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?

212. 10 years of Francis: “Under his papacy, the Roman Church has become more ‘catholic’ than ever before”

[Published in: Evangelical Focus – world – 10 years of Francis: “Under his papacy, the Roman Church has become more ‘catholic’ than ever before”]

This March marks the tenth anniversary of Francis’ papacy.

After becoming the first cardinal to become pope through the resignation of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s leadership has found himself constantly at the centre of media attention.

His inclusiveness and lack of clarity on certain issues has caused concern among the most conservative sectors of the Roman Catholic Church.

On the other hand, the absence of specific decisions has led some of the more liberal circles to return to the synodal path, especially in Germany.

Faced with a clear retreat from its historical geographical dominance, Francis’ emphasis on the Southern hemisphere of the planet is shown in his recent renewal of the Council of Cardinals (his closest advisory body) with names such as the Archbishop of San Salvador de Bahía, Sérgio da Rocha, the Archbishop of Kinshasa, Fridolin Ambongo, the Archbishop of Bombay, Oswald Gracias.

Spanish news website Protestante Digital talked with the Italian evangelical pastor, theologian and an expert in Roman Catholicism based in Rome, Leonardo De Chirico, about the ten yeas of papacy of Francis.

Question. Ten years after his election, how do you assess Francis’ papacy?

Answer. There are several angles we could take to evaluate the 10 years of his papacy. Here are three.

From the global point of view, he was elected to divert the attention of the Roman Catholic church from the secularizing West (where Roman Catholicism is in decline) to the Global South (where in some places like Africa it has potential to grow).

His 40 international journeys witnessed to his attention given to African and Asian countries. The appointments of cardinals were also made following a similar criterion. Under Francis the center of gravity shifted towards the Global South.

From the doctrinal viewpoint, his three encyclicals (e.g. Laudato si and All Brothers) and his apostolic exhortations (the most important ones being The Joy of the Gospel on mission and Amor Laetitia on the family) indicate a shift of the Catholic magisterium towards becoming more “catholic” (i.e. inclusive, Global South, absorbing, focused on social issues) and less “Roman” (i.e. centered on Catholic distinctives).

Francis has lowered the traditional Roman Catholic identity markers (sacraments, hierarchy) for all people (e.g. practicing, not practicing, believing, not believing, people in ‘disordered’ lifestyles) to be included and to feel they “belong” to the church.

When Francis talks about “mission” he has in mind this sense of inclusion, regardless of gospel criteria. Under Francis the Roman Catholic Church has become more “catholic” than ever in its long history.

As a matter of fact, in spite of his inclusiveness, Catholic churches are empty, and numbers are declining in the West.

Organizationally speaking, he has launched the “synodal” process whereby he wants his church to be less centralized and with more participation from the peripheries.

Germany has taken him seriously (perhaps too seriously!) and its “synodal” path is advancing proposals such as the blessing to homosexual relationships and the ordination of women to the priesthood that are considered to be disruptive.

As Francis seems committed to synodality on the one hand, his style of leadership appears to be centralizing, moody and unpredictable, on the other.

Q. It seems that his papacy has especially highlighted the differences in the leadership of the Catholic Church. To what extent is the Holy See more polarized?

A. Every pope has had his internal enemies. John Paul II was not liked by some progressive circles. Benedict XVI was criticized every time he spoke. Francis has received pushback from cardinals, theologians, and important sectors of Roman Catholicism, especially in the USA but also in Australia (e.g. the late cardinal Pell) and Germany (e.g. cardinal Müller).

They are concerned with the erosion of Roman Catholic identity based on traditional doctrines and practices being replaced with an “all brothers” kind of mindset where almost anything goes.

Some mismanagement by Francis in financial and leadership decisions has also created an atmosphere of distrust in the Vatican.

Q. An uncertain financial situation in the Vatican Bank; issues such as same-sex marriage; the opening of the priesthood to women, etc. What are the main challenges you think he will focus on?

A. In 2023 and 2024 he will convene the Synod on synodality and I think this will be the test case of his whole papacy.

Some proposals coming not only from Germany, but from the grassroots of other Roman Catholic provinces, want to bring radical changes on some of the traditional identity-markers of the Church (e.g. view of sexuality, access to the sacraments, priesthood).

