Three lessons from two recent episodes
This month I have taken part in two important occasions of dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians and officials. The first setting was a theological conference where Evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians discussed the doctrine of Scripture. The topics were “Is the Bible the Word of God?” and “How does the Bible shape our lives?” and were addressed in a lively conversation. The second setting was an official dialogue between the World Evangelical Alliance and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican department that develops relationships with non-Catholic Christians. The topic of this second consultation was “Scripture and tradition”, a long-standing issue since Reformation times.
I have observed our Catholic friends trying to learn from them. Here are the lessons that I found most intriguing. I think they well deserve to be digested by us Evangelicals.
Lesson 1: know your sources
In entering and dealing with theological conversation, the procedure of the Roman Catholic theologians was somewhat predictable. In terms of sources and basic theological framework they would start from the Second Vatican Council (in this case, Dei Verbum, the Vatican II constitution on the Word of God), then find some loose Biblical arguments and imagery in these magisterial teachings, referring then to more recent authoritative pronouncements by the Pope, or by a Pontifical Commission or by the 1992 Catechism. These theologians were all quite in line with the Roman hierarchy. Perhaps some fringe theologians would proceed in a different way, but as a matter of fact these representatives of the RC Church showed a degree of respectful familiarity with the foundational documents of their Church. They were able to quote from them and were steeped in them. The RC doctrines and traditions, its formulations, its complexities had forged them. They knew their sources.
As Evangelical theologians, how well do we know our sources? We presume we know the Bible, but what about the confessional heritage of Evangelicalism: its Patristic sources, its Reformation confessions, its Evangelical documents? How much are we at home in the homeland of the Protestant faith as we have received it? Can we grasp the doctrinal contours of our faith to the point of being able to show the biblical foundation, its doctrinal profile, its historical development and present-day outlook?
Lesson 2: carry your sources with you
The second lesson that I learned has to do with a practical habit with symbolic significance. They all carried with them a few items: the Enchiridion (i.e. a compendium of all basic texts of Catholic dogma and morality, otherwise known as Denzinger, its first editor in 1854), Vatican II texts and the collection of recent papal documents. Some also had the Bible. In approaching dialogue, they were all concerned to have the RC sources at their full disposal for quick reference and checking. It was a way for them to show that they were not improvising nor were they parroting, but that they were the living voices of a long tradition.
There is much to learn from this. Sometime we Evangelicals show a degree of superficiality in entering dialogue with RC theologians. They often perceive the Evangelical faith as if it were a vague spirituality without doctrinal content. Part of the problem is that we find it difficult to represent a living tradition subject to Scripture but aware of our background. When engaging in dialogue, I would suggest that we also need the Denzinger to make sure that we can refer to Post-apostolic and medieval pronouncements of the Church. Then we need to carry a volume of Protestant creeds and confessions of faith. Finally, I find indispensable the need to become familiar with at least two volumes:
- J.I. Packer – T.C. Oden, One Faith. The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006). A presentation of the Evangelical faith through quotations from the Berlin Statement (1966), the Lausanne Covenant (1974), the Amsterdam Affirmations (1983), the Manila Manifesto (1989), The Gospel of Jesus Christ: an evangelical celebration (1999), and the Amsterdam Declaration (2000). Getting acquaintance with these sources will show that the Evangelical faith is the Apostolic faith, not a modern religious spirituality.
- John Stott (ed.), Making Christ Known. Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement 1974-1989 (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997). Beginning with the Lausanne Covenant (1974) and ending with the Manila Manifesto (1989), this book include lots of “Lausanne Occasional Papers”. Absorbing these sources will show that our commitment to mission has deep theological roots, and is not just a child of an activist mentality.
Now that the Cape Town Commitment (2010) is also available, which Evangelical publishing house will accept the task of producing a book that includes all the major documents of present-day Evangelicalism? In Italy we have many needs as far as Evangelical books are concerned but we are privileged in another sense. We have in our hands the wonderful volume edited by Pietro Bolognesi, Dichiarazioni evangeliche. Il movimento evangelicale 1966-1996 (Bologna: EDB, 1997), with 38 Evangelical statements that was published by a RC publishing house in the same series of the papal documents! I wish that similar books would be produced in different languages.
