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.

95. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice by Gregg Allison. A Review

November 19th, 2014

Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical AssessmentWheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 496 pps. $28.00. This review is also posted on http://9marks.org/review/book-review-roman-catholic-theology-by-gregg-allison/

Since the time of Gerrit Berkouwer’s The Conflict with Rome (1948) and Loraine Boettner’s Roman Catholicism (1962), evangelical theology has been lacking a thorough assessment of Roman Catholicism that penetrates the real theological issues at stake. There has been little work on the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and many evangelicals don’t have the tools to grasp theologically what happened then and how it has been impacting the Roman Church since. Growing numbers of people are impressed by the “aggiornamento” (update of language and expressions without substantial change) that is taking place in Rome and are asking whether or not the Reformation is definitely over. Most of these analyses are based on a pick-and-choose approach to Roman Catholicism. Bits of its theology, fragments of its practice, pieces of its history, and sectors of its universe are considered as representing the whole of Roman Catholicism. When the big picture of the Roman Catholic theological cathedral is lost, interpretations become superficial and patchy.

Professor Allison’s new book is good news to all those who have long desired a reliable theological guide in dealing with Roman Catholicism. Based on a painstaking analysis of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, it covers the all-embracing trajectory of Roman Catholic theology and practice. Instead of juxtaposing ephemeral impressions and disconnected data, Allison provides a theological framework that accounts for the complexity of the Roman Catholic system and its dynamic unity.

In the first chapter he sets the theological framework that will give orientation to his analysis of the Catechism. In Roman Catholicism there are two main axes that form its background. On the one hand, the “nature-grace interdependence” and, on the other, the “Christ-Church interconnection.” Historically, the Roman magisterium has given assent to both the Augustinian tradition (philosophically influenced by Neoplatonic thought) and the Thomistic tradition (emerging from a Christian reinterpretation of Aristotle via Aquinas). Whereas Augustinianism has stressed the corrupting reality of sin and the utter primacy of grace, Thomism has given a more positive account of human nature’s intrinsic disposition towards the operations of grace. Both traditions manage to coexist, in that the Roman Catholic system provides a sufficiently capable platform which can host both, while not being totally identified nor identifiable with any one of them. This is another significant pointer to the catholicity of the system itself.

The spheres of nature and grace are thus in irreversible theological continuity, as “nature” in Catholicism incorporates both creation and sin, in contrast to the Reformed distinction between creation, sin, and redemption. This differing understanding of sin’s impact means grace finds in “Roman” nature a receptive attitude (enabling Catholicism’s humanistic optimism), as against a Reformed doctrine whereby entrenched sin leaves us unaware of our reprobate state. This stark anthropological difference underpins even Catholicism’s veneration of Mary. The Roman Catholic epistemological openness, its trust in man’s abilities, and its overall reliance on the possibility of human co-operation all converge in the articulated theology regarding the biblically sober figure of Mary. In this respect, Mariology expresses, therefore, the quintessential characteristics of the Roman Catholic nature-grace motif.

Secondly, Roman Catholicism needs a mediating subject to relate grace to nature and nature to grace—namely, the Roman Church—and thus Allison speaks of the “Christ-Church interconnection.” The Church is considered a prolongation of the Incarnation, mirroring Christ as a Divine-human reality, acting as an altera persona Christi, a second “Christ.” It is therefore impossible for Roman Catholicism to cry with the Reformers solus Christus, for this would be seen as breaching the organic bond between Christ and the Church. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church—in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word, and its administration of the sacraments. There is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the Church) and ecclesia in Christo (the Church in Christ).

At this point, Allison offers his detailed analysis chapter by chapter of the Catechism, summarizing its main tenets and offering an intrigued yet critical evangelical assessment. The picture that comes out is different from what Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom wrote in their 2005 Is The Reformation Over? In that book, Noll and Nystrom argued that “evangelicals can embrace at least two-thirds” of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Later, they admit that when the Catechism speaks of Christ, it interweaves him to the Church to the point of making them one, which is unacceptable for evangelicals who consider the exaltation of a created reality an instance of idolatry. So, on the one hand, there is an apparent “common orthodoxy”; on the other, there is a profound difference on the meaning of its basic words (e.g. Christ, the church, etc.).

Building on the “nature-grace interdependence” and the “Christ-Church interconnection,” Allison helps the reader to make sense of both areas of agreements and disagreements while always pointing to the hermeneutical grid that was set at the beginning. For example, the Catechism teaches a doctrine of “justification by faith.” What the catechism means, though, is a synergistic work that is not forensic in nature but transformative and that is administered via the sacramental system of the Church and by taking into account one’s own merits. The word is the same but the theological meaning, which is confirmed by the devotional practices of Rome, is far away from the biblical understanding of the doctrine of justification. The same is true as far as all key gospel terms are concerned.

Roman Catholicism is an all-encompassing system and one needs to approach it as such, trying to make sense of its teachings not as if they were isolated items but trying to penetrate the fact that they belong to a dynamic yet organic system.

In dealing with Roman Catholicism, especially in times of mounting ecumenical pressure, evangelical theology should go beyond the surface of theological statements and attempt to grasp the internal framework of reference of Roman Catholic theology. From there, one may try to assess it from an evangelical perspective.

This is exactly the point that is tackled by Allison’s book and its main contribution. Professor Allison’s masterly book is to be commended for its biblical depth, theological acuteness, historical alertness, and systemic awareness. Evangelical theology has finally begun to do its homework in parsing the vision of present-day Roman Catholicism. My hope is that this landmark book will re-orientate evangelical theology away from its attraction towards a shallow ecumenicity with Rome towards a serious dialogue based on the Word of God. The Reformation according to the gospel is as alive and relevant as ever.

