222. From “Metaphysical” to “Popular”: A Window on the Roman Catholic Theology of the Future?

In the beginning was Roman Catholic metaphysics: Aristotelian in outline, revisited and improved by Thomas Aquinas, capable of integrating some biblical and Augustinian insights, elastic to the point of metabolizing mystical and rationalistic streams, open to updating with respect to modernity, while maintaining its solid structures. Metaphysics was taught in Roman Catholic seminaries (two years of metaphysics preceded the study of theology in the training of priests). It was at the heart of catechesis, the watermark of the church’s documents, and the imprint of its public morality and theology. In short, it was the recognizable mark of the Roman Catholic church. Metaphysics started from “first principles” and, in the light of reason as helped by revelation (coming from Tradition and the Bible), by deductive means and procedures, arrived at every nook and detail of human life. With this metaphysics, Rome fought against the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modernism.
Then came Vatican II (1962-1965), and that solid framework was stress-tested. It went through a season of development and updating, introducing a new set of emphases. The “pastoral” tone was preferred to the “doctrinal” one.  The top-down structure made room for more bottom-up processes. The season of “genitive” theologies (of demythologization, enculturation, hope, liberation, post-colonialism, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, etc.) battered classical metaphysics. In the name of “renewal,” there was a certain theological restlessness and an eagerness to change the paradigm.
Then there was Pope Francis (2013- ). Of eclectic and unfinished theological training, Argentine and non-academic, the pope immediately showed his frustration with the schematism of metaphysics, denouncing its abstract and “clerical” character, in his view far away from people’s problems and offering answers to questions of the past that nobody is asking. In their own way, the “outgoing” trajectory of which he became an interpreter and the “synodality” he championed are formulas that apply to theology as well. In concrete terms, in 2018, with the Constitution Veritatis Gaudium, the pope sent signals to the ecclesiastical universities, preparing them for a new season. After the death of Benedict XVI, Francis changed the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, giving it to a “non-metaphysical” theologian like Víctor Manuel Fernández. Now, with the document Ad theologiam promuovendam (“Promoting Theology”, 1st November 2023; Italian textEnglish unofficial translation), he changed the statute of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, which is a Vatican institution at the service of the pope’s theological ministry. In this text, Pope Francis envisages his way of doing theology.
In imagining the Academy of the future, Francis hopes that theology will experience an “epistemological and methodological rethinking,” a “turning point,” a “paradigm shift,” a “courageous cultural revolution.” In the background is dissatisfaction with traditional metaphysics and its theological methods. According to Francis, theology must be “fundamentally contextual” and no longer start from “first principles.” It must translate into a “culture of dialogue” with all and no longer think of itself as only lecturing to the world, religions, and others. It must be “transdisciplinary” and no longer prioritize philosophy over the other disciplines. It must be “spiritual” and not abstract and ideological; “popular” and not detached from people’s common sense; “inductive” and not deductive.
In so doing, the pope distances himself from the legacy of metaphysical theology that has been the paradigm of Roman Catholicism throughout the ages. Is his way of looking at theology something that Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, Leo XIII, John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, etc., would recognize as being in line with the tradition of Rome? Not really. Perhaps Karl Rahner, some Liberation theologians, and their disciples would.
“Promoting theology” seems to be a manifesto of an account of Roman Catholic theology that, without naming traditional metaphysics, distances itself from it in significant ways. It does not appear to abolish metaphysics by decree but subjects it to accelerated “updating” and “development” such that its connotations are changed. In a nutshell, the Roman Catholic theology of the future will be done differently.
As noted at the outset, traditional metaphysics has absorbed all the orientations that have emerged, even those that initially seemed contrary to its arrangement. It has demonstrated great adaptability at the service of Roman catholicity, i.e. the ability to integrate new ideas and methods without changing the fundamental commitments of the Roman Catholic church. The question is: is the direction Francis wants theology to take compatible with its well-established patterns? Is it a radical change with unpredictable consequences? For sure, in the wake of Vatican II as interpreted by Francis, Roman Catholic theology will be increasingly different not only in emphasis but also in language, style, themes, and content. Those who think of Rome as the home of stability have yet another indication that Rome does develop and change. Tradition is an evolving process.
It is feasible to say that the Roman Catholic theology of the future will be et-et, both-and: both the one established over the centuries and the one Pope Francis desires. Both approaches to theology are not committed to Scripture as the supreme authority. The former reflects a philosophical system rather than the Bible; the latter mirrors the context more than the Word of God. In both cases, theology is hardly evangelical but rather two ways of voicing Roman Catholic theology: one more “Roman” (metaphysical), the other more “catholic” (contextual).

221. Should Evangelicals Pray with Roman Catholics?

(Leaders of twenty Christian faith confessions, including Thomas Schirrmacher, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, pray with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square (Vatican) during the Ecumenical Prayer Vigil of 30 September 2023. / Photo: Facebook Gathering Together.) 

As I speak at conferences on Roman Catholicism worldwide and how Evangelicals should relate to it, a question often arises: “What about joint prayer? Could or should Evangelicals pray with Roman Catholics?” Let me offer my rules of thumb as I wrestle with the issue.
1. The Bible is clear that we should pray for all men and women (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:1), so praying for those friends, colleagues, and family members who are Roman Catholics is mandatory. There is no doubt that praying for Roman Catholics is a God-given responsibility for all evangelicals.
2. The issue becomes critical when discussing praying with Roman Catholics. Praying with someone is a spiritual activity that presupposes the existence of spiritual bonds, i.e. fellowship in Christ. In other words, prayer with someone is legitimate when the people praying together are brothers and sisters in Christ, joining their hearts and voices to praise the Triune God and intercede for various topics in the name of Jesus Christ. Here comes the first problem: according to Roman Catholic doctrine, one becomes a Christian at baptism, normally received when the person is a newborn. It is the sacrament of baptism that makes the person a Christian. For the evangelical faith, one becomes a Christian at conversion when the person believes the gospel of Jesus Christ. The turning point is not the reception of the sacrament (the Roman Catholic view), but personal faith resulting in a transformed life (the biblical view). The reality is that a Roman Catholic person might have received the sacrament of baptism, but she/he is not a believer in Christ in that she/he was never converted. If this is the case, she/he is not a sister/brother in Christ and therefore there is no spiritual bond in Him making it possible to elevate our joint prayers to God. If we pray together, we are saying that we are united in Christ, but since this is not the case, joint prayer should be avoided and practiced with converted people only. This is my daily experience with my Roman Catholic neighbors: most of them were baptized by the Roman Catholic Church but show no evidence of any spiritual life biblically understood. I cannot relate to them as “brothers and sisters.” While I gladly pray for them, I don’t ask for their prayers, nor do I pray with them on the assumption that we are “brothers and sisters” in Christ since we are not.
3. Another aspect that makes common prayer impossible is that Roman Catholicism believes in a different account of the gospel than the biblical one. There are some overlaps in language but fundamental differences in basic truths of the gospel, e.g. the ultimate authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and life and salvation by faith alone. From these different commitments arise contrasting appreciations of the gospel. For example, as far as prayer is concerned, because Scripture is not the ultimate standard and we are thought of as contributing to our salvation through the merits of the saints, Roman Catholicism prescribes prayer to the saints and Mary as intercessors. These are not biblically warranted practices. The Catholic faithful are taught that they can pray to Mary and the saints for their petitions, not to Jesus Christ alone. If you pray with a Roman Catholic, you may use similar words but express different faiths. It is better to avoid generating confusion and ambiguity and respectfully abstain from joint prayer if the people involved have yet to give signs of being converted to Christ. The fact that they are Roman Catholics does not mean they are “brothers and sisters” in the faith.
4. I don’t deny that there are Roman Catholics who are genuinely converted. God’s grace is at work in men and women who trust in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation and desire to follow the Word of God. However, these people have a problem with their Roman Catholic identity. If they follow Christ alone according to the Bible alone, they are inconsistent with their alleged Roman Catholic faith. They may be believers in the biblical sense, but they are inconsistently Roman Catholics. While encouraging one another to grow in our faith, even if this means questioning Roman Catholic beliefs and practice, if they are converted to Jesus Christ and not simply baptized, we can pray with them in private settings characterized by informality.
5. I abstain from participating in joint prayer in public settings and events. Apart from the reasons above (# 2 and 3), another consideration must be made. Once you pray with someone in public, you are conveying that all the participants share the same Christian faith and are “brothers and sisters” in Christ. All existing differences are but footnotes that do not impede biblical fellowship. Because the Roman Catholic account of the gospel is flawed, if we participate in public joint prayer, we accept it as a legitimate version of the true gospel, with minor concerns over secondary issues: this is the symbolic message that comes from public prayers with Catholics. This is even more true when the people we pray with are Roman Catholic priests. If we pray in public with them, we recognize that the Church they belong to and the account of the gospel it promotes are biblical expressions of the Church and sufficiently faithful appreciations of the gospel. It is essential to pay attention to the power of symbols. “Ecumenical” gatherings that include joint prayers want to affirm that all participants recognize one another as “brothers and sisters” in Christ and their respective communities as legitimate expressions of the biblical church.
6. In European ecumenical circles, many joint prayer events are organized around the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January each year) by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. Their view of the gospel and unity is based on the sacrament of baptism (see # 2) and not on personal conversion to Christ. The symbolic message that this initiative wants to promote is that all Christians, despite the denomination and tradition they belong to, are “one,” “united” as “brothers and sisters.” Since this is not the case, I don’t participate in it. While I am willing to engage in dialogue with Roman Catholics at all levels, I consider joint prayer to be the privilege of born-again Christians and not necessarily members of ecclesiastical bodies.

