Tag Archives: Lund

131. Is Pope Francis Making the Catholic Church Protestant?

December 1st, 2016

The recent commemoration of the Reformation (Lund, Sweden, 31 October 2016) is only the tip of the iceberg in Pope Francis’s ecumenical efforts. His relentless activity in meeting with Christian leaders (from the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow to mainstream Protestant denominational leaders and several Pentecostal pastors) is a qualifying mark of his pontificate that is beginning to raise concerns inside the Catholic Church. His constant remarks about the need to speed the way towards unity appear to soften, if not downplay, the traditional conditions for such unity according to Rome. Some Catholic critics are worried that the Pope seems to spend more time with non-Catholics than with people of his own church. Especially after his recent appreciation of Martin Luther, in an interview given to the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire (summarized in English, too) the blunt question was asked: is the Pope making the Catholic Church Protestant?

In Step with Vatican II

Rejecting the view according to which commemorating the Protestant Reformation was an unwarranted “forward flight”, Pope Francis defended his actions by referring to Vatican II as the framework for his ecumenical initiatives. No surprise: Vatican II (1962-1965) sought to re-orientate the ecumenical direction of the Roman Catholic Church by recognizing signs of the true church in other communities and by calling non-Catholics “separated brethren”. One of the goals of the Council was to encourage full unity among Christian churches and communities, all reconciled with the theological outlook and ecclesiastical structures of the Roman church. Nothing new under the sun then. What Francis is doing in the sphere of ecumenism was all prepared by and previewed at Vatican II. Each one in his own way, John XXII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, have tried to implement the ecumenical thrust of the Council. Francis confirms to be the Pope who without necessarily quoting Vatican II at length, perhaps embodies its “spirit” more than his predecessors.

More specifically, Francis makes reference to the 50 year old dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutherans culminated in the 1999 Joint Declaration on justification signed under John Paul II under the leadership of then Cardinal Ratzinger. For Francis this document settles the main theological issues raised by the Reformation, paving the way for even fuller unity. After this landmark agreement, nothing of significance is left of the Reformation apart from regretful political attachments of self-referential churches that are entrenched in their past.

Parameters of Unity

The Pope rejects the idea that he is making his church more Protestant and appeals to Vatican II as the large theological canvas of which the Joint Declaration represents the new ecumenical fruit. He sees himself as standing in a long-term trajectory. Moreover, the fact that he approaches other Christian traditions and communities (e.g. the different bodies of Eastern Orthodoxy) with similar if not more intensive fervor indicates that he is not particularly attracted to Protestantism only. His ecumenical zeal goes even beyond the borders of Christianity and spills over to the world of religions and the secular world. He takes unity, i.e. Christian unity, as part of a larger goal that has to do with the unity of mankind.

Going back to the question about the Protestantization of the Catholic Church, there is a major argument running through Pope Francis’ assessment of the Reformation in the context of his ardent desire for unity. His interpretation of the history of the Reformation and its on-going significance de facto eliminates theology from the picture and replaces the driving force of unity with doing things together and praying together. In other words, Scripture alone (the Bible has supreme authority over the church), faith alone (salvation is a gift received by believing in Christ and trusting Him), and Christ alone (the whole Christian life is centered on Him) are nothing but relics of a distant past. According to the Pope, the Roman Catholic Church has already absorbed these concerns and those who want to continue to wave the Reformation flag are seen as wanting to continue a power game based on church politics. Is this really the case? Of course, the Reformation had political overtones. However, as the recent statement Is the Reformation Over? – signed by dozens of evangelical theologians and leaders worldwide – argues, “In all its varieties and at times conflicting tendencies, the Protestant Reformation was ultimately a call to (1) recover the authority of the Bible over the church and (2) appreciate afresh the fact that salvation comes to us through faith alone”. These are standing and unresolved issues in the present-day relationship between Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians. Church politics, although inextricably interwoven, was not the main reason and is not the main legacy of the Reformation.

With Pope Francis the Roman Catholic Church is not becoming Protestant. It is simply becoming more “catholic”, i.e. embracing and absorbing all, without losing its being “Roman”. It is still embedded in the theological and institutional outlook that the Protestant Reformation called to renewal according to the Gospel.

    131. After Lund, What Remains of the Protestant Reformation?

    November 9th, 2016

    While Pope Francis was taking part in the ecumenical events in Lund and Malmoe commemorating the Protestant Reformation, the giant screens in St. Peter’s square – the heart of the Roman Catholic Church – invited all to assemble around the statue of St. Peter to recite the Holy Rosary. Mere coincidence? Perhaps. It is striking, though, to notice that in Lund the intention was to bridge over the distance between Rome and the Protestant Reformation, while in Rome the clear indication was of a strong commitment to the Marian and Petrine marks of the Roman Church, that in modern times have been defined in light of all that the Reformation stood for. In assessing the ecumenical scene, the risk of looking at Lund without being aware of what happens in Rome is real. Yet both belong to the ecumenical landscape of our time.

