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.

129. Roman Catholic Theology after Vatican II: An Interview

October 1st, 2016

Excerpts of an interview published in Unio Cum Christo. International Journal of Reformed Theology and Life, Vol. 2, No. 2 (October 2016).

Since Martin Luther’s reformation, three major events in the life of the Roman Catholic Church have marked its reaction not only to Protestantism but also to developments in the modern culture: The Council of Trent (1545–1563), Vatican I (1869–1870), and most recently Vatican II (1962–1965). Whereas the first two are often considered as hardening the arteries of the church in their reaffirmation and defense of traditional doctrine, Vatican II is often seen as a renovation that makes the life blood of the Roman church flow swifter, opening a way to greater receptiveness to the world, bringing hope for a new ecumenical era with respect to Protestantism and openness to other religions. But since then, what has happened, and where is the Roman church headed?

1. How did Roman Catholic theology change in your country after Vatican II?

Vatican II brought significant changes in the theological landscape of Roman Catholicism. Catholic theology found itself pushed toward a season of aggiornamento (update). The retrieval of patristic influences introduced by the nouvelle théologie softened the rigidity of neo-Thomism as the main theological grid and nuanced many clear-cut boundaries that were prevalent before. Modern biblical criticism was introduced into biblical studies, thus blurring Rome’s previous commitment to a high view of biblical inspiration. After Vatican II, there has been practically no distinction between critical scholarship done by Catholic exegetes and that done by liberal Protestants in their study on Scripture. More broadly, after Vatican II, Roman Catholic theology connected with many modern trends like evolutionism, political theories, existentialism, feminism, and religious studies, all developed in a highly sophisticated “sacramental” way that is typical of Rome. Post–Vatican II Roman Catholic theology has become more “catholic” and diverse in the sense of being more open to anything, embracing all trends, and hospitable to all kinds of tendencies without losing its Roman institutional outlook. “Dialogue” seems to be its catchword: dialogue with religions, dialogue with other Christian traditions, dialogue with the sciences, dialogue with social trajectories, dialogue with the secular world…. We need to understand what dialogue means, though. I think it means expanding the boundaries, stretching the borders, rounding the edges, but not changing or moving the institutional center. Roman theology seems to reflect the catholicity project launched at Vatican II.

2. How has it continued to change, and what new directions do you note since the turn of the twenty-first century?

At times the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e., the former Inquisition) felt it right and necessary to warn about possible theological derailments. For example, the 2000 document Dominus Iesus reaffirmed the centrality of the role of the Roman Catholic Church in God’s salvific purposes, trying to silence dangerous moves towards universalism and relativism. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church tried to provide a comprehensive magisterial presentation of Catholic doctrine that would define and confirm the basic contours of Roman teaching in an age of much theological diversity and confusion. The catholicity of Rome does not mean that anything goes. It is always and organically related to the Roman center of the system. The former is at the service of the ever-expanding, universal scope of the catholic vision; the latter maintains the whole process connected to the sacramental, institutional, and political hardware of the Church.

With Pope Francis, a new development that can be seen is the increasing role of the “theology of the people,” a specific theological motif that has been shaping Latin American theology over the last few decades. It is a version of theology “from below.” Instead of jumping top-down from the official magisterium to the peripheries of the world, it makes the voices, concerns, and traditions of the “people” central for theology. This insistence on the “people” explains Francis’s endorsement of folk traditions and devotions, even ones that are idiosyncratic with regards to biblical teaching.

3. Are there signs of biblical renewal because of Bible reading by Roman Catholics?

After centuries of stigmatization if not prohibition of the use of Bible translations in the vernacular languages, the Bible is finally accessible to the people. Official documents are replete with Bible quotations. The present pope gives a short daily homily based on Scripture, focusing on a kind of sacramental-existential reading of it but often missing the redemptive flow of the Bible. There are some lay movements that encourage a spirituality that gives Scripture a significant role. The theological framework of Vatican II, though, while recognizing the importance of Scripture in the life of the Church, has placed it within the context of Tradition (capital T), which precedes and exceeds the Bible and which ultimately speaks through the magisterium of the Church. Besides these positive developments, post–Vatican II theology has increasingly aligned itself to a critical reading of the Bible: the last document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (“The Inspiration and the Truth of Sacred Scripture,” 2014) echoes the typical liberal skepticism on the reliability of the Old Testament stories, the miraculous nature of certain events, and the full inerrancy of the Bible, thus needing the magisterium to fill the vacuum with its authoritative teaching.

4. How is Pope Francis changing things now?

Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history. It is ironic that a pope who appears to be close to Evangelicals actually belongs to the religious order that was founded to fight Protestantism. The former soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1566) gathered a group of friends who called themselves The Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu), and eventually they were commissioned by the Pope to stop the spread of Protestantism. Their task was to imitate the strengths of Protestantism, that is, spiritual depth and intellectual brightness, but to use them as Catholic weapons against it. The Jesuit order provided the “alternative” catholic way to the Protestant faith. It comes as no surprise then that the first saint that Pope Francis proclaimed in 2013 was Pierre Favre (1506–1546), a first-generation French Jesuit with a “smiling face,” who more than others tried to look like a Protestant in order to drive people back to the Roman Church.

5. What can we expect from the Roman church in future?

In our fragmented and violent world, unity is one of the catchwords that many people are attracted to. Francis is strongly advocating for Christian unity and ultimately the unity of mankind. His passion for unity makes many Evangelicals think that he is the person who may achieve it. Francis developed his idea of ecumenism as a polyhedron, a geometric figure with different angles and lines. All different parts have their own peculiarity. It’s a figure that brings together unity and diversity.

Polyhedrons are fascinating figures, and Francis’s use of the image of a polyhedron is thought provoking. However, the problem for Christian unity lies primarily not in the metaphors used, but in the theological vision that nurtures it. The unity proposed by Francis still gravitates around the Roman Catholic Church and its distinct outlook, and not around the biblical Gospel that calls all Christians to conform to the mind of Christ.

Certainly, with Vatican II a different period began that needs to be understood. It is wrong to have a flattened or static view of Catholicism. On the other hand, Vatican II and Pope Francis, who is its most successful incarnation, are only the latest evolutionary step in a system that was born and developed with an “original sin” from which it has not yet been redeemed, but which instead has been consolidated. No ecumenical diplomacy will be able to change it, nor will even the addition of a new Evangelical offer to the traditional menu. The real new time, God willing, will be when Roman Catholicism breaks the imperial ecclesiological pattern and reforms its own catholicity, basing it no longer on its assimilation project, but on the basis of faithfulness to the gospel.

