this reason, Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism and the oil of anointing that convey grace), in the ability of reason to develop a “natural theology”, in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of religions to be ways to God, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth, in the capacity of the Pope to speak infallibly when he does so “ex cathedra”. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened by sin, nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism in whatever is natural to be graced.

The second main axis of Roman Catholicism touches on the relationship between Christ and the church. In Allison’s terms, it is the “Christ-Church interconnection”. The basic idea is that, after the ascension of the risen Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father, there is a sense in which Christ is “really” present in his “mystical body” (the church) which is inseparably connected to the hierarchical and papal institution of the Roman Church. For Roman Catholicism, the incarnation of Christ did not end with the ascension, but is prolonged in the sacramental, institutional and teaching life of the church. The Roman Church exercises the royal, priestly and prophetic offices of Christ in the real and vicar sense: through the priests who act “in persona Christi“, the church governs the world, dispenses grace and teaches the truth.

The prerogatives of Christ are transposed into the self-understanding of the church: the power of the church is universal, the sacraments of the church transmit grace “ex opere operato” (by reason of them being enacted), the magisterium of the church is always true. The biblical distinction between “head” (Christ) and “members” (church) is confused in the category of “totus Christus” (the total Christ which includes both). The consequences of this confusion impact (and pollute) everything. The mystical-sacramental-institutional-papal church is conceived in an inflated, abnormal way.

Roman Catholicism lies within these two axes: the underlying optimism based on the interdependence between nature and grace corresponds to the leading role of the Roman ecclesiastical institution based on the interconnection between Christ and the church.

5. The Sacramental System
The time has come to deal with the sacramental system, the true operational infrastructure of Roman Catholicism. Sacramentality refers to the idea of “mediation”: since nature is intrinsically capable of being elevated by grace, grace is not received immediately or externally, but always through a vehicle or a natural vector. The sacrament is the natural “lever” with which divine grace is communicated to nature. From the Roman Catholic sacramental point of view, the grace of baptism is imparted with water, that of extreme unction with oil, that of order with the imposition of hands, that of the Eucharist with consecrated bread and wine. Grace cannot be received “by faith alone” but always through a natural element imparted by the Church, which acts in the name of Christ and transforms it from a merely natural element to the “real presence” of divine grace.

There are therefore two elements necessary for the Roman Catholic sacrament: a physical-natural element and the agency of the church, which is believed to have the task of transfiguring matter and imparting grace. Therefore, the natural object becomes grace and the church is in charge of administering it. The interdependence between nature and grace means that grace comes into nature and through nature; the interconnection between Christ and the church makes the church of Rome dispense it in the name of Christ himself. Since it is Christ who works through the sacraments of the church, these have an effect “ex opere operato“, by the very fact of being imparted.

In response to the Protestant Reformation, which had emphasized that the work of Christ is received by faith alone through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) designed the sacramental layout of the Church of Rome: from baptism to extreme unction, a sacramental journey is envisaged for the Catholic faithful. The journey is made up of seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, confession, Eucharist, order, marriage, extreme unction) that accompany human life from birth to death. The Roman Church dispenses God’s grace in every age and throughout life. Some sacraments are administrations of grace received once and for all (i.e. baptism, confirmation, order, marriage, extreme unction), others are received cyclically and repeatedly (confession and the Eucharist). In this way, God’s grace becomes “real” and pervasive through the action of the church. For the Council of Trent, being excluded from the sacraments (by excommunication, schism, or belonging to other religions) was equivalent to being excluded from grace.

While not denying the Tridentine system, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) added an important emphasis. The last Council shifted attention from the sacramental acts of the Catholic Church to the sacramental essence of the church. In the famous conciliar definition, “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1). It is the church as such that is a sacrament, that is, the “real presence” of Christ. It is so as a “sign and instrument”: an already given reality and also at the service of its growth. The church expresses the unity with God and the unity of the whole human race. The Roman Catholic Church is thought of as a sign and instrument of the unity of all women and men. For this reason, Rome can speak of everyone as “brothers and sisters”: those that Trent considered excluded from grace because they were excluded from the sacraments (Protestants, Muslims, Jews, etc.), the Church of Rome now considers as “brothers and sisters” already impacted by grace (albeit in a mysterious way) and already in some way ordained to the Catholic Church. From the sacraments as specific acts, to the sacramentality of the Church as a whole: this is where the Roman Catholic Church stands today.

The Gospel recognizes the goodness of creation, but also the radical nature of sin. The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit if they are not revealed to him (1 Corinthians 1:12-15). The flesh (the sinful nature) does not receive grace: it is the Spirit who gives life (John 6:63). Jesus instituted the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “visible words” (according to the beautiful expression of the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli) that testify to the grace received by faith, not as objects through which grace is made present by a church that believes itself to be the extension of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

6. The Catholic Project
After touching on the sacramental system, it is time to talk about the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. The Apostles’ Creed describes the church as “catholic” in the sense of universal as it is extends throughout the world. The meaning given to catholicity by the Church of Rome goes beyond the universality of the church.