    So, after Lund what remains of the Reformation? The document “Is the Reformation Over?”, signed by dozens of evangelical theologians and leaders around the world, clearly suggests that the Reformation is in fact not yet over. The question is open though. In a pointed article in First Things, for instance, Dale M. Coulter criticized the statement of being theologically outdated and typifying an unhelpful bunker mentality. According to him, the document “seeks to define Protestantism over against the Catholic Church out of a concern that evangelicals do not have a clear view of Catholic teaching”. In doing so, “It simultaneously sets forth a misguided view of sola scriptura as implying that tradition has no role to play in Protestant understandings of authority and interpretation, and a reductive view of Catholicism that extracts papal infallibility and Marian dogma out of the hierarchy of truths and the structure of Catholic teaching within which they fall”.

    The reality is that the document affirms that the main thrust of the Reformation was mainly theological and in essence centered on the recovery of the authority of Scripture and the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone. These two pillars of the Christian faith are its standing legacy after 500 years. This is the theologically positive thrust of the Reformation, both then and now. As a matter of fact, to be protestant does not primarily mean reacting against something but standing for something. In the XVI century pro-testare meant testifying to the truth of the gospel. The Reformation was a positive affirmation of what the church needs always to be reminded of: God’s written Word is the supreme norm for the whole of life, and salvation is a God-given gift from beginning to end. The word protestant, therefore, has a theologically positive tone. In this sense, all Christians need to be protestant, i.e. affirming, witnessing, and publicly heralding the gospel.

    With various degrees of theological consistency, the Reformation tried to define itself according to the teaching of Scripture. At least in principle, it was Scripture that determined what was acceptable and what was not acceptable in the Roman Catholic Church of the time. The Reformation did not pit the Bible against tradition in abstract terms, but being fully aware of the unavoidable role of tradition anchored it to the sure foundations of the Bible. For the Reformers sola Scriptura was an issue of authority, not of hermeneutics. They accepted tradition and practiced it insofar as it was under God’s written Word. This is its standing legacy. It is also the vantage point from which all churches and traditions ought to critically assess themselves in light of Scripture. That is, “Is the Reformation Over?” document does not attempt to defend the Protestant Reformation per se. Instead it simply seeks to re-affirm in our age the two main commitments which are integral to the Christian faith.

    The Council of Trent provided alternative accounts of the authority of Scripture and salvation by faith alone and condemned Protestant positions. The reverse was true as well. Protestant confessions condemned Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. Since then, however, much water has flown through the Tiber River. It is a given, though, that the three Roman Catholic modern dogmas (Mary’s immaculate conception, 1854, and bodily assumption, 1950, and papal infallibility, 1870) rest on tradition as their supreme authority, thus running the opposite direction than that of the Reformation. Tradition has become magisterial rather than ministerial.

    The post-Vatican II Roman Church, while being more open and nuanced (might we say more ambiguous?) towards biblical authority and salvation by faith alone, still retains a significantly different theological orientation from the classical understanding of Scripture and salvation of the Reformation. Dei Verbum (the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation) is a masterful exercise of theological aggiornamento according to the “both-and” pattern of Roman Catholicism at its best. Still, it’s not what the Reformation understood concerning Sola Scriptura. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), signed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans, comes close to what the Reformation stood for in recovering the good news of salvation as a Christ-given gift, but it tends to blur lines on significant points. As evangelical theologian Mike Reeves has shown, in JDDJ “the matter of the Reformation was not accurately addressed there, and still stands: are believers justified through faith in Christ alone, or is eternal life ‘at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits’?” This is why the Reformation is not over.

    “Is the Reformation Over?” is a statement characterized by a biblical “parrhesia”, i.e. the bold conviction deriving from being persuaded by the gospel truth which, after all, was recovered at the Reformation. The document reaffirms that on these two issues the Reformers were simply recovering the biblical gospel, and therefore so should we. After suggesting what was at stake during the Reformation and why it is still relevant, the last section of the document “looks ahead” towards better clarification and cooperation on the basis of the gospel, while recognizing the value of respectful and friendly dialogue and even cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church. Contrary to Coulter’s straw man, there is no bunker mentality in the statement, but instead a willingness to engage Roman Catholicism.

    Returning from Lund to Rome, pope Francis remarked in his in-flight interview that “In Catholic ecclesiology there are two dimensions to think about. The first is the Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter, and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops. The second is the Marian dimension, which represents the feminine dimension of the Church.” The Reformation, on the other hand, would recommend the biblical dimension, and that dimension alone as sufficient. In a nutshell this is why the Reformation is not yet over.