167. Why Do They Cross the Tiber? Stories of Evangelical Conversions to Rome

Leonardo De Chirico’s note: I am thankful to my friend and colleague Clay Kannard for contributing with this fine article to the series of Vatican Files. Clay is a pastor sent to Rome to be a resource for the Italian evangelical church. He serves as a deacon of the church Breccia di Roma, Communications Director of the Reformanda Initiative and is a co-host of the upcoming Reformanda Initiative podcast.

The following post comes from a paper that was delivered at the 2019 Rome Scholars & Leaders Network in Rome, Italy.

MIND, HEART, & SOUL: INTELLECTUALS AND THE PATH TO ROME: A BOOK REVIEW

Mind, Heart, & Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome by R.J. Snell and Robert P. George is a collection of sixteen stories of individuals who have converted to Roman Catholicism. The interviews are conducted by intellectuals who are Roman Catholic converts, and as the title of the book suggests, each convert interviewed is a public intellectual and notable expert and/or leader in his or her field of study. Each interview recorded in this book provides insight into the converts’ religious backgrounds, personal experiences that led to conversion, the intellectual hurdles or obstacles faced in the journey towards embracing the faith of the Roman Catholic Church, life after conversion and post-conversion struggles, and suggestions of resources for other intellectuals who might be considering the next step on their own path towards Rome.

There is no doubt that the individuals selected to provide a testimony in this book are to be considered brilliant minds, members of the elite intellectual class within Western culture. Each chapter begins with a biography of both the interviewer and interviewee. Immediately the reader is met with impressive resumes of the people offering their personal stories of conversion to Roman Catholicism. These are the conversion stories of leading theologians, a former megachurch pastor, philosophers, ethicists, a novelist and syndicated journalists for major news outlets, political analysts and theorists, historians, legal scholars, constitutional lawyers and policy creators, and even an accomplished astronomer. The majority hold post-graduate level degrees from the most prestigious universities in the West, such as Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge where many serve as faculty members and leaders of various university programs. They are no doubt scholars of the highest caliber and undoubtedly influential intellectuals who have demonstrated a commitment to life-long learning and engaging culture in the public square.

Mind, Heart and Soul is an apologetic work. The testimonies within this book demonstrate that faith is not an enemy of reason, intellectual fervor or a threat to scientific innovation, but they do so, for the most part, without diving deeply into the details of the theological, philosophical and intellectual arguments these converts wrestled with. Regardless, these stories demonstrate that faith involves the rational mind in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding.[1] What is also evident in every testimony is that these intellectuals were not left alone in their quests for spiritual truth, but were aided through the contributions of those who had come before them. The works of other intellectual Catholics served as powerful resources in capturing these converts minds, hearts and souls for the Roman Catholic faith.

Intellectuals mentioned within these testimonies have successfully convinced countless others to embrace the Roman Catholic worldview. For example, the work of John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the once Anglican priest who became a Roman Catholic priest and who will soon be canonized as a saint in the RCC, is mentioned time and time again in these conversion stories as one of the major influencers on decisions to cross the Tiber.[2] Other intellectual influencers mentioned throughout these conversion stories include the theological and philosophical works of Joseph Ratzinger and Peter Kreeft, the literary works of Flannery O’Connor and Oxford inklings such as G.K. Chesterton, Tolkien, and while not a Roman Catholic, C.S. Lewis. A reading of the Church Fathers and the intellectual tradition of Thomas Aquinas played a significant role in convincing many of the converts that the Roman Catholic Church is correct in claiming to be the one true, historic and Apostolic Church.

The richness and influence of the Roman Catholic intellectual world is undeniable in these stories, thus providing a useful list of resources for those on similar journeys. But it was not only the brilliant minds throughout history that are seen to have influenced conversions. There is also the influence of community and a sense of belonging. Many of these testimonies describe a positive experience within a community of like-minded, intellectual Roman Catholics who lived a lively faith, or participation as students in Roman Catholic university clubs. But perhaps the most attractive sense of community came from belonging to a church that claims a doctrinal unity visible under the authority of the Pope, the head of a single, historic, and seemingly unified church.

The religious backgrounds vary among the converts. The majority of the testimonies come from individuals whose religious background was a form of nominal Protestantism. Of particular interest are the testimonies given by those who either grew up in a family with an evangelical religious background, or whose initial experience in the Christian faith took place within an evangelical context. Therefore, this book serves as a useful read for evangelical leaders, scholars, and pastors in seeking to understand common themes or potential weak points that might help to understand what influenced an evangelical intellectual to cross the Tiber and embrace the Roman Catholic Church.

EXAMPLES OF EVANGELICAL CONVERSIONS TO ROME

Ulf Ekman[3]
Former evangelical Megachurch pastor, Ulf Ekman, helpfully summarizes his attraction to Rome using four words: historicity, apostolic continuity, authority, and sacramentality. Ekman admits that in his camp there was a general lack of knowledge regarding church history and at times even an “open scorn for the long history of the church” (50). Ecclesiology was defined, not through a noted historical connection to a global and universal church sharing a common confession of faith, but through isolated independent congregational churches that held a “pragmatic look at the present and a futuristic eschatology” (Ibid).

As Ekman studied church history, he discovered a church with a much higher ecclesiology claiming apostolic continuity and unity under the Petrine authority of the pope. In the midst of liberal protestant developments, Ekman was attracted to a historical tradition of Rome that held an unwavering commitment to her traditional dogmas. He began to realize that his Protestant prejudices towards Rome stemmed from a lack of knowledge regarding the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and he ultimately rejected the Reformation doctrines stating that,

I used to believe the four “sola” tenets of the Reformation…more or less out of Protestant habit or tradition. Step-by-step I started to see how the Protestant mindset has an overriding attitude of “either-or” while the Catholic mindset, as well as the Hebrew, is more of “both-and” (56).

Yet of the aspects of Rome that attracted Ekman the most, it was the sacramental element of the Catholic Church that began to draw him into the Tiber.

Matthew Schmitz[4]
Matthew Schmitz grew up as an evangelical, believing that Catholics were probably not Christians and that the Church of Rome’s teaching was at odds with Christianity. As a child he participated in the Gothard Seminar, a program designed by evangelical Bill Gothard in which biblical morality is taught and encouraged. What Schmitz encountered was a very legalistic form of American Christianity that did not seem to demonstrate grace.

By the age of seventeen, Schmitz had rebelled against this legalistic program but not against the evangelical faith. While on a summer work assignment in Washington, DC, he began attending Capitol Hill Baptist Church. The pastor, Mark Dever, introduced Schmitz to Calvinism by gifting him a book written by J.I. Packer. Soon the young Matthew considered himself among the young, restless and Reformed, although he confesses never making it past page 70 of Calvin’s Institutes. Regardless, this newfound identity led Schmitz to begin reading anything that would be considered “both solidly “Christian” and undeniably great” (122). He began reading both post-Reformation authors as well as some older “Catholic things”, such as Augustine’s Confessions.

Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of Scripture was very appealing to Schmitz, helping him to overcome one of his biggest intellectual problems regarding the Christian faith, evolutionary theory. The literal interpretation of Scripture Schmitz had been taught did not allow for evolution, unlike the allegorical reading of Scripture used by Augustine. He began to embrace a Roman Catholic hermeneutical approach to Scripture.  Schmitz was,

…ceasing to be a Protestant, at least to be a pure kind of Protestant. I was becoming a more complicated kind of Protestant, or a more Catholic kind of Christian. I was looking for ways of reading Scripture, which, though I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, were more traditional and ecclesial (122).

Then while studying at Princeton, Schmitz was faced with the emergence of the gay rights movement. In seeking to defend a traditional Christian understanding of sexuality, he read Roman Catholic Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay titled, “Contraception and Chastity”. What Schmitz discovered was a powerful defense for the Christian worldview on sexuality within the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This surprised Schmitz because he had always considered the Church of Rome as having erred in so many things. The discovery of a certain truth within Catholicism led him to begin looking more seriously at the Roman Catholic faith. Schmitz states that eventually his reason was well disposed towards the Roman Catholic Church and he ultimately became Catholic, “just by beginning to view things in the way Catholics viewed them. All I had to do was relinquish my opposition” (126).

Joshua Charles[5]
Charles crossing of the Tiber began with his doubting the doctrine of sola scriptura, which he ultimately rejecting it 2015. While studying Scripture, Charles came to view the recorded words of the living authorities captured in Scripture as problematic for the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. He reasoned that the words of God spoken by men in the Bible (e.g. Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter, Paul), words that were later written down as Scripture, had to have been authoritative when spoken and therefore indicated a living authority outside of the Scriptures. Charles then found himself trying to identify which living authority should be trusted, and therefore which biblical canon was correct. Was it the Protestant canon, or the Roman Catholic canon? He asked himself, 

Who do I trust to get that canon correct? Who is the divinely ordained authority by which we may be certain that we have the correct canon? Myself? Scholars at universities? The Jesus Seminar? I concluded that my appeal must be to nothing more and nothing less than the authority we see exhibited throughout the Scripture, but particularly in Acts 15, and that is the Living, Authoritative Church that began at Pentecost (102).

It was at this point that Charles set out on a quest to read the Church Fathers. In doing so, he was “absolutely slapped across the face” by church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. According to Charles, these early leaders of the faith seemed to have a more Roman Catholic understanding of theology and practice than did the evangelical tradition in which he grew up—an American Evangelical/Protestant Christianity he claims seemed to be in chaos (102).