Lesson 3: respect your sources
The final observation is about the general tone of these RC theologians. Originality did not appear to be their catchword, nor the search for creativity or relevance. Rather, their approach to theological dialogue with Evangelicals seemed marked by the awareness that the magisterium of the Church stands above them, asking them to defend it, to argue on its behalf, to listen to the interlocutor and to come close to him as much as possible, but not to the point of coming at odds with the received teaching. In trying to draft a joint-statement they attempted to find words and phrases that had already been used by RC documents or joint-statements with other confessional families.
As Evangelicals, we are less constrained by past renderings or formulations of our faith. Unlike Catholics, Scripture alone is our ultimate authority. Yet we need to come to terms with the fact that that our search for relevance or originality may become an idol if it is not governed by our primary desire to stay faithful to God’s Word and to respect those who have preceded us. It will be very unlikely that we come with a better version of what we already have. If that happens, we have to make sure that we know what our past and recent forefathers have already said before coming with our ideas.
Leonardo De Chirico
Rome, 26th September 2011
Is the Reformation over? is the title of a much discussed book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom that was published in 2005. The answer of the book was not “yes” or “no” but a sort of yes and no at the same time. According to the authors, Evangelicals and Roman Catholics can agree on two-thirds of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and their growing cooperation is a sign that relationships are not as polemical and bad as they used to be. Therefore their long-standing separation is no longer tenable. The answer is therefore open and the book witnesses a state of flux as far as the North American context is concerned.
Is the Reformation over? is also a question that will be on the Vatican agenda, especially the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in the next few years.
Towards a 2017 joint-statement on the Reformation
2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his 95 thesis on indulgences. Conventionally, 1517 is considered the official and public beginning of the Reformation. That event gave rise to the controversy with Rome that eventually caused Luther to be excommunicated by pope Leo X.
As part of the celebrations that will take place, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation are planning to issue a joint-statement on the Reformation with three main goals:
- Attaining a “shared memory” of what happened prior to the Reformation and after it, thus appreciating the common heritage of the first millennia and a half of Christian “unity” (at least in the West) and reconciling the conflicting narratives of 1517 and beyond.
- Reaching an “admission of guilt” from both sides for the respective mistakes and sins. The Vatican stresses the fact that John Paul II already asked forgiveness for Catholic responsibilities in the division of the Church.
- Re-launching the ecumenical initiative that, after the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification, has been losing momentum. As a matter of fact the Declaration did not have any significant impact on the ecumenical process and the Vatican is looking for another symbolic event to foster its ecumenical agenda.
The imminent visit of Benedict XVI to his native Germany (22-25 September 2011) will be the opportunity to raise expectations about the 2017 events and the related joint-statement. The Pope will visit the city of Erfurt where Luther studied philosophy between 1501 and 1505 and will meet there the representatives of the German Evangelical Church.
Remembering and fostering the Reformation: A few questions
All three goals of the joint-statement are positive in themselves. Yet they raise some questions because they run the risk of becoming absolute.
- There is much sentimentalism about the Church being undivided before the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation unity was as broken as it would become after it. The sober reality is that the apparent institutional unity was not and is not the guarantee of unity we find in the Gospel. The “shared memory” and “undivided past” need to be less mystical and more realistic, not only as far as history is concerned but also as far as the present and future of the Church are concerned.
- Openness to confess one’s own guilt is always a Christian attitude to be encouraged. Protestants have many sins to confess. Yet does it mean that questioning the authorities of the established church is always a sin? Is breaking ties with a pagan system a sin? Is using “open” language to denounce idolatry always a sin? Is proclaiming “here I stand” for the Gospel whatever the cost a sin? The danger is blurring the lines to the point of being unable to distinguish between the gospel and false gospels and to come to the point of saying: all are guilty, all are forgiven!