Following the conclusion of Vatican II, the Italian Protestant theologian Vittorio Subilia published a book in which the approved documents were examined and in which he provided an overall interpretation of Roman Catholicism that emerged from the Council. The title of that book, The New Catholicity of Catholicism (1967), sums up well what catholicity means.

The kind of Roman Catholicism that emerged from Vatican II has given up the theocratic claims inherited from the long centuries of its history and has invested heavily in increasing its catholicity. It can no longer think of dominating the world in an absolutist way and so it tries to infiltrate the world to modify it from the inside. It no longer hurls anathemas against modernity but strives to penetrate and elevate it. It can no longer impose its power coercively, but tries to exercise it in a more graceful way. The Church of Rome no longer has much popular following when it speaks of doctrine and morals, but tries to maintain its ability to influence, to condition, to direct society. It can no longer afford a wall-to-wall contrast with the world in order not to be relegated to a nook, and so it accepts modern society in order to permeate it from within.

In a military metaphor, it can be said that the tactics of Roman Catholicism are no longer those of a head-on collision but of the wrapping of the wings. The goal is no longer the annihilation of the opponent, but its incorporation. The aim is no longer conquest, but absorption through the expansion of the boundaries of catholicity. Everything falls within the jurisdiction of Roman Catholicity.

The catholicity of Roman Catholicism is the ability to incorporate divergent ideas, different values, heterogeneous movements, and to integrate them within the Roman system. If the evangelical faith chooses (Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone), Roman Catholicism adds (Scripture and tradition, Christ and church, grace and sacraments, faith and works). In fact, Roman Catholicism has such a broad framework that it can accommodate everything, a thesis and its antithesis, one instance and another, one element and another.

In the Roman Catholic worldview, nature is conjugated to grace, Scripture to tradition, Christ to the church, grace to the sacraments, faith to works, Christian life to popular religion, evangelical piety to pagan folklore, speculative philosophy to superstitious beliefs, ecclesiastical centralism to Catholic universalism. The biblical gospel is not its parameter, and therefore Roman Catholicism is a system always open to new integrations in view of its progressive expansion.

The basic criterion of Roman Catholicism is not evangelical purity nor Christian authenticity, but the integration of the particular into a universal horizon at the service of a Roman institution that holds the reins of the whole plan.

7. A Confused and Distorted Religion
After briefly discussing the various elements of the definition, it is time to close the circle by trying to reach a conclusion, however provisional it is. So what can be said about the doctrinal outlook, the devotional patterns, and the institutional structure of Roman Catholicism as a whole? Roman Catholicism can be said to be a confused and twisted religion.

Its “formal principle” is not submission to Scripture alone, but to an acceptance of the Word of God in which Scripture sits alongside the Church’s Tradition and ends up being under the teaching office of the Roman Church. Not having Scripture as the ultimate authority to submit to, Roman Catholicism can only be biblically confused, twisted, ambiguous and, ultimately, erroneous. Each of its uses of Scripture, however linguistically adherent to the Bible from which it borrows its words, is crossed by a principle contrary to the Word of God.

Its “material principle” is not the grace of God received by faith alone which saves the sinner, but a sophisticated system that merges divine grace with the performance of the person through the reception of the sacraments of the church. Roman Catholicism speaks of “sin”, “grace”, “salvation”, “faith”. Using these words, it employs them not according to their biblical meaning, but by bending them according to its own sacramental system. The words are the same but, not being defined by Scripture, their meaning is fraught with internal deviations that make them phonetically equal and theologically different from the Christian faith.

Some distortions of Roman Catholicism are obvious, as in the case of Marian dogmas without biblical support, or the case of the institution of the papacy which is the child of the Roman Empire, or the case of devotions that are drawn from pagan practices. Others are subtler and more sophisticated, as in the case of doctrinal “developments” which have accrued over the centuries, or the Roman Catholic ecclesiology or view of salvation.

In light of these pervasive distortions, even what appears to be in common must be carefully questioned. As the document “Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism” (1999) of the Italian Evangelical Alliance says:

The doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals, which is expressed in a common adherence to the Creeds and Councils of the first five centuries, is not an adequate basis on which to say that there is an agreement concerning the essentials of the Gospel. Moreover, developments within the Catholic Church during the following centuries give rise to the suspicion that this adherence may be more formal than substantial. This type of observation might also be true of the agreements between Evangelicals and Catholics when it comes to ethical and social issues. There is a similarity of perspective which has its roots in Common Grace and the influence which Christianity has generally exercised in the course of history. Since theology and ethics cannot be separated, however, it is not possible to say that there is a common ethical understanding – the underlying theologies are essentially different. As there is no basic agreement concerning the foundations of the Gospel, even when it comes to ethical questions where there may be similarities, these affinities are more formal than substantial. (n. 9)

How are we to relate to Roman Catholics as individuals and groups? Again the same document helpfully argues:

What is true of the Catholic Church as a doctrinal and institutional reality is not necessarily true of individual Catholics. God’s grace is at work in men and women who, although they may consider themselves Catholics, trust in God alone, and seek to develop a personal relationship with him, read the Scriptures and lead a Christian life. These people, however, must be encouraged to think through the issue of whether their faith is compatible with membership of the Catholic Church. They must be helped to examine critically residual Catholic elements in their thinking in the light of God’s Word. (n. 12)

All women and men are called to return to God the Father, who manifested himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be saved and to re-learn how to live under the authority of the Bible for the glory of God alone.