Upon reading the Church Fathers, Charles claims to have discovered strictly Roman Catholic teachings such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Eucharist as sacrifice, the authority of the bishops, and apostolic succession (104). Charles even states that in reading the Church Fathers, there was an absence “of any distinctively Protestant doctrines among their writings, and the presence of a great deal of distinctively Catholic Doctrines” (106).[6]

Charles claimed to have found continuity. Namely, that while Roman Catholic doctrine has developed and been refined over time, it is fundamentally still the same, something that Charles states cannot be the said for the thousands of Protestant denominations (111). And yet, while he had recognized various problems within the Protestant tradition, Charles had never previously considered Catholicism because he never properly understood it. He states,

In short, what I thought I knew about Catholicism just wasn’t true. I realized that the Catholic intellectual tradition is extremely powerful, and I studied what the Church actually said about herself and her own dogmas rather than seeing them through an oftentimes erroneous and misunderstanding Protestant lens (117).[7]

Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP and Douglas M. Beaumont[8]
In his first years of college, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, OP began to explore metaphysical frameworks offered by different religious traditions. While reading Flannery O’Connor’s Letters to A, White encountered the name of Karl Barth. He then went to the library, located and read Barth’s Introduction to Evangelical Theology in one sitting. On that day White claims to have received the gift of faith and was soon after baptized as a Protestant, even though he had not yet determined to which church he would belong.[9] Realizing that there were many expressions of Christianity, White set out on a journey to understand his new faith by studying its history.

White enrolled in a Church History course at his university and begin reading the writings of Origen and Augustine. He then read Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, whose emphasizing the combination of philosophy and theology was very appealing to White. He began reading more modern Roman Catholic theologians such as Balthasar, Rahner, de Lubac and John Paul II, in whose writings he found a deep continuity with the Church Fathers. Then during his senior of college, White read John Henry Newman, came to view the Roman Catholic Church as the historic faith and converted to Roman Catholicism.

White began pursuing his MPhil in patristic theology at Oxford where he discovered Aquinas and was trained in Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. White describes Aquinas as a “deeply grounded philosophical realist, a deeply grounded theological realist, and a mystic; it’s a very powerful combination” (70). For White, Aquinas offered a unified system for understanding all of reality within the context of the Roman Catholic Church. According to White,

St. Thomas’s philosophy of nature, metaphysics, understanding of the human person, epistemology, logic, and ethics make sense even independently of divine revelation while being deeply compatible with it. He also articulates an understanding of revelation which assimilates his realistic philosophical approach to the world (71).

In other words, for Fr. White, Aquinas’ philosophical and theological framework offers a unified system for understanding all of reality and that can be fully experienced within the sacramental economy of the Roman Catholic Church. A complete package rooted in an ancient intellectual tradition is very attractive to intellectuals on a quest for spiritual truth.[10]

This was especially true for Douglas M. Beaumont. Beaumont did not grow up in a religious environment, and although he had attended vacation Bible schools as child, it was not until college that he began his “faith life” (233). He admits to having strong sentiments against the Roman Catholic Church prior to his conversion, but without truly understanding it. The more he began to study Catholicism though, the more he began to view shared foundations with Protestantism that had really only diverged in application.[11] While studying apologetics at Southern Evangelical Seminary, Beaumont was introduced to the writings of Thomas Aquinas through Professor Geisler, who often assigned the reading of Aquinas to his students. Aquinas’ natural theology was influential in professor Norman Geisler’s classical approach to apologetics. Beaumont immediately came to appreciate Aquinas’ philosophical, careful and systemic thinking.

Beaumont continued to study Church History as part of his role as research assistant to Norman Geisler, who at the time was working on his Systematic Theology series. Beaumont was tasked with finding quotes from Church Fathers that would support Geisler’s beliefs, but he found it very difficult to identify continuity with the early Church Fathers when it came to an Evangelical ecclesiology and eschatology. The longer Beaumont studied Church History, the more he began to agree with John Newman, that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant. Ultimately, Beaumont embraced the long intellectual tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, her claim to apostolic unity and continuity with the ancient Church, and a sacramental system structured around a Thomistic intellectual tradition and metaphysical understanding of nature and grace.[12] Dozens of other seminarians from Southern Evangelical Seminary have since followed in his footsteps.

COMMON THEMES AND WEAK POINTS NOTED IN EVANGELICAL CONVERSIONS TO ROME

Each of these converts above was attracted to one or more of the four words mentioned by Ulf Ekman: the historicity, apostolic continuity, authority, and sacramentality of the Roman Catholic Church. There is only one word missing that must be noted, intellectuality. The previous conversion stories are not isolated. Many other examples can be found elsewhere, e.g. Beaumont’s book, Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome. A very helpful analysis on evangelical conversions to Rome has also been provided by Kenneth J. Stewart in his book, In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis.[13]

What repeating themes do these evangelical conversion stories reveal that should be noted by evangelical pastors, leaders and scholars? This section does not attempt to provide an in-depth theological analysis of the arguments given by evangelical converts for their crossing of the Tiber. For an excellent psychological, theological, and sociological analysis on what has been labeled, “Convertitis”, check out the new series by the Davenant Institute titled, “Why Protestants Convert“. What we are addressing below are common themes and weak-points identified in testimonies of those who have had a case of convertitis. Our desire is to continue a conversation as to why Roman Catholicism becomes so attractive to some evangelicals and what can we do about it.

1. Weak ecclesiology with no or little historical formation or depth
Every single testimony seems to indicate a weak ecclesiological background. Converts describe evangelicalism in terms of isolated evangelical church expressions with no connection to a historic and global Christian faith. There was no mention of intentional discipleship and theological formation taking place within the context of the local church. In these testimonies, a study of Church history usually took place independently or through Evangelical Bible Schools and Seminaries. In Beaumont’s case, his seminary did not even offer a Church history course for graduate level students, not even as an elective! How is this possible? Our own research has found that many seminaries lack courses on Roman Catholicism. The result is a generation of evangelical leaders who, like majority of the converts in this book, did not really understand Roman Catholicism.

What needs to be done in our institutions to help raise awareness of church history and the evangelical connection to the historic Christian faith? More importantly though, what needs to be done in our churches? Helping evangelicals to grasp and identify with a historic and biblical faith should not be left to Bible schools and seminaries alone. Perhaps there could be a regular recitation during times of worship that include not only Scripture but historic creeds and confessions stretching from the Apostles Creed, to the reformed confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Heidelberg Confession of Faith, etc., to even more modern global evangelical confessions such as those created by the Lausanne Movement.

2. Superficial and individualist expressions of faith
We cannot ignore the American consumeristic and individualistic cultural influence on those who attend our churches or seminaries. Unfortunately, this cultural influence can also be seen within many Evangelical church models today. Many churches have been designed to deliver an experience, having created attractional means in which the attendee can experience their faith, be entertained and consume religious content without being a contributing member or participating in the life of the church. This allows for the development of a shallow, individualistic and consumeristic expression of faith.

When one becomes aware of the superficiality of the experiential expression of faith found in many evangelical churches, a Christianity that provides a way to have an experiential faith through a mystical sacramental system rooted in an ancient, historic and global tradition that claims to be united becomes very appealing. Additionally, when one sees an apparent lack of unity resulting from isolated inwardly focused congregations, the global, ancient and seemingly unified nature of Rome becomes very attractive.

3. A Gospel-less Evangelical/Protestant church experience
Looking back to the testimony of Matthew Schmitz, it appears that his experience within a very legalistic (fundamental) evangelical context played a factor in his journey towards Rome. Others experienced a liberal form of Protestantism which also indicates a lack of the biblical Gospel.

Those growing up in a more legalistic context, like Matthew Schmitz, seem to be attracted to the Church of Rome’s commitment to its historic doctrines maintained under the authority of the Pope and the teachings of the Magisterium. This was in contrast to an apparent Protestant pick-and-choose or “have it your way” menu of churches. These converts found solace in a unified, non-democratic and traditional dogmatic system defined by the Church.

Something that is important to note in these conversion stories is that while there was much positivity regarding the unity of the Roman Catholic Church contrasted to a divided Protestantism and Evangelicalism, there was very little discussion about the divergent theological expressions within Roman Catholicism, both historically and currently at odds with one another. Some of the conservative converts who were put off by the liberalization of many Protestant denominations, often leading to splits and the creation of new denominations, seemed to lack any previous conversion knowledge of the various movements within Roman Catholicism that are at odds with one another. This is also true for the more progressive-leaning converts. For example, in chapter 6, Kirsten Powers openly shared about her post-conversion crisis of faith when she discovered a conservative/progressive divide within Catholicism that is marked with infighting (94-95).

4. Attraction to Roman Catholic intellectual tradition and a lack of biblical discernment when reading the Church Fathers, Church History, and Catholic intellectual giants
There is always a need to recognize our presuppositions on the quest for truth. For evangelicals who hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, we understand that the Bible is the starting point through which truth claims are to be examined. This equally applies when reading, or leading others through a reading of the Church Fathers, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, Chesterton, etc. It is not sufficient to take a merely philosophical approach or a realist approach, evangelicals must take a biblical approach. When it comes to reading these ancient intellectual giants and Church Fathers, is there is a need for greater evangelical scholarly assessment of church history carried out with a greater discernment and theological alertness?