220. “The next Pope will be John XXIV.” Will he?

“On the Vietnam journey, if I don’t go, John XXIV certainly will.” In the traditional inflight press conference on the papal plane returning to Rome from Mongolia (September 4), Pope Francis hinted at his possible successor. Being asked what his plans are for future international journeys, Francis showed awareness of his frailty, due to age and poor health conditions. This is why he cannot plan long-term. He also indicated the name of a possible successor who could replace him after he is gone. Of course, he did not refer to a specific individual, but to the papal name he wished the next Pope could take.
The indication of the name “John XXIV” sheds light on the preferred portrait of the pope of the future. It is worth noticing the possible names he did not refer to and the one he used during the interview.
“Francis II” was not mentioned for understandable reasons. A reigning Pope wishing his successor to follow his steps is legitimate, but indicating that he should choose his name would have been an abnormal form of egocentrism. In his 10-year tenure, Francis has shaped the next conclave (i.e. the assembly of cardinals who will elect the next Pope) by nominating 70% of it. Most of the new cardinals are Francis’s friends and like-minded people. Obviously, he wants the successor to follow in his footsteps, but wishing him to take the name “Francis II” would have been a faux pas.
“Benedict XVII” wasn’t mentioned either. Despite formally polite co-existence, Francis has always thought of himself as breaking off the ecclesiastical trajectory of Pope Ratzinger. There has been a cleavage between the two on all grounds: doctrine, practice, style, language, strategy. After the death of Benedict XVI, Francis tried to limit his influence and close his era. Certainly, Francis does not want Pope Ratzinger’s staunchly “Roman” and traditional line to be revived after the end of his reign. He believes there is no place whatsoever for a “Benedict XVII” in the future of the Roman Catholic Church.
Furthermore, a “John Paul III” was not indicated as a desirable follow-up. John Paul II’s legacy is surely tied to the re-launching of Rome’s catholicity (i.e. the embracement of the world into Rome’s sacramental and institutional structures) – something that Pope Francis is also pursuing in his own way. However, John Paul II (now a “saint”) was also the Pope who engaged in “culture wars” with the secularizing West, upholding traditional Roman Catholic moral identity-markers (e.g. opposition to abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality). He created an “us” versus “them” mentality in the relationship with the world, especially the secular West. This oppositional posture is very far from Pope Francis’s more “catholic” and inclusivist strategy. He wants to underline that we are “all brothers” and continue to be so despite professing different religions and having opposite ethical convictions. Francis does not want the Roman Church to be a polarizing agency but a place where differences exist in harmony.
“Paul VII” did not appear to Francis as a desirable successor either. While Francis often positively quotes Paul VI as the one who wrote the encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) calling the Roman Church to engage in “evangelization” (to be understood in the Roman Catholic sense of expanding the borders of the Roman Church), he apparently dislikes the black and white picture that Paul VI painted in dealing with moral issues such as the regulation of birth in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). Paul VI created a chasm between the world and the Church. On the contrary, Francis wants to eliminate all separation and treats differences, even the sharpest ones, as instances of human richness to be harmonized.
Neither “Francis II,” “Benedict XVII,” “John Paul III,” nor “Paul VII.” Why “John XXIV” then? Here are some possible explanations for why Pope Francis would like his successor to imitate or look like John XXIII. John XXIII is known as the “good pope” who was approachable, kind, warm, and humble. Giuseppe Roncalli (1881-1963), John XXIII, was the Pope who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1959. The Council only began in 1962, and John XXIII died during it. Vatican II is the watershed event in the present-day Roman Catholic Church whereby Rome began to downplay its centuries-long insistence on the “Roman” sides of its identity (e.g., hierarchy, full adherence to the catechism, submission to the ecclesiastical authority) and to stress its “catholic” aspirations (e.g., inclusion, embracement, absorption). Francis thinks of himself as enacting and implementing this aspect of Vatican II.
Moreover, in the opening address to Vatican II, John XXIII remarked that the Council had no doctrinal agenda but wanted to develop “a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.” Neither condemnations of the world nor theological definitions were to be expected. What ensued was a wholehearted affirmation of the goodness of the modern world. Francis likes to underline the pastoral nature of everything the Church says and does. The pastoral dimension (warm, welcoming, accepting of all) is often referred to as if it were in opposition to the doctrinal one. Francis thinks of his pontificate as a “pastoral” attempt at building bridges instead of creating walls with the whole world, leaving doctrinal issues aside. He wants this “pastoral” emphasis to be kept and even increased by his successor. A John XXIII-like pope is expected to promote universal fraternity in ecumenical, inter-faith, and social relationships.
A final comment is in place. Unlike John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, John XXIII was an Italian pope. Among the candidates to succeed Francis, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Italian archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian Bishops Conference, is at the top of the list. In recent months, Francis sent Zuppi to visit Ukraine, Russia, the US, and now China as his ambassador for peace in the Ukraine war. In so doing, he wanted to raise Zuppi’s international profile. In many ways, Cardinal Zuppi resembles the portrait of “John XXIV”: not known for his strong doctrinal views, but recognized as a cardinal dedicated to dialogue, peace, and fraternity. Did Pope Francis intend to indirectly campaign for him?


On the occasion of the 8th centenary of Thomas Aquinas, the book is a thoughtful introduction aimed at presenting the main contours of his complex legacy and critically evaluating it especially in areas where the “Roman Catholic” Thomas is more than the “classical” theologian who is attracting renewed attention in evangelical circles. IVP Books