(An Italian version of this article can be found on “Loci Communes”)

182. The Dogma of the Bodily Assumption of Mary, 70 Years After

The 70th anniversary of the day that the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary was promulgated passed almost unnoticed. It was November 1, 1950 that Pius XII, with the apostolic constitution Munificentissum Deus, solemnly pronounced the latest Marian dogma, which is also the last dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. In it, Roman Catholicism undertook to consider as a revealed doctrine, and therefore an unchangeable truth belonging to the heart of the Christian faith, 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” (n. 44).

In support of this pronouncement, Pius XII cited the devotion of the faithful, the growing expectation of the Roman Catholic people around the world for such recognition, the liturgies of the Western and Eastern churches, some statements extracted from John of Damascus, some writings by medieval fathers such as Anthony of Padua, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, the works of modern Roman Catholic writers such as Robert Bellarmine, Alfonso de’ Liguori, Peter Canisius and Suarez. Cumulatively, all these voices have brewed throughout history, bringing about the fermentation of the dogma in its official twentieth-century definition.

It is interesting to notice that the only biblical text given in support of the dogma is Psalm 131:8: “Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified”, where the Ark is associated with Mary through a series of extravagant and amazing connections that Roman Catholicism has allowed to develop. Without a biblical frame of reference for the development of doctrine and devotion, without a commitment to “Scripture Alone”, Roman Catholicism allowed this unwarranted and misleading belief to mount to a dogmatic peak. It is clear that the dogma has no biblical basis (Mary’s death is not described in the New Testament, nor does it have any particular theological significance in the economy of the gospel story) and that biblical quotations are absolutely specious. Yet Roman Catholicism has elevated Mary’s assumption, body and soul, into heavenly glory to the rank of a binding and unchangeable dogma, thus committing itself to a non-biblical doctrine.

If one thinks that in 1870 the previous dogma (that on papal infallibility) proclaimed the pope’s “ex cathedra” pronouncements as “infallible”, Pius XII’s one on Mary belongs to this category: we are therefore faced with a teaching that the Roman Catholic Church considers to be “infallible”, perhaps the only one that a Roman pope has ever promulgated since the 1870 dogma. When a religious institution is not anchored to Scripture alone, and therefore subject to the authority and the corrections of the Word of God, deviations can only go from bad to worse.

The bodily assumption of Mary was the last non-biblical dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in chronological order. Some sectors within Roman Catholicism are pushing for it not to be the last in the definitive sense. For several decades, the dogma of Mary being “co-redemptrix” has been on the horizon, a further development of the ancient Marian syllogism according to which everything that is ascribed to Jesus Christ must in some way also be ascribed to Mary.

This syllogism resulted in two Marian dogmas:

  • since Jesus is sinless, Mary ought to be believed as having been conceived without sin (i.e. the 1848 dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary);
  • since Jesus rose from the dead, Mary ought to be believed to have been assumed into heavenly glory (i.e. the 1950 dogma of her bodily assumption).

The “logic” of the uncontrolled syllogism would have it that, since Jesus Christ is the Redeemer of the world, Mary is “co-redemptrix”, having shared and still sharing her role in the salvation brought by the Son. It would be the apotheosis of a “crazy” theological mechanism that has already produced two non-biblical and deviant dogmas. The “co-redemptrix” dogma has been brewing for some time; it may take ages to come to the forefront, but it is definitely on the move.

How distant would the biblical Mary be from these pompous talks about her! As she did in her life, if anything she would say: “Do whatever he (Jesus Christ) tells you” (John 2:5). This is the “evangelical” Mary whose faith we want to imitate. The rest is disguised paganism.


A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Mary offers a biblical account of Mary’s character, contrasting this with the Roman Catholic traditions which have developed throughout history, distorting her nature from an obedient servant and worshipper of God to a worshipped saint herself. De Chirico writes with the authority of thorough research as well as personal experience of the traditions surrounding Mary which have become so integral to Roman Catholic worship.

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.

172. Can the Roman Catholic Church survive two Popes? — one Catholic and one Roman

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 nobody could have imagined what has been happening since: the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope (Francis), but also a former yet living pope (Benedict) who still speaks, acts, and intervenes in ecclesiastical matters. There were hints that the prospect of having two living popes would cause some confusion, if not controversy. The fact that Benedict wanted to keep his title as Pope (only adding “Emeritus” to it), as well as his white papal robe (a symbol of the papal office) and his residence inside of the Vatican walls (the home of popes), indicated that, in spite of his pledge to remain silent for the rest of his days, the cohabitation between two popes would easily result in misunderstandings, even conflicts. The outcome has been an increasing polarization between Francis’ fans over against Benedict’s supporters and vice versa, certainly beyond the intentions of both.