What scholarly work is still left for evangelicals to do in order to address this weak point? What scholarly and literary works have already been done using a heightened theological alertness based on the authority of Scripture to evaluate the writings of the Church Fathers, Church councils and growingly popular intellectual traditions? Has there truly been enough work to study, recognize and indicate where our earliest brothers deviate from Scripture? This kind of work always carries the risk of being labeled historical revisionists, but evangelical scholars must be willing to take that risk and boldly identify where Church Fathers influenced a decision, made a decision or wrote a statement that set a trajectory towards what would ultimately result in unbiblical theology and practice.

Another question we must ask is: How does the local church address this weak point? In Schmitz’ testimony, it is not even clear whether or not he returned from his Summer stent in Washington DC to a local church that could have or would have helped him practice discernment. Was he left to himself as he began reading Augustine and embracing a Roman Catholic hermeneutical approach to Scripture? There is no mention of anyone helping him in this process.

5. Atomistic or no understanding of Roman Catholicism
Every evangelical testimony in this book claimed to have known very little about Roman Catholicism prior to their conversions. There were at times atomistic approaches to understanding Catholicism, only seeing Rome’s teachings as isolated doctrines having minor or isolated disagreements with Protestantism. However, there seemed to be a complete lack of understanding Roman Catholicism as a complete theological system prior to conversion. It is only after crossing the Tiber that some of the intellectuals recognized the systemic nature of Catholicism, and by then they had already rejected the Reformation doctrines that would undermine such a system.

It would be interesting to conduct a poll to see how many of our Evangelical Bible schools, seminaries, and missionary training centers actually offer courses on understanding Roman Catholicism as a theological system, and if any of them do, if they would be required courses in the training of evangelical scholars, leaders, and pastors. I am afraid we already know how the results would look.

What is evident through a reading of these testimonies is that there is much work to be done. It can be unsettling for evangelicals when considering that this book is one among many. However, the crossing of the Tiber is not only unidirectional. We at the Reformanda Initiative have been encouraged time and time again by stories of Roman Catholics who convert to the evangelical/biblical faith of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in the work of Jesus Christ alone. Most recently, we were encouraged by the testimony of Onsi A. Kamel, Catholicism Made Me Protestant, recently published by First Things. Read it and be encouraged.

Our prayer is that God may provide the resources and people who would dedicate their lives to humbly work together in identifying, uniting, equipping, and resourcing evangelical leaders to understand Roman Catholic theology and practice, to educate the evangelical church, and to communicate the biblical Gospel of salvation over and against attractive yet deviating narratives. Will you pray with us?

 Bibliography

George, Robert P., and R. J. Snell. Mind, Heart and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome. TAN Books, 2018.


[1] Kristen Powers, states in chapter six that, “One of my struggles with Christianity was that I thought it was anti-intellectual…I really thought all intellectuals were skeptics too…”, 89.

[2] Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and The Grammar of Ascent are mentioned throughout this book as one of the most influential works that helped converts overcome intellectual challenges towards the Christian faith, and to embrace the Roman Catholic Church as the one true church.

[3] Ulf Ekman was born in Sweden where he was ordained as a Lutheran minister. In 1983 Ekman founded the charismatic evangelical church, Word of Life, which eventually grew into a Megachurch having an expansive outreach and global influence. In his thirty-plus years of ministry, Ekman founded several Bible schools and a seminary, organized and led conferences around the world, and authored over 40 books that have been translated into over thirty languages. Ekman valued the evangelical emphasis on reading and teaching the Bible, having a personal relationship with Jesus and the charismatic experience of faith.

[4] Matthew Schmitz is a senior editor of First Things and has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, Spectator and more. He holds an AB in English from Princeton.

[5] Joshua Charles is a historian, writer, and speaker. He holds an MA in government and a law degree. As a writer, he has written many articles for publications such as Fox News, The Federalist, and the Jerusalem Post and has authored and co-authored bestselling books on America’s Founders, Israel and the Bible. His testimony provides very little insight into the specifics of his previous religious experience, other than it was within a non-denominational Protestant Christian upbringing.

[6] Then on page 108, Charles gives an example, stating that “every single Church Father believed in baptismal regeneration…”.

[7] As Evangelicals, even the works of the earliest Church Fathers must be read in light of God’s Word as our ultimate authority—Sola Scriptura. In Charles’ case, he had already denied the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

[8] Fr. Thomas Joseph White is the director of the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum in Rome, professor of theology and a convert himself. Douglas M. Beaumont holds a Ph.D. in theology from North-West University and an MA in apologetics from Southern Evangelical Seminary. At Sothern Evangelical Seminary Beaumont served as assistant to President Norman Geisler and taught Bible and religion for many years. He is also the author of several books, including Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome.

[9] More details are needed, but how is one baptized by a church without yet having decided to what church one would belong to? What was the understanding of baptism by the church who administered this ordinance? Was there any evaluation of White’s claim of faith or any attempt to catechize him?

[10] It is important to note that while Fr. White would present a Thomistic understanding of the Roman Catholic faith, as a comprehensive theological system where everything is interconnected, most of the converts never had this understanding of Roman Catholicism prior to conversion. Rather, Roman Catholicism was approached or thought of through the typical atomistic approach—e.g. doctrine by doctrine. For more on this read Dr. Leonardo De Chirico’s dissertation, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Vatican II and Gregg Allison’s book, Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment.

[11] Beaumont provides examples stating, “immoral popes were no more of a problem than was St. Peter. The evil of Israel no more made it cease to be the people of God than evils committed by those in the Church made it cease to be the Church. These discoveries made me realize that often it was my inconsistent application of shared principles that made Catholicism seem as far off as I had been led to believe it was.” (226). Beaumont states that during his time at SES, Church History was not even taught for any of their graduate-level degrees, even as an elective (227).

[12] Beaumont understands very well the difference between Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, from the systemic nature of Catholicism to recognizing that while we often use the same words (e.g. evangelize, works, grace), we have completely different understandings of them. See his concluding remarks on page 237.

[13] See chapter fifteen of his Stewart’s book, titled “Why Are Younger Evangelicals Turning to Catholicism and Orthodoxy?”, specifically the section titled “Reasons Behind the Drift”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

165. What is the Essence of Roman Catholicism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three sides to his understanding of sacramentality:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

164. From the Mary of the Bible to the Mary of Manifold Devotions

This review of Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven, CT; London, UK: Yale University Press, 2016) pp. 289, was published in “Credo Magazine”, Volume 9, Issue 2 (June 10, 2019).

At the end of September 2018, in the midst of the Annus Horribilis of the Roman Catholic Church (with the explosion of sexual abuse cases and the growing spiral of inner conflicts within the curia), Pope Francis called his people to devote themselves to praying to Mary to ask for her protection.[1] He asked the faithful to conclude the Rosary with the ancient invocation Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy patronage”). The full Marian invocation is recited as follows:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer contains references to attributes and prerogatives that in the Bible are clearly and exclusively relegated to God, e.g. His protection, His acceptance of our petitions, His ability to deliver, and Him being both glorious and blessed. And yet, this Marian prayer ascribes all of these functions to Mary and her protective mantle. Where does this prayer come from? And why is it part of the liturgical and devotional life of the Roman Catholic Church now? 

The Growth of Mariology
A well-documented and scholarly answer comes from the book Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (Yale University Press) by Stephen J. Shoemaker. Shoemaker traces the complex historical process that saw the Mary of the Bible become the Mary of manifold devotions in the first five centuries of the Christian era. The book maps out the growth of Mariology well beyond the “laconic” (62) portrait of Mary that is presented in the New Testament. Even stretching the focus to the second century, Mary certainly becomes the “new Eve” for Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, thus seeing her role expanded to a useful corroboration of the Pauline parallel between Adam and Christ (the new Adam). However, there is no indication of any devotions attached to her. For these Fathers, “Mary seems to be a figure primarily of dogmatic rather than devotional concern” (47). Moreover, Shoemaker helpfully makes reference to a later Father like Tertullian who has a “lower esteem” for the mother of Jesus than other contemporary orthodox writers (65).

While “there is practically no evidence of any Christian devotion to Mary prior to 150 CE” (3), a first boost to the process came from the Protoevangelium of James, a late second century biography of Mary. Here she becomes “the epitome of sacred purity, as perfect holiness embodied in a human being” (60). Particular stress is put on her virginity that is “an emblem of her own sacred purity” (62) rather than a sign of the divine origin of the Son. Mary’s holiness becomes a dominating feature that attracts devotional attention on herself as an exceptional person. In a telling comment, Shoemaker argues that the Protoevangelium – therefore an apocryphal gospel – laid “crucial foundations for future devotions to the Virgin Mary” (53). For evangelicals wanting to ground spirituality on the canonical Scriptures, this in an important point to underline. Historically speaking, Marian devotions were fueled by writings that were never considered to be inspired, and yet have played a formidable role in generating the Marian cult. 

A Heterodox Backdrop
This is the background out of which the Sub tuum presidium prayer comes from. According to Shoemaker, this 3rd century Egyptian papyrus suggests, “Marian piety initially emerged within a more popular and less culturally elite context” (70). Moreover, the fact that the prayer does not mention the Father or the Son may indicate that it may have been linked with “heterodox groups within early Christianity” (72). The spurious lex orandi negatively influenced the subsequent development of the lex credendi. The fact that the highest Roman Catholic authority still uses this prayer shows how deep the impact has been.