219. Debating with Roman Catholic Theologians Today: Three Remarks from Recent Experiences

On June 20th, in Naples, Italy, I had the privilege of debating Same Words, Different Worlds. Do Roman Catholics and evangelicals believe the same gospel? (2021) with a distinguished Roman Catholic theologian, Edoardo Scognamiglio, professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy, author of several books in the areas of Christology, inter-religious dialogue, and ecumenism.
Attended by about 80 people, the local pastor moderated the meeting well, and it was followed by questions and answers. The video of the evening is available here. Two different accounts of the gospel emerged in the conversation. The dialogue was conducted calmly and respectfully. My interventions reiterated the contents of his book, presenting a systemic analysis of Roman Catholic theology and practice and arguing the common use of words from the Bible does not mean that the evangelical and Roman Catholic faiths believe the same thing. The words “church,” “grace,” “forgiveness,” “mercy,” “justification,” “evangelization,” “mission,” etc. are given different meanings because Rome is not committed to Scripture Alone. Instead, it blends the Bible with her own traditions ultimately resulting in a “different” version of the gospel.
Scognamiglio proved to be a serious scholar. His reading of my book was appreciative and positive. He also reiterated contemporary Roman Catholicism wants to be “open” to evangelicals (but also to everybody else) but is not really interested in a journey of biblical reformation. From Scognamiglio’s words, one could observe a conciliatory attitude, not one of hostility as was the case in the past, at least in Italy. After all, according to this view shaped by Vatican II and its ecumenical outlook, we are all Christians, all children of God. It emerged that Roman Catholicism is the religion of the both-and (et-et), according to which different versions of the Christian faith are complementary, while Roman Catholicism enjoys the fullness of it.
The Catholic theologian acknowledged not all Roman Catholics are disciples of Christ, but how can this statement be reconciled with the Roman Catholic dogma of baptism being the sacrament that takes away original sin and regenerates? He also admitted popular devotions (such as the veneration of the liquifiable “blood” of San Gennaro, Saint Januarius, famous in Naples) could be deviant, but how do you reconcile that with official ecclesiastical approval of practices contrary to Scripture?
The public conversation with Professor Scognamiglio was a useful exercise in dialogue. The importance of publicly debating the faith needs to be underlined. Jesus debated the scribes, Paul reasoned with the philosophers, Irenaeus wrote against the heretics, Luther confronted Cajetan, Calvin replied to Sadoleto, and we could go on and on. The point is the biblical faith is not afraid of publicly engaging other viewpoints.
After presenting the book in the context of debates with Roman Catholic theologians, I gathered three lessons from observation and reflection on these events. I hope they resonate with what happens on the ground, especially in the wider European context.
1. Questioning the “mystique” of ecumenical unity. Present-day Roman Catholic theologians are children of Vatican II theology and have absorbed its pro-ecumenical theology. They generally have a neutral-positive view of Protestant theology (often equating it with Liberal/post-liberal/Barthian theology) while showing little acquaintance with evangelical theology for which they don’t have categories. They tend to praise the “good” things they perceive in Protestantism, i.e. a tradition of accessibility to the Bible and personal responsibility in ethics. In their studies, they have been taught the Ecumenical century (i.e. the 20th century) has overcome the division between Rome and the Reformation. The ecumenical narrative tells them that, with Vatican II, the Roman Church has absorbed the positive elements of the Reformation, engrafting them on Roman Catholic soil. The Reformation is over for them; today is the time for unity. One Roman Catholic theologian I debated at the Catholic Seminary in Ferrara almost yelled: “This is a given!” It is a kind of “mantra” to be addressed counter-culturally.
In engaging with them, one has to be aware of where they come from and be prepared to offer a different account. The evangelical theologian must present a counter-narrative whereby the Reformation is not over, given the fact that, despite the common language used by evangelicals and Catholics, the issues that began the Reformation, i.e. the supreme authority of the Bible and salvation by faith alone, are still with us. Rome did reject them and still rejects them. The 2016 document “Is the Reformation over?” signed by hundreds of evangelical leaders worldwide is useful in this regard.
2. Maintaining apologetic intentionality. Because of the ecumenical attitude, there is little desire by Roman Catholic theologians to engage in meaningful apologetics. In their view, the Council of Trent, which anathematized the Reformation, belongs to the past, and its condemnations against the Protestants need to be read in the light of the positive view of non-catholic Christians at Vatican II. Doing “controversialist” theology, i.e. arguing the Roman Catholic position against the Protestant one, is something they dislike and don’t want to do. They want to bring together different perspectives and look for what is good in each without critically analyzing what is wrong. The “catholicity” of doctrine and practice, i.e. embracing diversity into unity, is what they like. They don’t want to do apologetics; they want to do ecumenism.
I have always felt responsible for maintaining an apologetic edge to the conversation in my interactions with Roman Catholic theologians. The risk of losing it and transforming the dialogue into a celebration of our alleged unity is real. Without being emotionally antagonistic, it is the task of the evangelical theologian to raise the critical issues (e.g. the authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, the necessity of conversion, the call to abandon idolatry) and to argue that, while we all stand under the authority of God’s word and need to reform our ways accordingly, Roman Catholicism runs against biblical Christianity on several fundamental points. It is perhaps not a “nice” thing to say, but it is necessary for the gospel’s sake. Apologetics is the privilege and the responsibility of all Christians.
3. Focusing on gospel issues. Dialoguing with a Roman Catholic theologian is an intellectual feast. Generally, you are dealing with a sophisticated academic who is an expert on many topics. However, there is a risk the whole conversation may become a sterile exercise when two or more experts talk to one another, losing the gospel focus healthy theology must always have. There is also the danger of sidetracking the dialogue into an obscure dispute over historical and doctrinal details. If the conversation moves to peripheral issues or becomes polemical over secondary elements, we must bring it back to the gospel. The gospel must always be at the center. As I meet with Roman Catholic theologians, my first commitment is not to be the public defender of the evangelical movement but to be a gospel ambassador. One time, while debating the book with a lay theologian in Sicily, she commented on the wrongs made by Protestants across the ages. I said: “I agree with you. We have made many mistakes, and we must apologize for them. This is why we need the gospel.” And I went back to talking about the Good News of Jesus.
The radical difference between Roman Catholicism and the evangelical faith in no way invalidates the usefulness and importance of dialogue. With a clear identity, one should not avoid encountering other faith communities to share, defend, and commend the gospel. The gospel must be proclaimed to all respectfully, persuasively, and competently. The underlying conviction of the Christian is that the Truth is powerful and the Holy Spirit uses it to regenerate hearts and minds. The Lord has promised His word never returns empty.

On the occasion of the 8th centenary of Thomas Aquinas, the book is a thoughtful introduction aimed at presenting the main contours of his complex legacy and critically evaluating it especially in areas where the “Roman Catholic” Thomas is more than the “classical” theologian who is attracting renewed attention in evangelical circles. 

The influence of Thomas Aquinas on Western theology is beyond dispute, but his is a contested legacy. In current evangelical studies there is an emerging infatuation with Thomas, especially as far as his theological metaphysics is concerned. 

De Chirico offers the perplexed evangelical a framework to think through. The inquiring Roman Catholic reader will be invited to consider an alternative. The general reader may find answers to questions such as: 

  • Are Thomas and Thomism(s) the same? 
  • What does evangelical thought need to be aware about the strengths and dangers of Thomas Aquinas? 
  • How can Rome’s chief doctor be at the same time a reference point for evangelical theology?

The book will address this whole debate by contributing a thoughtful analysis from an evangelical viewpoint. IVP Books.

218. In a double move, Francis closes the Ratzinger era. For now.

Pope Ratzinger (1927-2022) died only seven months ago, but it is safe to say that on July 1st his era definitely ended, at least in the intentions of the reigning pope. In a double move that would make a skilled checkers player envious, Pope Francis put an end to an unwieldy presence in his pontificate. As a “pope emeritus” living in the Vatican (a situation that had never happened before in the millennial history of the Catholic Church), Ratzinger constituted a thorn in Francis’ side, albeit a silent one at least on the outside. Light years removed in terms of theological training and ideas about the church, Francis had assigned him the “wise grandfather” role—a vexatious way of saying that he was an old man rich in memory but lacking in future prospects.
Benedict XVI died at the end of 2022, but on July 1st, his shadow receded further from the Vatican. Francis’ first move was to dispatch Ratzinger’s secretary, Msgr. George Gänswein, to Freiburg, Germany, without assignments: away from Rome, deprived of ecclesiastical responsibilities. The last rift between him and Francis had been the day after Ratzinger’s funeral with the publication of his book Nothing but the Truth. My Life at the Side of Benedict XVI (Italian edition: Nient’altro che la Verità. La mia vita al fianco di Benedetto XVI, Milano: Piemme, 2023), in which Gänswein had clearly spoken of the disagreements between the two popes. Francis had not liked either the timing or the content. Now Gänswein, who is only 66 years old (a “young” age for the church in Rome), has received the reciprocation that tastes like revenge served cold: a one-way ticket and a future without appointments. The message is clear: cohabitation with Ratzinger and his “inner circle” is over.
But there was another move in contrast to the Ratzingerian age. Before becoming pope, Ratzinger had been the powerful prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office). Upon becoming pope, in defense of Catholic doctrine, Cardinals Müller (German) and Ladaria (Spanish) had been appointed in his place. They are different in temperaments, but both “conservative” or “moderate” like Ratzinger. The former had been his student, the latter had been secretary of the Dicastery in Ratzinger’s time. Two “loyalists.” There was no shortage of friction; Müller had said that Pope Francis needed “theological framing” and, in the face of this “offense,” was promptly and abruptly dismissed by the pope. Ladaria, a Jesuit like Bergoglio, has held a more defiladed and guarded position, but certainly not in line with the evolution of Francis’ papacy.
Now, coincidentally, on the very same day of Ratzinger’s former secretary’s departure, Ladaria, Ratzinger’s appointee to the Dicastery, was also dismissed on grounds of seniority. In his place, Francis appointed Argentine Víctor Manuel Fernández. Not well known in international theological circles, Fernández is, however, a loyal follower of Pope Francis. He is said to have been the ghostwriter of Evangelii Gaudium, the pontificate’s programmatic manifesto calling for a “missionary conversion” of his church;[1] Amoris Laetitia, the exhortation that contains openings toward the Eucharistic inclusion of people in “irregular” states of life; and Laudato Sì’, the encyclical on environmental issues that is so popular in progressive circles. Virtually all the cornerstones of Francis’ magisterium were written in consultation with Fernández. In the aftermath of Evangelii Gaudium, he had written a book presenting the new papal course to the world: The Project of Francis. Where he wants to take the Church (Italian edition: Il progetto di Francesco. Dove vuole portare la Chiesa, Bologna: EMI, 2014). Now, this interpreter of Francis’ thinking, far removed from Ratzinger’s, became prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, the highest body for the promotion of Catholic doctrine. Francis has a very faithful and “young” theologian (62 years old) in a position that can carry on his “project” even when he is gone. In Francis’ view, this really is a big deal. The next two years will see two Synods of Bishops (gathering all Roman Catholic bishops from around the world) on the controversial topic of “synodality”, i.e., a new way of proceeding in the church, with Rome becoming more inclusive and absorbing (catholic) and less marked by its traditional identity (Roman). Francis has now a trusted supporter and enthusiastic promoter of his view of “synodality.”
In two moves, Francis has shrewdly weakened the “Roman-ness” of the church as interpreted by Pope Benedict XVI and scored a point in favor of the “catholicity” of the current fluid church, the one where we are “all brothers.” While physically frail, Francis has never been stronger than he is now.

