152. “Either Ecumenical or Proselytizer”? No, There is a Better Option

August 1st, 2018

Proselytism has become a bad word. Like fundamentalism or exclusivism, in today’s religious language, only the negative overtones of the term are retained and are used to convey a derogatory understanding of its meaning. In its original Greek context, the word simply meant “coming closer” to something. In the New Testament, a proselyte describes a non-Israelite who has come close to the Jewish faith (e.g. Matthew 23:15; Acts 2:10, 6:5, 13:43). In this sense, Christians have understood proselytism as akin to evangelism in the sense of calling all people to come closer to Jesus Christ. However, the historical record of proselytism carried out by Christians is tragically marred with all kinds of manipulative and violent means, making the word itself contrary to what biblical evangelism and mission should be.

In the present-day ecumenical context, Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against proselytism. The last episode in this campaign occurred a few weeks ago. Coming back from his visit to the Genevan headquarters of the World Council of Churches (June 21, 2018), Pope Francis gave an in-flight interview in which he summed up one of his main concerns as far as the prospects of the ecumenical movement are concerned. Here are his words: “In the ecumenical movement we have to take from the dictionary a word: ‘proselytism.’ Clear? You cannot have ecumenism with proselytism. You have to choose. Either you have an ecumenical spirit or you are a proselytizer.”

Blotting out the word? Choosing between being ecumenical or proselytizer? And these being the only two alternatives? What is happening here? What is behind all this?

What in the World is Proselytism?
The historical account for the way in which the word proselytism has been understood is long and lies beyond the scope of this article. To cut the story short, it will suffice to make reference to the 1995 document The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness, drafted by the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC). Here the main ecumenical body (WCC) and Rome articulate their concerns over the issue. Paragraph 19 states:

Proselytism stands in opposition to all ecumenical effort. It includes certain activities which often aim at having people change their church affiliation and which we believe must be avoided, such as the following:

– making unjust or uncharitable references to other churches’ beliefs and practices and even ridiculing them;

– comparing two Christian communities by emphasizing the achievements and ideals of one, and the weaknesses and practical problems of the other;

– employing any kind of physical violence, moral compulsion and psychological pressure e.g. the use of certain advertising techniques in mass media that might bring undue pressure on readers/viewers;

–  using political, social and economic power as a means of winning new members for one’s own church;

– extending explicit or implicit offers of education, healthcare or material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts;

– manipulative attitudes and practices that exploit people’s needs, weaknesses or lack of education especially in situations of distress, and fail to respect their freedom and human dignity.

It is clear that the word is understood as carrying very bad connotations. Note the false alternative between Ecumenism and Proselytism (as if they are the only two options available to present-day Christians) and the lack of historical awareness and self-criticism (as if churches of all stripes have not used coercion in their endeavors to convert the world up to recent times). Of course, this description of proselytism (loaded with all kinds of evils, from violence to manipulation) makes the word utterly ugly. In this sense, proselytism is synonymous with abusive propaganda.

A shorter definition was already presented in 2001 in the European context by the WCC-related Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the Roman Catholic Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE). Together they produced a document that set the stage for ecumenism in the new millennium, the Charta Oecumenica (Ecumenical Charter), which contains the following description:

“Proselytism” is defined in multiple ways but is often understood as unethical or unfaithful practices in evangelizing those who are in some way already members of other churches or Christian communities.

Here again, proselytism is presented as being always marked by “unethical” and “unfaithful” behaviors. Certainly, it is the duty of Christians to evangelize in a manner worthy of the gospel, respecting the dignity of all human beings and acting in a Christ-like manner.

There is a further point to be underlined here that reinforces what has been previously observed. Notice that in the Charta Oecumenica what is rejected is to evangelize those who are “members of other churches or Christian communities”. Proselytism is therefore associated with the evangelization of those who are “members” of other churches, whether or not they are born-again Christians. What really matters is being a formal “member” of a church, not being regenerated by the Holy Spirit and being a believer in Jesus Christ. Charta Oecumenica adopts an ecclesiastical definition of who is a Christian, not a biblical one. According to this ecumenical document, we should not evangelize those who are already members of a given church. But does being a formal member of a church equal being a Christian in biblical terms? Obviously not.

At the recent Global Christian Forum in Bogotà (Colombia, April 24-27, 2018) the issue of proselytism again came out. In his speech at the Forum, the Roman Catholic representative, Bishop Brian Farrell, said the following:

By recognizing that we participate in a mutual baptism, Bishop Farrell provided a base on which to invite the Christian community to avoid all types of proselytism. Through baptism, “we enter into communion with God and the Christian community using the biblical form: through water and the Trinitarian formula.”

This is the standard ecumenical pattern already observed in the Charta Oecumenica: baptism (i.e. a sacrament of the church) is the entry point into fellowship with God (i.e. regeneration) and membership in the church, which in turn leads to the condemnation of “proselytism” towards those who are baptized. Hence evangelism to the “members” of a given church is proselytism and must be avoided at all cost.

Either Ecumenism or Proselytism?
Notice the subtle but significant shift that is taking place in ecumenical circles, which forms the background of the Pope’s statement: proselytism is no longer defined by unethical practices (e.g. violence and manipulation) but by its target (i.e. the “members” of a church). The recipient, rather than the manner, is the main qualifier of the term. Once the negative understanding of proselytism is in place, the real goal of this move becomes clearer. Since baptized people are already members of a church, it is unethical to evangelize them. Proselytism becomes a derogatory label to disqualify those who want to evangelize their neighbors because they are not believers, even though they might be “members” of a church, whatever that means for them.

We come back to where we started. The 1995 WCC-Catholic document said it clearly from the outset: “Proselytism stands in opposition to all ecumenical efforts”. The real issue is not so much the right exposing of all immoral practices that can accompany evangelism, but rather growing opposition to the fact that evangelism can be done by minority groups in places where the majority is nominally “Christian”. The trajectory of the ecumenical meaning of the word “proselytism” has moved from warning against immoral acts of a legitimate action to warning against all evangelism in already “Christianized” contexts by labeling it as proselytism.

Practically speaking, this means that all Catholics should not be evangelized by evangelicals because they are already members of the church; all Eastern Orthodox should not be evangelized by evangelicals because they are already members of the church; and so on. Evangelism has become unethical and is labeled as “proselytism”, not because it is carried out through immoral practices, but because it targets those who have been baptized. Hence, ecumenism – i.e. accepting all people as Christians on the basis of a sacrament administered by a church, not on the grounds of personal faith in the biblical Jesus Christ – stands in opposition to proselytism. Those who do not accept the ecumenical premise are bad people, i.e. proselytizers. Remember Pope Francis’ harsh comment:

“In the ecumenical movement we have to take from the dictionary a word: ‘proselytism.’ Clear? You cannot have ecumenism with proselytism. You have to choose. Either you have an ecumenical spirit or you are a proselytizer.”