- The Joint Declaration on Justification has been a failure in many respects. On the one part, the Roman Catholic Church did not give the document any ecclesiological significance. It remained a ‘dogmatic’ statement without practical consequences. On the other, for some liberal Lutherans the Gospel is determined more by inclusiveness than justification by faith. For them the document did not really reflect the heart of the Gospel. Sooner or later inflated words deflate if they are not real. In themselves documents do not foster or hinder the ecumenical process. Will this also be the case for the proposed joint-statement on the Reformation?
The 2017 project is therefore ambitious and needs careful consideration. Yet the bottom line question is: with all the nuances considered and without unnecessary partisanship, was Luther fundamentally right or wrong according to the Gospel? The Reformation will be over only in two circumstances:
– if and when Luther will be judged wrong;
– if and when Luther’s basic witness to the Gospel will be the witness of the world-wide Church.
Till then, the Reformation is not over but continues to be an important agenda for the Church.
Leonardo De Chirico
 See my review of the book as appendix of this “Vatican file”. One of the last articles that discusses the book is by Scott M. Manetsch, “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations”, Themelios 36/2 (2011).
This review was published on Themelios 32/1 (2006) pp. 103-104.
Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic
Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005
272 pp., h/b., ISBN 1-84227-387-6
Roman Catholicism is a pressing issue on the agenda of contemporary Evangelical theology. A lot of things are happening in the relationship between Evangelicals and Catholics worldwide and many observers are perplexed and feel the need to reflect theologically on the changing scenario. This book comes mainly from a North-American context and traces the stunning developments that have taken place from the widespread anti-Catholic attitude of many Evangelicals until the Sixties and the growing convergence reflected in many bilateral dialogues between the Roman Church and different Protestant bodies from the late Sixties onward. The North-American Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative is just one of the instances of this historical shift. In light of the current situation, the authors ask themselves whether the Reformation is over and whether a new season of ecumenical rapprochement can be envisioned.
The strength of the book lies in the informative sketch it portrays. As for its theological significance, I have two main reservations.
First, while it surveys many similar initiatives, it does not discuss the only ongoing official dialogue between the Vatican and a self-defined Evangelical body like the World Evangelical Alliance (previously World Evangelical Fellowship). This dialogue was prepared in1988 and started in 1993, the proceedings of its first meetings have all been published and one wonders how a historian of the calibre of Mark Noll has overlooked it. Therefore, the picture offered in the book is not comprehensive enough because, while it suggests an “Evangelical assessment of contemporary Roman Catholicism”, it does not deal with a significant source of Evangelical theological engagement with Rome.
The second reservation has more to do with the theological analysis exemplified in the book. The authors recognise that they have produced “an impressionistic and rhetorical assessment” (229) waiting for an in-depth research. Their approach, however, reflects some weaknesses which can be found elsewhere in Evangelical writings on Roman Catholicism. In a useful chapter which highlights the contents of the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, the authors argue that “evangelicals can embrace at least two-thirds” of it (119), that is what stems from “common orthodoxy” based on the ancient Trinitarian and Christological creeds. Later, they admit that when the Catechism speaks of Christ, it interweaves Him to the Church to the point of making them one (147; 149), which is unacceptable for Evangelicals who consider the exaltation of a created reality an instance of idolatry. So, on the one hand, there is an apparent “common orthodoxy”; on the other, there is a profound difference on the meaning of its basic words (e.g. Christ, the church, etc.). The question to raise is how can it be said that Evangelicals can accept “two-thirds” of the Catechism if this document speaks of the (Roman Catholic) Church whenever it speaks of Christ, the Spirit and, by extension, the Trinity? Are we sure that the real difference between Evangelicals and Catholics lies in ecclesiology given that the Roman Catholic view of the church is argued for in Christological and Pneumatological terms? In dealing with Roman Catholicism, especially in times of mounting ecumenical pressure, Evangelical theology should attempt to go beyond the surface of theological statements and attempt to get a grip on the internal framework of reference of Roman Catholic theology. From there we should try to assess it from an Evangelical perspective. While the book has many merits in laying out the overall picture, it does not fully help Evangelicals to think about Roman theology as a complex, yet coherent system.