Unfortunately, none of them indicate that there is an “evangelical” move in the Roman Church. They are all aimed at making the church more “catholic” but they are not open to a biblical reformation.

Francis has brought his Church to a time when decisions need to be made. As a good Jesuit, he has resisted making decisions so far, being more willing to activate long-term processes.

Q. Francis just went to the just went to RD Congo and South Sudan to ask for peace in two war territories. He has talked about the Amazon, climate change and the war in Ukraine. To what extent is the Vatican’s role as an international mediator becoming more and more defined?

A. Francis has become the spokesperson of the world religions on issues like migration, the environment, and peace, less so on issues like the protection of life. All of this in the context of his understanding of inter-faith dialogue.

His Document on human fraternity (2019) signed with Muslim leaders epitomizes his insistence on the whole of humanity made by “brothers and sisters” who are called to walk, work and pray together regardless faith in Christ. Certainly, the political role of the Vatican has become more relevant and central; its theological profile has further lost Christian distinctiveness.

Q. Francis’ papacy is marked by the Fratelli Tutti mentality. He has no longer referred to Protestants as “separated brethren”. What are the implications of his relationship with other religions and what can we still expect?

A. Francis has bluntly re-defined what it means to be “brothers and sisters”. He has extended “fraternity” to all those who live “under the sun”, i.e. “the one human family”. Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, Protestants … are all “all brothers”.

That is his interpretation of what Vatican II meant with the Church being “the sacrament of unity between God and mankind” (Lumen Gentium 1). The re-definition of what it means to be brothers and sisters is an attempt to blur what the Bible expects us to distinguish.

Our common humanity takes over the spiritual connotation of being “in Christ” as the basis for the shared fraternity. Francis pushes this unbiblical approach in his ecumenical endeavors and inter-faith initiatives.

Contrary to what Francis thinks, there is no reason to distort the plain words of Scripture: fraternity is a relationship shared by those who are “in Christ”. Moreover, a biblically defined neighborhood is more than sufficient to promote civic engagement and peaceful co-existence with all men and women.

Evangelical protestants should be aware that when Francis speaks of “unity” he does not have in mind unity in the gospel, but unity of the whole of mankind.

211. The Spiritual Testament of Benedict XVI. Against the Protestant sola fide

“Almost a spiritual testament.” This is the subtitle of the book published by one of the great Roman Catholic theologians of the twentieth century who then became pope of the Roman Church, Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI (1927-2022), after his death. The book (Che cos’è il cristianesimo. Quasi un testamento spirituale, Italian edition: 2023) is a collection of fifteen essays, short papers, and letters which were written after his resignation from the papacy in 2013. Four of them are unpublished whereas the others had already been published elsewhere. The late German pope wanted these essays to be put together and made public after his death and entrusted the project to Elio Guerriero, one of his biographers. Because of the post-resignation period to which they belong and the desire of the pope emeritus for them to appear posthumously, the book is subtitled “Almost a spiritual testament.”  
The First and the Last Book
What is Christianity (the title of the book) resembles the title given to the most famous book of his prestigious career: Introduction to Christianity (1968). This volume had multiple reprints and several editions in other languages. With it, Ratzinger became a “star” of the theological world outside of the small academic circles of German universities. It is curious that the first book and the last book of his life seem to be linked by their titles. With the Introduction, Ratzinger wanted to give a robust presentation of the Roman Catholic theology that had come out of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He wished to dispel possible misunderstandings about Vatican II having been a “rupture” from traditional Roman Catholicism and re-affirm its continuity within the mainstream Roman Catholic theology of all ages. At the end of his life, in What is Christianity, the late Ratzinger wants to make sure Roman Catholic Christianity is warned not to become “protestant” or “secular.” On the contrary, he wants his church to maintain its Roman Catholic identity, especially in its relationship with other religions (e.g. Islam, Judaism), its theology of the priesthood, and the sacramental nature of the Eucharist.
The two books are “apologetic” in nature: both want to associate Christianity strongly with Roman Catholicism, implying at least that the two are really one and the same. According to Ratzinger, Christianity is Roman Catholicism and vice versa. This was his conviction from the beginning to the end of his life. Besides their similarity, there are obvious differences between the two books. The first is an organic, scholarly, and comprehensive treatment; the second is a collection of different pieces, mainly describable as spiritual meditations. The theological weight of the latter is lighter than the former even though the concern to preserve the integrity of Roman Catholic Christianity is the same.