The Better Option
If we follow this train of thought, here is the result. Take, for example, Italy. More than 90% of its population is a “member” of the Roman Catholic Church by virtue of baptism received at infancy. For most of these people, Christianity is a loose cultural marker with no spiritual significance whatsoever. Biblically speaking, most of them are not Christian at all, yet they are “members” of the Roman Church. If we evangelize them, are we committing the so-called sin of proselytism? If we follow the “logic” of the ecumenical definition endorsed by Pope Francis, the answer is “Yes”; evangelicals should not evangelize in majority Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant countries because the populations of these nations are “members” of the churches that baptized them.

If we take the train of thought that Pope Francis endorses, ecumenism becomes the “good” Christian platform that accepts all self-defined churches as legitimate expressions of the biblical church and all self-defined accounts of the gospel as legitimate versions of the biblical gospel. Those who maintain biblical standards for the definition of who is a Christian and what is the church, even if this means being outside of mainstream ecumenical correctness, are “bad” and pseudo-Christians, hence “proselytizers”. This is a trap for Bible-believing evangelical Christians: either evangelicals accept the definition of a Christian as being a “member” of a given church (and therefore stop evangelizing in majority Catholic and Orthodox contexts) or they become proselytizers (i.e. the ugly word of today’s religious vocabulary!). Evangelizing a “member” of a church becomes in itself an unethical and unfaithful practice. Will evangelicals fall into the trap that is there to discourage evangelism and mission in majority “Christianized” regions?

In asking to eradicate the word “proselytism” from the dictionary, Pope Francis stands on a recent tradition in Roman Catholic and ecumenical circles which on the surface rightly blames unethical practices in evangelism and warns against them. However, behind the surface, there are worrying elements that need to be considered.

This ecumenical consensus that Pope Francis now gives voice to blurs core elements of the gospel by replacing personal faith in Jesus Christ with a sacrament of the church as the main definition of who a Christian is. It also encourages a judgmental and negative attitude towards those evangelicals who work hard to evangelize in majority “Christianized” contexts, knowing that people might be “members” of a church without being born-again Christians. Furthermore, it can become a temptation to give new life to an old paradigm (cuius regio eius religio, i.e. “whose realm his religion”) that has done much harm in Europe by suffocating religious freedom. Instead of being forced to follow the religion of the ruler, as was the case in 16th century Europe, this new ecumenical consensus implies that the people need to stick to the religion they were baptized into when they were infants. These are all serious concerns that need to be addressed.

The choice between being ecumenical or a proselytizer that the Pope supports is both false and dangerous. It is false because it gives the idea that there are only two options available for Christians (which is not true), and it is dangerous because it warns against evangelism aimed at intentional persuasion addressed to all people regardless of their membership in a given church.

While clearly refuting all wrong methods of evangelism that betray the gospel itself (and therefore rejecting proselytism), Christians should treasure the privilege and the responsibility of presenting to all people the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, expecting their response and being aware that conversion implies change. As the Lausanne Covenant (1974), the most important document of contemporary evangelicalism, puts it in paragraph 4:

evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God.

In other words, biblical evangelism needs to be faithfully practiced everywhere and towards all people, rather than being stigmatized and abandoned by this new wave of ecumenical correctness. Neither ecumenical nor proselytizer: Christians must be for the Gospel to all people. This is a far better option.

 

151. Eucharistic Hospitality? Between a Catholic “Yes” and a Roman “No”

July 1st, 2018

“Can a non-Catholic be given the Eucharist in the Catholic Church?” When asked this question by a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man during his 2015 visit to a Lutheran Church in Rome, Pope Francis gave a convoluted answer, the gist which was “perhaps yes”, “perhaps no”, “I don’t know”, and “look at your conscience”. This was a personal question highlighting a more general and thorny issue. In times of increased ecumenical friendliness, when reconciliation among Christians is often portrayed as a given, people are asking why that purported unity is stopped by the Catholic Church when it comes to the Eucharist. This is especially true in countries like Germany where many couples are made up of Lutheran and Catholic spouses (and are therefore called “inter-confessional” families), who live together during the week and yet are divided on Sunday.

A Predominantly German Concern
This issue made headlines recently. In a nutshell, this is the background story: on 22 February of this year, the German Bishops’ Conference announced the publication of a pastoral guide on the sharing of the Eucharist by inter-confessional couples, providing some openings for the admission of the Eucharist to non-Catholic partners. The proposed opening was not yet generalized – it would have had to be decided on a case-by-case basis by individual bishops. Controversy arose immediately. In the weeks that followed, seven German bishops addressed the Vatican to seek clarification on an initiative that they believed violated the unity of the Church and undermined standard Catholic doctrine concerning the sacraments.

Pope Francis exhorted the German bishops to continue in dialogue and possibly reach a unanimous decision. A unanimous decision was not reached and, therefore, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e. the Vatican office responsible for doctrinal issues) made it clear with a letter endorsed by the Pope himself that the text presented by the Bishops’ Conference raises considerable problems. The resulting decision: “The Holy Father has come to the conclusion that the document is not ripe for publication”.

A Specifically “Roman” Response
In the Vatican letter, the two main reasons for stopping the process are listed as follows:

 a. The question of admission to communion for evangelical Christians in inter-confessional marriages is an issue that touches on the faith of the Church and has significance for the universal Church.

b. This question has effects on ecumenical relations with other Churches and other ecclesial communities that are not to be underestimated. 

Here are some brief remarks. First, the Vatican reaffirms that, in dealing with the Eucharist, one touches on “the faith of the Church”, one of the main tenets of what Roman Catholicism stands for. Given the fact that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium  11), the pastoral issues raised by inter-confessional couples need to be addressed within the dogmatic framework of Eucharistic doctrine, not at the expense of it, nor even at the relaxing of its parameters. Rome can be very flexible and nuanced (i.e. “catholic”) when it comes to discussing justification, conversion, mission, etc., but the Eucharist is what constitutes the sacramental self-understanding (i.e. Roman) of the Catholic Church and is one of its pillars. Rome could, therefore, sign the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Lutherans without changing its eucharistic doctrine and practices, thus showing flexibility on the one hand and rigidity on the other. In 2016, the Pope could speak words of reconciliation and unity at the joint commemoration of the Protestant Reformation with the Lutherans in Lund (Sweden), but those kind words have no effect on the “real” unity around the Eucharistic table. Francis was very ecumenical then, and now he is very “papal” and “Roman”.