120. An Atonement-Free Mercy?

March 1st, 2016

Mercy is by far the most used word by Pope Francis. Actually, it is the interpretative key of his whole pontificate. A book on mercy by Cardinal Kasper was on Bergoglio’s bedside table when he was elected Pope, thus shaping his own personal reflections as he prepared to become pontiff. Mercy was the main rubric of the Synod of the Family when the Pope urged his church to apply less rigorously the “letter” of the teachings on sexuality and to listen more to the “spirit” of inclusion for those who live in various forms of irregular relationships. Mercy is the over-arching theme of the Jubilee Year which Francis indicted in order to offer a year-long display of mercy through the system of indulgences. It is not surprising, therefore, that mercy is also the main theme of his recent speeches where he expounds it and unfolds it. The last instance was the general audience given on February 3rd in Saint Peter’s square.[1]

Mercy and Justice

The vexed question of the relationship between mercy and justice is central to the Pope’s meditation. Here is how he sets the tone of it: “Sacred Scripture presents God to us as infinite mercy and as perfect justice. How do we reconcile the two?” There seems to be a contradiction between God’s mercy and God’s justice. One way of connecting mercy and justice is through “retributive justice” which “inflicts a penalty on the guilty party, according to the principle that each person must be given his or her due”. Justice is done when one receives what is owed to him. Francis makes reference to a couple of Bible verses that show retributive justice at work but he wants to challenge it. “This path does not lead to true justice because in reality it does not conquer evil, it merely checks it. Only by responding to it with good can evil be truly overcome”. The unnecessary implication here is that retributive justice never produces any good. Does it not?

There is a far better way of doing justice according to Francis. “It is a process that avoids recourse to the tribunal and allows the victim to face the culprit directly and invite him or her to conversion, helping the person to understand that they are doing evil, thus appealing to their conscience. And this is beautiful: after being persuaded that what was done was wrong, the heart opens to the forgiveness being offered to it. This is the way to resolve conflicts in the family, in the relationship between spouses or between parents and children, where the offended party loves the guilty one and wishes to save the bond that unites them”. According to the Pope, mercy achieves justice by avoiding tribunals, sentences, and prices to be paid. A whole chunk of what the Bible teaches on justice is chopped out and replaced by a merciful and atonement-less justice. Is it God’s justice though?

This is God’s paradigm of mercy, says Francis. “This is how God acts towards us sinners. The Lord continually offers us his pardon and helps us to accept it and to be aware of our wrong-doing so as to free us of it”. What is happening here? No reference is made to the cross, the penalty of sin that was paid there, the wonder of Jesus Christ being punished on our behalf, the need for repentance and conversion for those who believe. Mercy seems to relinquish the cross. The point is that biblical atonement is totally missing here and the resulting view of mercy and justice is severely flawed.

What About Atonement?

Unfortunately, this is a seriously faulty teaching. Atonement-free justice is one of the popular ways to re-imagine God’s dealings with sin which is practiced by significant trends in contemporary theology. All that sounds connected to punishment, in execution of a lawful sentence, objectively imparted, etc. is seen as belonging to an out-fashioned, patriarchal, legalistic understanding of justice that needs to be overcome by a merciful, restorative, loving extension of pardon. In other words, what contemporary theology seems to reject are the basics of covenant justice instituted by the covenant God of Scripture. This justice presents a righteous Father who is also love, who sent his Son, the God-man Jesus, to pay for sin in order to bring salvation. Fulfilling the Old Testament, Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Through His sacrifice, He is God’s provision for the forgiveness of sin.

Biblical justice has the cross of Christ at the center (1 Corinthians 1:23): Jesus Christ bore our sin on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). Mercy is possible not because tribunals and sentences are left out and made redundant by an all-embracing love. Mercy is accomplished and displayed exactly because justice was satisfied: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22). Not by us, but by our Substitute, Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for us (Romans 5:8). When Pope Francis speaks of mercy, is he missing this fundamental biblical truth?

119. Unity … on Which Foundation?

February 1st, 2016

Unity is one of the most used and perhaps abused words in the present-day Christian vocabulary. The problem is that while the word is the same, its meaning may differ significantly according to who is talking about it. Those who speak about unity may have the impression that they are talking about the same thing because they use the word “unity”, but the reality is that more careful attention is needed in order to avoid unpleasant pitfalls in understanding and communication. The Ecumenical Week of Prayer which takes place in the second half of January is always an opportunity to focus on the different views of Christian unity that are promoted on a global scale. The general message of the Week (which is endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches) is that unity is key for the present and future of Christian witness. Emotionally, this message is very powerful and attractive given the various forms of persecution that Christians suffer in many parts of the world and given the rampant attacks of secularism against Christian values. In the audience on January 20th Pope Francis also made reference to unity, urging Christians of all confessions “to grow in that unity which is greater than what divides us”.[1] Fair enough, but what kind of unity is he talking about?

Unity Based on Baptism

Commenting on First Peter, the Pope gave a telling insight of the foundation of this unity. Here are his words: “In his Letter, Saint Peter encourages the first Christians to acknowledge the great gift received in Baptism and to live in a way worthy of it. He tells them: ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’. This Week of Prayer invites us to reflect on, and bear witness to, our unity in Christ as God’s People. All the baptized, reborn to new life in Christ, are brothers and sisters, despite our divisions. Through Baptism we have been charged, as Saint Peter tells us, ‘to proclaim the mighty works of the one who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light’”.

This rather complex sentence about the foundation of the Christian life needs unpacking. The Pope makes several interesting points about unity here: 1. It is baptism that makes Christians one in Christ; 2. It is baptism that regenerates us; 3. It is baptism that makes us brothers and sisters; 4. It is baptism that commissions us to be witnesses of the mighty works of God. This is the standard Roman Catholic doctrine whereby the most significant turning point in human life happens at baptism, ordinarily administered to infants. Whatever one thinks about this theology of baptism, the implications for Christian unity can be readily outlined: all those who have been baptized are one in Christ. Therefore unity must be sought, lived out and celebrated with all those who have received the sacrament or ordinance of baptism.