Two Perceived Threats
The danger of secularization is particularly evident in the chapter on the Church and the scandals of sexual abuse (pp. 143-160). There Ratzinger tells of how the sexual revolution in the sixties entered the seminaries and how the gradual erosion of Roman Catholic moral theology concurred with the lowering of the ethical standards of Catholic priests, especially in the West. Nothing is really new here.
What is more striking is the other perceived danger by the late Benedict XVI, i.e. the “protestantization” of the Roman Catholic Church (p. 127). Ratzinger sees the slippery slope towards the Roman Church becoming influenced by the Reformation in three areas which are briefly touched upon in the book: the theology of the priesthood, justification by faith alone, and the significance of Communion. It is no coincidence that the two lengthier and weightier chapters of the book are dedicated to the priesthood (pp. 96-122) and to the meaning of the Eucharist (pp. 123-140). In dealing with these topics, Ratzinger seems to have in mind the present-day situation of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. Theologically though, it is sola fide (and Martin Luther behind it) that is considered the chief negative inspirator of these worrying trends.
Attacking sola fide
Ratzinger is concerned that Luther’s interpretation of the Christian ministry as mainly characterized by preaching, prayer, and pastoral care is becoming widespread in Catholic circles too (pp. 97-98). In this Protestant understanding, the minister is not a priest offering a sacrifice on behalf of the people, but a leader guiding the church through the Word. What is missing, according to Ratzinger, is the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and the mediatorial role of the priest representing the hierarchical church standing between God and humanity.
According to him, the ultimate problem of this view is Luther’s sola fide (faith alone). It is true that Ratzinger takes issue with sola Scriptura as well (p. 38), siding with the German liberal theologian Adolf Von Harnack who criticized the “formal principle” of the Reformation as non-sensical. Benedict shares the rejection of the “Scripture alone” principle, but he does not elaborate on it. His main target is sola fide (the “material principle” of the Reformation).
Sola fide is the biblical principle rediscovered by Luther and the Protestant Reformation whereby Jesus Christ with His sacrifice on the cross has accomplished the sacrificial system and has fulfilled the priestly role as mediator. Salvation is therefore not through the works of the law nor through the agency of the temple/church with its hierarchy, but by faith alone in Christ alone.