Secondly, the Vatican letter also shows concern that the openings envisioned by the German bishops would have an impact on other realities, such as couples formed by, say, Catholic and Methodist, Catholic and Anglican, or Catholic and Baptist spouses, thus paving the way to wide-spread and unwarranted Eucharistic hospitality. This “domino effect” is something that Rome is not prepared to accept if the doctrinal essence of the Catholic Eucharist is imperiled. Again, Rome can be very soft and adaptable in many respects, but the Eucharist is the core of its “Roman” identity and so it is strictly safeguarded.

In spite of the fact that Francis is perhaps the most ecumenical Pope that the Catholic Church has ever had, for the time being, no Eucharistic hospitality is on the horizon. And this is not by accident. This decision reflects the nature of Roman Catholicism, which is catholic in attitude only insofar as the Roman structures are maintained and reinforced. Rather than submission to biblical teaching, it is the dialectic between the “Roman” and the “Catholic” poles that governs the self-understanding and the policies of the Roman Catholic Church.

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.

149. Do Atheists Go to Heaven? Pope Francis Says Yes

May 1st, 2018

Recent weeks have seen Pope Francis attracting media attention for statements that sound controversial even among Roman Catholic circles. Recently he was quoted using ambiguous language – to say the least – regarding the existence of Hell for those who don’t believe. The Vatican Press office quickly responded to the controversy, saying that the Pope’s words on Hell should not “be considered as a faithful transcription of the Holy Father’s words.” In doing so, the Vatican made a journalistic point, but failed to clarify the Pope’s actual teaching on Hell.

More recently (April 15th, 2018) Pope Francis claimed that atheists get to Heaven, thus reinforcing the impression that his opinions on the afterlife are somewhat clumsy when compared to standard biblical views. Both statements, in fact, have to do with the eternal destiny of people, the former suggesting the prospect of annihilation (i.e. the waning away of the soul) and the latter implying a form of universalism (i.e. all will ultimately be saved regardless of their faith in Christ).

“Be sure, he is in Heaven with Him”
This public comment by the Pope was given in the context of a visit paid to a parish in the suburbs of Rome. While meeting kids and responding to their questions, a boy went to him in tears, telling the Pope the story of his recently deceased father and asking whether or not he is now in heaven. The boy made sure to inform the Pope that his father, though wanting his children to be baptized, was himself an atheist.

So what to say to this boy mourning his father and asking for information on his eternal destiny? Here is the answer given by Pope Francis:

“God has the heart of a father, your father was a good man, he is in heaven with Him, be sure. God has a father’s heart and, would God ever abandon a non-believing father who baptizes his children? God was certainly proud of your father, because it is easier to be a believer and have your children baptized than to be a non-believer and have your children baptized. Pray for your father, talk to your father. That is the answer.”

One needs to appreciate the emotional challenge of having to answer a boy in pain and tears. Talking about a dear one who has recently died is always difficult. Having said that, the first commitment of a Christian should always be to be true to the biblical gospel, and then to convey what the Bible says in pastorally appropriate and sensitive ways. This is exactly what the Pope failed to do, in more ways than one. He certainly showed sympathy, but was he faithful to the Word of God?

The Pope made several incorrect claims that need to be briefly mentioned. First, the connection he made between the father being a “good person” and him being with God. Is being a good person sufficient to be accepted by God? Does not the Bible say that no one is righteous before God (e.g. Romans 3:10-12) and that our only hope is because Jesus Christ was the only “good person,” through whom we can be accepted by God the Father (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:21)?

Second, does having one’s own children baptized equate with trusting the Lord Jesus for our salvation? Is this not a version of salvation by works that is always opposed in the Bible (e.g Ephesians 2:8-9)?

Third, the assurance given to the boy was issued on the basis of whose authority? How can a person – even a Pope – be confident enough to say that an atheist is in heaven? Don’t Christians have to rely on the authority of the Word of God, which clearly teaches that those who don’t believe will be condemned (e.g. John 3:18)? Has the Pope the authority to change that, or is his authority superior to plain Biblical teaching?

And fourthly, how can the encouragement to pray for the father and to talk to him be squared with the clear biblical teaching that warns us not to talk to the dead (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:9) and to pray only to Jesus Christ, the only Mediator between God and men? Instead of leading the boy to Jesus Christ, why did the Pope point him to his dead father?

“We Are All Children of God”
In this answer the Pope gave voice to a whole theological vision that may sound compassionate and warm, but which is ultimately misleading and deviant because is not truthful to Scripture. Even more troubling, the answer did not occur in a vacuum. It was instead the climax of a previous comment in which the Pope said that we are all children of God. Here is how the Pope articulated this thought:

“We are all children of God, all, even the unbaptized ones, yes, even those who believe in other religions, or those who have idols. Those of the mafia are also children of God but prefer to behave like children of the devil. We are all children of God, God created and loves us all and placed in each of our hearts the consciousness of distinguishing good from evil. With baptism the Holy Spirit entered and strengthened your belonging to God. The “mafiosi” are also children of God, we must pray for they go back on their ways and recognize God.”

Here Pope Francis reiterates his attempts at redefining what it means to be a child of God. For him, children of God are all people: Christian believers, baptized people, unbelievers, atheists, people of other religions, idolaters, etc. He grounds this claim in creation and relates it to the human conscience. No mention is made of sin and separation from God. He refers to baptism as “strengthening” our belonging to God, intensifying it, making more relevant something that is already there before baptism takes place. The idea that all people are children of God means that all people will ultimately be saved, thus blurring the distinction between nature and grace, between being a created person and being a saved person. Evidently for the Pope this was the background for him assuring the boy that his atheist father is now in heaven.

There are serious distortions in this papal teaching. All Bible believers, even among Roman Catholic circles, should begin to biblically question the wayward theological system of Pope Francis.

148. The Intellectual Journey of J.M. Bergoglio, Now Pope Francis

April 1st, 2018

Five years ago, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis. Since then, several biographies have been published to make his life known to the general public. For example, Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (New York, 2014) sticks out as perhaps the most comprehensive window onto Bergoglio’s life. As he was not a major figure in global Roman Catholic circles prior to his election, let alone in the wider world, these accounts have helped many to better understand the main events of Bergoglio’s personal story before becoming pope.

One recent book by Massimo Borghesi, Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Una biografia intellettuale (2017: Jorge Mario Bergoglio: An Intellectual Biography), looks at Bergoglio’s life from a particular angle. Borghesi focuses on the intellectual influences (e.g. books, journals, authors, friendships, networks) that have shaped Bergoglio’s thought. In so doing, it provides a fruitful perspective on the genesis and development of the vision that Bergoglio embodies and promotes as pope. In addition to surveying all of the relevant literature, Borghesi has also worked on a questionnaire that Pope Francis responded to, giving further details and filling in the blanks of previous attempts. According to this well-researched analysis, Bergoglio’s intellectual biography seems to be marked by three main influences.