Building Christian unity on baptism, however, brings several challenges at various levels. In my corner of the world (Italy), for example, a vast majority of people have been baptized and yet very few show any sign of regeneration or even appreciation of basic gospel truths. Many baptized people are as secular or pagan or indifferent or even against any reference to the gospel as their non-baptized, non-Christian fellow citizens. How can Christian unity and brotherhood be based on baptism, then, when in most cases the people who received it consider it a meaningless act and totally removed from their lives?

Unity Among Believers

More importantly, theologically speaking, unity needs a more biblical foundation than baptism in itself. Rather than being granted through baptism, unity is a gift given to believers in Jesus Christ. According to First Peter, unity is a privilege of those who, having being elected by the Father and sanctified by the Spirit, obey the Son Jesus Christ (1:1-2). They are born again (1:3) and saved (1:5), waiting for their heavenly inheritance (1:4). These are people to whom faith has been granted and is now tested (1:7). This people who responded in faith to God’s initiative are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. In other words, unity is a corollary of the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ which is granted to those who believe in Him.

When the Pope speaks about unity as based on baptism, he stands on the ecumenical mainstream consensus about unity. The ecumenical view of unity posits the foundation of unity in the sacrament of baptism. But this view is practically faltering and biblically wrong. There is a far better way to appreciate and to celebrate Christian unity. As the World Evangelical Alliance’s statement of faith argues, we believe “The unity of the Spirit of all true believers[2]. Unity is among believers in Christ. The Lausanne Covenant speaks of unity as it relates to those “who share the same biblical faith” (par. 7)[3], i.e. people who have made a public profession of their faith in the Jesus of the Bible. It is with fellow believers only that Christians can join in prayer asking God to help them “to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3).


116. After the Synod on the Family, What?

December 1st, 2015

Two sessions in two consecutive years (2014 and 2015). Two full months of intensive discussions among Catholic bishops gathered in Rome from around the world. Several controversies between conservative and progressive voices discussing the state of the family in today’s world and, more specifically, whether or not to admit divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. Now that the Synod is over and its Relatio Finalis (Final Report) was voted and released,[1] it is finally possible to ask the question: What was its outcome?

Letter Vs Spirit

The answer comes from the mouth of the Pope himself. At the end of the Synod he delivered a speech that provides his interpretation of the document. A closer look reveals that his approach to the text is actually an overall framework of his papacy. Referring to a language used by Paul (e.g. 2 Corinthians 3:6) and Origen (e.g. On First Principles 4,2,4), the Pope pitted the “letter” against the “spirit” of any given official teaching.[2] One the one hand, the “letter” of canon law is rigid and protective; on the other, the “spirit” of the same teaching needs to be elastic and embracing.

According to Pope Francis, there are those who want to defend the “letter” in the attempt to safeguard its purity and definitiveness. If this happens, the attitude towards those who are outside of its boundaries becomes harsh and judgmental to the point of excluding those who do not fit its criteria. This is why he urged his Church to implement the “spirit” of its traditional teaching in view of the fact that the church is for the whole of humanity. In theory, the “spirit” does not annul the “letter”, but practically it overcomes and eventually will supersede it.

Pitting the “letter” over against the “spirit” in this way has far-reaching consequences. In fact, distancing from the clear-cut “letter” and searching for the merciful “spirit” of traditional Catholic teaching seems to provide a fitting hermeneutic of the Pope’s attitude as a whole. This tension helps come to terms with what he has been saying and doing so far. The Pope seems to think that the “letter” is a straitjacket to the mission of the Church and needs to be replaced by the “spirit” of it.

Where is the “Spirit” Leading?

The “spirit” requires a big-tent approach that paves the way for developments. Applying this “Letter Vs Spirit” dialectic to the issues at stake at the Synod, it is not surprising to read Pope Francis encouraging his Church to address the divorced and remarried Catholics, not according to the sheer “letter” of their traditional exclusion from communion, but following the all-embracing “spirit” that will look for ways to include them on a case by case basis. Each confessor will have to decide, opening the possibility for different criteria to be used. The “letter” of the Report does not openly speak about readmitting them to communion, but the “spirit” of the Synod endorsed by the Pope does indicate that there must be a way to achieve this. The text is at least ambiguous and the “spirit” will eventually help to clarify it.

The final Report only contains recommendations but the final decisions will be made by the Pope himself in the form of an “exhortation”, i.e. a written papal document that becomes official teaching. Commenting on the outcomes of the Synod, the Italian senior journalist Eugenio Scalfari wrote that in a recent phone interview with the Pope, Francis told him, “The diverse opinion of the bishops is part of this modernity of the Church and of the diverse societies in which she operates, but the goal is the same, and for that which regards the admission of the divorced to the Sacraments, [it] confirms that this principle has been accepted by the Synod. This is bottom line result, the de facto appraisals are entrusted to the confessors, but at the end of faster or slower paths, all the divorced who ask will be admitted.”[3] According to this view, the “spirit” of a text may take time to become “letter”, but nonetheless indicates the way forward and the expectations of the process. It is true that the Vatican Press Office said that Scalfari’s report was not reliable,[4] but these alleged papal statements are completely in line with the “spirit” with which Francis understands the results of the Synod. Moreover, the same “spirit” exactly reflects the pastoral approach that Archbishop Bergoglio followed in Buenos Aires before becoming Pope when he applied very inclusive patterns of admission to communion. The way he is leading towards is the same way he is coming from.

Pope Francis is working hard to change the overall narrative of the Roman Catholic faith, wanting it to be marked by mercy and inclusivity at the expense of tradition and rules. The “Letter Vs Spirit” dialectic helps him to pursue his goal. Roman Catholicism has always played with this dialectic in order to account for its “development”: the development of doctrines, traditions and practices. Vatican II has been a monumental exercise of the “Spirit Vs Letter” tool. With its numerous ambiguities disseminated in the texts, it has given rise to an on-going debate between conservative letter-bound interpreters and progressive spirit-evoking voices. The Synod is the latest instance of this lively confrontation that is intrinsic to a complex system like Roman Catholicism. What is new is that, whereas the previous Pope was a defender of the “letter” of the magisterial heritage, Pope Francis advocates for the “spirit” of it. We will see which “developments” this “spirit” will lead to.

The Gospel in Italy. An Interview on The Gospel Coalition website

November 25th, 2015

by Ivan Mesa

The Gospel in Italy

Home of the pizza, battery, piano, espesso machine, barometer, typewriter, violin, and MP3, Italy is replete with interesting cultural history.

This peninsular country, nestled in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, became a nation-state in 1861 (with the establishment of a monarchy) until the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini during WWII. Since 1946 Italy has been a democratic republic and today boasts the fourth-largest national economy in Europe.