The central chapters of the book are dedicated to a fascinating analysis of an important source such as The Book of Mary’s Repose, which opens the tradition of the Dormition narratives. Here, Mary is revered for “her knowledge of the cosmic mysteries and her influence with her son” (128) and capable of receiving intercessions, performing wonders, and making apparitions. The heterodox backdrop of the tradition depicts Jesus as the Great Cherub of Light, a typically gnostic title. The Six Books Dormition Apocryphon reinforce this insurgent tendency of making Mary the center of a proper cult.

Shoemaker also sheds light on the additions of roles given to Mary (e.g. the “ascetic model” strongly supported by Ambrose) and the liturgical evidence for the cult of the Virgin in terms of feast days, festivals, and hymnography. Here again, the lex orandi of ancient Christianity was “a bit ahead of its lex credendi” (194).

The lex credendi did arrive with the dogmatic pronouncement of Mary as the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus, a “major turning point” in the history of Marian piety (205). The final chapter contains a fascinating examination of the Mariological elements undergirding the historical context, the theological debates, and the ecclesiastical outcomes of the Council of Ephesus. The point convincingly made by Shoemaker is that Marian piety was already present and strong before the Council and was one of the principal reasons why Nestorius was rejected by the party lead by Cyril on the theological side and by Pulcheria on the devotional side. The series of sermons by Cyril that followed the conclusion of the Council “went well beyond mere Christological concerns in its exalted praises to Mary” (225). Nestorius’ Christology was certainly in need of further refinement, but he was at least right in foreseeing the explosion of devotion to the Virgin that would follow the proclamation of her as the Mother of God.

Mariology: An Evangelical Analysis
The historical and literary evidence persuasively presented by Shoemaker shows that Mariological devotions originated in heterodox (read: gnostic) milieux and were later theologized and integrated into the corpus of the Mariological doctrine of the Church (6). The book stops at a careful historical analysis, but the evangelical theologian wants to go further in saying something more that is backed up by historical evidence. Contrary to the idealized Roman Catholic view of the development of doctrine as an organic unfolding of the truth (from J.H. Newman onward), Mariological ideas and practices were added from the outside and allowed to penetrate the faith of the people. While Church Fathers like Irenaeus were painstakingly fighting against the heresies of Gnosticism in order to protect the integrity of the Christian faith, other sectors of the church were being infiltrated by gnostic deviations through Marian devotions. Gnostic influences that were thrown out of the door of theology re-entered through the window of devotions, without the church as a whole exercising enough biblical discernment to understand what was happening. Unfortunately, the lex orandi (in this case soaked in Gnosticism) eventually affected the lex credendi (which did not have enough biblical antibodies to reject them).

Back to Pope Francis. When he called his people to pray the Sub tuum praesidium Marian invocation, he referred to an ancient tradition that the Roman Catholic Church has assimilated and made its own. As has been the case from the late second century onward, “Marian devotion and doctrine continue to be driven largely by popular piety, to which the hierarchs and theologians largely respond” (239).


[1] Holy See Press Office Communiqué, 29.09.2018

163. Five Principles for Interpreting the Church Fathers

June 1st, 2019

This article is an excerpt from my Letture patristiche (II-III secolo), “Studi di teologia” N. 54 (2015), pp. 139-141.

Recent decades have seen Evangelical theology express a renewed interest in the Church Fathers. This is all well and good. Rooted in the Bible, Evangelicalism at its best has always thought of itself in continuity with the apostolic gospel as it was proclaimed and taught in the early church, the medieval period, the Protestant Reformation, and Evangelical revivals up to the present day. In this positive retrieval, there is also the danger of an idealization of the Fathers (as if they were always right and always working with pure motives) and a wholesale and unwarranted appreciation of “tradition” (as if it was a monolithic body that is organically related to Scripture). In order to both affirm the Evangelical interest in the Fathers and suggest some caveats in practising it, here are five principles that can be useful to bear in mind.

1)  In reading the Church Fathers, practice the Sola Scriptura principle (the Bible alone is the inspired written Word of God and the ultimate authority), the tota Scriptura principle (the whole Bible is inspired and needs to be received as a whole), and the Scriptura sui ipsius interpres principle (the Bible is its own interpreter). As Protestant theologians, always remember that Scripture is the norma normans non normata (i.e. the norm of norms which cannot be normed). The Fathers are important, but not decisive; the Fathers are useful, but not definitive; the Fathers can be enriching, but to the extent that they are faithful to Scripture. In the words of John Calvin, “we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ”.[1]

2) Cherish a theologically sober and realistic view of tradition. The Fathers are the cornerstone of church tradition. As the Protestant Reformation taught us, one can and must hold the Word of God over every theological elaboration of the past while, at the same time, treasuring the inheritance that generations of believers have consigned to subsequent ones. In J.I. Packer’s words, “Tradition, after all, is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it”.[2] The 17th century Huguenot pastor Jean Daillé (1594-1670) wrote in his work Du vrai emploi des Pères (On the Right Use of the Fathers, 1631): “Who does not know that a dwarf, mounting on the shoulders of a giant, sees higher and further away of the giant himself? We stand on the shoulders of this great and sublime Antiquity: we owe this position of advantage to it”.[3]

3) Deconstruct the rhetoric of the consensum patrum, the idea that says there is a unanimity of the Fathers and that the patristic body of writings is a homogeneous monolith. This reading of the Fathers is short-sighted and ideological. The Fathers must be evaluated one by one, work by work, section by section, thought by thought, always relating their specific writings to the whole of their work and the general context in which they wrote. It is not legitimate to assign to the Fathers a dogmatic consensus and a simplistic doctrinal continuity with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Take note of what the Puritan theologian John Owen (1611-1683) wrote:  “The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest to do so. No man of ingenuity, who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretence. For it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others, who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely, in the latter they really differ, and that frequently”.[4]

4) Exercise theological discernment in assessing the historical dynamics in which the Fathers wrote. In general, their Christological and Trinitarian reflection is reliable in the ante-Nicene, post-Nicene, and Chalcedonian phases, although it is subject to a progressive infiltration of the devotional practices that eventually undermined it. After the “Constantinian shift” at the beginning of the 4th century, which transformed the self-understanding of the church into that of a religious and hierarchical empire, the ecclesiological, sacramental, and Mariological reflection of many patristic writings is vitiated by “imperial”, sacramental, and matriarchal categories. These areas are abundantly polluted by pagan parameters that have taken over from biblical teaching. The study of the Fathers therefore urges us to have a theologically responsible view of the “development” and “progress” of dogma (i.e. doctrinal elaboration after the closing of the biblical canon), away from naively simplistic accounts of it.[5]

5) Develop an awareness of systemic issues with important repercussions on the contemporary Christian identity. The Fathers are a field of study much sought after by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant theologies. In studying them, an exegetical and historical expertise is required, but it is not sufficient. There must be a systematic and ecumenical awareness of the issues involved because the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches both claim the Fathers as “theirs”, just as the Reformers felt they had inherited from the Fathers the rediscovery of the biblical gospel. In dealing with present-day readings of the Fathers, we have to deal with the Catholic and Eastern rhetoric of the “undivided church of the first millennium”, as if the way forward towards unity is a “return to the Fathers”. Behind these widespread expressions, there are hidden assumptions that are in danger of abusing the Fathers. The Evangelical study of the Fathers cannot be theologically naive or superficial with respect to the “ecumenical” game that is played on this field. The way forward to unity is a return to the biblical gospel.

In conclusion, John Calvin’s wisdom well summarizes the above mentioned five principles:

“While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in somethings it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin, Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves”.[6]

We must be neither “patrophobic” (i.e. fearing the study of the Fathers) nor “patrolaters” (i.e. elevating them as absolutes). Evangelical theology needs to pursue a realistic reading of the Fathers under the supreme authority of Scripture and at the service of the cause of the gospel.


[1] John Calvin’s Letter to Sadoleto (1539). Notice the reversed Roman Catholic argument presented by John H. Newman (1801-1890): talking about the Fathers he argues that “They do not say, ‘This is true, because we see it in Scripture’—about which there might be differences of judgment—but, ‘this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times, without interruption, ever since the Apostles’”:Discussions and Arguments, II.1 (London: Longmans, 1891) p.46.

[2]J.I. Packer, Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society” 25 (1992) p. 414.

[3] Quoted by G. Peters, I Padri della Chiesa, vol. 1 (Roma: Borla, 20073) p. 20.

[4]John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein (1678) in Works, vol. 4, ch. 9.2, ed. W.H. Goold, 1850-1853 (reprint: Carlisle, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967) pp. 117-234.

[5]See R.A. Finlayson, The Story of Theology(Cambridge, UK: The Tyndale House, 1967): “By saying ‘development of doctrine’ we mean that the doctrine of the New Testament was gradually discovered and formulated as the human mind approached the material provided by divine revelation”. See also J. Orr, The Progress of Dogma (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).

[6] John Calvin “Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French”, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536).