One Pope, Two Popes?
In 2019 we had a preview of the present-day turmoil. The two popes spoke on the same subject, the sexual abuses committed in the Roman Church, but with clearly different positions: Francis blamed “clericalism”, an abuse of ecclesiastical power by the priests and religious people involved, whereas Benedict pointed to the collapse of Catholic doctrine and morality since the Sixties and after the Second Vatican Council, a theological decay that according to him was at the root of the scandals. The two popes interpreted the malaise of their church and the possible solutions in radically different ways.

More recently, a power struggle rallying around Pope Francis and Pope Benedict erupted, with the “Francis party” pushing for changes in areas such as the re-admission of the divorced to the Eucharist and the extension of the priesthood to married men, and the “Benedict party” resisting those changes, denouncing them as heresies, confusions and failures. It was indeed an Annus Horribilis (terrible year) for the Roman Church. Last but not least, we have now a popular movie entitled The Two Popes telling a made-up story (with some truth in it) and making fun of the two characters and their unusual cohabitation in the Vatican. All of this was unthinkable seven years ago.

Pope Emeritus, yet Outspokenly Concerned
The last episode in the tale of the two Popes only happened a few days ago. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a prominent member of the traditionalist front, announced the imminent publication of a book written with Pope Benedict. The title of the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, is indicative of the highly emotional tone of its authors. The book itself is a heartfelt cry seasoned with theological acumen to maintain the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the celibacy of the priests. It arises out of fears that after the 2019 Synod for the Pan-Amazon region, Pope Francis will allow some married men (viri probati, “proved men”) to access the priesthood, thereby breaking a millennial rule of the Roman Catholic Church which prescribes her priests to be celibate. Sarah and Benedict staunchly defend the permanent validity of the celibacy of the priests and denounce any attempts at breaking it, even those painted as “exceptions” in extraordinary circumstances. It is true that after the press release by Cardinal Sarah there has been a backlash against Benedict appearing as co-author of the book, even though it looks like the Pope Emeritus had given at least tacit prior approval for the full manuscript. You can read the full story here.

The theological arguments of the book deserve attention on their own merits because they show that traditional Roman Catholic theology is against progressive and liberal trends, not out of biblical concerns or standing under the authority of the Bible, but in order to preserve traditional Roman Catholic teaching on the basis of the weight of church tradition and extra-biblical arguments (i.e. the “ontological” and “sacramental” nature of the priestly office). Because of its importance for gaining an insight into the traditional Roman Catholic way of theologizing, the book by Sarah and Benedict will be reviewed in a future Vatican File. What is of interest now are the standing questions that it brings.

An Unsettled Tension
One of the roles of the pope has always been the maintenance of the balance between the Roman and the Catholic dimensions. Roman Catholicism is the ongoing tension between two fundamental aspects of the whole: the Roman side, with its emphasis on centralized authority, pyramidal structure, binding teaching and the rigidity of canon law; and the Catholic side, with its emphasis on the universal outlook, the absorption of ideas and cultures and the inclusive embrace of practices into the Catholic whole. The resulting system is Roman Catholicism, at the same time Roman and Catholic. The human genius of Roman Catholicism and one of the reasons for its survival across the centuries has been its ability to be both, though not without tensions and risks of disruption.

Popes embody the Roman Catholic synthesis by holding together the Roman apparatus and the Catholic vision. Of course, they each do it differently, especially after the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II, for example, was a very Roman pope but at the same time a very Catholic one. For example, he strongly defended traditional Roman Catholic teaching (e.g. by launching the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church), but was second to none in promoting the universality of this Church around the world (e.g. inter-religious dialogue, traveling globally). Unlike John Paul II, who was both Roman and Catholic, Benedict XVI made the pendulum swing over the Roman pole. With his staunch conservativism in areas such as liturgy, morality and the critical relationship with the secular world, Benedict appeared to be more Roman than Catholic. He seemed to be a rigid, centripetal, doctrinaire pope. A Roman pope. Many felt that his papacy, while strong in its Roman centredness and boundaries, was weak in its Catholic breadth and warmth.

This criticism helps explain why a pope like Francis was chosen to succeed him. With the election of Pope Francis, Rome seemed to be wanting the pendulum to move in the opposite direction in order to re-address the balance. Distancing himself from many Roman features of the office (e.g. his refusal of the pomp of the Vatican Curia, his blurred teaching that leans away from official teachings), Francis has embodied the role of a very Catholic pope. His stress on “Who are we to judge?”, universal brotherhood with Muslims and other religions, ecological concerns, etc. made his papacy significantly shaped by the Catholic elements. The open-endedness of his teaching, coupled with the ambiguity of his language, has created some interest in the secular West, which resonates with much of what he says on social issues. This is to say that he is a very Catholic pope. Perhaps too Catholic and too little Roman for a growing number of Roman Catholics!