The French Jesuit Starting Point…

The formative years of Bergoglio as a student in philosophy and theology were profoundly impacted by his reading of French Jesuit intellectuals like Henri de Lubac, Gaston Fessard, and Michel de Certeau. They introduced the young Bergoglio to the Catholic dialectical thought, away from rigid Thomism and towards the dynamic synthesis of embracing opposites and enlarging the overall vision. In this Jesuit school of thought – which, by the way, became the matrix of the theology of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) – what are perceived as oppositions become “tensions”, at times painfully disruptive, but also potentially creative and always to be maintained as such. Bergoglio became persuaded that human thought is always “in tension”, never fixed or stable. He distanced himself from abstract definitions and propositions. He learned to always think in programmatically “open” and “loose” thought forms.

Intertwined with this dialectical tendency was Bergoglio’s early exposure to Liberation theology. Since his first attempts at coming to terms with its growing popularity in Latin America, Bergoglio was not interested in the Marxist ideological and political framework of much of the Liberation theology of those years. He was definitely attracted to the “theology of the people” that is a side aspect of Liberation theology. According to this particular way of theologizing, the people’s concerns, preoccupations, aspirations, etc. need to be the starting point. Rather than considering folk devotions and beliefs as a pre-modern stage that will be overcome by political liberation, the “theology of the people” assumes them as vital and central. Marian devotions and practices become the most appreciated expressions of the people’s heart even if they are contrary to Scripture. Theology and pastoral practice must therefore be developed only in a bottom-up way. In this view there is no sense in which the Bible can be the supreme norm for faith and life. In Borghesi’s terms, the future pope embraced “a liberation theology without Marxism” (p. 71). This is the context of Bergoglio’s important emphasis on the “people” being the principal subject of theology and Church life.

… Mediated Through the Uruguayan Alberto Methol Ferré …

Bergoglio’s early fascination with French Jesuit thought was further consolidated by his reading of the lay Uruguayan Catholic philosopher Alberto Methol Ferrè (1929-2009). From Methol Ferré he learned that human thought is always unstable, mobile, and ever-renewing. This was yet another injection of Catholic dialecticism that moved Bergoglio further away from static and traditional Thomism.

Methol Ferrè is also the intellectual who suggested that with the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church had finally overcome both the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. After fiercely fighting them up front (from the 16th century to the 19th century), Rome eventually came to terms with its ability to assimilate and absorb the Reformation and the Enlightenment, rather than opposing them. At Vatican II the Catholic Church took the “best” of both and launched a “new” Reformation and a “new” Enlightenment. They were no longer adversaries, but parts of the “catholic” accomplishment of their positive contributions. This is the background of both Francis’ recent kind words toward the Reformation on the occasion of the 5th centenary and his low-key approach towards controversial lifestyles (e.g. homosexuality) marked by modern individual autonomy. What this basically means is that after Vatican II the Reformation as such is over and has been absorbed within the on-going renewal of the Church of Rome.

… Leading to the Italian-German Romano Guardini

Building on these two important phases of his intellectual life, Bergoglio grew in his conviction that the Catholic Church is the “complexio oppositorum” (the whole that makes room for the opposites). His study of German theologian Romano Guardini (1885-1968) corroborated the Catholic dialectical dimension of his thought. Guardini argued that Roman Catholicism is “Weltanschauung”, an all-embracing worldview, the only one that is capable of handling multiple tensions between diverging poles and bringing them to a “catholic” unity. From Guardini, Bergoglio developed his idea of unity as being a “polyhedron”. The polyhedron is a geometric figure with different angles and lines. All different parts have their own peculiarity. It’s a figure that brings together unity and diversity, and Roman Catholicism is the home of unity as a polyhedron. This explains Francis’ commitment to ecumenical and inter-religious unity that downplays differences and concentrates on generic commonalities. In this view unity is not governed by biblical truth and biblical love but by the embracing view of Rome which holds together all angles and lines of life.

On March 13th, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis, marking a significant transition in the Roman Catholic Church. What he has been saying and doing since being elected, e.g. his affirming attitudes towards all, his noisy silences over doctrine, his thoroughgoing Marianism, and his lack of clarity on several key issues, has caused many to wonder where his thought came from. Borghesi’s intellectual biography makes it clear that Francis’ pontificate comes from afar. It is the result of a long series of developments within Catholic thought, from Jesuit sources to Latin American influences up to the Vatican II matrix of contemporary Rome, without having being corrected by the Word of God. One needs to immerse oneself in what happened at the Second Vatican Council to begin to make sense of what Francis is saying and doing now. All analyses of Francis being an “evangelical” or a “kerygmatic” pope are simplistic and short-sighted. He is much more than that, in ways that are dialectical, open-ended, and at the service of the Catholic vision to embrace the whole world.

147. Does Mariology Imply A Diminished Role for Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?

March 1st, 2018

One common refrain in ecumenical discourse is that all historical religious traditions (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, various branches of Protestantism) differ in the way they understand salvation (e.g. justification, renewal, deification) and the nature/role of the church and the sacraments, but agree on the tenets of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. While at one level this is formally true – each of these traditions adheres to the Apostles’ Creed – a deeper and closer look shows some cracks in this widespread assumption.

Mariology is a testcase that provides an opportunity to see to what extent the Trinity and Christology belong to the shared faith. In the Roman Catholic tradition, at least, Mary is prayed to and is a venerated person surrounded by a vast array of “Marian” devotions, e.g. rosaries, processions, and pilgrimages. The titles with which she is referred to (e.g. Heavenly Queen, Mediatrix, Advocate) resemble those ascribed to her son, Jesus Christ. Mariology is also the theme of two recently promulgated dogmas (i.e. binding beliefs): the 1854 dogma of the immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of the bodily assumption into heaven. Mariology impinges not only on the doctrine of Revelation, but also on the doctrine of the Trinity.

How Central Is Mariology?

While the outspoken intention of Roman Catholic Mariology is that Mariological doctrines and Marian practices in no way detract attention from Jesus Christ, the reality is that the line that Rome wishes to preserve is indeed crossed in multiple ways. When entire shrines or processions or prayer chains are dedicated to Mary so as to completely shape the devotees’ lives, one finds it hard to attribute it simply to the devotional excesses of poorly educated popular piety. Separating Christian worship duly expressed from cultish practices fraught with paganism is a soft, even liquid border line that is not maintained and safeguarded enough, despite the good intentions expressed in the official teaching. The question is whether or not Mariology as it currently stands, with its dogmatic outlook and devotional pervasiveness, involves an inherent proximity, if not blurring, with what is not biblically defendable. The indisputable evidence of many of these devotional acts and habits indicates that in many people’s lives the centrality of Mary is experienced much more than reverence and obedience to Christ. All this happens not in spite of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches but because of what it explicitly or implicitly endorses.