162. Deciphering Vatican II: A New Book Especially Helpful for Evangelicals

May 1st, 2019

Reading Vatican II has often been a daunting experience for evangelicals. While navigating Vatican II, evangelicals are puzzled to find the restatement of traditional Roman Catholic teaching together with something that appears to contradict it. The chief example of the evangelical puzzlement is David Wells’ book Revolution in Rome (1972) where he attempts to make sense of the nuanced, juxtaposing, and cumulative way of the theologizing of Vatican II. After carefully reading its documents, Wells concludes that Vatican II on some strategic points (e.g. authority, ecumenism, religious freedom, the presence of the church in the world) seems to endorse “mutually incompatible theologies”, one conservative, the other progressive; one restating tradition, the other pushing beyond tradition. “How do we interpret this?” is the question that reflects the evangelical perplexity in coming to terms with the complexity of the Roman Catholic mindset as it is presented at Vatican II.

Scores of books have been written on Vatican II, the discussions behind its texts, the documents that were produced, and the controversial attempts to implement it. Its legacy is still a fiercely disputed matter in Catholic circles as well. This is to say that each new addition to the Vatican II library is a welcomed attempt at trying to navigate the deep waters of the Council. The recent book by Thomas G. Guarino, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II. Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018) is particularly helpful for evangelicals for at least two reasons: First, since 2009 the author has been co-chairing the US-based “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative and therefore is used to dialogue with evangelicals. Second, while never quoting David Wells, some of the evangelical perplexities contained in his book are discussed by Guarino with the intention of suggesting a Roman Catholic way to handle them.

Vatican II as “Profectus Fidei”?
The church has always been confronted with the issue of change in her understanding of the truth and her accounting of it in teaching, preaching, evangelizing, etc. This is why Guarino looks back to the 5th century at Vincent of Lérins’ distinction between change as profectus (i.e. the development of doctrine that preserves the core) and change as permutatio (i.e. a mutation that alters the core). Without denying the significant changes in language, style and tone that are evident at the Council, Guarino argues that “Vatican II was in the main a homogenous profectus of the earlier tradition” (21), i.e. an advancement and expansion of previous tradition that nonetheless maintained its fundamental landmarks.

The main thesis of the book is that “Vatican II is in clear congruence with the prior Catholic tradition – even while homogeneously developing it on certain points” (10). Each word here is important: “congruence” means compatibility with the past, but no mere repetition of it. “Development” means organic growth, even with points of relative distancing from previous formulations, while remaining faithful to the doctrinal whole. The elastic yet firm combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels is what characterizes Guarino’s appraisal of Vatican II. In borrowing Benedict XVI’s terms, instead of a “hermeneutic of rupture” one needs to come to terms with the meaning of Vatican II by using a “hermeneutic of reform” (21). The Council witnessed an “organic, homogeneous, architectonic growth” (5): a kind of change that occurred within the parameters of a coherent development that did not betray the well-established heritage of the church.

This reading of the Council is fascinating and in line with a typical Catholic et-et (both-and) hermeneutical approach. However, its overall plausibility is difficult to accept wholesale when, for example, one analyzes the evidence as far as the issue of religious freedom is concerned. After centuries of strong opposition to religious freedom and freedom of conscience by Roman Catholic magisterial authorities, after multiple papal encyclicals consistently condemning it (which Guarino fairly makes reference to on pp. 184-188), how is it possible to see in Vatican II’s approval of it an “organic” change that simply “developed” what had been previously taught? Why not simply say that Rome was wrong when it condemned religious freedom and then came to change its mind at Vatican II? Is it because the institutional church is believed to be indefectible (i.e. not erring nor making mistakes)? The fact that the Roman Catholic Church made a U-turn on religious freedom is a clear example that the willingness to preserve Rome’s continuity goes against the factual evidence. Guarino’s overall interpretation of Vatican II as simple “perfectus fidei” seems to squeeze the dynamics of the Roman Church into a one-fits-all type of approach, instead of accounting for its complexity. Is it not too simplistic and a way to protect the unsustainable claims of indefectibility within the Roman Church?

Three Key Words
Back to the central thesis of the book, there are three key words that one needs to become acquainted with. They are “development”, “ressourcement”, and “aggiornamento”. They form the vocabulary that is needed to try to make sense of Vatican II from within. Here is the way in which Guarino helps to clarify their meaning.

Development. Recalling J.H. Newman’s famous book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1894) Guarino acknowledges its profound influence on Vatican II. Development means “an unfolding of something that is already present implicitly or in germ” (57). According to Newman and Guarino, doctrine is inherently involved in an organic process of growth. The problem with this Roman Catholic view of development is always the same: what are the biblical boundaries of such a “development”? For example, can the Church develop its Mariology to the point of elevating two Marian dogmas (like the 1854 dogma on Mary’s immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption) without any biblical support? In other words, “development” without the biblical principle of Sola Scriptura (i.e. the Bible as the supreme authority for the church) safeguarding and guiding it can become a self-referential principle at the service of the institutional church. If the church can “develop” her own traditions even outside of the perimeter of the written Word of God, is it not a questionable development?

Ressourcement. The French word is another key term to enter the theological universe of Vatican II. It means “taking account of the entire theological tradition of the church” (59), be it the apostles, the fathers, the councils, the liturgy, and the witness of the Christian people. Vatican II is known for having paid more attention to the biblical sources of the faith as well as to patristic and liturgical sources. The “ressourcement” principle is important provided that the examination of the sources and their “weight” is put under the authority of the Word of God as the supreme source. Vatican II contained more biblical references than previous catholic documents, but it also stood in continuity with previous magisterial texts that had few Scriptural references and were primarily based on other sources (e.g. as it is the case with the Marian dogmas). Vatican II’s ressourcement added sources but did not subtract any even when Rome had developed its theology and practice outside of the Bible. It expanded the ability of the Roman Church to absorb new emphases without purifying it from spurious ones which had been previously embraced.

Aggiornamento. The final word that Guarino expounds comes from the Italian language and was used by Pope John XXIII. “Aggiornamento” means “bringing up to date” (66) the communication of the church by means of appropriating a different style and tone and making it more attuned with the modern mindset. “Aggiornamento” can give the impression that at Vatican II Rome really and substantially changed but it is closer to reality to say that the Roman Church went through a season of up-dating her language and attitude without relinquishing any of what was previously believed and pronounced. For example, the “anathemas” (i.e. curses) of the Council of Trent against the Protestants have been “updated” at Vatican II with a friendly and brotherly language but never renounced (and this means that they can be resuscitated any moment). The previous layer has been updated without being removed.

Guarino’s book does an admirable service to the evangelical reader in explaining the Vatican II vocabulary of “change”. Too often, evangelicals may have a superficial view of the Roman Catholic “change”. They can be impressed by the emphasis on Biblical passages that they find in post-Vatican II documents without properly understanding the fact that these biblical sources supplement rather than change the already established Roman Catholic sources which have shaped its teaching. It’s also possible that evangelicals might rightly appreciate the friendly tone of present-day Catholic theological language without necessarily knowing that “aggiornamento” adds a new style on top of what Rome has said and done in the past without cutting off its roots. In other words, the vocabulary of Vatican II should not be taken as implying that Rome is now open to a biblical reformation: it simply means that the Catholic Church, as Guarino argues, “was in continuity with the prior doctrinal landmarks” (read: the Council of Trent, the Marian dogmas, the dogma of papal infallibility) undoubtedly together with “true development” (199) that makes it more palatable to outsiders. The past is never renounced. It can be updated but remains untouched and continues to remain at the core of what the Roman Church is and believes.

A Paradigm Change
Beyond the already mentioned contributions of Guarino’s book to the understanding of Vatican II, this work has another strength, perhaps its most important one. In order to assess the theology of Vatican II, its “theological principles” need to be grappled with and the book helpfully summarizes them. Yes, the “style” of the Council is important (as suggested by J. O’Malley); yes, the keywords of the Council are foundational (“development”, “ressourcement”, “aggiornamento”); but what about its theological vision? From where did Vatican II derive its principles? And what were they?

Guarino’s contention is that “analogical and participatory thinking are crucial, though generally overlooked, themes at Vatican II” (25). In his view, analogical and participatory categories form the backbone of the Council. Analogical thinking means that similarities are stressed (rather than differences); everything is analogous to something else and therefore close, similar, next to it. Participatory category means that everything participates in one way or another to everything else; therefore, mutual indwelling and inter-relationships are underlined (rather than distance and separation). If pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism operated with a “univocal” approach (i.e. defining reality in one way only) followed by dialectical thinking (i.e. distancing itself from what was not aligned with its univocal definition), at Vatican II Rome learns to reframe its whole theological vision according to what is in common with everything else and what unites it with the rest of the world. “Dialectical difference was not the style of the Council – analogical similarity was” (73). Antinomies were replaced by analogies (75).

It is true that Vatican II does not use the traditional terms such as “primary and secondary analogates and intrinsic and extrinsic attribution” (27) but analogical and participatory thinking undergirds whatever Vatican II says. The Church of Rome is never called the “primary analogate” and the non-Catholic churches are never addressed as the “secondary analogates”; yet it is clear that Vatican II stresses what is in common between the two because they are analogous to each other. The same is true as far as participatory categories are concerned. When Vatican II speaks of the modern world in friendly terms, wanting to affirm and to embrace it, it does so assuming that “all human beings participate in the same created human nature, the ultimate ground of similarity among people” (26-27). The notion of a “diversified participation in a perfection” (80) undergirds modern Roman Catholic thought.