Contrary to the ambiguous answer given by Noll and Nystrom, the Reformation is as urgent as ever, for both Catholics and Evangelicals.
In the beginning there were rock concerts and the young people became the “youth”. At the end of the Sixties, the youth culture expressed itself through pop music and massive events. Woodstock (1969) epitomized such powerful trends in Western society. The youth became a social subject and youth events entered into history, influencing that generation and the next. How did religious movements react to the Woodstock culture? Evangelicals were quick to sniff out the change and immediately responded to it. Massive youth events received a boost in the USA (Urbana) and beginning in the late Seventies began to take place in Europe as well (Mission congresses). Then, as the cultural tide changed and the economic crisis took its toll, these youth events declined and stopped having the impact they had initially.
A slow start, a persistent project
The RC Church was less reactive to these changes in society. Being an institution led by older people, it generally needs more time to come to terms with what happens with the younger generations. John Paul II, however, introduced the idea of having World Youth Days to catch the imagination of the global youth and to find regular opportunities to convene massive events that would show the “youthful” face of the old institution. So, after a few introductory attempts in the early Eighties, the first big event was held in Buenos Aires (Argentina) in 1987 where hundreds of thousands of young people took part. The World Youth Day began and has taken place regularly ever since: Santiago de Compostela (1989), Czestochowa (1991), Denver (1993), Manila (1995), Paris (1997), Rome (2000), Toronto (2002), Cologne (2005), Sidney (2008) and now Madrid (2011). Slow to respond, the RC Church has nevertheless become the primary organizer of global youth events. Once on track, the power of the institution gives continuity to events that other religious movements have the tendency to play with for a time, but in the end are unable to give stability to.
The 26th World Youth Day (WYD) will take place in Madrid from August 16 to 21, 2011. The choice of Madrid is strictly related to the desire of Pope Benedict XVI to reclaim the soul of Europe as a “Christian” continent. Spain is a new frontier in the interface between traditional RC cultures and secularizing trends. Nearly a million young people are expected to participate at the WYD from all over the world, especially Europe. The program entails multiple sessions of catechism, vigils of prayer, calls to auricular confession, as well as selected art and music festivals. The star of the event will be pope Benedict himself who will celebrate the concluding open-air mass. Since John Paul II was the initiator of WYDs, after his recent beatification he has been proclaimed patron and protector of the event. A new edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has been prepared, having in mind the youth as the audience. It’s entitled YouCat and is a shorter and more youth-friendly version of the official text, with pictures, comics, all in an innovative format. 700.000 copies will be distributed to catch the attention of the young people.
What’s the WYD’s big idea?
While it is difficult to summarise the contours of the Woodstock culture, it is much easier to envisage the big idea behind the WYD. First, the RC Church is a large, welcoming home that is also a place for the young people. In it you can find fun, the Eucharist, music, friendship, devotion to Mary, community, etc. The Church provides all. The Church combines Middle Age practises and postmodern habits. Even the old popes, apparently so remote from the concerns of the youth, are young in spirit and trustworthy “fathers” to be listened to. Second, the RC never hides its vision, goal, and project. Sometimes, for the sake of contextualization or relevance, Evangelical initiatives loose gospel centeredness and become shallow events. Not so for the WYD. The RC vision in its fullness is crystal-clear from beginning to end. The highest hierarchy with all their traditional vestments will be there at centre stage. The traditional RC practices will be encouraged. The traditional teaching will resound. Youthful yes, but always Roman Catholic. WYD will not sell cheap Roman Catholicism.