Mariology Superseding Christology?

Since the dogmatic pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD (when Mary was given the title of “Mother of God”) the Mariological trajectory has been strongly pushed forward in ever-expanding and almost self-referential terms. After Ephesus the veneration of Mary became prominent in devotional practices, doxological patterns, and the religious arts. Christianity went through a Marian shift in terms of liturgy and general orientation. The paradox was that the Council that wanted to re-affirm the full deity and humanity of Jesus ended up promoting a functional heresy. Individuals, groups, and movements began to develop quasi-obsessive Marian interpretations of the Christian faith and Mary became the figure most prayed to in daily life. She was not meant to detract attention from her Son, but her post-Ephesus perception functionally superseded Him in terms of experiential forms of Christianity.

The Son always depicted in the company of the Mother, the Mother often portrayed as bigger than the (baby) Son, coupled with a growing prayer investment directed toward her, contributed to the gradual reconfiguration of Christian spirituality away from Christ (who began to be seen as too distant, too divine, too remote to be approached) and towards Mary with her maternal, tender, and compassionate attitude. Christ’s humanity – which is essential in recognizing his role as a mediator connecting the incarnate Son with us creatures – was progressively rarefied at the expense of His divinity. Christ’s divinity was eventually pushed to the forefront, making Him too far above to be invoked directly.

The balance of the confession in the early creeds of Jesus Christ being “fully God, fully man” was nominally maintained but practically abandoned by the increasingly Marian spirituality of the post-Ephesus church. The vacuum left by the lack of appreciation for the humanity of Christ was filled by the growth of the role of Mary the Mother. The nearness of the Mother of God was the answer to the remoteness of the Son of God and even caused the Son to be perceived further as being too distant to understand and take care of the struggles of life. In other words, perhaps unintentionally, the Mother swallowed the Son. Orthodox Christology based on the Councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Chalcedon (451 AD) continued to be formally professed and defended; in reality, the appropriation of these Christological truths became a far too abstract discourse and of little spiritual benefit. What was practiced at the popular doxological level was an all-embracing Mariology that accounted for the spiritual needs of the people and whetted further theological development along Mariological lines.

Mariology Obscuring the Work of the Spirit?

There is more than that. In Trinitarian relationships, the work of the Son is strictly connected with that of the Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, the Son’s role as mediator is worked out by and through the Spirit. For example, it is the Spirit who helps us in our weakness by interceding for us in accordance with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27). Christ is the Mediator to the Father and the Spirit enables us to come to Him. What happened with the unchecked rise of Mariology? By pushing Christ’s humanity outside of the picture and filling the void with the intercessions of the Mother of God, Mariological development diminished also the role of the Holy Spirit by not recognizing His vital involvement in the mediatoral work of the Son. In becoming the figure nearer to the Son who could be always invoked and felt closer than the Son, Mary practically unraveled the bond between the Son and the Spirit and undermined the relationship between the faithful and the Spirit. The “gain” of Mariology was the “loss” of the Holy Spirit. The impressive growth of Mariology meant the disturbing disappearance of the Spirit.

Marianism then obscured the nearness of the Son and froze the unique contribution of the Spirit. Beyond excesses in devotional practices – which are nonetheless intrinsically related to the nature of Mariology itself – the Roman Catholic view of Mary poses serious questions at the level of its Trinitarian implications.

Formal adherence to the creedal basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ needs to be matched with a coherent spirituality centered on the praise of the Triune God —Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — something that does not happen in Mariology because of its inflated view of Mary and its consequent marginalization of Christ and the Spirit. In spite of the stated intention not to divert attention from the Son, Mariology tends to be an intruder into Trinitarian harmony and an obstacle to a full appreciation of who the Triune God is and what He has done for us.

146. Why Are Younger Evangelicals Fascinated by Roman Catholicism?

February 1st, 2018

Present-day Evangelicalism has a strange relationship with history. On the one extreme there are those who endorse a “gap theory,” whereby their experience of the Christian life has little if anything to do with a sense of historical continuity. On the other, recent fascinations with romantic and selective appropriations of “tradition” show how easy it is to uncritically embrace beliefs and practices that are idiosyncratic with regards to Scripture. What is at stake is the historical nature of Evangelicalism as such.

In his new book In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), Kenneth Stewart wrestles with the present-day discussion on if and what Evangelicalism has to do with history. As a learned historian and acute theologian, Stewart helps the reader come to terms with the diachronic dimension of Evangelicalism that runs through church history, taking different shades and colors but ultimately responding to the same principles of biblical faithfulness and spiritual involvement.

This book is a vigorous and rigorous rebuttal to John Henry Newman, according to whom “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Stewart is convinced that to be deep in history one does not need to turn to Rome (become Roman Catholic) nor to Antioch (become Orthodox). To be Protestant means being rooted in Scriptural teaching first and foremost, as well as to be connected with a historical stream within Christianity throughout the centuries that has always carried an “evangelical” banner.

The book is much needed in times in which the label “evangelical” (mainly in the US context, I should say) is again going through a stress test, being too closely associated with political attachments and too loosely defined by its theological core. As this short piece is part of the Vatican Files series, this is not the place to write a full appreciation of the book. Its scope goes beyond an evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism. Suffice it to overview the book’s final chapter, where Stewart helpfully tackles the question “Why Are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?” (pp. 253-273).

Reasons Behind the Drift

In recent decades there have been some “conversions” of well-known evangelicals to Roman Catholicism, from Thomas Howard in 1985 to Francis Beckwith in 2007, followed by significant numbers of younger intellectuals attracted to Rome. After acknowledging the primarily North American context of this phenomenon, Stewart also readily points to the fact that the “traffic” of those leaving Roman Catholicism for forms of Protestantism far exceeds the movements in the opposite direction. There is no sign of a massive turn of evangelicals to Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, what is happening is worth investigating.

A number of reasons are offered to explain the phenomenon. For some, it is simply a return to the church of one’s upbringing. These are people who were born in Catholic families and left Rome at some point in their life out of personal dissatisfaction, then returned to it at a later stage. For others, it was the search for the “historic church” as a haven from sectarianism. After experiencing naïve forms of evangelicalism characterized by isolationism and localism, some young evangelicals looked to Rome as the “mother” and universal church. For still others, it was a desire for the liturgical and doctrinal stability promised by Rome, in contrast to sectors of evangelicalism that tend to run after what is new and creative and therefore lose any sense of tradition. Finally, an admiration for the Catholic intellectual and theological traditions caused some to distance themselves from the apparent shallowness of the (lack of) evangelical thought.