A Struggle to Re-Fix the Balance
Admitting the divorced to the Eucharist, fudging the traditional opposition to homosexuality and extending the priesthood to married men have been perceived as the latest, dangerous “Catholic” moves of the pope which run contrary to the Roman tradition, risking its whole collapse! This is the highly emotional background behind the From the Depths of Our Hearts book, part of which was written by Benedict himself in order to reinforce the “Roman” teaching on the celibacy of priests over against possible “Catholic” openings towards married men, which Francis seems to be in favor of.

The tension between the “Roman” Benedict and the “Catholic” Francis helps explain the present-day crisis. Past popes reigned without a Pope Emeritus around and therefore embodied in their own way the Roman Catholic synthesis. The next pope would have fixed the synthesis differently. But now, with two very different popes living next to each other (with only one reigning, but the other still lucid and active), the situation is very different. The overly Catholic attitude of Francis is compared and contrasted with the Roman outlook of Benedict to the point of creating an unprecedented struggle between opposite parties. For some, Francis has become too Catholic to maintain a proper Roman Catholic synthesis. He is incapable of being the Roman Catholic (at the same time) Pontifex. Therefore, he needs the correction of a Roman pope.

And yet, if this situation goes on unresolved it will undermine the institution of the papacy as it was cleverly crafted throughout the ages. The “progressive” pope will be counter-balanced by the “traditional” pope and the disruption of the system will be achieved. The papacy will be transformed into a two-party political system, as if it were an ordinary parliamentary monarchy. It will be the end of Roman Catholicism as it stands now.

This tension at the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church is not tenable in the long run. This is why it is highly probable that the status of Pope Emeritus (the one which Benedict enjoys now) will be revisited and regulated in order to end the temptation to think of the papacy as a “dual” responsibility, resulting in the on-going confrontation of a Roman and a Catholic party. Roman Catholicism accommodates different positions and tendencies, but the pope is thought of as being the one, living synthesizer of the tension, until the next one takes over and perhaps re-fixes the balance. The tale of two popes will not last long because Roman Catholicism is built on the conviction that its system is capable of keeping together its unchangeable Roman identity and its ever-increasing Catholicity. No biblical reformation is in view; it is only an internal struggle that is causing Rome to go through a stress-test and some chaos until the Roman and the Catholic dimensions find a new, sustainable equilibrium.

170. Totus Christus (The Whole Christ) or Solus Christus (Christ Alone)? On The Damages of Augustine’s Formula and the Correction of the Protestant Reformation

Solus Christus (Christ Alone) versus Totus Christus (the Whole Christ). If one wants to capture the difference between the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism, here it is. On the one hand, the evangelical stress on the uniqueness of Jesus’s person (the God-man) and His atoning work;[1] on the other, the Roman Catholic insistence on the organic relationship between Christ and the Church.

Essential to Roman Catholicism is what Gregg Allison has helpfully termed the “Christ-Church interconnection.[2]” The Church is considered a prolongation of the Incarnation, mirroring Christ as a Divine-human reality, acting as an altera persona Christi, a second “Christ.” It is therefore impossible for Roman Catholicism to cry with the Reformers “solus Christus, for this would be seen as breaching the organic bond between Christ and the Church. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church—in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word, and its administration of the sacraments. There is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the Church) and ecclesia in Christo (the Church in Christ).

A Misleading View of Totus Christus
The origin of the “Christ-Church interconnection” goes back to a faulty interpretation by the Church father Augustine (354-430 AD) as he understood the relationship between Christ and the Church. One of the most controversial points of Augustine’s theology is his conception of the totus Christus, the “total Christ”: the idea that the unity of Christ with the Church is so deep as to form a single mystery.[3] The Head of the body is so united with the body of the Head as to become a single Christ.

On this doctrine, Roman Catholicism built its own theology of the prolongation of the incarnation in the Church. It is as if there was such an intrinsic and profound union between Christ and the Church as to make it possible, indeed necessary, to see the Church as the sacramental extension of the incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, there are texts in which Augustine throws himself into one-sided statements in which, speaking of the Church united to Christ, he affirms “we are Christ” or “we have become Christ”. The whole Christ “is head and body”. At best, these would be ambiguous expressions if they had not been accompanied and supplemented by an orthodox Christology like that of Augustine. Besides the blurred statements about the totus Christus, speaking of Christ, Augustine writes that “even without us, He is complete”. Christ does not need the ecclesial body to be Christ. Elsewhere Augustine writes: “He is the Creator, we are the creatures; he is the craftsman, we are the work made by him, he the molder, we the molded ones”. His doctrine of the total Christ, however ambiguous and confused it is, does not break the distinction between Creator and creature and does not elevate the Church (the body) to a status of divinity.

Having said that, his interpretation of Colossians 1:24, Acts 9:4, and Ephesians 5 on the relationship between Christ and the Church in a spousal perspective led him to affirm the organic nature of that relationship and to go so far as affirming the “totality” of their being combined. The comments on the same texts also indicate the problematic direction of Augustine’s theology on the “deification” of the Christian, that is, his incorporation into the person of Christ becoming part of the mystical body.[4] Indeed, one can understand how Roman Catholicism was dazzled by the metaphor of the total Christ, going far beyond Augustine and developing it in the theology of the Eucharist (the “real presence” of Christ) and the priesthood (the priest acting in altera Christi persona, in the person of Christ), and in the development of dogma (the Roman Church being endowed with the authority of Christ in promulgating dogmas). The Augustinian interpretation on this point is therefore subject to different uses, depending on what one wants to see in his texts as the primary element: the blurred totus Christus or the preserved distinction between Creator and creature.