The is the theological background that allows Vatican II to talk about mutuality, friendship, partnership and cooperation with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, peoples of other religions, people of good will, the whole world. The Council promotes a “conciliatory approach – emphasizing unity with, rather than difference from, all others” (26). Again, in Guarino’s words, “the ‘others’ formally participate in the unique attributes of Catholicism and are therefore intensively related to it” (28). This is not the fruit of a generic kindness, but the result of a particular theological project based on analogical and participatory categories. This does not mean that the traditional claims of Rome being the only church, the perfect society, etc. are obliterated. They are no longer seen in exclusive and oppositional forms, but in analogous and participatory ways. It is no longer a matter of being “in” or “out”, inside or outside, but it is a matter of participating at various degrees to the same reality. “Without losing Catholic exceptionalism … the conciliar accent was placed on Catholicism’s similarity” (29) with other faiths. They are now considered as “partially similar to the Catholic faith and analogically related to it” (201). Elsewhere Guarino argues that “Catholicism did not change its self-understanding – but it did stress its close proximity to others” (131). Vatican II presents the view whereby Rome has the fullness of grace, but those who do not belong to it still participate in it at various levels of intensity. According to Guarino, all this happened and is happening “without betraying the material continuity of the faith” (44, i.e. the Roman Catholic faith). We are back to the Catholic dynamics of “development”, “ressourcement”, and “aggiornamento”, i.e. change without alteration, renewal without reformation, addition without purification.

Not Away From Thomism but Deeper into It
In pointing to the importance of this “paradigm change” (31) in the present-day Roman Catholic Church, Guarino stands on the shoulders of giants of 20th century Catholic theology such as Gérard Philips, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar and Joseph Ratzinger (30-31). His is not an isolated, fancy interpretation of Vatican II, but the mainstream reading of the theological principles at work in the Roman Catholic Church since the last Council.

Following Congar, Guarino further argues that the real theological mind behind Vatican II is not a modern theologian but Thomas Aquinas himself. It was Aquinas who “furnished the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the bases and structure (les assises et la structure) of their thought (25, 74, 200). Thomas’ doctrine of analogy and his reinterpretation of the neo-platonic doctrine of participation form the foundational axes of the theology of Vatican II. While the Council avoided “the language of scholasticism” it did make use of seminal “scholastic ideas” (74); again, “while Thomistic language was absent at Vatican II, Thomist ideas were in plain sight” (201). While Vatican II practiced an eclectic type of “ressourcement” it was Thomas Aquinas who was the main source behind it. A modernized form of Thomism, perhaps away from the rigidity of 19th century Neo-Thomism, but always within the same tradition expanded in the dialogue with the modern world, was and is the framework that provides “the bases and the structure” of Rome.

Three provisional implications
What are the implications of such “paradigm changes” that occurred at Vatican II for evangelicals? They are Massive! Here are three tentative implications.

1) For the time being, Rome will not have an “oppositional” posture in relating to the non-Catholics but will always try to find commonalities, to underline unity, to stress fellowship, and to embrace evangelicals as much as possible. Evangelicals need to be aware that if they want to be faithful to the gospel they need to be “counter-cultural” and talk about gospel distinctives, biblical separation, covenantal allegiance to the Triune God that rejects idols and idolatry. Biblical truth always needs to confront and to refute error even if it comes from a traditional institution like the Roman Catholic Church.

2) Even after Vatican II, Rome is not committed to the biblical gospel but is dedicated to the all-embracing gospel of “analogy” and “participation” that has translated into Rome’s ecumenism, mariology, ecclesiology, inter-religious dialogue, mission, etc. Pope Francis may not even use the language of “analogy” and “participation”, but his message of “unity” and “mercy” is steeped into it. Evangelicals need to become more acquainted with the ground motives of present-day Roman Catholicism if they want to understand where Rome stands. The words used may be the same (gospel, grace, faith, conversion, etc.), but their meaning is different because Rome uses them within the theological framework of Thomistic “analogy” and “participation”.

3) When Rome changes, it does so according to its own pattern of change. This change implies degrees of renewal that are always in the context of substantial continuity with its well-established self-understanding. Evangelicals need to learn to understand the Roman Catholic dynamics of change if they want to account for both continuity and discontinuity in present-day Rome. The Catholic Church may even talk about the need for a “reformation”, but it will always be below the standards of biblical reformation and always in a way that self-protects the institution.

For all these reasons, Guarino’s book on Vatican II is particularly helpful for evangelical readers.

161. Are there two Popes of the Roman Catholic Church?

April 19th, 2019

Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus) has spoken, and his voice is loud in the confusion that reigns in the Roman Catholic Church. His 5,000 word text, which is entitled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”, was released on April 11th, taking Vatican officials and the outside world by surprise. Although he writes that he had informed Pope Francis and the Secretary of the Vatican State beforehand, the procedure was totally unconventional, bypassing institutional channels and distributing the text through a minor German magazine (Klerusblatt). It soon appeared on websites that are often vocally critical of Pope Francis.

When Pope Francis was elected to office in March 2013, Benedict XVI, who had abruptly resigned from office, pledged to remain publicly silent for the rest of his life, dedicating his time to prayer and indicating a willingness not to interfere in the affairs of the Roman Church. With the publication of this long article, this silence is broken. The Pope Emeritus certainly prays, but he also speaks out and does so loudly. The topic of his article is hot in that it deals with the sexual abuses that are ruining the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and causing internal debates in this “annus horribilis” (terrible year).

“A Post-Retirement Encyclical”?
Commenting on the text, the New York Times has labeled it “a post-retirement encyclical”, as if the Pope Emeritus had resumed his ordinary teaching in this turbulent time. Perhaps this is an overstatement. Content-wise, the article is more of a historical, theological, and autobiographical reflection on the present-day crisis. It is written in the style of a personal testimony coming from a life-long prominent theologian, influential Cardinal, and lately the retired Pontiff of the Roman Church.

Ratzinger traces the present-day sexual abuse scandal back to the sexual revolution of the Sixties (particularly the year 1968), the “collapse” of Catholic doctrine and morality between the 1960s and 1980s, the downfall of the distinction between good and evil and between truth and lies, the proliferation of tolerated “homosexual clubs” in Catholic seminaries, and the imposition of a “so-called due process” that rendered untouchable those who justified these novelties, including pedophilia itself. In the final analysis, Ratzinger points to the ultimate reason for the crisis being a departure from God in society as a whole and in the Church as well. He then calls his Church to recover the mystery of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as the way to let God become central again.

In a sense there is nothing new under the sun in what Benedict writes now. These broad historical and theological assessments have already been presented in his 1985 Ratzinger Report, a book interview on the state of the world and the church published when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in his “Letter to the Catholics in Ireland”, written in 2010 when he was Pope, which dealt with the abuses there. This new article breaks no fresh ground regarding Ratzinger’s views on the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution on the world and how it has impacted the Roman Church at all levels.

The Unsettled Legacy of Vatican II
What is significant about the article is the difference in analysis and tone from what the reigning Pope has been saying about the abuses. Unlike Ratzinger, Francis has been quick to blame “clericalism” (i.e. the abuse of clerical power) as the root of the scandals. He has never touched on the relaxation of the Church’s moral standards on sexuality and the gradual acceptance of the presence of homosexuals amongst the clergy. For Francis, homosexuality seems to be a non-issue in the overall explanation of what has gone wrong, i.e. a topic that cannot be dealt with publicly and honestly. The other main difference is that, unlike Ratzinger, who severely criticizes the philosophical trajectory and moral results of Western relativism both within and outside of the Church, Francis speaks more of the political allures of careerism within the Church, which has resulted in unscrupulous people making prey of vulnerable subjects. The difference between the two is evident.

There is something deeper, though. The main thesis of the article is that the Sixties were the decade of the sexual revolution and the Roman Church was devastated by it. So far so good. But the Sixties were also the decade of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which updated Rome’s posture, gesture, and language to make it more friendly to the modern world. Indirectly, Ratzinger underlines the fact that in the Sixties (therefore after Vatican II), Roman Catholic moral theology ceased to argue from the objective basis of “natural law” and began to play with the idea that “morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action”, making therefore all judgements “relative”. The Pope Emeritus denounces a “new, modern Catholicity” that overturned the traditional moral fabric of Catholic theology and opened the door to the justification of homosexuality and other sexual promiscuities in seminaries and among the clergy. Without Ratzinger saying it explicitly, it was as if Vatican II lowered the bar and relaxed the standards of Roman Catholic theology and ethics to the point of eroding the moral consistency of the Church from within.

While Francis often uses Vatican II to bang conservatives on their heads, Ratzinger’s analysis of the effects of the Council is much more nuanced, if not critical. It is as if Francis stresses the genius of the “catholicity” of Vatican II (i.e. openness, renewal, inclusion, accommodation), whereas the old Ratzinger sees problematic outcomes that have plagued the Church. The tension between the “catholic” and the “roman” elements of the Roman Catholic Church is now embodied in the dialectic between the two Popes. Francis tends to the “catholic” Pope in line with the elasticity of Vatican II whereas Benedicit looks like more of the “roman” Pope calling his Church to its doctrinal identity shaped around its sacramental system. Beyond the different opinions on the current crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, the legacy of Vatican II is also a disputed matter between the two Popes!

One Pope, Two Popes?
There are other standing questions on the whole initiative by the Pope Emeritus. The paper wanted to be a contribution to the summit on the protection of minors that was held in the Vatican in February 2019, but instead it has been made public two months after. Why? Is it because Benedict was not happy with the rather poor and inconsequential results of the meeting? Why did he decide to break his vow of silent prayer now, and on this issue?