[1] Here is a recent summary of Evangelii Gaudium from the Pope himself: “Here we find the ‘heart’ of the evangelical mission of the Church: to reach all through the gift of God’s infinite love, to seek all, to welcome all, excluding no one, to offer our lives for all. All! That is the key word.” Audience to the General Assembly of the Pontifical Mission Societies (June 3rd, 2023).

217. “Kidnapped,” the movie by Marco Bellocchio and Roman Catholic sacramentalism

Kidnapped (“Rapito,” 2023) is the latest film by movie director Marco Bellocchio that was presented at the 2023 Cannes Festival. It tells the true story of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy from Bologna, who was kidnapped from his family in 1858 when he was six years old and taken to a Catholic boarding school by order of the Inquisition court, under the mandate of Pope Pius IX,  who proclaimed the 1854 dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary and the 1870 dogma of papal infallibility. At that time, Bologna was still under the Pontifical State. The reason for this abduction lies in the fact that, when he was still a newborn, the nurse who looked after him, seeing him sick and feverish, baptized him in secret from his parents out of fear that he would die without the sacrament and therefore be lost. For six years, she had kept the secret, only to then reveal it to the ecclesiastical authorities in exchange for financial aid. At that point, the court decreed the removal of the child from the family because he was a “Christian”: the Roman Catholic church considered him its “son” and had the responsibility of educating him in a Catholic way. Edgardo was taken by force to Rome to a boarding school in close contact with Pius IX. The family’s attempts to bring him home were in vain. In 1870, when the Pontifical State ended and Rome became the capital city of the Italian kingdom, the family managed to see Edgardo again, now eighteen, only bitterly to note that their son had not only abandoned Judaism but was on the road to becoming a Catholic priest. Indeed, the baptized Jew became a priest and remained so until his death in 1940.

The film tells this dramatic story: the violence of the kidnapping, the trauma of the child torn from his parents, the suffering of the family, the clash of identities, the solidarity of the Jewish communities of Bologna and Rome, the abuse of the Roman Catholic Church, the authoritarian regime of the Pontifical State and the submission of the Jewish minority, the complex personality of Pius IX, etc. To all this complex interweaving, we also add the choice of Edgardo who, having become an adult, marries the Roman Catholic identity of the time and, instead of returning to Judaism and his community of origin, embraces the Catholic priesthood.

Many critics have underlined the film’s negative charge against the Roman Catholic Church: the intransigence of its dogmas, the authoritarianism of its culture, the intolerance of its practices, and the abuses of its institutions. The traditionalist Catholic press has highlighted the director’s anticlerical prejudices, arguing that, net of the violence of the kidnapping, Edgardo made a “free” and “adult” choice towards the priesthood. Everyone can see the film and draw their own conclusions.

That said, a theological comment has gone almost unnoticed but deserves to be mentioned. It has to do with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the sacrament of baptism. According to this doctrine, baptism is effective ex opere operato, by the very fact of being administered. According to the Roman Catholic understanding, God’s grace is infused through the rite of baptism. There is an automatism, a mechanism that works, in the sacrament. From this point of view, once baptized, Edgardo became a Christian, regardless of the faith he and his parents professed. Since the sacrament had been activated, it brought about an objective change in the baby’s life that necessitated follow-up. At that point, the Roman Catholic Church felt compelled to act accordingly. Baptism should have been followed by the other sacraments, by necessity, without hesitation, whatever the cost. What is at stake is the causative conception of baptism that permeates Roman Catholic sacramentalism, to the point of leading it to carry out the kidnapping of a Jewish child baptized by a nurse. Since baptism caused grace, everything else followed consequently.

The power of Roman Catholic sacramentalism is so forceful that Edgardo himself, who became a priest, is imbued with it. In fact, the film ends with the scene in which he visits his mother on her deathbed and tries to secretly baptize her because he is convinced that by administering the rite, he would save her. In addition to the ideological criticism against the Roman Catholic system of which Bellocchio’s film is woven, it would be useful to question the theological reasons that made Roman Catholicism an authoritarian system which, under Pius IX, led the Roman church to orchestrate the kidnapping of a child. The doctrine of the sacrament ex opere operato is part of them.

One final point. The story of Kidnapped portrays a face of Roman Catholicism that is very different from what most people perceive it to be today. Pope Pius IX ordered the kidnapping of the Jew Edgardo because of an administered baptism, while today, Pope Francis calls “all brothers” Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists, without them being baptized according to Canon Law. In between, there is the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) where Rome embraced the principle of religious freedom (e.g. Dignitatis Humanae, 1965), a positive view of world religions, and a hopeful expectation that all will be saved. The doctrine of baptism ex opere operato is still the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, but there are no practical consequences for those who don’t receive it.

Today, Rome extends her arms around all, regardless of the administration of the sacrament. The transition from Pius IX’s authoritarian sacramentalism to Pope Francis’s inclusivist universalism is a sign of a swing of the pendulum of Roman Catholicism from being a predominantly “Roman” religion to having become a massively “Catholic” one, without changing its ideological basis which keeps the “Roman” structure and the “Catholic” inspiration in constant tension. Since it is not the gospel that shapes its deepest commitments, it can at times be more Roman or more Catholic without ceasing to be Roman Catholicism.

216. Thomas Aquinas, the Evangelical?

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the Roman Catholic theologian par excellence. For centuries he has embodied the letter and the spirit of the theology of the church of Rome. Combining rationality and contemplation, rigor and passion, study and devotion, his thought has touched on the different traits of Catholic life inspiring the intellectual sophistications and the popular beliefs, the academic pursuits, and the devotional imaginations. The reception of his legacy has not been without conflicts of interpretation and different seasons of greater or lesser influence. Yet, the Wirkungsgeschichte (history of effects) indicates that there would not have been the anti-Protestant Roman Catholicism of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the anti-modernist Roman Catholicism of Vatican I (1870), and then the ecumenical Roman Catholicism of Vatican II (1962-1965) without Thomas Aquinas inspiring them all in different ways. Difficult to dispute is church historian David Schaff’s claim that “the theology of the Angelic Doctor (Thomas’s nickname in Catholic circles) and the theology of the Roman Catholic Church are identical in all particulars except the immaculate conception. Anyone who understands Thomas understands medieval theology at its peak and has access to the doctrinal system of the Roman Church.”[1] At least symbolically if not theologically, Thomas is to Roman Catholicism in all its internal versions what Luther and Calvin are to the Reformation in all its variants: father-like figures.