Rome’s Appropriation of the Totus Christus
Rome interprets the Augustinian reference to totus Christus as a union, which confuses the distinction between the Head and the body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ” (§ 795). According to Subilia, in this mistake lies the “problem of Catholicism”.[5] In his unsurpassed study, Subilia deals with the reason why the Church of Rome has such a high and excessive view of herself and is inclined to claim divine prerogatives. According to the Roman Catholic appropriation of Augustine’s formula, the relationship between Christ and the Church is so organic and profound that the Church becomes part of the whole Christ. Subilia notes that Augustine, who had been a Manichean, and therefore a dualist, suffered the opposite temptation of “monism” (i.e. the reduction to one) in his thought. While emphasizing the distinction between the Head and the members, and therefore between Christ and the Church, in Augustine “the sovereignty of the Head on the body is disastrously lost sight of” (p. 146). Defending Augustine and the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Church father, Catholic theologian Gherardini summarizes the ecclesiology of the totus Christus as “Christ continued and identified in the Church”.[6]

Starting from Augustine, Roman Catholic ecclesiology became radicalized in emphasizing the theme of the unity between Christ and the Church in terms of a hierarchical-sacramental church representing Christ on earth. For Subilia, this is a “radical devastation that has changed the vital centers of the Christian organism and transformed it into a different organism” (p. 150). If this reading is plausible, the “problem of Catholicism” is not merely in one doctrine or in some superficial differences on secondary issues. Its problem lies at the very heart of its system and is pervasively present in all its expressions: from the Trinity to Mariology, from the sacraments to soteriology, from ecclesiology to the manifold devotions. All is infected by the totus Christus.

Back to Solus Christus
The Protestant Reformation was an attempt to face the damages of this inflated and distorted Christianity by putting the totus Christus back within its biblical boundaries. By arguing that the faith and life of the Church needed to be grounded on Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), the Reformers wanted to reaffirm that the authority of God is exercised by Scripture over the Church. The totus Christus allowed the Roman Church to claim to have authority to promulgate new dogmas without Scriptural support and to endorse teachings and practices that went against the Bible. Sola Scriptura was a reminder that the Church is subject to the authority of God in the Bible.

By confessing that salvation comes to us by faith alone (Sola Fide), the Reformers wanted to recognize that we are saved by an external gift achieved by Christ alone and given to us by grace. There is nothing in us that deserves it. The Roman Catholic totus Christus had built a sophisticated system whereby the Church contributes to salvation through its sacramental system and the faithful merits it through his good works. Sola Fide was a reminder that the gospel is indeed Good News because Jesus Christ alone has accomplished what is needed for our salvation. Salvation needs to be received by faith alone.

Ultimately, the Protestant Reformation wanted to re-focus the whole of the Christian faith and life on Christ Alone (Solus Christus): the Son of God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world. The misinterpretation of Augustine’s totus Christus led the Roman Catholic Church to deviate from the biblical faith by endorsing an inflated view of Mary and the saints as mediators, an exaggerated view of the Church as the hierarchical and sacramental institution prolonging the incarnation, and an optimistic view of man’s ability to contribute to salvation. Solus Christus is the best corrective to a blurred understanding of totus Christus and the best safeguard against the intrusion of alien elements into the Christian faith. Whether or not this was Augustine’s intention (and this is disputed), this is nonetheless the biblical medicine to recover the evangelical, Trinitarian, orthodox faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people (Jude 3).


[1] S. Wellum, Christ Alone, The Uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour. What the Reformers Taught and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

[2] G.R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014) pp. 42-67.

[3] Here I rely on this collection of Augustine’s texts on the topic: Sant’Agostino, Il Cristo totale, ed. G. Carrabetta (Roma: Città Nuova, 2012).

[4] On this point see D.V. Meconi, The One Christ. St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification (Lanham, MD: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013).

[5] V. Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1964).

[6] B. Gherardini, La Cattolica. Lineamenti d’ecclesiologia agostiniana (Torino: Lindau, 2011) p. 29.

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.

155. Roman but Not Catholic: A Book Review

November 1st, 2018

What remains at stake with the Roman Catholic Church 500 years after the Protestant Reformation? This question is of capital importance given the general ecumenical climate, which blurs differences and even finds them disturbing to talk about. The book Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation provides timely food for thought in assessing the historical and theological implausibility of Rome being “catholic” and “Roman” at the same time. Written by two evangelical scholars (Kenneth Collins, professor of historical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University), this work is an engaging exercise in historical theology that helpfully grapples with the defining claims of the Roman Catholic Church: on the one hand, its claim of  “catholicity” (universality), and on the other, its “Roman” structure. This combination is essential to the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is highly questionable on various grounds. The book is a well-argued critique of the very fabric of Roman Catholicism.