Almost twice the size of Georgia and slightly larger than Arizona, Italy has a population of 61 million—just a little less than France and the United Kingdom. Two sovereign nations exist within the Italy itself, including the Vatican. It should come as no surprise, then, that upwards 80 percent of its population identifies as Roman Catholic with a meager 1 percent identifying as evangelical.

Continuing our series highlighting how the gospel is at work in various countries, I reached out to Leonardo de Chirico, pastor of Breccia di Roma church in Rome and lecturer of historical theology at the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (IFED). A keen observer of the Roman Catholic Church, Chirico discusses the state of the church in Italy today, what it’s like to be an evangelical in Rome, recent Vatican intrigue, and more.

In a hundred words or less, how would you describe the state of church in Italy?

As the Protestant Reformation was suffocated in the 16th century by a powerful Roman Catholic church, the evangelical community in Italy has always been a tiny persecuted minority until the second half of the 20th century. Having learned to survive, churches are made of solid believers who nonetheless tend to be inward-focused and suspicious of others. However, these difficult conditions didn’t prevent the gospel from spreading, especially in the southern regions of the country. Evangelicals represent roughly 1 percent of Italy’s 61 million people. So the work ahead of us is massive.

What most encourages you about the evangelical church in your country?

The faithful evangelical witness of past generations in difficult circumstances is inspiring. The gradual growth of cooperative efforts—for instance, in advocating for religious freedom or mercy ministries—is also encouraging. There are more solid books being translated into Italian (e.g., authors like Don Carson, Tim Keller, John Piper, John MacArthur, Mark Dever), and conferences and training initiatives are available for the Italian public. Recently the Dictionary of Evangelical Theology, a 900-page volume with more than 600 entries, was edited by Italian theologians and had to be reprinted—something unthinkable even a few years ago. There are 120 students following a non-residential five-year course in Reformed theology at the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (IFED); this is also encouraging.

In the past, Italian theologians have significantly contributed to the cause of the gospel worldwide: I think of Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562), peer to John Calvin and Heinrich Bullinger, whose Loci Communes (Common Places) were standard works for generations of Protestant pastors. I think of Francis Turretin (1623–1687), whose Institutes of Elenctic Theology is a crown of Reformed orthodoxy that served as the theology textbook at old Princeton Seminary. So while there’s still much to be translated, I’m convinced of the need for Italians themselves to write and develop contextually appropriate resources.

There’s also a growing desire to see a shift from the survival mentality of the past to a missional mindset for the glory of God and the good of the nation. Without negating our struggles and problems, there is a sense of a coming momentum for the gospel. Efforts to help the Italian church from abroad have largely tended to either bypass national Italian church leadership or support autonomous individuals. I think we are becoming more credible partners to work with in promoting the gospel in our country.

What are the biggest challenges facing the evangelical church in Italy?

As my senior colleague at IFED Pietro Bolognesi rightly argues, we have three main challenges: (1) identity, (2) unity, and (3) training. In a struggling minority situation, Christian identity has been largely defined not by who we are but by who we are not (e.g., not religiously Roman Catholic, not theologically liberal, not culturally secular). The overall perception has been that evangelicals are a cult. There is a need, then, to better grasp our evangelical identity based on core gospel essentials rather than on subcultural features.

Then there’s unity. Secondary distinctives have produced too much fragmentation. We need to do together what’s biblically possible, knowing that most of the challenges ahead of us (e.g., public witness, church planting, quality training) cannot be faced on a local level alone.

Lastly there’s training. In struggling and small churches, formation haven’t been viewed as a priority. Most leaders are self-taught and self-trained. Cultural engagement is often shallow. The situation won’t improve if leaders don’t emerge who are better equipped for ministry and if we don’t have Christians better prepared for how to be faithful and missional in their vocations.

A few years ago TGC published two pieces by Italian ministers. While one bemoaned the scarcity of spiritual leaders, the other lamented the shortage of Italian exegetes. In one sense, they were calling for the same thing: faithful, qualified, and able ministers of the Word of God. Would you agree with their take? Would you add anything?

They certainly describe a real need. God’s church exists where God’s Word is faithfully preached. We need preachers who aren’t only exegetes but also men of the Word to raise the profile of Christian ministry in the country. We also need churches prepared to move beyond extreme independence and develop the ability to operate in networks. We also need to nurture a vision for gospel impact on the whole country, not just maintenance of our own little tribes. Our dream should be to see God grant a time of biblical reformation that boldly confronts the idolatry of the nation.

For many years you’ve maintained a blog titled the Vatican Files (also appearing on Reformation21) where you write on the Vatican and Roman Catholic issues from an evangelical perspective. How did this begin? And what has the response been over the years?

As a theologian living in Rome I thought one way I could serve and contribute to the efforts of the global church would be to provide ongoing reports and assessments of Roman Catholicism. The allure and appeal of unity with Rome is as enticing as ever. Yet the need is to understand Roman Catholicism as a system governed by spurious principles such as optimistic anthropology, synergistic salvation, abnormal ecclesiology, and ambiguous church-state identity which lies at the heart of the church. The Vatican Files are tools designed to help grasp the theological system binding the whole of Roman Catholicism—and it attempts to go beyond simplistic and superficial understandings of it. I’ve received encouraging feedback from around the world saying the Vatican Files are useful. Today, the contribution that Italian theology can make to the global evangelical family perhaps lies in helping it to frame a biblically robust assessment of Roman Catholicism. More than ever this is at the top of the list of the global evangelical agenda.

Various reports indicate that a conservative dissent has been brewing in the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy as Pope Francis has sought, contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine, to grant divorced and remarried Catholics entrance both to the Church and to communion. As an evangelical in Rome, what’s your take?

Pope Francis is working hard to change the overall narrative of the Roman Catholic faith, wanting it to be marked by mercy and inclusivity instead of tradition and rules. He’s pitting the “letter” against the “spirit” of Roman Catholicism, pushing the latter over the former. This explains the concerns of certain traditional quarters about ambiguities in his language, also present in the final document of the recent Synod on the family.

Pope Francis wants to overcome the letter of canon law with a merciful spirit that welcomes all without challeging anyone. This is why he’s so loved by secular people. Everyone feels affirmed and no one feels questioned by what he says. But the biblical good news is that Jesus has come to pay for our sins and calls all persons to repent and believe. If you miss one bit of the gospel, you miss it all. The Pope uses language that resembles the gospel, but the meaning of what he says is far from it.