Most likely not all the youth that go to Madrid will live out their faith in a coherent way, as they will be encouraged to do. Many will continue to nurture their pick-and-choose spirituality. This is not the main point, however. The young people will go back home with a solid impression of the power of the Church of Rome, a Church that has a youthful profile, offering spiritual engagement and cultural belonging to the new generation. Nowadays the RC Church seems to be the only religious agency in Europe and in the world that can attract a large number of people to youth events like this. The WYD is a highly symbolic event with long term implications. Do we grasp them?
Leonardo De Chirico
Rome, 9th July 2011
In the RC liturgical calendar, this time of the year is associated with the celebration of Corpus domini (body of the Lord). The second week after Pentecost, many RC parishes organize processions in the streets whereby the crowd walks behind the consecrated host that, according to RC doctrine, is the real body of Jesus Christ. The beginnings of this solemnity go back to the Middle Age and it revolves around two tenets: the need to take the body of Christ out into the city in order to show forth His presence, and the need to expose it to public adoration. The solemnity of Corpus domini is a microcosm of RC doctrine and practice. It is a spiritual and public event. It has aesthetic and liturgical overtones. It combines sacramental theology and folk religion. It mingles mystical and social aspects. It is traditional, yet still appealing in many parts of the world. It wants to be Christ-exalting, but in ways that many Christians find embarrassing, if not totally unbiblical. It is Roman Catholicism in a nutshell.
What is Eucharistic adoration?
Central to Corpus domini is the Eucharistic adoration. Here is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains it: “The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of it, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession” (n. 1378). After consecration, the host becomes the body of Christ and therefore His real presence is to be found in it and the faithful are to worship the transubstantiated host. Generally speaking, Eucharistic adoration takes place in church buildings whereby people bow down in prayer before the ostensory, but occasionally (as it is the case with Corpus domini) the same ostensory is taken out in procession and displayed publically. The whole logic is governed by a syllogism of the following type:
- Premise 1. Jesus Christ is to be adored.
- Premise 2. The consecrated host is the Body of Christ really present.
- Conclusion: Eucharistic adoration is commended.
The syllogism works fine if premises 1 and 2 are true. The problem is that, biblically speaking, Premise 1 needs to be qualified by adding “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). We are called to worship Jesus as He desires to be worshipped, and as His word teaches us to do. Premise 2 is discussed even in Protestant circles. What it means for Christ to be present in the Lord’s Supper is debated, but even a “realist” understanding of His presence should be qualified by the second commandment that tells us that God cannot be worshipped through images and objects (Exodus 20:4-6).
Adoration outside of Sola Scriptura
Eucharistic adoration, therefore, stems from the RC doctrine of the real presence of Jesus, which does not recognize Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) as its governing principle. Eucharistic adoration is just one of the examples (one may think at Mariology, papal infallibility, etc.) that mirrors the way RC dogma has developed historically. A partially true statement is coupled with an additional biblical statement that is unclear. The syllogistic conclusion is far from being Scriptural. The intention (in this case, the adoration of Jesus Christ) is commendable, yet the outcome contradicts it if tested by the standards of Scripture.
A special gift for Benedict XVI
This year’s solemnity of the Corpus domini week is characterized by a special event: on June 29, 1951, Joseph Ratzinger became a priest and this year marks the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. In order to celebrate, the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy (the Vatican department overseeing priests and deacons) has encouraged the 3,100 RC dioceses around the world to dedicate 60 hours of Eucharistic adoration each as a gift to Benedict XVI. The total amount of hours of Eucharistic adoration offered to the Pope will be 186,000. It is anticipated that Benedict XVI will be moved by such a gift that reflects so well many different strands found in RC, and reinforces his “affirmative” agenda of traditional RC.
Leonardo De Chirico
Rome, 1st July 2011
“The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” – famously and sarcastically asked comrade Stalin. The pope may not have many divisions, though historically he has had a small army of Swiss guards. Nonetheless the Pope and the Vatican are still a global player, whereas Stalin and his political project have disappeared from the global landscape. Never underestimate the resources of the Pope!