After six years of co-habitation between a reigning Pope and the Pope Emeritus (an unusual situation for the Roman Church!), what prompted the latter to speak out on this controversial issue? Why did he feel the need to regain a public voice, outside of institutional Vatican channels? Roman Catholic conservative circles – the same circles that have become very critical of Pope Francis – have always referred to Benedict XVI as the “real” and “true” Pope over and against the troublesome and confusing activity of today’s Pontiff. This article gives them evidence that their criticism has reached Ratzinger’s ears. The Pope Emeritus continues to pray, but is also willing to speak again. He is Emeritus, but he is still Pope.

The article may not be a “post-retirement encyclical”, but it is a stone thrown into Rome’s pond. Its waves will continue to question how is it possible for a pyramidical structure to have two Popes with very different opinions on what happened to a Church marred by horrific sexual scandals and on what needs to be done to recover from the damage caused by them.

160. Is the Nicene Faith the Basis for Ecumenism?

April 1st, 2019

This article is adapted from La fede nicena è la base teologica dell’ecumenismo?, “Studi di teologia” 61 (2019) pp. 65-69.

The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) is often studied by church historians who are interested in coming to terms with the affirmation of orthodox Christology founded on the consubstantiality between the Father and the Son (i.e. the Son having the same divine nature as the Father). Not just a historical event, Nicaea evokes a doctrinal symbol, hinged on the Trinitarian faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Its explicitly trinitarian framework has become the normative reference point for orthodox Christianity.

Nicene Christianity
The terms “Nicene faith” or “Nicene Christianity” are considered synonyms of Christianity. They are sufficiently defined in the essentials, but still free from the subsequent confessional incrustations that “divided” Christianity between the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century and the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in the 16th century.

Wanting to commend the plausibility of the Christian faith, in 1952 the British intellectual C.S. Lewis coined the expression “mere Christianity.” He did so precisely to indicate those essential contours of the Christian faith that are enucleated in the Nicene creed, which all Christians, whatever tradition they belong to (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc.), make their own. In contemporary ecumenical theology, the “Nicene faith”, often referred to as the “Great Tradition”, is considered the theological platform on which all traditional Christian families must recognize each other since they all stem from the historical tree of Nicene Christianity. In this perspective, Nicaea is a symbol of the undivided past that becomes the hope of a unity to be rediscovered[1].

The Appeal to Nicene Christianity in Evangelicalism
The strong appeal to the “Nicene faith” goes beyond ecumenical circles. Wanting to overcome the fundamentalist tendency that has downplayed the historical heritage of the faith, important sectors of the evangelical world have loudly called on evangelicalism to “reclaim” the apostolic testimony that finds its dogmatic symbol par excellence in the Nicene faith[2]. This pressing invitation has set in motion a certain dynamism in the study of the Church Fathers in the last few decades, even among evangelical scholars[3].  The idea has gained popularity amongst evangelicals that the Nicene faith (centered on the profession of the Trinity and on an orthodox Christology) is the common ground between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, while differences would lie in doctrines such as soteriology, ecclesiology, Mariology, etc[4]. The Nicene faith apparently shared by all is the common basis that would reflect “a deeper agreement” between all the expressions of Christianity, “despite profound disagreements” between them that have occurred later[5].  In the words of Craig Carter, “The Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy begins with the Old and New Testaments, crystalizes in the fourth-century trinitarian debates, and then continues through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the leading Protestant Reformers, post-Reformation scholasticism, and contemporary conservative Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant confessional theology”[6]. Here is the “Nicene” ecumenism of the great tradition: a transversal front that embraces the conservatives of all the families of Christendom and that incorporates all those who refer to Nicaea as their theological platform.

The question to ask is whether or not the Nicene faith can play the role that is assigned to it. One needs to verify the plausibility of the idea that contemporary ecumenism can find in Nicaea a meeting point that historically precedes the confessional controversies, theologically welcomes all the confessions developed after Nicaea, and provides an ecumenical common basis for rebuilding the lost unity.

So, is the Nicene faith (or can it be) the theological basis for contemporary ecumenism? The answer is negative for at least three reasons. Let’s look at them in order.

Three Objections to the Ecumenical Use of the Nicene Faith
First, the vocabulary of Nicaea to which all confessions refer is the same: God the Father, Jesus Christ, salvation, Holy Spirit, virgin Mary, church, a holy apostolic catholic church, baptism, remission of sins. But while the signifiers are the same, inasmuch as the same sounds combine to form the same words linked together in the same order, the same cannot be said of the theological meaning of the words used. When a Roman Catholic refers to the “virgin Mary”, to “salvation”, to “the church”, etc., does he mean the same thing as an evangelical, an orthodox, or a liberal Protestant would mean when using the same words? Of course not. Think of the word “salvation”: a Roman Catholic would understand it as a sacramental journey under the authority of the church and with the help of the intercessions of Mary and the saints; an evangelical understands salvation as being grounded solely on Jesus Christ and received by faith alone; a liberal would tend to understand it as the attempt to be a better person who lives in a better society. The word is the same but the meaning is substantially different. How can the reference to Nicaea bridge the gap? Think of the word “church”: the Roman Catholic has a view of the church as a hierarchical society whose absolute leader is the Pope, who is given the title of vicar of Christ; evangelicals understand the church largely as a fellowship of believers who bear witness to the gospel but who do not prolong the incarnation of Jesus Christ and therefore do not reclaim his prerogatives. The “Great Tradition” speaks of the “church”, but do we believe the same “church”? Examples could be easily multiplied.

There is an area of overlap and an area of differentiation that makes the use of the same terms equivocal. In fact, the words of the Nicene creed are marked by theologically different understandings. In the common recitation, the impression is that they all say the same thing; this is true on a phonetic level, but not at the semantic level. Calling the Nicene faith the common basis can be an emotional appeal, but it is not a responsible action because, while the impression is given that we say the same things, the reality is that we are saying different things.

Second, Nicaea is not a point of arrival, but a step in the history of the church. For example, Nicaea was followed by Ephesus (431 AD), which dogmatized the Marian title of “mother of God”; the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which defined justification as a synergistic process within a sacramental system; the Marian dogmas of the immaculate conception (1854) and bodily assumption (1950); the First Vatican Council (1870) with the dogma of papal infallibility; and by Vatican II (1962-1965) with its inclusive catholicity. The theology of the various traditions is today characterized by a doctrinal and spiritual stratification that is irreversible and no longer that of Nicaea. For example, Roman Catholicism has given dogmatic status to its Mariology and Papacy. These Marian and papal dogmas impinge on Christology, the doctrine of the Spirit, ecclesiology, and salvation. When Nicaea refers to Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the church, present-day Roman Catholicism also reads Mary into the background. When Nicaea refers to salvation and the forgiveness of sins, Roman Catholicism after Trent reads the sacraments and indulgences. It is not possible to put the clock back as if 1700 years of history had not happened. It is simplistic, as well as antihistoric, to think that the common profession of Nicaea can be extracted from the important additions, which have become the Roman Catholic interpretative keys of creedal Christianity. Nicaea can’t bring people together because Evangelicals and Catholics have developed different dogmas and practices in their histories in all key areas of the Christian faith.

Third and finally, the Nicene faith cannot be the basis of contemporary ecumenism because of the different role that the different Christian traditions ascribe to the profession of a creed. What does it mean to “profess” a creed like that of Nicaea? To learn it by heart and recite it? To believe in the affirmations it contains? To identify oneself in the worldview to which it gives voice? To perform a conventional act linked to a traditional religious practice? To mechanically repeat a “jingle” that evokes our childhood? The range of possibilities for the appropriation of Nicaea is wide. For example, how many liberal Christians (who would have no problem saying that Nicaea is important) believe that God is truly the Creator of the heavens and the earth? How convinced are they that Jesus was really born of the virgin Mary, or that He bodily rose from the dead? If we have even a little acquaintance with contemporary theology, we will realize how many interpretations there are of these and other cornerstones of the Christian faith. So what does it mean to profess the united faith in a united way if, despite reciting the same words, we believe substantially different doctrines?  In addition, for how many nominal Christians does the recitation of the creed make a difference in their life? What does it mean to say “I believe …” for many people who, despite having been baptized and occasionally attending religious services, are not regenerated, and therefore are not believers? Of course they can recite the Nicene creed, but this profession is very often a rhetorical exercise with almost no spiritual value. Reciting it together does not in and of itself bring unity.

Referring to Nicaea as the common basis of ecumenism is wishful thinking rather than theologically responsible hope. In light of these three reasons, among Christian confessions and traditions there is a deeper disagreement, despite some areas of apparent and formal agreement. The way of unity always passes by the biblical truth that the Council of Nicaea tried to honor, even in the complexities of history. In itself, Nicaea is necessary. But it is not sufficient to express the biblical unity for which the Lord Jesus prayed and gave His life in order to achieve.

 


[1] See for example C. Steitz (ed.), Nicene Christianity. The Future of a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).

[2] T. George (ed.), Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith. Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).

[3] For a survey see K. Stewart, Evangelicalism and Patristic Chrisitianity: 1517 to the present, “The Evangelical Quarterly” 80.4 (2008) pp. 307-321.

[4] This is the approach taken by the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative since 1994. A collection of all the ECT documents can be found in T. George – T.G. Guarino (edd.), Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015).

[5] As it is argued by K. Collins – J. Walls, Roman but not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (Grand Rapids: MI, Baker, 2017) p. 78.

