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.

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154. The Loss of Credibility of the Roman Catholic Church and the Theological Issues at Stake

October 1st, 2018

The public image of the Roman Catholic Church emerging out of the sexual abuse scandals is that of a disrupted institution going through a season of internal turmoil. Having several top leaders (cardinals, bishops, priests) and institutions (seminaries, schools, the Vatican curia itself) incriminated for either abusing children or covering up abuses undermines the moral, spiritual, and institutional credibility of Rome.

Over the last ten years, horrible things have come to light: first in Ireland, then Australia, then Chile, and more recently in the USA (where a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report exposed systemic abuses committed by priests) and Germany (with a recent report saying that 3,677 children have been abused by Catholic priests since the 1940s).These are just five regions where exposure of the traumatic evidence meant that the scandals could no longer be covered up. The impression is that we have not yet reached the peak. The vast echo of these scandals reached the Vatican headquarters when former nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò accused vast sectors of the Roman Curia of covering them up and called for Francis’ resignation due to his inability to properly deal with the abuses.

Systemic Problem
The sexual abuse crisis has been on the table in a dramatically growing way since the years of Benedict XVI. Its increased scope was one of the reasons Pope Ratzinger felt overwhelmed, contributing to his abrupt resignation. The Roman Catholic Church has tried to deal with the issue first by using the analogy of the “black sheep”: these are terrible but isolated events and the church is dealing with them. Then, the magnitude and extent of the scandal revealed that the problem is neither regional nor limited to individual cases but lies within the culture and the structures of the church itself. Hence Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic people (20 August) calling for repentance and envisaging stricter procedures in the recruitment of the clergy, in the prevention of abuse, and in the prosecution of abusers.

The “black sheep” metaphor is no longer adequate. The problem is systemic and pervasive. The magnitude of the scandals challenges the doctrine of the indefectibility of the (Roman) church, i.e. the view that the church never errs and that only her “sons” make mistakes as individuals. No, the church as a whole is called into question by the abuse of thousands of children by its leaders.

There are several issues at stake here. When nearly half of its priests are sexually active (as evidenced in the book Sex and the Vatican), a structural problem is evident. It is more than the failure of many individuals. It is the failure of a whole system: its doctrines, practices, policies, and so on. In the words of the above mentioned Carlo Maria Viganò, former nuncio to the USA, “The homosexual networks present in the Church must be eradicated… These homosexual networks, which are now widespread in many dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, etc., act under the concealment of secrecy and lies with the power of octopus tentacles, and strangle innocent victims and priestly vocations, and are strangling the entire Church.” How will the church deal with the issue of homosexuality among its priests and its members? Will the church’s hierarchical structure be used to defend the victims, or to adopt a self-defending attitude? These continue to be standing and open questions.

More than a Moral Issue
Of course, every institution, every church, every community, every denomination is subject to failures. In this sense, the problem is not exclusively a Roman Catholic one. The Lord Jesus reminds us not to pass hypocritical judgment on others as if we were exempt from failing. If we are tempted to say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, we should be careful not to have “a plank in our own eye (Matthew 7:4).

Having said that, the disgusting scale of the scandal points to something bigger than a failure.

Here is what the above-mentioned report of Pennsylvania Grand Jury says:

There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere. We heard the testimony of dozens of witnesses concerning clergy sex abuse. We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests. Over one thousand child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records. We believe that the real number – of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward – is in the thousands. Most of the victims were boys; but there were girls too. Some were teens; many were pre-pubescent. Some were manipulated with alcohol or pornography. Some were made to masturbate their assailants, or were groped by them. Some were raped orally, some vaginally, some anally. But all of them were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect the abusers and their institution above all.

In Persona Christi?
A moral and institutional crisis? Yes, but there is more. One wonders whether a significant factor in determining the present-day moral disaster lies at the very heart of the theology of the Roman Church: not the only reason, but one that is often overlooked. The problem has to do with the Roman theology of priesthood and, in particular, with the organic association of the priest with Christ. The priest, by way of his office, acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, as if he were Christ himself. In Roman Catholicism, the priest acts in the person of Christ by pronouncing the words by which the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ. The priest acts in the person of Christ by pronouncing God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of penance. The priest and bishop act in the person of Christ as the head through their leadership of the Church. The priest does not merely represent Christ, but acts as if he were Him.

This doctrine is grounded in the Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship between Christ and the church. According to Rome, the latter continues and prolongs the incarnation of the former. In his masterful assessment of Roman Catholic theology, Gregg Allison speaks of “the Christ-Church interconnection” as being one axis of the whole Catholic doctrine (Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, pp. 56-66). The church acts in persona Christi because she carries on the incarnation after Christ’s ascension as if she were Christ, claiming his authority, demanding the obedience that is due Him, ruling in His name and on His behalf.

When the leader of a church and the faithful who belong to it operate within such a theological framework, to “control” consciences becomes a natural outcome and to create a state of emotional dependency and submission is a consequence. When the priest (and the church that empowers and protects him) acts in persona Christi, he thinks he is beyond accountability from below. His priestly state is somewhat superior to that of the submitted, ordinary people. Moreover, the imperial, top-down hierarchical structures of the Church of Rome provide another theological reason for evil high-ranking priests to take advantage of weaker people belonging to an inferior rank.

Of course, there are other sociological and historical reasons that can explain the present-day abuses, but the theology encapsulated in the understanding of the priest as acting in persona Christi has had a role in creating a spiritual and cultural atmosphere of power in which abuses are tolerated. Will the church ever change its view of the priesthood as a separate, somewhat superior state acting in persona Christi?

As Martin Luther argued in his 1520 Address to the Nobility of the German Nation, the Church of Rome needed a biblical reformation of its theology of the priesthood based on the Christ-Church interconnection. For the Bible and for the Protestant Reformation, Christ alone is the head of the church, and its members are all equally endowed with the priestly role. None of them is “superior” to another. The Holy Spirit, not an institution or a class of people, is the only one who can be said as acting in persona Christi. This is a serious reform that Rome needed then and still needs today. Instead of defending its traditional outlook, which has lost all credibility, will Rome instead be open to change?

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