By contrast, until a few years ago, precisely because of his close identification with Roman Catholicism, few would have dreamed of seeing Thomas associated with a “Protestant” sensibility. It is true that, in Thomistic studies, there is a vein that interpreted Thomas from the point of view of him being associated with evangelical traits. For example, M.-D. Chenu refers to this view when he claims that “the evangelical vocation of brother Thomas Aquinas is at the origin of his theology.”[2] Certainly, the reference to the “evangelical” must be interpreted here in a very broad sense that is vaguely inspired by the Gospel in a form compatible with traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and experience.

In recent decades and with increasing intensification, Thomas has instead been brought closer to a Protestant theological sensibility. In the German and Lutheran context, in 1964, Ulrich Kühn wondered whether Thomas belonged only to the Roman church as the apex of the medieval synthesis or whether an “Evangelical Thomas or at least a Thomas who has important things to say to evangelical theology”[3] was in need to be discovered. In the Anglo-Saxon circles, in 1985, a book critically scrutinized the perceived distrust of contemporary evangelical thought (for example: Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer) towards Thomas and considered it more of a reaction towards 19th century Neo-thomist images of Thomas than on Aquinas himself.[4] Then there were those who worked hard to provide a very positive “evangelical” evaluation of Thomas in an attempt to rehabilitate above all his metaphysics and epistemology in their apologetical endeavors.[5] In an unassuming little article, but which opened a crack that later became a gash, a respected North American evangelical theologian peremptorily entitled his essay: “Thomas Aquinas was a Protestant.”[6] According to the article’s daring thesis, Thomas’s theology was close, not to say overlapping, to the “formal principle” of the Protestant Reformation (Scripture Alone) and its “material principle” (Faith Alone), making him a forerunner of the Reformation, also with regard to the doctrine of justification. In more recent years, academic circles influenced by the theology of Karl Barth have also begun an operation of re-appropriation of Thomas in the form of theological ecumenism and referred to as “Protestant Thomism” or “Thomistic Protestantism.”[7] Similar phenomena can be found in the works stemming from “radical orthodoxy.”[8]

In fact, there seems to be a widespread perception today that Thomas is no longer a heritage for Roman Catholics alone[9] and that Evangelicals can and should learn a great deal from Thomas.[10] On the Roman Catholic side, there are even those who have gone so far as to argue that the Roman Catholic Thomas Aquinas is both Protestant and Evangelical:[11] the real Doctor communis! If even a theologian as critical of Thomas as Scott Oliphint answers, “perhaps”,[12] when asked if Thomas would have joined the Reformation had he lived 250 later, then we must understand that it is not far-fetched theologically to ask if Thomas could indeed be considered an evangelical.

In light of this changing scenario, today, the most serious evangelical research on Thomas Aquinas looks in a series of directions:[13]

– on the use of Thomas that the Magisterial Reformers made of Thomas—above all reformed and Lutheran scholasticism. While Luther’s contemptuous judgment of Thomas is known (“Thomas est loquacissimus quia metaphysica est seductus,” “Thomas is very loquacious because he is seduced by metaphysics”),[14] the subsequent interpretations in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions are less trenchant, sometimes sympathetic.[15]

– on the sustainability of a kind of anti-Thomas prejudice of certain contemporary evangelical thought which seems more committed to combating the deviant rigidities of neo-Thomism than to understanding Thomas himself in his complexity.

– on the theological gain that evangelical research would receive from the re-evaluation of the legacy of Thomas to counter certain traits of Fundamentalism (which has an unresolved view of “tradition”) and the temptations of incipient neo-liberalism (which is attracted to what is modern for the sake of being accepted by the mainstream culture).[16]

In our current cultural climate, the reference to the metaphysics of Thomas, capable of keeping Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible together—in short, the entire pre-modern Western tradition—produces an anxiolytic effect in some sectors of evangelical theology. Thomas functions as a primary symbol of the “great tradition” that unites Christian antiquity and modernity. In a world that is skeptical and suspicious of any meta-narrative, Thomas’s metaphysics and epistemology exerts some apologetic appeal, claiming to harmoniously combine faith and reason and to challenge skepticism in the name of the reasonableness of faith.[17] In the ruined landscape of present-day culture, Thomas Aquinas looks like an impressive cathedral that reassures, comforts, and inspires.

To balance this evangelical romance with Thomas, something more needs to be said in view of refining a theologically robust evangelical reading of his thought:

– Thomas has been fully and convincingly appropriated by Roman Catholic theology for centuries. One cannot naively assume that he is “Protestant” unless one acknowledges the persistent unfoundedness of all Roman Catholic interpretations of Thomas for the last 750 years.

– Thomas is the acknowledged authority behind many of the non-biblical developments in medieval and modern Roman Catholicism, from Trent to Vatican I and Vatican II. One cannot fail to see the distorting elements which are present at the heart of his system, and which have generated several departures from the biblical faith, e.g., in the areas of Catholic soteriology, ecclesiology, sacramentology, and devotions.

– Thomas laid the foundations for the theological framework, which is typical of Roman Catholicism as a system, i.e., the nature-grace interdependence,[18] which is highly problematic from the biblical point of view. Evangelical theology must be aware (and biblically proud) of operating not with a purely ontological scheme mainly deduced from philosophical categories as Thomas does, but with the historical-redemptive motif of the Bible: Creation/Sin/Redemption. Here the difference is critical.

Finally, the following elements garnered from the wisdom of the best evangelical theology throughout history should not be forgotten:

– the best Protestant theologians have read and studied Thomas, since he was the main exponent of medieval theology. They did not have reverential fears nor inferiority complexes. Rather, they faced him head-on with an attitude inspired by evangelical boldness and the biblical principle “omnia probate, quod bonum est tenete,” “Test all things; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

– Protestant theologians at their best (from Peter Martyr Vermigli to Herman Bavinck, through Francis Turrettin) have generally exercised theological discernment which has allowed them to appreciate aspects of Thomas’s theology that were in line with biblical faith and to reject his teaching where it conflicted with Scripture. In other words, they did not embrace the Thomist system as such—even his metaphysics and epistemology as integrated components of it—but broke it down into its parts as far as possible with integrity and used it “eclectically.”[19] They did not reject him as a hopelessly compromised theologian (the anti-Thomas temptation), nor elevate him as the chief parameter of Christian orthodoxy (the Roman Catholic temptation), but treated Thomas as an unavoidable conversation partner in the history of Christian thought to be read critically and generously in light of the Scripture Alone principle that the Protestant Reformation recovered for the whole church. This approach is not original but seems to be the historic and best evangelical approach to Thomas Aquinas.

N.B. This article touches on issues that will be extensively dealt with in my forthcoming book Engaging with Thomas Aquinas which will be published by IVP (UK) in 2024.

[1] Quoted by his father P. Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1907) (repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960, vol. V) p. 662.

[2] M.-D. Chenu, Aquinas and His Role in Theology (1959) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002) p. 11.

[3] U. Kühn, Via Caritatis. Theologie des Gesetzes bei Thomas von Aquin (Berlin: Ev. Verlagsanstalt, 1964) p. 14.

[4] A. Vos, Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought: A Critique of Protestant Views on the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Washington, DC: Christian University Press, 1985).

[5] N.L. Geisler, Thomas Aquinas, An Evangelical Appraisal (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991).

[6] J. Gerstner, “Aquinas was a Protestant”, TableTalk 18:5 (May 1994) pp. 13-15 and 52. The pushback by R.L. Reymond is worth referring too: “Dr. John H. Gerstner on Thomas Aquinas as Protestant”, Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997) pp. 113-121.

[7] Cfr. J. Bowlin, “Contemporary Protestant Thomism” in P. Van Geest, H. Goris, C. Leget (edd.), Aquinas as Authority (Leuven: Peeters, 2002) pp. 235-251 and B.L. McCormack – T.J. White (edd.), Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. An Unofficial Catholic-Protestant Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013).

[8] For example: J. Milbank – C. Pickstock, Truth in Aquinas (London: Routledge, 2001).

[9] C. Trueman, “Thomas Aquinas: Not Just for Catholics Anymore”, Public Discourse (19 August 2018): https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2018/08/39373/ (retrieved: 2nd Jan 2023).