Tools to Face the Challenge

Thinking through the list of reasons presented by Stewart provides much food for thought. Most of them derive from the lack of an historical sense of identity that often marks Evangelicalism. These weaknesses are real issues and are entry points for Roman Catholicism to look appealing to dissatisfied evangelicals. To them, Rome appears in an idealized form rather than its complex, and at times contradictory reality.

Ending the chapter and the book, the author helpfully suggests ways to recover an evangelical awareness of its being an historical movement grounded in the Bible and in continuity with the historical church. Of course, modernity has influenced the present outlook of Evangelicalism, but its doctrinal and spiritual shape has always been marked by the constant recovery and appreciation of the original (and therefore biblical and ancient) form of Christianity. Christian antiquity and historical legacies must be nurtured in connection with the fact that each evangelical congregation is part of the “catholic” church and the present-day global church. Cultivating both diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the evangelical faith will give antidotes to the allures of Rome.

There is a final point that needs to be underlined. Often the fascination towards Rome is characterized by a certain idealization of Roman Catholicism which can be significantly removed from reality. Roman Catholicism has its own intellectual traditions but is also home to folk traditions, syncretistic practices, and mystical trends that run contrary to this image of a solidly intellectual religion. People who turn to Rome often have a selective and faulty view of Evangelicalism and a selective and idealized perception of Roman Catholicism. This is why the current discussion on the evangelical identity crisis needs to take into account Stewart’s excellent piece of scholarship.

145. Mission. Did Pope Francis say Mission?

January 1st, 2018

“Throughout the world, let us be permanently in a state of mission”(The Joy of the Gospel, 2013, n. 25). These programmatic words epitomize the missionary vision that Pope Francis has been expounding and implementing since becoming Pope in 2013. Without a doubt, mission is central to his thought and action and is a defining mark of his pontificate. Having said that, it is not always clear what he means when he talks about “mission”. Indeed, in today’s religious language “mission” is one of those words which can have multiple “shades of gray”, and discovering its meaning can become a conundrum. Pope Francis adds his own complexities and nuances to the already variegated semantic range of the word “mission”.

The recent papal journey to Myanmar and Bangladesh (28-30 November) provides an entry point into the applied missiology of the Pope. Here Francis was visiting two countries where Christians are minorities and where mission, however definable, is the top priority of the Church. What a great opportunity for him to embody and exemplify the vigorous call to his Church to be permanently “in a state of mission”!

Omitting to speak of Christ?

What took place there – or, should we say, what did not take place? – sheds light on the whole issue. The Pope’s public speeches were about peace and harmony, solidarity and dialogue, and were centered on a generic faith in “God” which could have been understood in all kinds of ways. Any references to Jesus Christ were omitted. As Italian journalist Sandro Magister put it: “There was only one moment in which Jesus was named and his Gospel proclaimed, in the speeches on the first day of Pope Francis’s visit to Myanmar. Only that the one who spoke these words was not the pope, but the Burmese state counsellor and foreign minister Aung San Suu Kyi, who is of the Buddhist faith”.

This is a strange way of doing mission, one might think. The gospel was vaguely proclaimed by a Buddhist politician rather than by the Pope. As far as Francis is concerned, important omissions of this kind are not new. For example, acute observers like Chris Castaldo have already pointed out the lack of Christ-related language in other public speeches. In 2015, visiting the U.S. Congress and the United Nations, the Pope delivered Christ-less speeches, however inter-faith and ecumenically friendly they were. As Castaldo soberly commented: “Sadly, he failed to do so much as mention the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ.’”

This omission looks like a pattern in Francis’ mission. It is true that even the Apostle Paul in the Areopagus speech at Athens did not explicitly mention the name of Jesus Christ, though he referred to the “man” (Acts 17:31), which is a clear reference to the Lord Jesus, the risen One and the coming Judge. Paul’s speech, nonetheless, challenged the belief system of his hearers and presented the reality of God’s righteous judgment over all, calling people to repent. All these elements also seem to be missing in the Pope’s missiology. When he is in inter-faith and political contexts, he seems reluctant to boldly and clearly proclaim the name of Jesus as the only Savior and Lord. Unlike Paul the missionary, who faced pushback and criticism because of his presentation of the gospel, Francis is normally liked by his hearers, who feel affirmed in what they already believe rather than challenged by the message of Jesus Christ. What kind of mission are we talking about then?

Mission without Apologetics?

Is this critical assessment based on reading too much into the Pope’s gospel omissions? One way of answering this question is to allow the Pope to speak for himself in explaining his missionary vision. Luckily, in flying back from Myanmar and Bangladesh, Francis gave a telling comment on what had just happened. Here is the script of the in-flight press conference, during which Francis replied to a question posed by a French journalist. The Q&A is worth quoting at length:

Etienne Loraillere (KTO): Holiness, there is a question from the group of journalists from France. Some are opposed to inter-religious dialogue and evangelization. During this trip you have spoken of dialogue for building peace. But, what is the priority? Evangelizing or dialoguing for peace? Because to evangelize means bringing about conversions that provoke tension and sometimes provoke conflicts between believers. So, what is the priority, evangelizing or dialoguing? Thanks.

Pope FrancisFirst distinction: evangelizing is not making proselytism. The Church grows not for proselytism but for attraction, that is for testimony, this was said by Pope Benedict XVI. What is evangelization like? Living the Gospel and bearing witness to how one lives the Gospel, witnessing to the Beatitudes, giving testimony to Matthew 25, the Good Samaritan, forgiving 70 times 7 and in this witness the Holy Spirit works and there are conversions, but we are not very enthusiastic to make conversions immediately. If they come, they wait, you speak, your tradition … seeking that a conversion be the answer to something that the Holy Spirit has moved in my heart before the witness of the Christians. 

During the lunch I had with the young people at World Youth Day in Krakow, 15 or so young people from the entire world, one of them asked me this question: what do I have to say to a classmate at the university, a friend, good, but he is atheist … what do I have to say to change him, to convert him? The answer was this: the last thing you have to do is say something. You live your Gospel and if he asks you why you do this, you can explain why you do it. And let the Holy Spirit activate him. This is the strength and the meekness of the Holy Spirit in the conversion. It is not a mental convincing, with apologetics, with reasons, it is the Spirit that makes the vocation. We are witnesses, witnesses of the Gospel. “Testimony” is a Greek word that means martyr. Every day martyrdom, martyrdom also of blood, when it arrives. And your question: What is the priority, peace or conversion? But when you live with testimony and respect, you make peace. Peace starts to break down in this field when proselytism begins and there are so many ways of proselytism and this is not the Gospel. I don’t know if I answered”.