Roman and Catholic?
First, let’s have a look at the main claim that shapes Roman Catholicism. Its catholicity has a Roman element so intertwined that it is an inextricable part of the whole. “Roman” is not just a geographical reference, but an essential and constitutive part of a system that is both Roman and catholic, or better still, “Roman Catholic” in a single breath. The romanitas of the system is co-essential with its catholicity. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “the name ‘Roman Catholic’ conjoined the universality of the Church over the entire world, which has long been the content of the term ‘Catholic’, with the specificity of only one single see”[1], that of Rome.

Within the Western tradition, then, Roman catholicity is a long-established union of catholic universality and Roman particularity, catholic plurality and Roman unity, catholic comprehensiveness and Roman distinctiveness, the catholic totus (whole) and the Roman locus (place), catholic fullness and Roman partiality, catholic breadth and Roman narrowness, catholic elasticity and Roman rigidity, the catholic universe and the Roman center, catholic organism and Roman organization, the catholic faith and the Roman structure. Roman Catholicism wants to affirm both. But is it a warranted claim biblically or even historically?

Pointed Critique
Having briefly described the nature of the combination of Roman and Catholic elements in the Roman Catholic Church, the main critique of the authors is intelligently summarized at a number of points in the book. For example, the authors state, “Roman Catholicism represents not the universal church, as is so often claimed, but instead a distinct theological tradition, one among others” (p. 30, emphasis in the text). If Roman Catholicism is Roman, it cannot be truly catholic, and since Roman Catholicism wants to be Roman, it is not truly catholic.

The book surveys the development of Roman traditions that departed from the catholic (read: biblical) stream of the ancient church. Along the way, ecclesiastical voice and power supplemented and ultimately overtook biblical authority (ch. 2-4). The Roman Church grew its exclusive claims (ch. 6-7). The rise of the papacy became the climax of the Romanization of Catholicism (ch. 8 and 11-12). The sacraments were used to divide rather than to unite Christians (ch. 9). Accounts of the Mary of the Bible were idealized, which reflected the Roman Catholic synthesis (chps. 15-16).

“In short,” the authors say,“ironic though it is, the Church of Rome is not sufficiently catholic” (p. 83). The cumulative argument presented is that Rome wants to tie its romanitas (made of imperial structure, political power, hierarchical organization, extra-biblical traditions) to its status as the only church of Jesus Christ where the fullness of grace can be found. But this is exactly the point at issue. By wanting to be Roman, the Church ceases to be catholic. Hence the brilliant title: Roman but not Catholic!

This critique is always gently and respectfully put, but it has devastating effects on the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church if it is taken seriously. Among other things, it means that the Roman aspect of the church takes precedence over the biblical outlook and leads it away from clear biblical teaching in core areas like tradition, authority, Mariology, salvation, etc. It means that its Roman Catholicity was given primacy over its biblical catholicity, thus altering the fundamental commitments of the Roman Church.

One Standing Issue
The book is outstanding in its impressive scholarship and careful argumentation. I have many words of commendation with only one remaining criticism. The authors, though masterly at presenting a convincing case, don’t go far enough in coming to terms with its consequences. They still operate with the mindset that what divides Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church is less than what unites them. Here is the way they put it: “Deep Disagreement despite Deeper Agreement” (p. 78). According to them, the deeper agreement is the Trinitarian and Christological foundation of the “catholic” tradition (as it is enshrined in the early creeds of the ancient church), whereas the deep disagreement refers to the later Roman accretions (as they are, for example, reflected in the papacy).

This way of understanding the dividing line between Evangelicals and Catholics is popular in ecumenical circles, but it is not fully consistent with the thesis endorsed by the authors. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is committed to its Roman identity and to its catholic heritage means that even the catholic (i.e. Trinitarian and Christological) core is affected by its Roman commitment. According to the Catholic Church, the Roman and non-biblical elements (i.e. the Roman pontiff, the Roman imperial institutions, the Roman hierarchical ecclesiology) are not accidents of history; they are considered to be de iure divino (i.e. stemming from divine law, being rooted in God’s will) constitutive components of the church. For Rome, its catholic and Roman dual identity is grounded in the divine will. So these foundational Roman commitments do impact the way  in which the “catholic” ones are understood and articulated in doctrine and practice. The “catholic” heritage of Rome has been shaped, curved, and bent by its Roman additions to the point that it is no longer the way it was in the ancient church. It is a different catholicity. It is Roman Catholicism.

Moreover, all of the spurious Roman elements are argued for in Trinitarian and Christological ways by Roman Catholic theology. For example, the Pope is believed to be the “vicar” of Christ and chosen by the Holy Spirit. This is a Trinitarian argument, but a kind of Trinitarianism that is significantly different from the biblical one to the point of allowing and demanding the wrong Roman developments.

The point is that the “deep disagreements despite deeper agreement” approach adopted in the book should actually be reversed. Between the Evangelical faith and Rome are deep agreements despite deeper disagreements. “Roman but not Catholic” means that the catholic that is in Rome is no longer biblically catholic, but distortedly Roman Catholic, and needs to be reformed according to the gospel.