How can we pray for the evangelical church in Italy?

Please pray for:

  • a growing appreciation for gospel centrality in all we are and do;
  • a stronger sense of being part of the historical and global church of Jesus Christ;
  • a deeper sense of unity based on gospel truth;
  • a new enthusiasm in church planting and evangelism, especially in urban centers;
  • a support of training initiatives that are biblically sound and culturally relevant;
  • a peer-to-peer gospel partnership between the Italian church and the global church wanting to help us; and
  • a renewed gospel-centered engagement of society that addresses the bankruptcy of both religious and secular illusions in the hope God will move powerfully in the country.


Webinar with Leonardo De Chirico: The Theological Vision of Pope Francis

17 Nov 2015, 18:00 (London Time)

Pope Francis seems to be an easy character to come to terms with. Frugal, transparent, down-to-earth, he is one of the most popular public figures around the globe. What about the theological vision that permeates his papacy?

In order to have a glimpse inside of Francis’ spiritual horizon, one needs to take his Jesuit identity into account. In spite of the kind manners of the man, a certain anti-protestant attitude lingers in the Pope’s mind and heart, especially as far as Luther, Calvin and the Puritans are concerned. Although he does not seem pushing a dogmatic outlook of Roman Catholicism as his precedessor, he nonetheless has his own “dogmatic certainties” and they are not what one may expect them to be. The insistence on one’s own conscience and the pervasiveness of God’s grace in it is paramount to approach his overall view of the relationship between God and human life. This explains why so many secular people resonate with what he is saying. They don’t feel challenged but affirmed.

Furthermore, his insistence on “mission” needs to be grasped within the whole of his theological framework. The use of the same word by other Christians does not necessarily imply the same meaning. Mission is the outworking of Francis’ program and fits his own personal interpretation of the papacy. Since catholicity is what Roman Catholicism stems from and look for, Francis’ version of catholicity is perhaps the most significant mark of his papacy.

Date & Time:
17 Nov 2015, 18:00 (London Time)
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Leonardo De Chirico is the pastor of Breccia di Roma, a church that he helped plant in Rome in 2009. Previously, Leonardo planted and pastored an evangelical church in Ferrara, Italy, from 1997 to 2009. He earned degrees in History (University of Bologna), Theology (ETCW, Bridgend, Wales) and Bioethics (University of Padova). His PhD is from King’s College (London); it was published as Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism. In 2015, he published A Christian Pocket Guide to Papacy through Christian Focus. He is a lecturer of Historical Theology at Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione in Padova, Italy. Additionally, Leonardo is the Director of the Reformanda Initiative, which aims to equip evangelical leaders to better understand and engage with Roman Catholicism, and the leader of the Rome Scholars Network (RSN).

113. What Do You Think About Pope Francis?

September 24th, 2015

By Leonardo De Chirico and Greg Pritchard

Pope Francis in one of the most liked leaders in today’s world. In 2014 Time Magazine voted him ‘Man of the year,’ and his popularity is on the increase, especially outside of the Catholic Church. In secular circles, including left-wing thinkers and LGBT movements, many seem to resonate with his apparent approachability and simplicity. With his insistence on mercy, love and tenderness, Francis likes to make his message simple, inclusive and non-judgmental.

Evangelicals are not immune to Francis’s charm and kindness: many are attracted by his seemingly biblical language (e.g. conversion, mission, personal relationship with Jesus) and his less formal type of spirituality. This is just one side of the coin, however. Other descriptions of Francis depict him as a “chess player” due to his Jesuit ability to maneuver in unpredictable ways after establishing a personal relationship with people. Others still consider him a “liberal” due to his apparently universalistic views of salvation for all men in spite of their religion or lack of it. Still others think he is an “anti-capitalist” due to his harsh comments on free-market economies. The overall picture is therefore one of complexity.  Wherever you land in your opinion of him, here are five traits essential to understanding Pope Francis.

Francis is a very gifted politician 

A priest does not climb up the ladder of the Roman Catholic hierarchy and become Pope without having profound political gifts. Francis shares uncanny similarities to President Obama, another extraordinarily talented politician.  Obama and Francis both emerged onto the public stage with charm and an amazing ability to communicate.  They understand their respective audiences and winsomely communicate their message. They both exude a star power that is magnetic and draws people to them.

There are two important aspects of their common political gift; empathetic listening and reflective communication.

We see Obama’s ability to sympathetically listen to those of vastly different opinions when he was elected President of the Harvard Law Review.  In a revealing article by Jodi Kantor in the New York Times, before he became a candidate for the U.S. presidency, Obama’s relational political style was described in some detail.  The context is important: Harvard Law School at that time was a hotbed of political conflict.  Bradford Berenson, a future associate White House counsel in the Bush administration and classmate of Obama explained: “I have worked in the Supreme Court and the White House and I never saw politics as bitter as at Harvard Law Review in the early ’90s.”

Kantor talked to dozens of Obama’s classmates and summarized that they “could not remember his specific views” and that even his closest friends didn’t “know exactly where he stood.” What everyone did remember was Obama’s extraordinary ability to listen to them and make them feel understood.  Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.”  Obama had a surprising ability to connect to the belligerent factions at Harvard Law School and not show his own cards: “People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Obama’s words.” In the midst of one political dustup, Obama calmed the waters and “students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side.” One classmate remembering the incident commented: “Everyone was nodding, Oh he agrees with me”. [1]

Today many evangelicals are experiencing Pope Francis in a similar way: “Oh, he agrees with me.”  Hundreds of Evangelical leaders are coming to Rome on a pilgrimage to meet this highly relational Pope.  They experience a Pope who is listening to them and who sounds like them. One Pentecostal evangelist gave the Pope a “high five.” An evangelical President of one organization described his two visits to Rome to a small group of evangelical CEOs, “Our world view needs to change.  We need to rapidly change our world view.  This pope apologized at a Protestant church.  No pope has ever gone out of the Vatican and gone to a Protestant church.  He is saying join hands.”  After talking to Francis, one major evangelical theologian was naive enough to question whether Francis even believed in the category of a Roman Catholic Pope.  Evangelical leaders are experiencing the magnetic presence and listening ear of a relationally warm, but gifted and canny politician, who is giving them “the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.”