With this answer one is projected into the missiological vision of the Pope. Let’s briefly mention its main points. First, there is a negative reference to proselytism without defining it. As it stands, his words discourage the expectation for conversions and put a stigma on the missionary activity that looks forward to seeing people embracing Christ out of their religious or secular background (see instead Mark 1:15; Acts 2:37-38). Second, there is an unnecessary polarization between good deeds/attitudes and the verbal proclamation of the gospel. Nowhere in the Bible is such a polarization between the content of the message and the behavior of the messenger maintained. We are instead called to always join what we say, what we do, and how we do it (e.g. 1 Peter 3:15-17). Third, there is a distrust of apologetics in dealing with unbelief. The missionary is not expected to give reasons for what she believes and to challenge the belief system of her friend. In this way, the Pope seems to discourage engaging in meaningful apologetics (evidently against 1 Peter 3:15).

According to Pope Francis then, mission does not look forward to making disciples, refrains from verbally proclaiming the Good News, and is skeptical about apologetics. How different this is to the standard evangelical understanding of evangelization given by the 1974 Lausanne Covenant:

“To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe. Our Christian presence in the world is indispensable to evangelism, and so is that kind of dialogue whose purpose is to listen sensitively in order to understand. But evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Savior and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God. In issuing the gospel invitation we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship. Jesus still calls all who would follow him to deny themselves, take up their cross, and identify themselves with his new community. The results of evangelism include obedience to Christ, incorporation into his Church and responsible service in the world” (par. 4).

In this evangelical definition, almost everything the Pope warns against is instead strongly affirmed: the verbal proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the necessity of Christian persuasion in the context of lives marked by integrity. This is not what Pope Francis has in mind when he refers to mission.

144. What Happens If Catholics Think the Pope Is a Heretic?

December 1st, 2017

Roman Catholics as individuals and groups may have different opinions about the Pope. After all, the Church of Rome is not a monolith, and even Popes polarize the assessments of the Catholic people. But what happens when negative voices become more frequent, more outspoken, more radical in their criticism, as seems to be the case in recent months? While public opinion is still heavily influenced by the overall positive image that Francis has, and continues to consider him as a kind of “hero”, within Catholic circles the “wait-and-see” approach toward some awkward aspects of his teaching is coming to an end. Groups of intellectuals, priests, and even cardinals are voicing their growing embarrassment and are doing it publicly and with a severe tone. In raising their concerns, what they point to are not some peripheral elements but important matters of doctrine. The irony is that the one who is supposed to guard the Roman Catholic deposit of faith is charged with allegations of introducing confusion, if not heresy.

Coming to Terms with Recent Criticism

There are at least three criticisms against Pope Francis that are worth considering. Let’s briefly look at them chronologically.

In September 2016, four cardinals (two of whom have recently died) sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts) concerning the interpretation of  key parts of his summary document on the synod on the family, Amoris Laetitia. In the explanatory note, they give voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community. According to the cardinals, the contrasting interpretations of the papal text arise from its ambiguity and the apparent contradictions with previous official teaching on the re-admission of divorced people to the Eucharist. Although they asked the Pope to clear any ambiguity, Francis never responded and perhaps will never do so. Their doubts will remain unanswered.

In July 2017, more than 200 Catholic priests and intellectuals from around the world wrote “a filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies” to the Pope , thus elevating the tone of the criticism to the denouncing of doctrinal deviations. Their observations were no longer questions, but real corrections made to the teaching of the Pope. The word “heresy” was evoked in looking at the demise of the traditional teaching on marriage and the sacraments, as they see happening, and severely threatening the future credibility of their Church.

At the end of July then, Father Thomas Weinandy, a capuchin priest and former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, made public a letter sent to the Pope. In it, he argued that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease.  It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace”. Moreover, Weinandy charges Francis with “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who “scandalize” believers with dubious “teaching and pastoral practice”, giving prelates who object the impression they will be “marginalized or worse” if they speak out, and causing faithful Catholics to “lose confidence in their supreme shepherd.”This is hard language coming from a mainstream Roman Catholic theologian who has spent the whole of his life in the service of his Church and the Vatican. What is happening in the Roman Catholic Church? Is Rome on the eve of an internal breaking point with disastrous consequences?

The Tensions between the Roman and Catholic components

These three criticisms are extremely serious and perhaps a tipping point in Catholic circles as far as the growing uneasiness towards Pope Francis is concerned. Various interpretations have been suggested in trying to understand what is happening. What might be useful, in coming to terms with it, is to relate both Francis’s apparent openness to change and ambiguity in teaching on the one hand, and the angrier reactions of the traditionalists on the other, to the inner and constitutive dynamics of Roman Catholicism.

Roman Catholicism is what it is because it inherently combines the “Roman” element with the “Catholic” one. Both are essential components of the synthesis offered by the Roman Catholic system. The genius of Roman Catholicism is its being at the same time Roman and Catholic, one and the other, one never at the expense of the other.

It is “Roman” in the sense that it is organically attached to the city and the Church of Rome, and by extension to the institutions, canon laws, dogmas, hierarchy, and the political outlook associated with it. Much of this derives from a complex history marked by an imperial ideology.

It is “Catholic” in the sense of its being inclusive, global, embracing, and open to different movements, trends, and trajectories. The Roman elements provide stability and continuity; the Catholic element fosters development and renewal. Roman Catholicism is able to hold the tension deriving from its dual identity and to maintain it at a manageable balance.

What is happening with Pope Francis is to be understood against the background of the tensions between the Roman and Catholic poles within Roman Catholicism. Francis is strongly pushing the “catholic” agenda of Rome, embracing all, affirming all, expanding the traditional boundaries of the Church.

Some traditionalist circles are reacting strongly because they see the danger of losing the Roman elements represented by the well-established teachings and practices of the Church. They see the Catholic swallowing the Roman. They see the risk of the Catholic taking precedence over the Roman and therefore severing the dynamic link that has characterized Roman Catholicism for centuries.

Whereas with the previous Pope (Benedict XVI), the overall balance was more in favor of the Roman than the Catholic, with Francis the Roman Catholic pendulum is swinging towards the catholicity of Rome. Francis’s critics believe that he has gone too far and want the pendulum to reverse towards more reassuring Roman elements.

Can There Be a Biblical Reformation in Roman Catholicism?

As we are celebrating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, with its call to the Church to submit to the authority of Scripture and its recovery of the good news that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, it is appropriate to ask whether Rome is still grappling with the same issues that gave rise to it.