[10] “What Can Protestants Learn from Thomas Aquinas?”, Credo Magazine 12/2 (2022)

https://credomag.com/magazine_issue/what-can-protestants-learn-from-thomas-aquinas/ (retrieved: 2nd Jan 2023).

[11] F.J. Beckwith, Never Doubt Thomas. The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019).

[12] K.S. Oliphint, Thomas Aquinas (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2017) p. 123.

[13] An important starting point for this discussion is M. Svensson – D. VanDrunen (edd.), Aquinas among the Protestants (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2018).

[14] Tischreden 3, n. 3722.

[15] Cfr. D. Luy, “Sixteenth-Century Reception of Aquinas by Luther and Lutheran Reformers” and D. Systma, “Sixteenth-Century Reformed Reception of Aquinas” in M. Levering – M. Plested (edd.), The Oxford Handbook of the Reception of Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021) pp. 104-120 and 121-143 respectively.

[16] As it is done by C. Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition. Recovering Classical Trinitarian Theism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2021).

[17] As it is the case with the “classical” approach to apologetics championed by R.C. Sproul, J. Gestner, A. Lindsey, Classical Apologetics. A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositionalist Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984).

[18] For a brief presentation and pointed critique, see G.R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014) pp. 46-55.

[19] C. Brock – N. Gray Sutanto, “Herman Bavinck’s Reformed eclecticism: On catholicity, consciousness and theological epistemology”, Scottish Journal of Theology 70/3 (2017) pp. 310-332.

215. Gresham Machen and Roman Catholicism as a “Perversion” of Christianity

Exactly a century ago, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) in his book Christianity and Liberalism (1923)[1] confronted Liberalism as an alternative system to biblical Christianity by way of exposing its deviating premises and deviated outcomes. Machen identified in Liberalism as another religion which – while using traditional Christian terminology – had completely re-signified it in terms of the spirit of the modern age and therefore abandoned the gospel.[2] In Machen’s view, it is Liberalism that is the main threat to biblical Christianity, and it is against it that he focusses his attention. Roman Catholicism only gets a perfunctory mention that is nonetheless worth considering because it signals an important awareness of the more general context of yesterdays and today’s fronts where Christianity needs to develop its theological discernment.
1. Liberalism as Another Religion
The theological landscape around Machen is characterized by the pervasive infiltration of Liberalism in the Church. This is not a minor issue. To put it bluntly, the problem is that Liberalism is not Christianity at all. According to Machen, Liberalism is “a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category” (6). Machen interprets the liberal project in oppositional and confrontational terms with regards to Christianity. “With regard to the gospel itself, modern liberalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity” (47).
Machen’s analysis suggests an interpretation of the liberal project, i.e. the attempt at reconciling Christianity with the modern spirit, by rescuing certain general principles of religion and regarding them as the “essence of Christianity” (5 and 53). Even without directly quoting him, it is clear that Machen has in mind the seminal book by Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930), the champion of liberal theology in the generation preceding Machen, on the essence of Christianity.[3] As a matter of fact, Harnack had sought to achieve a historical understanding of Christianity wherein its original essence could be separated from subsequent accretions that he understood as unwarranted dogma. He attempted to isolate this essence using a scholarly historical method that abjured many biblical traits of the Christian faith. The roots and the outcomes of this project are alien to the gospel. According to Machen, Liberalism “proceeds from a totally different root” (146) and “relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity” (6).
In a summary of the main issues at stake, here is how Machen sees the chasm: “Liberalism differs from Christianity with regard to the presuppositions of the gospel (the view of God and the view of man), with regard to the Book in which the gospel is contained, and with regard to the Person whose work the gospel sets forth. It is not surprising then that it differs from Christianity in its account of the gospel itself” (99). The divergence does not revolve around points of speculative theology but impacts “the whole of life” (146). Thus, the title of the book Christianity and Liberalism is meant to set the former over against the latter and vice versa.
2. Roman Catholicism as a Perversion
Gresham Machen agrees with the reaction against the liberal re-interpretation of the gospel as it was articulated in The Fundamentals, a series of 12 volumes published between 1910 and 1915 in which the tenets of the traditional Protestant consensus were defended. His assessment of Liberalism does not mean that Machen displays a manichean mindset, i.e. having a black and white picture of the situation in and around Christianity.
First, not all members of liberal churches are to be considered outside of Christian fellowship. For all his opposition to Liberalism, Machen readily admits that “some liberals, though perhaps a decreasing number, are true believers in a personal God” (50-51). He can distinguish between Liberalism as a theological system that is diametrically opposed to Christianity and individual liberal Christians who despite of their being part of liberal churches are nonetheless true believers in Christ.
Second, not all different theological traditions outside of the Reformed camp are to be considered as opposed to Christianity in the same way as Liberalism is. Machen’s approach is not sectarian, but discerning what is primary and what is secondary for the Christian faith. For example, “the premillennial view” is an error, but not a “deadly error” (41). There is still much ground based on the Bible and the great creeds of the Church that unites all Christians, regardless their eschatological positions. A similar evangelical eirenism is applied by Machen to differences of “opinion” on sacramental issues between Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Church (42) or on “the nature and prerogatives of the Christian ministry” that divide Anglicans from other protestants (42-43), or even on the “difference of opinion” between Calvinistic theology and Arminianism (43) on God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Machen cannot be suspected of downplaying all theological issues, yet he argues that “true evangelical fellowship is possible between those who hold … sharply opposing views” (43). This is to say that his apologetic theology does not stem from an oppositional and separatist mindset, but from a discerning spiritual assessment. 
At this point, Machen’s brief comments on Roman Catholicism can be properly evaluated. Whereas he has labeled Liberalism as another religion and has referred to intra-protestant debates on important yet secondary issues as differences of “opinion”, the relationship with Rome is marked by “division” (43). In Machen’s view, Rome represents a “perversion of the Christian religion”. No explanation is offered as to why this is so, but the theological reasons for the criticism are assumed as valid, even though not spelt out.[4] Having said that, Rome’s perversion is of a different kind than naturalistic Liberalism: the latter “is not Christianity at all” (43).
Perhaps with a hint of superficiality, Machen acknowledges that the Roman Catholic Church maintains “the authority of Holy Scripture” and accepts “the great early creeds”. In his mind these commitments make biblical Christianity closer to Rome than Liberalism, even though “the gulf” between Rome and the Reformation is believed to be profound. I dare take this comment as superficial and not indicative of Machen’s usual theological acumen. The reason is that even Liberalism upholds a certain authority of Scripture and a certain interpretation of the early creeds. These two elements are not rejected as such but re-interpreted in such a way as to be annulled. In Roman Catholicism too, a certain authority of Scripture is affirmed but, at the same time, is undermined given the intertwined role attributed to tradition and the magisterium of the church that make Rome dismiss “Scripture alone” and therefore reject the ultimate authority of Scripture.
Moreover, Rome for sure pays tribute to the early creeds of the church, yet interprets them in an expansive way given, for example, its Mariological inflated doctrine and its cooperative view of salvation. If Rome thinks of its Mariology and ecclesiology as organically stemming from the creeds, it is evident that formal adherence to the creeds does not necessarily translate into a biblically faithful reception of them. The point is that the authority of Scripture and the importance of the creeds are never dismissed blatantly, both in Liberalism and in Roman Catholicism. Both traditions have their own way of paying lip service to them while not submitting to them. Machen is right when he argues that “Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men” (67). What he omits to say is that Roman Catholicism too is not founded upon the Bible alone and therefore stands in contrast with biblical Christianity at all points.
3. Machen’s Strengths and Limits
Whereas Machen displays a penetrating understanding of Liberalism, i.e. its anti-Christian ideological roots and its pernicious outcomes, he does not show the same degree of doctrinal familiarity with Rome’s theological system. His comments on Roman Catholicism are therefore only perfunctory given also the fact that it is not the topic of his book. According to him the “chief modern rival of Christianity is liberalism” (45). Notice: the chief, not the only one. Christianity has other rivals around it and Roman Catholicism is one of them, not presenting exactly the same danger, but close to it.
Beside these brief annotations, there are other points that need to be highlighted in Machen’s theological argument. They show how his interpretation of Liberalism may fit Roman Catholicism too. For example, while discussing the entrance of paganism into the church in the name of Christianity, he maintains that “Modern liberalism is like the legalism of the middle ages, with its dependence upon the merit of man” (151). Here Liberalism is associated with the insistence upon human merit as a legacy of the Middle ages. Yet the true representative of it is Rome with its cooperative and synergistic view of salvation embedded in its sacramental system. Again, Machen argues that modern liberalism has lost the consciousness of sin and has developed a “supreme confidence in human goodness” (55). For sure, these are features of Liberalism, but present-day Roman Catholic theological trends are progressively underlining a similar reliance on human goodness as a distinguished mark of Rome’s anthropology and hamartiology. Finally, Machen refers to the liberal doctrine of the “universal fatherhood of God” (53) and “the brotherhood of man” (133) which liberalism considers as the essence of Christianity. True. In our contemporary world, however, there is no religious institution more committed than Roman Catholicism to universal fraternity and the universal fatherhood of God, as the recent encyclical “All Brothers” (2020) by Pope Francis indicates.[5]
The same universalist deviations that Machen observed in Liberalism can be observed in Roman Catholicism too, thus making it a “perversion” of Christianity, as Machen rightly points out. This is to say that Machen’s views of Roman Catholicism are limited and selective in scope, in need of more in-depth treatments that would nonetheless follow his theological approach to modern rivals of biblical Christianity.
After a century Christianity and Liberalism is as theologically sharp as it was then. Its analysis of the old Liberalism applies to the new liberal developments as well. While being aware of the “perversion” of Roman Catholicism, it lacks the same cutting edge in addressing what is at stake with Rome’s gospel. It is as if Machen sees the problem of Roman Catholicism but it’s not his main target nor the most severely perceived challenge. In celebrating this landmark book for evangelical theology, one can appreciate its strengths and its limitations which call for an on-going evangelical engagement with the flaws of Roman Catholicism and the need for a biblical reformation of its doctrines and practices.