We see the second element of Obama’s and Francis’s political gift in their common style of communicating; they identify with their audience and therein cause their audience to identify with them.   Obama, in the prologue to his autobiography explains the result of this style “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”  When Obama was emerging as a national candidate, this skill served him well.  When he was considering becoming a candidate for the presidency, his closest advisors recommended that he run before he had a detailed Senate voting track record while he could most profitably use his blank screen magnetism.[2]  At this moment the same can be said of Francis: He is charming, deflects old ways of thinking, and like the most gifted of politicians, has created “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”

Francis is a Jesuit with an Anti-Protestant Slant

Francis is the first Jesuit Pope in history. It is sort of an irony to think that a pope who appears to be close to Evangelicals actually belongs to the religious order that was founded to fight Protestantism. The former soldier Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1566) gathered a group of friends who called themselves The Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu) and eventually they were commissioned by the Pope to stop the spread of Protestantism. Their task was to imitate the strengths of Protestantism, i.e. spiritual depth and intellectual brightness, but to use them as catholic weapons against it. The Jesuit order provided the “alternative” catholic way to the Protestant faith. It comes as no surprise then that the first saint that Pope Francis proclaimed in 2013 was Pierre Favre (1506-1546), a French first generation Jesuit with a “smiling face” who more than others tried to look like a Protestant in order to drive people back to the Roman Church.

Furthermore, the Jesuit side of Pope Francis is clear enough given his published (and never retracted) opinion that Luther and Calvin destroyed man, poisoned society, and ruined the church! In his 1985 lecture on the history of the Jesuit order, he gave severe evaluations of Luther (a “heretic”), and especially of Calvin (a “heretic” and “schismatic”) bringing about the “Calvinist squalor” in society, in the church, and in man’s heart. According to that lecture, Protestantism lies at the root of all evils in the modern West. The fact that this lecture was republished unchanged in 2013 in Spanish and translated in 2014 into Italian with his permission, but without a mitigating word of explanation, indicates that this assessment still lingers in the Pope’s heart and mind. He recently added a harsh comment on the Puritans, falsely associating them with a bigoted and merciless form of Christianity. This friendly Pope to Evangelicals is a Jesuit whose entire mission of order is to defend the Roman Church against Protestantism. Certainly Francis is a smiling Jesuit, but the anti-Protestant still beats in his heart.

Francis is Selectively Radical

The third trait addresses Francis’ radicalism. In a recent book Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2015) Cardinal Walter Kasper argues that Francis is not a liberal but a radical in the etymological sense of the Latin word “radix,” meaning root or originating principle. According to Kasper, the Pope is challenging the Church to be radical in the sense of re-discovering the roots of the Gospel which are joy, mission, frugality, solidarity with the poor, freedom from legalism, and collegiality.

Kasper’s reading of Francis is clever and insightful. It encourages us to move beyond the usual polarizations between “liberals” and “conservatives” within the Church by introducing a third category, that of “radicals.”

Francis appears to be radical on certain issues, but much less so with others. He is radical on poverty, but silent on the massive financial power of his Church. He seems to be radical on mercy, but never mentions original sin and divine judgment over all sinners outside of Christ. He is radical in advocating for simplicity, but keeps the expansive apparatus of an empire of which he is the head. He is radical in denouncing the tragedies of unethical capitalism, but seems to be much less outspoken towards the immoral deviations of one’s personal sexual life. In other words, his radicalism is somewhat selective. Radical in one area, much less so in another.

In a certain sense, “liberals” are radical on social issues, while “conservatives” are radical on doctrinal issues. Everyone is radical in some sense. There are different shades of radicalism. Francis’ radicalism is much closer to the liberal version than the conservative one. Therefore, playing a bit with words, the question is whether or not his radicalism is radically different from a more liberal tendency. Historically speaking, the root of theological liberalism lies in the preference given to religious feelings over doctrinal expressions. And this is exactly what the Pope seems also fond of doing. If mercy and tenderness describe the overall message of Francis, they sound more like liberal catchwords than traditional ones.

Francis is a Latin American

Francis comes from Latin America where, where over the course of the 20th century, Roman Catholicism lost its religious monopoly, and a full 19% of the continent is now Protestant. The traditional Latin American Roman Catholic response to the numerical growth of Evangelicals has been labeling them as “sects” and “cults,” but this derogatory approach did not stop millions of people from leaving the Catholic Church to join various evangelical churches. The risk of losing the continent has caused the Catholic Church to do something it has never done before, to choose a non-European as Pope, to choose a Latin American as Pope.

Now the Pope himself is directly involved in rescuing the continent, strengthening the Roman Catholic Church and reaching out to evangelicals from the Vatican.  His visits to Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay within the first two years of his papacy are an indication of the importance of this task in his agenda.

Secondly the influence of Latin America on Francis is visible in his focus on the poor.  Latin American was the home of Liberation Theology with its Marxist categories and condemnation of capitalism.  Yet even those Latin American Christian leaders who rejected the Marxist analysis, which is embedded in a full blown Liberation Theology, still have often prioritized the poor in their theological thinking and emphasized those passages of scripture which reflect this concern.  Francis’ condemnation of Capitalism’s evils has surprised many in the west, but shouldn’t, if one understands Francis’ cultural roots.

Francis is an ecumenical leader

Francis is the most ecumenical pope ever.  Francis, before his election to the papacy, built relationships with evangelical leaders, attended evangelical conferences in his home country, and regularly visited a Youth with a Mission prayer center for personal prayer.  Since he became Pope, Francis has gone to an Italian Pentecostal church and apologized for how Roman Catholics have persecuted Pentecostals and welcomed hundreds upon hundreds of evangelical leaders to the Vatican.  What is behind Francis’ extraordinary openness and warmth toward evangelicals?

We find the answer in a fascinating article in the Catholic Herald “The Pope’s great Evangelical gamble”.[3]

“Somewhere in Pope Francis’s office is a document that could alter the course of Christian history. It declares an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals and says the two traditions are now ‘united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel’. The Holy Father is thinking of signing the text in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, alongside Evangelical leaders”.

The author explains that the Pope believes that “the Reformation is already over” because the Lutheran World Federation and Vatican’s “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” was signed in 1999.  In a video recording shown at an evangelical pastors conference in Texas, Francis said, “Brothers and sisters, Luther’s protest is over.”

What is going on here?

The last two Popes, John Paul and Benedict, in response to the 1999 statement, did not announce that the Reformation is over.  Benedict, while still leading the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, issued a second official Vatican statement which explained that the Joint statement was inadequate and listed a number of serious differences between the historic Lutheran position and the Roman Catholic position.   In short, Benedict explained that the Council of Trent, which condemned protestant / evangelical central convictions as anathema, was still in force.