[1]J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1963) pp. 245-246.

150. Pope Francis’ Re-Interpretation and Actualization Of Gnosticism and Pelagianism: A Plausible Suggestion?

June 1st, 2018

Pope Francis is hardly known for his interest in historical theology. Unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Francis’ speeches and writings usually contain no reference to patristic, medieval or modern sources. The texts he consistently quotes are his own. His “down-to-earth” communication style is aimed at simplicity and immediacy, with little or no concession to theological erudition. There is one exception, though. Since his programmatic apostolic exhortation EvangeliiGaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, 2013), he has often referred to the dangers of “Gnosticism” and “Pelagianism” as present-day threats for the Church.

Here are the somewhat cryptic concerns of the Pope:

One is the attraction of gnosticism, a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings. The other is the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. These are manifestations of an anthropocentric immanentism. It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.(n. 94)[1]

A Warning Against “Subjective” and “Traditionalist” Deviations
Gnosticism and Pelagianism were two ancient currents of religious and theological thought that the Church had to deal with in the first centuries of its life. Gnosticismis the belief that the material world is created by an emanation of the highest God, trapping the divine spark within the human body. This divine spark could be liberated by “gnosis”, i.e. a direct participation in the divine. Gnosticism was mainly countered by Church Fathers like Ireneus of Lyon (130-202 AD),who insisted on the goodness of creation, the reality of sin, and the embodied Son of God who saves us entirely by way of His death and resurrection.

Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that the will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid. It was mainly fought against by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), who underlined the transmission of original sin to all mankind and the utter inability of sinful man to change his destiny without the intervention of divine grace.

What about Francis’ interpretation of Gnosticism and Pelagianism?

From the outset, it seems that the Pope is actually referring to movements and trends within Roman Catholicismthat he labels as Gnosticism and Pelagianism. He opposes these trends and warns Catholics about being trapped by them. For Francis, Neo-Gnosticism is a “subjective faith”: the implicit concern is that it lacks the sacramental, institutional, Marian, and hierarchical outlook of the Roman Catholic faith. Is he here warning against the danger of absorbing too many doses of the “evangelical” faith, which is often caricaturized as “subjective” because it focuses on personal faith and witness? Is he admitting that he is concerned with the spreading of “evangelical spirituality” around the world and trying to counter its success by derogatorily labeling it as the latest form of Gnosticism? Moreover, is he also referring to the danger of a cafeteria-Catholicism where people subjectively pick and choose what they want to believe and practice?

As far as Pelagianism is concerned, the Pope seems to address another critical front. Neo-Pelagians “trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others because they observe certain rules or remain intransigently faithful to a particular Catholic style from the past”. It is clear that he is pointing to traditionalist sectors of the Church of Rome, which dislike that his more casual style and pastoral “reforms” run contrary to well-established patterns. By warning against the latest forms of Gnosticism and Pelagianism, he is criticizing what he perceives as deviances on both the right front (the traditionalist) and the left front (the evangelical and the secular).

A Two-Edged Sword
Gnosticism and Pelagianism provided alternative accounts to biblical Christianity. That is why they have always been perceived as lethal, and that is the reason why the Pope refers to them in very negative and critical terms. However, Francis does not present a historically accurate or theologically comprehensive assessment of Gnosticism and Pelagianism.[2] He uses (and perhaps abuses) them to fight his own battles. He is more interested in warning against vague present-day forms of these trends – to the point of disregarding their established meaning – than talking as a Church historian about what happened in the past and gathering lessons for today’s Church.

This “creative” way of redefining historical heresies for the sake of present-day quarrels could also be used against Francis. From a “traditionalist” point of view, he too seems to endorse a “subjective” form of Catholicism whereby people are told to follow their consciences and to gather in the Church (the “field-hospital” that includes all) with no personal cost of repentance and faith. Is this not also a form of Gnosticism whereby you are expected to follow the “spark” that is in you? On the other hand, secular voices and evangelicals could take issue with Francis for maintaining an ecclesiastical and magisterial apparatus which is grounded on medieval canon law, a monarchical and absolutist political state (i.e. the Vatican), the Vatican bank, a complex combination of works and religious practices, etc. Is this not a form of Pelagianism, i.e. a work-based system which obscures the primacy of grace?

Playing with historical theology and re-engineering its vocabulary for present-day purposes is never a neutral business. The denounced abuse can be easily turned back on the denouncer. The task of defending God’s Church from threats and dangers needs clearer and more accurate tools.


[1]Other references to Gnosticism and Pelagianism can be found in his Encyclical Lumen Fidei(The Light of Faith, 2013) n. 67 and in his Address to Participants in the Fifth Convention of the Italian Church(2015).

[2]The lack of Francis’ historical and theological accuracy is perhaps one reason behind the recent document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Placuit Deo(22 February 2018), in which both modern versions of Gnosticism and Pelagianism are treated in more historically informed ways and seen as dangers in “certain aspects of Christian salvation”. It is interesting to note that the two applications by Pope Francis are not really followed through.