The Pope may not have military divisions but he has got numbers: people, movements, schools, charities, properties, etc, all over the world. Numbers count and counting numbers is not a theologically neutral thing. As the Biblical narratives on different censuses tell us, numbers are not just mere numbers, but have spiritual, ideological and programmatic overtones as well. Whether right or wrong, in our world one’s own claims are “weighed” numerically. Your credibility depends on how big a share you have, how many followers you have, or how many voters or customers you have. This is why the RC Church seeks to measure itself according to numerical standards. Numbers reflect and prove your power. In majority RC countries, numbers can be used to claim the “right” to maintain certain privileges over the whole nation. Moreover, numbers are very important when one considers the relationship between religious institutions and taxation systems. But what numbers are we talking about?
A trend marked by growth
Every year the RC Church publishes the Pontifical Yearbook which is a large volume containing all kinds of information about the world-wide church. The most recent Yearbook was published in 2011, but refers to 2009 and translates the reality of Roman Catholicism in a series of numbers, thus offering statistical insight into how many Catholics are in the world, where they are, what they do, etc.
The Yearbook gives an altogether different perspective than that of the public opinion in the West. Contrary to common perceptions that the RC is losing numbers and progressively shrinking, statistics reveal that the total number of baptized Catholics is actually increasing everywhere. In 2009 there were 1,181 billion Catholics, whereas the previous year there were 1,166 billion (+1,3% than 2008, i.e. 15 million people more). There is growth in Africa (1,8%), Oceania (1,5%), but also in Europe (1,3%), America (1,2%) and Asia (0,8%). These gross numbers are impressive and show that the rhetoric of the Catholic Church being at risk of implosion is at least one-sided and superficial.
After baptism then what?
These numbers and percentages, however, warrant a closer look. First, the growth rate indicates the people who have been baptized, mainly as infants. These numbers refer to people that are registered in the books of the parishes at the beginning of their life. They do not tell us if and how they are practicing their faith, what they believe, or what degree of connection they have with the church. For the RC Church, “once registered, always registered” is the rule, unless one asks to be removed from the registry (though it is not an easy process). Numbers speak of the quantity of those baptized, not the quality of their RC faith. While the Church keeps on having more and more people willing to have their children baptized (even in the West), it has the problem of catechizing them and making them practicing Catholics. It seems that after baptism a great chasm happens between the institution and the people and a “hidden exodus” takes place. This is exactly the reason why the Church has began talking about the “new evangelization”. It wants to regain those who have been baptized but are far away from the Church.
What about other religious pilgrimages?
Second, these numbers hide another important phenomenon. They do not report those who leave the RC Church for other religious pilgrimages. In many countries of the world, for instance, the growth of Evangelical churches does not have a bearing on RC statistics. Evangelical churches may grow but RC statistics remain untouched. Why? Because lots of “new converts” do not bother having their names removed from RC registries. Statistically, they stay Roman Catholics. So, RC numbers always increase because of birth rates, but never decrease due to religious migrations.
Let me tell you a little piece of autobiography. After birth I was baptized as a Roman Catholic and so I was registered accordingly in the books. When I was a child, though, my parents became followers of Jesus Christ and eventually, by God’s grace, I became a Christian too. After a few years I became a member of an Evangelical church and eventually a minister of that church. Statistically, however, I remained a Roman Catholic for my entire life until 2008. Why? Because I did not asked to be removed until then, and also because the RC Church in Italy did not have to comply to such requests until recently. The irony was that I have been a professing Evangelical for 40 years, yet an official Roman Catholic since I was born. Only a few years ago was I able to sort the contradiction out. The question is, how many millions of people were raised Catholic and then moved on in other religious directions, but are still Catholic in the Pontifical Yearbook?
Numbers tell a lot, but they also hide a lot. The RC Church is certainly the biggest organized religious institution in the world, and yet statistics give us just one piece of the puzzle. Even that piece needs theological discernment in order to be fully grasped.
Leonardo De Chirico
Rome, 16th June 2011