But Francis is a different kind of Pope.  He is not a high powered theologian confronting relativism or clarifying doctrine like a Benedict or a philosopher theologian like John Paul II whose Vatican produced the Roman Catholic Catechism.  Francis is sincere, kind and loving.  But he is a committed Roman Catholic ecumenical leader, and most importantly, he is doing evangelism in the same way Roman Catholics have evangelized through-out their history.  Roman Catholics have extended their influence by absorbing movements, converting kings and using physical force. This last method is no longer a widespread strategy of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, Francis has apologized for how Roman Catholics have persecuted Pentecostals, indigenous native groups, Waldensians, etc.

But the Roman Catholic evangelistic methods of absorbing movements and converting kings are both being actively used by Francis in his present PR campaign toward evangelicals.  For example, Roman Catholicism did not reject the Charismatic movement but absorbed it and a new sort of Catholic was created, a “charismatic Catholic.”  The Roman Catholic method of absorption is now focused on evangelicalism, seeking to dismiss the differences and emphasize the shared beliefs.  Or as the Catholic Herald describes it “The Pope’s great Evangelical Gamble” is Francis’s attempt to “declare an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals.”  Francis is seeking to establish a new sort of Catholic, an “evangelical Catholic.”

The first step toward this broader absorption is the conversion of kings.  Over the previous two millennia the Catholic Church has historically extended its influence was by means of converting the kings and queens of political power, and within a generation or two, their kingdoms.  This same method is being used today to convert kings of influence.  Although a flood of Roman Catholics are becoming evangelicals, there is a trickle of evangelical leaders (kings of influence) converting to Roman Catholicism.

The importance of this should not be underestimated.  Evangelicalism is easily the fastest-growing Christian movement in the last century.  According to Oxford Press’s World Christian Encyclopedia, the Roman Catholic Church stagnated with only 6% growth over a century, while evangelicalism grew 20 times as fast with 122% growth as a percentage of the world’s population.  The Roman Catholic leaders are aware that millions of Roman Catholics each year are converting to evangelical churches all across the world.  When Benedict was still Pope, he gave a lecture in his home country of Germany and expressed confusion of how to respond to the enormous growth of the global evangelical church.

“The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss…This worldwide phenomenon- that bishops from all over the world are constantly telling me about- poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?”[4]

But while Benedict seemed confused, Francis is bringing evangelicals close and saying we are the same and the Reformation is over.  Francis is not confused or “at a loss” but knows exactly what he is about.

The Siren Call of Unity

In our fragmented and violent world, unity is one of the catchwords that many people are attracted to. Francis is strongly advocating for Christian unity and ultimately the unity of mankind. His passion for unity makes many Evangelicals think that he is the person who may achieve it. Francis developed his idea of ecumenism as a polyhedron. The polyhedron is a geometric figure with different angles and lines. All different parts have their own peculiarity. It’s a figure that brings together unity and diversity.

Where does this view of unity come from? In pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic ecumenism other Christians were drastically invited to “come back” into the Catholic fold and to conform to its doctrines and practices under the rule of the Pope. With Vatican II (1962-1965), Roman Catholicism updated its ecumenical project and embraced a concentric circle type of unity in which the one and only Church “subsists in” the Roman Catholic church and other churches and communities gravitate around this center according to their degree of nearness or distance from it. According to Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teachings, Christian unity is threefold:

1. professing the same faith,

2. celebrating the same Eucharist (i.e. the Roman Catholic way), and

3. being united under the same sacramental ministry in apostolic succession (i.e. under the Pope).

How does the polyhedron kind of unity as advocated by Pope Francis fit with this post Vatican II view of unity? For example, as far as the second mark of unity is concerned, is the Pope saying that the sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist and the theology of transubstantiation belong at the center of Christian unity, or are they particulars that can accommodate differences? Or is the Pope saying that apostolic succession, which is the basis of the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, is still part of the center, or is it a variable that is secondary to Christian unity?

Polyhedrons are fascinating figures and Francis’ use of the image of a polyhedron is thought-provoking. However, the problem for Christian unity does not primarily lie in the metaphors used, but in the theological vision that nurtures it. If the Catholic Eucharist and the Catholic sacramental system are part of the center of Christian unity, one can make reference to spheres or polyhedrons all he likes, but the substance of the problem still remains.  The unity proposed by Francis still gravitates around the Roman Catholic Church and its distinct outlook, and not around the biblical Gospel that calls all Christians to conform to the mind of Christ.

Conclusion:  How Should Evangelicals Respond to Francis?

An increasing number of Evangelicals say: “I like this pope, he talks about Jesus a lot…” True, Francis knows the language that Evangelicals use (e.g. “conversion”, “mission”, “personal relationship with Jesus”) and is able to articulate it in a winsome way.

The basic rules of interpretation, however, tell us that using the same words does not necessarily mean saying the same things. It is important to understand what Francis means by the words he uses. As already pointed out, in order to understand Francis’ vocabulary one needs to come to terms with Vatican II. This important Council fudged the theological meaning of important key words in order for the Catholic project to be implemented. In his language, for instance, conversion does not mean (what evangelicals mean) turning away from sin to grace, from judgment to pardon, from a state of reprobation to being saved. For Francis, conversion means coming closer to Christ on the assumption that everyone is already in the sphere of his saving grace, though at different distances.

In Francis’ view, all those who follow their consciences are right with God. They may want to convert, i.e. come closer and experience a deeper measure of grace. Moreover, Francis believes that Muslims are brothers and sisters who pray to the same God as Christians do. For them conversion may mean getting deeper in their religious commitments but not necessarily turning away from Islam and embracing faith in Jesus Christ alone. The word “conversion” is the same, but the theological meaning is hugely different.

Take “mission” as another example. In Francis’ vocabulary, mission does not mean going out in the world to proclaim the gospel of salvation in Jesus. It rather means calling people to come closer to the salvation that all people already are part of by being human though in different degrees. For Francis there is no “in or out” sense in this understanding of mission. The whole of humankind is already “in” a state of grace: mission is the task of calling people to engage it deeper, not to call them “in”. They are already “in”. Here again, words are the same but their meaning is vastly different.

Evangelicals have to do their homework in order to go beyond the surface of mere phonetics in order to grasp the profoundly different theological vision underpinning Francis’ language. They may find it surprising how far Francis is from the standard evangelical understanding of the biblical Gospel.