[1]Christianity and Liberalism (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1923). I am following the new edition: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009. The number of pages will be reported directly in the main text.

[2] For my interpretation of Machen, I mainly rely upon George M. Marsden, “Understanding J. Gresham Machen”, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991) pp. 182-201; Terry Chrisope, Toward a Sure Faith. J. Gresham Machen and the Dilemma of Biblical Criticism (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2000) and D.G. Hart, Defending the Faith. J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publ. Co., 2003).

[3] Adolph von Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums (1900); What is Christianity, trans. T.B. Saunders (New York, NY: G.B. Putman’s Sons, 1901).

[4] For Machen’s views on Roman Catholic political and cultural stances in his time, see D.G. Hart, Still Protesting. Why The Reformation Still Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018) pp. 162-164. For a Roman Catholic rebuttal of fundamentalist criticism of Roman Catholicism (which is not necessarily descriptive of Machen’s approach), see Karl Keeting, Catholicism and Fundamentalism. The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988).

[5] “Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti of the Holy Father Francis on Fraternity and Social Friendship” (2020): https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html (accessed 16/02/2022).

214. Are We Together? A Brief Response to Eduardo Echeverria

I thank Eduardo Echeverria for his book Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants (Hobe Sound, FL: Lectio Publ., 2022) where he deals with my work and Gregg Allison’s writings on Roman Catholicism (RC). For an author it is always encouraging to find out that respected colleagues are interacting, albeit critically, with your research. Receiving pushback is also a welcome stimulus to address perceived weaknesses or real gaps or flaws in one’s own argument.

In this response I will not provide a comprehensive summary or review of the book, but instead will focus on what I think are its main critical (and weak) points. Not surprisingly, in a couple of reviews of the book that I read (on First Things by J. Daryl Charles and on Patheos by Anthony Costello) it was these critical points that attracted attention from the reviewers. In responding to Echeverria’s criticism, I hope to provide an instance of respectful dialogue that tries to understand what he is saying in the spirit of mutual correction under God’s Word. In my reading of his book, I think that the main issues at stake are the following:

1. Incommensurability?
Echeverria makes a great deal of the fact that my reading of RC is an instance of “meaning holism” (i.e. the language-system gives meaning to words and builds a closed frame of reference) that leads to the incommensurability between Catholicism and Protestantism. It is interesting that he uses a definition on “meaning holism” by Henry Jackman from an Encyclopedia of Philosophy and then sticks it to my work as if I would subscribe to it. I don’t and my work is far from it. For example, when I talk about “Revelation” I write that the Roman Catholic and the evangelical views “beyond some commonality” also carry “significant differences” (Same Words, Different Worlds, p. 32). There is commonality and there are differences. That means that the two views are comparable, that they have a degree of commonality in language and fundamental differences between them. Echeverria even quotes the above referred line (p.12), but he is so absorbed with his “meaning holism” that he does not see the point I am making: i.e. there is “some commonality”, and there are “significant differences”. The same is true as far as my critical reading of the Roman Catholic views of the cross, the Eucharist, unity, and Mary. I take the Roman Catholic position seriously (I hope) and see how it relates to the Evangelical one. Dr. Allison’s books on RC do the same thing for hundreds of pages covering all kinds of topics. Pace Echeverria, this is not “meaning holism” which posits incommensurability. RC and evangelicalism are indeed comparable, and, in my view, both should be subject to Scripture to ascertain their degree of faithfulness to God’s Word.

I think that from the outset Echeverria makes an epistemic faux pas by drawing a straw man (i.e. the “meaning holism” theologian), putting my name on the forehead, and then dismissing it. This is hardly compatible with basic scholarly practice. The problem is that he criticizes a position that I don’t hold to, and super-imposes it on my work with the effect of distorting what I plainly say. The issue is not that Catholicism and Protestantism are incommensurable; they are theologically different because their ultimate commitments are different. I try to argue that because the evangelical faith at its best is committed to Scripture alone as its ultimate authority, Roman Catholicism, while holding Scripture in high regard, is committed to Tradition which includes Scripture, but also exceeds it. This is why Roman Catholicism may use Biblical words (and indeed it does so!) but interprets it differently in all areas of Christian theology.

Our task as theologians is to clarify how it is possible that while using the same words, Roman Catholics and evangelicals end up in living in worlds that are seemingly similar, yet significantly different. My work is an exercise of comparative theology. Echeverria may legitimately disagree with my account of what the difference is and where it lies, but he should pay more attention to allowing me to speak in my terms rather than putting my work in the “meaning holism”-incommensurability box, which is not what I am doing.

2. Receptive Ecumenism?
Echeverria blames me for not practicing the kind of “receptive ecumenism” he advocates for, which would require participants to consider the various theological expressions as mutually complementary. He is right. I don’t practice this kind of “receptive ecumenism” because I consider RC as a biblically flawed system in need a reformation according to the Word of God. I don’t idealize evangelicalism, but at its best I consider it as being committed to the biblical gospel. Moreover, I don’t consider Roman Catholics, just because they are Roman Catholics, as “brothers and sisters” because I don’t believe that unity and fraternity are based on the sacrament of baptism (i.e. the view held by Rome, the World Council of Churches and that Echeverria makes his own, p. 179), but are gifts for believers in Jesus Christ.

I accept that Echeverria points to the fact that I don’t practice “receptive ecumenism”. What I find unsubstantiated is his claim that because my work does not fit the category of “receptive ecumenism” I must have no basis for engaging in ecumenical dialogue and am only driven by an attitude of antagonism and conflict (p.30). This is another faux pas. I have been involved in theological dialogues with Roman Catholic theologians for at least 25 years at local, national, and international levels in all kinds of contexts. I am part of theological discussions on an on-going basis in a friendly and respectful way. I am on friendly terms with many Roman Catholic theologians around the world. As far as I know this is also the case with Dr. Allison. Why then the dismissing of evangelical dialogue as an instance of emotional “anti-Catholicism” (p.179-183)?

Biblical unity does not equal Echeverria’s preferred option for “receptive ecumenism”. There are other ways of engaging dialogue. Having different theologies of unity does not entail being opposed to dialogue or cultivating a bitter spirit. It simply means accepting the fact that using the word “unity” or referring to our alleged “creedal basis” needs to be unpacked to see what it means and, more importantly, if it squares with biblical teaching. Outside of “receptive ecumenism” there is a world of biblically warranted possibilities to do theology at the service of evangelical unity.