[6] C.A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Pre-modern Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018) p. xi.

159. “Confusion” and “Failure”: Other Roman Catholic Blows Against Pope Francis

March 1st, 2019

The turmoil in the Roman Catholic Church has reached a further disruption point. At the beginning of February, two independent but influential texts circulated widely that expressed strong criticism against Pope Francis. In Europe, the German Cardinal Gerhard Müller issued a Manifesto of Faith that raised serious concerns over the downplaying of Roman Catholic identity under the present-day pontificate and suggested corrections to it. In the USA, the acclaimed journal First Things posted an article by R.R. Reno whose devastating thesis is evident from its title: “A Failing Papacy”. Both attacks came from high-profile Roman Catholic sources and show that the “Annus Horribilis” (Terrible Year) of Rome is getting even worse. On both sides of the Atlantic, Pope Francis is under fire.

Away from Confusion, but Where To?
Müller is the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the highest Vatican authority in the area of doctrine after the Pope). He was named Prefect by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 and has become known for his conservative views with regards to the interpretation of Catholic doctrine and morals. In doing so he collided with the open-ended and inclusive approach of Pope Francis, especially as to whether or not to re-admit people in “irregular” relationships to the Eucharist. Müller vocally opposed the relaxation of the Catholic attitude towards people living in relationships outside of marriage, as had been adopted by Amoris Laetitia, the 2015 Vatican document on the family that was strongly supported by the Pope. His criticism of the Pope is the reason Francis abruptly dismissed him in 2017, breaking the usual practice that the Prefect is confirmed in his office until retirement and even beyond. The fact that he who used to be the second or third in rank after the Pope in the Vatican hierarchy is now an outspoken opponent of him is a sign of the chaos that the Vatican is going through at the moment.

Over the last few years, Müller has become a reference point for those who are concerned with the direction that the Roman Catholic Church has taken under the leadership of Pope Francis. In the Manifesto, the German Cardinal talks of a “growing confusion” about Church doctrine: “Today, many Christians are no longer even aware of the basic teachings of the Faith,” the German cardinal laments, “so there is a growing danger of missing the path to eternal life.” His concern has to do with the undermining of Roman Catholic traditional tenets happening under Pope Francis.

The Manifesto is a 4-page document posted in multiple languages that calls people from around the world to sign it as a way of affirming Catholic identity in this time of “growing confusion”. The target is clearly Pope Francis and his apparent lack of theological reliability. The pars construens is an attempt to recover Roman Catholic doctrinal stability and breadth from the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated by Pope John Paul II and drafted under the leadership of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. While Francis is seen as causing confusion through his clumsy theology, John Paul II and Benedict XVI are seen as Roman bulwarks.

The Catechism is the traditional explanation of the Roman Catholic faith, beginning with the Triune God but centered on the sacramentality of the Church, which prolongs the ministry of Christ and therefore administers God’s grace through the sacraments. Rather than the biblical gospel, it is the “sacramental life” that shapes the Christian life according to the Cardinal. Rather than obedience to the biblical Jesus Christ, it is submission to the authority of the Roman Church that marks his proposal. Müller’s antidote to Francis’ downgrading is the retrieval of traditional Catholicism: not a recovery of the gospel, but the reaffirmation of Rome as the “visible sign and instrument of salvation realized in the Catholic Church”. The solution is not qualitatively different from the problem it wants to solve.

A Failing Papacy?
On the other side of the Atlantic, the tone against Francis has reached an unexpected peak. The incipit of the aforementioned article in First Things is shocking if one considers its source:

“The current regime in Rome will damage the Catholic Church. Pope ­Francis combines laxity and ruthlessness. His style is casual and approachable; his church politics are cold and cunning. There are leading themes in this pontificate—­mercy, accompaniment, peripheries, and so forth—but no theological framework. He is a verbal semi-automatic weapon, squeezing off rounds of barbed remarks, spiritual aperçus, and earthy asides (­coprophagia!). This has created a confusing, even dysfunctional atmosphere that will become intolerable, if it hasn’t already.”

And this is only the beginning. The article goes on to describe the situation of chaos that the Pope has brought to the Roman Church.

Given the North American provenance, an appropriate gut reaction to reading it is: WOW! What is happening in conservative Catholic circles? These are not words written by an outmoded fundamentalist spitting his emotional anti-Catholicism. First Things is an authoritative voice of conservative Catholicism and a strong advocate of the Roman Catholic worldview. In reading this trenchant critique, one cannot help but think: how can a Catholic author write this and still affirm Francis as the Pope? How can a conservative Catholic who has said for decades that Roman Catholicism is unique and necessary because of the authoritative voice of the Pope now criticize what the Pope is teaching and doing? Isn’t there a contradiction? More fundamentally, are we sure that Francis is the main problem? Or is it not the monarchial, political, and self-proclaimed infallible Papacy the issue at stake, biblically speaking?

Cardinal Müller sees the problem, but his solution is not better than it. First Things sees the problem but has no way to bring about a truly biblical reformation of the papacy. Seen from the outside, the battle between supporters and opposers of Pope Francis is of little significance if it does not lead to the recovery of the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone and to a radical re-orientation of the Roman Catholic Church.

158. The Annus Horribilis (Terrible Year) of the Roman Catholic Church

February 1st, 2019

Stable. Traditional. Consistent. For many this has been the image of the Roman Catholic Church. But that was ages ago. The present-day situation appears to be quite different: uncertain, scrutinized, wavering. The public image of the Roman Catholic Church now is that of a disrupted institution going through a season of internal turmoil. Here are few signs of the current crisis.

Annus Horribilis
In September 2016, four cardinals sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts). These questions gave voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community concerning the interpretation of key parts of Amoris Laetitia, the papal document that relaxes access to the sacraments by the divorced.

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 denunciation of doctrinal deviations.

At the end of July 2017, Father Thomas Weinandy, a 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”.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the last ten years, horrible things have come out: 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. Cases of abuse are also emerging from Argentina and involve people very close to the Pope.

What is the Problem?
What is happening in this Annus Horribilis undermines the moral, spiritual, and institutional credibility of Rome. Even though Pope Francis continues to cling to the idea that, while her children make mistakes, the church is indefectible (i.e. it does not err), the reality is that it is a failure of the whole system: its doctrines, practices, policies, and so on.

The abuse scandal is not the case of few isolated “black sheep”, nor can the internal turmoil be interpreted as a physiological discussion in a large community. There is something wrong within the culture and the structures of the church itself. Francis’ recent letter to the Catholic people (20 August 2018) called for repentance and envisaged stricter procedures for the recruitment of the clergy, the prevention of abuse, and the prosecution of abusers, which will be discussed at a meeting scheduled for 21-24 February 2019. More than 100 churchmen will represent every bishops’ conference. But is this enough?

The Pope is also suggesting that the main problem lies in “clericalism”, i.e. an attitude marked by self-referentiality and detachment from the people. In a clericalist culture, the clergy often stand above and aloof from their flocks, thus creating the conditions for unchecked power to become abusive. In Francis’ words, it is “a perversion of the church”. As true as this might be, is only clericalism to blame?

Is the Protection of Mary the Solution?
In the midst of this Annus Horribilis, Pope Francis has called his people to devote themselves to praying to Mary and to Saint Michael Archangel to ask for their protection. He invited “all the faithful, of all the world, to pray the Holy Rosary every day, during the entire Marian month of October, and thus to join in communion and in penitence, as the people of God, in asking the Holy Mother of God and Saint Michael Archangel to protect the Church from the devil, who always seeks to separate us from God and from each other.” The Pope asked the faithful to conclude the Rosary with the ancient invocation Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy patronage”) and with prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.

The full invocation “Sub tuum praesidium” is recited as follows:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer contains references to attributes and prerogatives that in the Bible are clearly and exclusively relegated to God, e.g. His protection, His acceptance of our petitions, His ability to deliver, and Him being glorious and blessed. And yet, this Marian prayer ascribes all of these functions to Mary and, in so doing, deviates the focus from the Triune God to Mary.

With this request for intercession, the Pope asked the faithful of all the world to pray that the Holy Mother of God place the church beneath her protective mantle, preserving her from the attacks by the devil. He also asked that the recitation of the Holy Rosary during the month of October conclude with the prayer written by Pope Leo XIII:

Saint Michael Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; may God rebuke him, we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl through the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

In the Pope’s view, Mary and  Saint Michael Archangel are the two defenders of the church in this Annus Horribilis. But are they really the ones to be invoked to receive help? Is this a biblically viable way forward?

Where is Rome going?
There is no doubt that Rome is going through difficult times. The institution that appeared strong and stable is now showing signs of serious weakness at various levels. The suggested diagnosis of the current crisis, i.e. the “black sheep” explanation and the evil of clericalism, seems to be self-protective and unwilling to engage the real issues at stake. The proposed cure to the problem, i.e. the invocation of Mary and the saints, is even more problematic. Both the diagnosis and the cure do not show any indication that radical biblical renewal is taking place in the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. The gospel is still obscured by centuries of unwillingness to expose the church to a time of doctrinal reformation and by scores of devotional practices that lead the faithful astray.

There might be movements and individuals here and there who are exploring what biblical faith really means. However, as far as the institution at its highest level is concerned, the current Annus Horribilis is a lost opportunity to rediscover the truth, the purity, and the healing power of the biblical gospel.