Moreover, in talking about unity, Francis is open to all, be they Christians or non-Christians, religious or secular people. He calls Muslims brothers and sisters. He prays with them saying that they are praying to the same God.  To secular people he says to follow their conscience and they will be fine. Evangelicals are just one piece in his vision. Unity like a polyhedron, means that according to Francis, there are different ways to relate to the Catholic Church, but Rome maintains central stage.

Francis may use similar language, be a nice person, and be passionate about unity. But he is still the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Church, while not being static, nor a monolithic reality, does not really change in its fundamental commitments. It expands itself but does not purify itself. It embraces new trends and practices but does not expel unbiblical ones. It grows but it does not reform itself according to gospel standards.

“What do you think about Pope Francis?” is a pointed question for Evangelicals especially. They seem to be the target of Pope Francis’ efforts towards friendship, reconciliation and unity. Befriending Evangelicals by talking and behaving like them may be a Jesuit way to convert evangelical kings of influence and absorb the Evangelical movement, the fastest growing portion of the Christian world. This is why it is vitally important for evangelicals to know who Pope Francis really is.

Leonardo De Chirico, PhD King’s College, is Lecturer of Historical Theology at Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione, Padova (Italy); pastor, Breccia di Roma, Rome; Director of the Reformanda Initiative and the Rome Scholars Network, author, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman and A Christian Pocket Guide to the Papacy. He blogs on Roman Catholic issues from an Evangelical perspective at www.vaticanfiles.org  

Gregory A. Pritchard, PhD Northwestern University, is President of the Forum of Christian Leaders, Director of the European Leadership Forum, author Willow Creek Seeker Service: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church


111. We Are Not Puritans, Are We?

August 1st, 2015

The Puritans do not generally enjoy good press. For most people the term Puritanism is synonymous with religious bigotry and judgmental moralism. This is especially true in Neo-Latin cultures where the word “Puritan” is normally associated with a derogatory caricature of Puritanism. In these contexts, Puritan is referred to as a kind of cerebral Christianity, overwhelmingly interested in outward and formal purity at the expense of human warmth and personal proximity. Pope Francis is no exception. On a recent occasion he made an impromptu reference to the Puritans. The term slipped out of his mouth as he was telling a story of a priest with a negative attitude.

What Are We, Puritans?

In delivering a meditation on priesthood to thousands of priests from around the world at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome on June 12th, the Pope recalled a priest who found it difficult to baptize the child of a single mother who had asked him to do so. The priest had opposed the idea because the woman was not married and the child had been born outside of marriage. The then Archbishop Bergoglio reacted with outrage and vehemently replied: “What are we, Puritans?” In his mind there was no better description of this hypocritical and arrogant approach than naming it “puritan”! Are we Puritans? Absolutely not! “Please” – the Pope went on in his meditation – “let’s not have a Church without Jesus and without mercy. Don’t scare the faithful people. When this happens, when the priest’s heart is bureaucratic and attached to the letter of the law, the Church, which is Mother, is transformed, for so many faithful into a stepmother. Please, make them feel that the Church is always Mother”.[1]

What does Puritan mean according to Francis? Apparently it means to have a church without Jesus, a church that scares people rather than welcoming them, a bureaucratic church obsessed with the letter of the law, a church that is a rigid stepmother rather than a loving mother. In Francis’ vocabulary there was no better term to discredit this merciless form of Christianity than referring to it as “Puritanism”. But is this a fair theological and historical description of Puritanism? Surely not.

There are tons of evidence that support a very different portrait. Here is how C.S. Lewis sketches it: “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotallers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion” (C.S. Lewis,  Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature [On Edmund Spenser], pp. 121-122). Instead of being cold and detached Christians, they were “worldly saints” (L. Ryken), combining a radical biblical faith with a down-to-earth interest in the whole of life.[2] Again C.S. Lewis is helpful here: “To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called ‘puritanical’; they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together. So far as there was any difference about sexual morality, the Old Religion was the more austere. The exaltation of virginity is a Roman, that of marriage, a Protestant, trait” (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 35).[3]

An Unsettled Relationship with Historic Protestantism

Against the term Puritan, Francis encouraged the priests to “be merciful, be merciful” – “mercy” being the key word with which to understand the Pope and the program of the fast approaching Jubilee of Mercy – as if Puritanism was opposed to a biblically-defined mercy.

Pope Francis is not new in showing profound uneasiness – even repulsion – towards what historic Protestantism stood for. In his 1985 lecture on the history of the Jesuit order he wrote severe evaluations of Luther (a “heretic”), and especially of Calvin (a “heretic” and “schismatic”) bringing about the “Calvinist squalor” in society, in the church, and in man’s heart.[4] According to that lecture, Protestantism lies at the root of all evils in the modern West. The fact that this lecture was republished unchanged in 2013 in Spanish and translated in 2014 in Italian with his permission, but without a mitigating word of explanation, indicates that this assessment still lingers in the Pope’s heart and mind.

In spite of the much applauded, yet inconsequential “words of apology” recently extended to Pentecostals and Waldensians, Pope Francis still demonstrates he has mixed feelings about the whole of the Protestant Reformation, its main architects (e.g. Luther and Calvin), and some of its historical representatives (e.g. the Puritans). In his impromptu reaction Francis echoed widespread prejudices. Surely the Puritans deserve a much fairer treatment than what the Pope gave his audience. They were not merciless Christians. In J.I. Packer’s words, the Puritans were “God’s giants” who embraced whole-heartedly a version of Christianity that paraded a particular blend of biblicist, pietist, churchly and worldly concerns.[5] The Pope is among those who instead of caricaturing Puritanism should take the opportunity to better grasp it historically, theologically, and pastorally.

[2] Leland Ryken, Wordly Saints. The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986).

[3] Other interesting quotes by C.S. Lewis on the Puritans can be found at https://tidesandturning.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/c-s-lewis-defining-and-defending-the-english-puritans/. I wish to thank Greg Pritchard for pointing this website to me.

[4] See my Vatican File (n. 83) “What Francis Really Thinks of the Reformation and of Calvin in particular”: http://vaticanfiles.org/2014/06/83-what-francis-really-thinks-of-the-reformation-and-of-calvin-in-particular/.

[5] J.I. Packer, Among God’s Giants. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Eastbourne, UK: Kingsway Publ. 1991) p. 433.