3. No Grounds?
A final comment deserves to be made. After critically discussing the evangelical hermeneutics of Catholicism based on the Nature-Grace interdependence and the Christ-Church interconnection in chapters 4 and 5, Echeverria reaches the climax of his book when he writes “The two axioms of ‘nature and grace’ and the ‘Christ-church interconnection’ have no grounds as an interpretation of Roman Catholicism” (p. 172). No grounds? Apart from this dismissive statement sounding not in line with “receptive ecumenism” (what about the exchange of gifts? What about the dialogue of love?), it also looks overly proud and hastened. No grounds whatsoever?

On Nature and Grace there are entire theological libraries, and the motif has been considered an interpretative key of medieval, modern, and present-day Roman Catholic theology. Henri De Lubac[1] and Joseph Ratzinger[2] are just two examples of well-known contemporary RC theologians who underscore this point. It is one thing is to say “I don’t agree with your (De Chirico-Allison’s) account of the Nature-Grace interdependence and this is why”; but it is a very different thing is to say that Nature and Grace have no grounds for making sense of RC.

On the Christ-Church interconnection, again, it is neither myself nor Dr. Allison who claim its strategic role in the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a whole Roman Catholic theological tradition – from Johann A. Möhler[3] to Yves Congar[4] and beyond[5] – that has argued for it. I have simply taken notice of it. One could disagree with my study of it, but to dismiss it in its entirety seems a bit of a stretch.

After reading Echeverria’s book Are We Together?, I was encouraged to continue to work on an evangelical analysis of RC and do so in truth and love, as I have always tried to.

[1] e.g. his A Brief Catechesis on Nature and Grace (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1984).

[2] e.g. his studies on the people of God in Augustine and the theology of history in Bonaventure: Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirchen (München: Karl Zink, 1954) and Offenbarungsverständnis und Geschichtstheologie Bonaventuras (1955). The English edition of both books can be found in his Opera Omnia (Freiburg, Basel, Vienna: Herder Verlag, 2011), vol. 1 and 2 respectively.

[3] “the visible Church […] is the Son of God himself, everlastingly manifesting himself among men in a human form, perpetually renovated, and eternally young – the permanent incarnation of the same”, Symbolism or Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants as Evidenced by their Symbolic Writings (London: Gibbings & Co., 1906) 259.

[4] “the idea of seeing in the church the extension of the Incarnation was recurring in catholic theology (Saint Thomas Aquinas, S. Francis de Sales, Bousset, Fénelon, etc.)”; “Dogme christologique et écclesiologie”, Sainte Église. Etudes et approches ecclésiologiques (Paris: Cerf, 1963) 70.

[5] See R. Baglioni, La chiesa “continua incarnazione” del Verbo: da J.A. Möhler al Concilio Vaticano II (Napoli: Editrice Dominicana Italiana, 2013).

213. Why More Ecumenism? Ask Cardinal Kurt Koch

Ecumenism is one of those words which can mean different things to different people. When used by the Roman Catholic Church, it refers to a body of magisterial teachings as they are interpreted and embodied by the various sectors of the Church (e.g. Popes, Vatican curia, bishops, ecclesial movements). Apart from the primary reference points that can be found in the dedicated document of Vatican II (the decree Ad Gentes, 1965), the encyclical by John Paul II (Ut Unum Sint, 1995), and the Directory for the application of the principles and norms of ecumenism (1993), one source for coming to terms with the Roman Catholic understanding of ecumenism is the activity of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, in general, and the writings and initiatives of its President, in particular.

An Authoritative Voice of Roman Catholic Ecumenism
Since 2010, this position has been occupied by the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch. Considered a disciple of Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI, Koch has written several contributions that shed light on his interpretation of what Rome means by being committed to the ecumenical vision.[1] The latest opportunity to evaluate his theology of unity is given in his recent book Erneuerung und Einheit. Ein Plädoyer für mehr Ökumene (2018), which I have read in its Italian edition: Rinnovamento e unità. Perché serve più ecumenismo (Brescia: Queriniana, 2023).

The book is a collection of 9 papers presented at various conferences, all of them held around the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It is not only a window into present-day trends in Roman Catholic ecumenism, but it also provides an even more interesting case study for Protestants because of its special reference to the Reformation and its legacy. The contents of the book cover such important topics as the understanding of the terms “reform”/“reformation,” the contribution of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to the dialogue with Lutherans, the relevance of Luther’s religious quest, the role of the Word of God in the life of the church, the issue of apostolic succession, the prospect of the papacy in an ecumenical context, the controversy over indulgences then and now, a Roman Catholic reading of the “Heidelberg Catechism,” and the interpretation of the Council of Trent as a council of Catholic reform rather than the launching-pad of the “counter-reformation.”

A Negative View of the Reformation
These issues are classical topics at the center of Roman Catholic-Protestant dialogue. Overall, the reading of Cardinal Koch acknowledges the importance of some spiritual concerns raised by Luther and the Reformation, i.e. the personal element of the faith and the need for renewal in the church. He argues that the Council of Trent (1545-1563) had already responded to them, but it was at Vatican II (1962-1965) that Luther finally “found the Council he had invoked for” (p. 35). According to the Cardinal, Vatican II stressed the importance of the laity and the freedom to read the Bible in the vernacular languages, thus doing exactly what the German Reformer had advocated for. Overall, the motivations that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation were met and are no longer tenable outside of the Roman Catholic Church.

In Koch’s interpretation, while some Protestant concerns for renewal were valid, although being too radical and lacking patience, the outcome of the Reformation was utterly negative. He insists that the Reformation broke from “the basic structure of the sacramental-eucharistic and episcopal church” (p. 41). The Reformation is charged of having “broken,” “fractured,” and “divided” the church (e.g. pp. 48-49). Moreover, in separating from Rome, the Reformation is seen as having “changed the nature of the Church” (p. 49). Siding with the view of critical Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, Koch agrees that the Reformation was not a “success” but a “failure” in that it resulted in many churches having split with Rome.[2]

Other criticisms of the Reformation include that of Benedict XVI according to whom Luther absolutized his personal approach, thus “radicalizing the personalization of the act of faith” (p. 79) and discarding the church as an institution by reducing it to a “community” of people receiving the word (p. 82). For Benedict too, that of Luther was a “revolutionary rupture” (p. 83) where both terms are given extremely negative meanings.

In this bleak interpretation of the Reformation, Koch puts the blame on the “Scripture alone” principle (sola Scriptura). Again, citing Benedict as a theological authority, Koch argues that because the Word of God is more than Holy Scripture, “it precedes it, it is reflected in it, but it is not simply identifiable with it” (p. 127). “Scripture alone” is therefore a “foreign concept” to Roman Catholic theology (p. 132).

What about Ecumenism Then?
It is true that Cardinal Koch says that the Roman Catholic commitment to ecumenism is a journey of no return. It is also true that he welcomes the results of Lutheran-Catholic dialogues and hopes for future and better outcomes. However, as the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, he is theologically honest when he maintains a severely negative assessment of the Reformation and its core principles, especially the “Scripture alone” one. In his view, how the Reformation was partly correct has already been integrated by Roman Catholicism at Trent and Vatican II. The rest of the Reformation legacy needs to be rejected because it undermines the heart of Roman Catholicism. According to this view, Rome can renew itself from within, having already experienced some renewal in the past, but it needs to stand firm on its sacramental-eucharistic and episcopal nature which the Reformation has questioned on biblical grounds.

Thinking of the 5th centenary of the Reformation, because of these standing and unresolved important issues, it is no surprise that Koch explains that Rome could not “celebrate” it, but only “commemorate” it as a historical event. He calls for “more ecumenism.” For him, however, ecumenism is a way to overcome the Reformation, not a journey to embrace its evangelical principles.

Cardinal Koch’s book is a valuable contribution to understanding present-day Roman Catholic attitudes towards ecumenism. Since it originates from the head of the Vatican department whose task is the promotion of Christian unity, it reflects the official Roman Catholic stance towards the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and today’s evangelical churches. While acknowledging some value to certain concerns expressed five centuries ago, Koch maintains that the overall impact of the Reformation has been negative and should be considered as overcome by what Rome went through at the Council of Trent and Vatican II. According to Koch, the Roman Catholic Church is able to renew itself from within. What is at stake is the question: is the Reformation over? For Cardinal Koch the answer is yes. Do evangelical Protestants agree?