88. Is Scripture True Only in a “Limited” Way? The Truth of the Bible According to the Pontifical Biblical Commission

August 28th, 2014

The “Biblical Renewal” is one of the most significant movements that has both preceded and followed the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). After centuries of prohibiting the circulation of the Bible in the vernacular languages and forbidding access to it, the Roman Catholic Church has been working hard to reconnect with the Scriptures. Leo XIII’s encyclical Provvidentissum Deus (1893) defended a high view of the inspiration of the Bible while Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943) welcomed historical-critical methods into Catholic exegesis. These two magisterial statements are the tracks within which the present-day Roman Catholic approach to the Bible can be found. A traditional appreciation of the Bible as an inspired book, on the one hand, and a critical reading of it which questions the clarity and finality of Scripture, on the other, are the two poles that open the door for the intervention of the Magisterium for the interpretation of Scripture.

Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum (1965) is the highest authoritative statement on the Bible which combines the two emphases within the framework of a triangular dialectics between Tradition, Scripture and the Magisterium. A summary of Dei Verbum was offered by Pope Benedict XVI in his letter Verbum Domini (2010) in which he writes that the Word of God “precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (17). Here we find the classic reference to inspiration, but also the preceding existence of Tradition that envelops the Bible and speaks through the church’s Magisterium. According to Catholic teaching the Bible only “contains” the Word and this difference between Scripture and the Word allows for both critical readings of the Bible and the need for a human authority to discern what it contains and what it doesn’t.

The most recent pronouncement on this doctrine is an extended document released by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (February 22, 2014), which is the Vatican’s official study group on biblical issues. The title well captures the discussed topic: “The Inspiration and the Truth of Sacred Scripture”. This 250-page text is basically an elaboration of what Dei Verbum had argued as far as the scope of biblical inerrancy is concerned, i.e. that the Bible “teaches, without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (11). What, though, is the significance of relating inerrancy to “the sake of our salvation?” Is it then a kind of inerrancy that is limited only to the message of salvation? What about the rest of the Bible? Is it without error? And how can that which is related to salvation be distinguished from the rest? And who can discern what is without error and what is instead disputable? Roman Catholic theology has been discussing these issues since Vatican II and the Pontifical Biblical Commission has now entered this very important debate.

The document attempts to reaffirm and expand on what Dei Verbum highlights. The truth of the Bible is affirmed but is related to the “project of salvation” (3), the “salvific plan” (4), and “our salvation” (63). The detailed biblical overview on the truth of Scripture is understood as limiting the inerrancy of the text to its soteriological purpose. As for the rest, “in the Bible we encounter contradictions, historical inaccuracies, unlikely accounts, and in the Old Testament there are precepts and commands that are in conflict with the teaching of Jesus” (104). More specifically, the Abrahamic narratives are considered more as interpretations than historical facts (107), the crossing the Red Sea is more interested in actualizing the Exodus than reporting its original events (108), most of the book of Joshua has little historical value (127), and Jonah’s story is an imaginary account (110). In the New Testament, the reference to the earthquake in the passion’s narratives is a “literary motif” rather than a historical report (120). More generally, the Gospels have a normative value in affirming Jesus’ identity but their historical references have a “subordinate function” (123): in other words, the theology of the Gospels is valid, but their historical reliability is less important. How the two aspects can be neatly distinguished is not explained. In the end the truth of the Bible is “restricted” to what it says about salvation (105).

Another section of the document deals with the “ethical and social issues” raised by the alleged truth of the Bible, e.g. the theme of violence and the place of women. The hard and “offensive” texts of Scripture (e.g. the conquest narratives and the imprecatory Psalms) are not read in Catholic services due to “pastoral sensitivity” (125). According to the document, how can they be the Word of God is difficult to say. Again, the standard criterion to discern the inerrancy of the text is to “look at what it says about God and men’s salvation” (136) leaving the rest to the historical-critical readings and cultural sensibilities of the time. In a telling final statement, the document says that “the goal of the truth of Scripture is the salvation of believers” (144). The implication is that the Bible says beyond salvation (however defined) is not to be taken as necessarily true in the same sense.

What about the role of the Church in this matter? Since the truth of the Bible is not plenary but needs to be discerned according to its salvific purpose, it is the Church that mediates the acceptance and the proclamation of the truth of Sacred Scripture (149). It is the Church (the Roman Catholic Church) that selects and limits what is the truth of Scripture. According to the document then the Bible is true as far as its message of salvation is concerned and as far as higher criticism dictates. Ultimately, it is the Church that defines the truth of Scripture and rules over it.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s document “The Inspiration and the truth of Sacred Scripture” argues for a “limited inerrancy” of Scripture (limited to the message of salvation) and reiterates historical-critical views about the un-reliability of the historical accounts of both the Old and the New Testament. It is a Roman Catholic blend of traditional and critical views of the Bible which finally exalts the role of the Church. While rejoicing for some fruits of the “biblical renewal” that is taking place in Roman Catholicism, especially as far as the encouragement to all to read the Scriptures is concerned, the battle for the truth of Scripture still rages. In no way has Rome come closer to Sola Scriptura, i.e. the obedience to the self-attesting Word of God written that truly witnesses to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Roman Catholicism has nuanced its position and has relaxed the sharp edges of its opposition, but it still maintains the prominence of the Church over the Bible.