Luther took issue with the Pope and his theology and practice of dispensing God’s pardon through indulgences. Luther’s standard was the biblical gospel, and he challenged the Church to embrace afresh the gospel. Rome responded by absorbing some of Luther’s concerns about grace and faith within the sacramental system largely shaped around Roman elements and within its synergistic theology significantly marked by Catholic components, thus reinforcing the overall Roman Catholic synthesis rather than reforming it according to the Word of God.

Ever since, the Roman Catholic system has been swinging and bending one way or another to accomodate either progressive or traditional trends, either reiterating Roman emphases or introducing Catholic ones, and then rebalancing the whole. But the Church was not reformed because it did not recognize the external and supreme authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by faith alone. As it stands, it will never be renewed according to the Word of God. It will certainly accomodate “Catholic” movements like the Charismatic renewal and “Roman” movements like the Marian groups, and then re-fix the overall synthesis. It will even accomodate an emphasis on biblical literacy, as well as commend unbiblical devotions and beliefs: both-and, Roman and Catholic!

What is happening now with the criticism of Pope Francis is business as usual in the Roman Catholic Church: at times the pendulum swings one way before readdressing the overall balance. It could be argued that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a great push towards the Catholic element and the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were subsequent attempts to moderate it in terms of reinforcing the Roman elements. With Francis the Catholic is again winning the day. These tensions will go on as long as Roman Catholicism exists. They are inner movements within the system. If one looks at Roman Catholicism as a system, then even the doubts of the cardinals, the criticism of priests and intellectuals, and even their charges of heresy against the Pope become easier to come to terms with. Roman Catholicism is both Roman and Catholic, and will always be so.

Nothing is going to break abruptly and, more importanly, no biblical reformation is possible under these conditions. Roman Catholicism will be stretched and go through a stress test, but will be able to handle both Francis’ catholicity and his critics’ insistence on the Roman component. The synthesis will be expanded, but the gospel will not be allowed to change Rome. This is the reason why the Reformation is not over.

143. Where Does Pope Francis Stand on the Doctrine of Justification?

November 1st, 2017

“Here I stand”: these are the famous words spoken by Martin Luther in front of the Diet of Worms in 1521.Questioned about his convictions as they had been outlined a few years before in the 95 Theses, Luther stood firm on the truth of the Bible and its good news: sinners can be justified by Christ alone through faith alone. It was clear to all what he believed.

The Council of Trent (1545-1562) was the official response of the Roman Catholic Church to the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation. By rejecting the tenets of the Protestant understanding of the Gospel and declaring its proponents anathema, Trent endorsed the view that sinners could not be justified by faith alone; instead, Catholicism insisted on an ongoing journey of good works punctuated by the sacraments administered by the church. Where Trent stood was and is crystalclear.

In recent decades, though, the situation has become blurred. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ)– signed by mainstream Lutherans and the Church of Rome– introduced ambiguities in language, juxtaposition of terms, and theological nuances that make it difficult to understand where the signatories stand incomparison to Luther’s and Trent’s viewpoints. After the Declaration, Rome’s position on justification is harder to ascertain. This ambiguous context is Pope Francis’s framework when he speaks on the topic.

The essence of human existence?

In the ecumenical ceremony that commemorated the Reformation in Lund (Sweden) in 2016, Pope Francis made a perfunctory reference to the doctrine of justification. In a generally positive comment on Luther, the Pope argued that “the doctrine of justification expresses the essence of human existence before God”, thus seeming to be in accord with what Evangelicals might say on the doctrine. Recognizing justification as something essential is surely a pointer toward its primary importance for the Christian life. But notice that the Pope speaks of the essential role of justification in “human existence” in general, not just in the Christian life. The context of this statement does not restrict it to Christians, nor to believers in Christ or disciples of Jesus. The Pope is not referring to the essence of the Christian life, but to human existence as a whole.

Here is the ambiguity. Does this mean that justification is essential for all human beings regardless of whether or not they are Christians? Does it mean that justification is a constitutive component of life in general, a defining mark of the existence of all men and women? Does it mean that all those living a “human existence” are essentially justified? Certainly this is not the meaning that either Luther or the Council of Trent gave to justification. For Luther, there was a sense in which justification could be defined as “the essence of human existence before God,” with the caveat that this would refer only to those who have received the grace of God by faith alone. In other words, justification is the essence of the Christian life, not of human life in general.

On the surface, then, the Pope’s comment on justification seems to be very biblical and indeed very Protestant. At a closer look, though, things are not as clear as they appear. While affirming the importance of justification, Pope Francis seems to confuse it with a universal property that all human beings share. If this is what the Pope meant, we are very far from what both Luther and Trent stood for. Indeed, we are very close to a universalist, all-embracing, humanistic “gospel” that betrays the biblical Gospel of salvation in Christ alone by faith alone for those who repent and believe.

Faithful to one’s own conscience?

Arguably, what Pope Francis said in Lund on justification is generic and can be interpreted in different ways. It is not possible to say for sure that this is what he had in mind. Therefore it is important to look for other references to justification in his thought selsewhere and give him another chance to explain what he means.

Here is another quotation that is worth pondering. In his widely acclaimed 2013 Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, the programmatic document of his pontificate, Francis writes that “Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live justified by the grace of God” (n. 254).This section of the Exhortation deals with ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue in the context of mission. According to Pope Francis, non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n. 16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are linked to“the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254).

Justification according to the Pope seems to be receivable by following one’s own conscience. It is still “by God’s gracious initiative” (although not necessarily by His grace alone), but it is no longer by faith – even by faith alone. It is through the conscience that men and women are linked to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, i.e. the work of Christ as it is re-enacted at the Eucharist, the chief sacrament of the church. Faith in Jesus Christ is gone. The Gospel appears to be not a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead a vehicle to access a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind through the conscience.What about faith in Jesus Christ? What about His justice being credited to the sinner? Are, therefore, all human beings justified ultimately by following their conscience? By grace but not by faith?

At this point, it becomes clear that the Lund reference to justification being “the essence of human existence”  was purposefully and intentionally designed to mean that justification defines everyone’s life, not only that of the believing Christian. This reference in The Joy of the Gospel makes it abundantly clear that the Pope, while using the language of justification, has radically altered its meaning and made it synonymous with a universal existence embracing the whole of humanity. He is using the word in an ambiguous way, but a closer inspection reveals its non-biblical content.

Is Pope Francis’ justification what Luther stood for? And, more decidedly, is this what the Bible teaches about justification? As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, with its recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we know where Luther stood and, in contrast, we know where Trent stood. Where does Pope Francis stand? He is saying radically different things. Therefore, before listing Pope Francis as a friend of the Evangelical faith, we must understand what he is saying on his own terms. Beyond commonalities in the use of words, he belongs to a different world.