Tag Archives: Reformation

133. What Kind of “Reformation” Does Pope Francis Have in Mind?

February 1st, 2017

“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church. The question is: What kind of reformation does he have in mind?

The recent book La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Reformation and Reformations in the Church) helps answer the question. This is the publication of the proceedings of an international conference held in Rome in 2015 organized by the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica on the subject of church reform. The size of the book, containing 30 papers, and the proximity of the editors to the Pope (Spadaro is the Jesuit editor of the magazine and Galli is an Argentinian theologian) contribute to making the book an important tool to dig into what the Pope thinks of reformation.

Not a New Word

In the Western church, talks about reform have been going on since the Councils of Vienne (1312), Constance (1414-1418) and the Lateran V (1512-1517). The word is therefore part of the language of the Church, even before the Protestant Reformation. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) used it abundantly to promote changes at the level of ecclesiastical organization. In subsequent centuries the word was treated with caution, if not suspicion, given its Protestant flavor. It was Vatican II (1962-1965) that began to circulate it (e.g. Lumen Gentium 4) also using “aggiornamento” (updating) and renewal. Typically the Catholic sense of reformation is continuity in change and change in continuity. Again, it’s Vatican II that sets the tone for interpretation when it says that “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling” (Unitatis Redintegratio 6). In reforming itself, the Roman Catholic Church does not lose anything of the past, but rather tries to become more faithful to what she is already. The criterion of reformation is not external and objective, as would be the case with recognizing it in the Word of God, but always internal and ecclesial, i.e. the Church itself setting the parameters of its own renewal.

Against this background, Pope Francis has been talking about reformation in the context of calling the church to re-launch its missionary impetus. No reformation of doctrine and devotions is in view. In the papal narrative, reformation means accelerating the process spurred by Vatican II.

Two Axises

Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of the Church has two main pillars. This book contains ample evidence affirming both. The first has to do with the increase of “synodality”, i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger part in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the local Church, to ensure that they act better together. In a programmatic summary the editors write: “the reform of the church is the synodical reform of local churches and of the whole church” (p. 12). Reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic that introduces some minor structural changes in the internal organization of the church.

The other axis has to do with the “revolution of tenderness” that Francis has been talking about since his election in 2013. According to this program, the primacy of mercy needs to be recognized and implemented at all levels. The recently-ended Year of Mercy has indicated the inclusive and embracing nature of what it means for the Pope to insist on mercy, at times neglecting aspects of the biblical teaching concerning repentance from sin and turning to Christ alone to be saved from our separation from God.

Synodality and mercy are the two qualifiers of reformation the pope has in mind. There is no hint of what the Reformation of the 16th century meant for the church, i.e. the recovery of the supreme authority of the Bible and the message of salvation by faith alone. There is no hint of it in the papal dream for a reformation. According to Francis’ view, the future of the Roman Catholic Church will make room for more discussion and involvement of different subjects at all levels and will be marked by the pervasiveness of mercy. This is perfectly legitimate on his part and even admirable. The following question remains though: is this a reformation according to the Gospel? Does it really recognize the primacy of God to call the church back to the whole counsel of God, to repent from deviations from the Gospel and renew its commitment to be faithful to it? In its concerns with structures and attitudes, does it properly deal with the need for a reformation of doctrine and practice according to the Word of God?

Some evangelicals seem to be fascinated by the phenomenology of pope Francis although they do not always understand his theological vision. Addressing the issue of the “reformation” is a significant entry point in his world and gives to opportunity to begin to understand it. As the Pope commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, what he has in mind is an altogether different kind of reformation, i.e. a reformation that will make his church more catholic and more Roman, doubtfully more evangelical.

 

    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.

      68. 2017: From Conflict to Communion?

      November 15th, 2013

      2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On 31st October 1517 Martin Luther hang the 95 thesis in Wittenberg and this action is symbolically considered as the watershed event that triggered the Reformation. The anniversary will be a great opportunity to historically review and theologically reassess what Protestantism stood for in the XVI century and what its significance is for us today. This is especially true for those who identify themselves as Protestant and cherish being called Protestant.

      Commemoration, not Celebration

      One entry point in reflecting on the upcoming anniversary is the recently released document entitled “From Conflict to Communion. Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017”. It is a 90 page, joint statement between the Vatican and the Lutheran Federation that attempts to summarize what happened in the XVI century, the controversies that arose, and the ecumenical re-interpretation of the whole in light of pressing ecumenical concerns. It is a detailed “state of the art” of present-day ecumenism, its patterns of thought, its language and agenda.

      Notice that the chosen word is not “celebration” but “commemoration”. Celebration would have implied an element of sober feasting in remembering the Reformation with an attitude of thanksgiving, while not hiding the “dark pages” of Protestant history. On the contrary, in spite of all that is said in Roman Catholic circles about Luther being “a witness of Jesus Christ”, ecumenism cannot celebrate the Reformation. It can only commemorate it. Official Roman Catholicism, even the post-Vatican II and ecumenically minded version of it, can only commemorate it. That is it can only remember, ponder, and reflect on it. Yet, is the standing legacy of the Reformation to be commemorated only? Is the call to go back to the Scriptures not to be celebrated? Is a Christ-centered, grace-depending, God-exalting faith not to be celebrated but only remembered?

      The First Ecumenical Imperative?

      After providing a carefully written summary of the main issues that divided the (Lutheran) Reformation and Roman Catholicism, the document ends by suggesting five imperatives for preparing for the commemoration. The first is the following: “Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced”.

      Unity, not truth in love, is the main thing. The first imperative is unity above all else. This, however, is not the best way of honoring the Reformation. Among many shortcomings, the Reformation was nonetheless a cry to have one’s own conscience and the church bound to God’s Word alone. This was the “first imperative” of the Reformation from which all else followed, unity included. It is telling that after 500 years unity top priority, replacing the authority of God’s Word. There is the risk of elevating “unity” to the absolute principle, a little “god” claiming pre-eminence. Perhaps this is the ecumenical “idol” of the day that needs to be addressed in a “protestant” way, i.e. recasting unity under the Word of God and not the other way around.

      No Protestant Pride, but the “Courage” to Be Protestant

      In some Protestant circles there may be the risk of approaching the 500th anniversary as if it were a “pride” parade, which is so common nowadays. The temptation is to idolize the Reformation as if it were a “golden age” of the Church. This would be totally contrary to what the Reformers stood for and would run against the best of the Evangelical Protestant heritage. While celebrating God for the great things that the Reformation brought back to the Church (Christ alone, Grace alone, Faith alone), there should be a sober realization of the many sins in and around the Reformation. A biblical faith should always be self-critical and honest, never indulging in self-celebration.

      In 2008 David Wells wrote a book whose title indicates a more fruitful way to honor the Reformation: The Courage to be Protestant. It takes courage to live under the Word of God and to speak prophetically, act in a priestly way, and live as a kingdom people. In today’s ecumenical world, when unity is in danger of being idolized, it takes courage to affirm that the Bible stands over tradition and the church, that Christ is the only mediator, that grace is all you need for your salvation, and that God is a jealous God. It takes courage to make unity dependent on these Biblical truths and not elevating unity to the place of “first imperative”. Where these courageous Christians are, there the Reformation will be adequately celebrated. Otherwise, it will only be commemorated.