Luther child of Marcion?
Benedict XVI argues that “sola fide, in Luther’s sense, was never taught in the ancient church” (p. 99) but was actually promoted by Marcion, the second-century heretic who contrasted the God of the Old Testament (characterized by selfish holiness and anger) and the God of the New Testament (characterized by love and forgiveness). Ratzinger sees Luther as a child of Marcion (also on p. 133-134) because the German reformer did not reiterate the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, but considered it fulfilled and overcome by the sacrifice of Christ whose benefits can be received by faith alone (p. 107). In the Roman Catholic view, while paying lip service to the “once-and-for-all” sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the Mass is still seen as a “sacrifice” that is offered and mediated by the priest who is part of a hierarchical system. Ratzinger wants to ground the Catholic view on the Letter to the Hebrews, Psalm 16:5, and Deuteronomy 10:8 (pp. 110-122), but his interpretation of these passages is faulty and only proves what is already assumed in the first place. While Hebrews clearly says that the new covenant abolishes the sacrificial system, Benedict says that it also reiterates it. Psalm 16:5 is hardly proof of the Roman Catholic theology of priesthood, and Deuteronomy 10:8 talks about the Levite priests. On the whole, his biblical interpretation of Hebrews contradicts the plain meaning of the text, and the other two passages are inconclusive for the topic.
The Marcionist origin of sola fide is also seen by Benedict in the Protestant account of salvation. According to Ratzinger, Luther failed to see that redemption is “becoming one thing with the love of Jesus Christ” (p. 100); moreover, Luther’s doctrine of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner) does not change man but only adds an external layer (p. 133). Evidently, the late pope did not appreciate the fact that the doctrine of justification says that we are declared righteous based on Christ’s righteousness, but it makes room for the biblical doctrine of union with Christ, regeneration, and sanctification whereby we are united with Christ and changed into His image. Not only is Luther associated with Marcion and made a heretic, but the Protestant position is here caricatured and made a strawman.
The (Catholic) Eucharist is “completely different” from the (Protestant) Supper
There is more. Sola fide is also responsible for another mistake of the Protestant Reformation, i.e. its theology of the Lord’s Supper in contrast to the Roman Catholic view of the Mass. Here is how Ratzinger explains the difference: “In the Protestant interpretation the Eucharist is only a meal … while for the Catholic faith in the Eucharist the entire process of the gift of Jesus in his death and resurrection is always present” (p. 131). Between the two accounts, there is a “profound difference” (p. 128, p. 133). Actually, there is a “fundamental contrast” (p. 132). According to Ratzinger, the absence of transformation of the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Jesus reflects the “most profound difference between the Protestant interpretation of what it means to be a Christian and the Catholic faith” (p. 133).
In Benedict’s view of Protestantism “becoming a Christian does not change man, but only adds to him something else” (p. 133). As the justified man is not changed, so the bread and the wine are not changed. For Roman Catholicism, on the contrary, being saved means to become righteous, and the Eucharist is the transformation of the substance of bread and wine into something else. Again, Ratzinger said, “It is absolutely evident that the Supper and the Mass are two completely different forms of worship which exclude one another because of their nature” (p. 98).
This harsh view of the Protestant faith may come as a surprise to some readers but is nothing new. It has always been a mark of Ratzinger’s theology. His robust Roman Catholic orthodoxy has always found the sola Scriptura and sola fide principles of the Reformation utterly unpalatable. Certainly, he was critical of Liberal Protestantism, but he was equally dismissive of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation and of evangelicals.
After his death, in painting a rather one-sided picture of Benedict as a champion of Christian orthodoxy, some have argued that “Benedict can and should become a teacher to many more Protestants” (Tim Perry, “Pope Benedict: A Brief Protestant Requiem”Ad Fontes, Jan 2, 2023). Well, yes and no. Yes, because we should be open to learning from anyone, even from the opponents of the evangelical faith. No, because despite his conservative theology, as his spiritual testament clearly shows, his thought was shaped around anti-Protestant commitments and, ultimately, around non-biblical principles.

210. Four Tips for Communicating the Gospel to Roman Catholics

For most Evangelicals around the world, the issue of Roman Catholicism arises if and when they are dealing with friends, neighbors, family members, or colleagues who are Roman Catholic and with whom they want to share the gospel. Their interest in Roman Catholicism has primarily an evangelistic thrust rather than a theological one. They want to know “how to” share the gospel in a meaningful way, rather than asking questions about the nature of the Roman Catholic system and how it differs from the evangelical faith. This is understandable given the fact that some look for ready-to-use “practical” help rather than seeking to approach Roman Catholicism as an integrated whole to be carefully studied. Of course, even when one’s own initial concern is to witness to Roman Catholics, some theological homework always needs to be done when communicating the gospel.
Here are four tips which could be of some help in engaging Roman Catholics with the gospel. They are neither a four-step process nor a recipe for success. They are rather lessons that I have learned over the years in sharing the gospel with Roman Catholics.
Practical Tip #1: Don’t assume or rely on common language
Roman Catholics share much of our vocabulary, but they understand it differently. For example, if you think of words such as salvation, cross, sin, and grace, they are all the same terms that the Bible uses, but Roman Catholics understand them very differently. Salvation is thought of as an open-ended process where our works and the merits we gain are necessary for it to be received. The cross is understood more as the eucharist celebrated by the priest than the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. Sin is seen more as a sickness than spiritual death. We could go on and on. The point is that the same words have different meanings.
Instead of relying on an alleged common ground (that is more rhetorical than real), let the Bible define your language and lead your conversation: engage your Roman Catholic friends in Bible reading, Bible study, and Bible conversations as much as possible. Don’t approach them with an “us” versus “them” attitude but invite them to be exposed to Scripture and pray that the Holy Spirit will open their hearts.
There may be “fears” of the Bible (remember that the Bible was a forbidden book for Catholics up to 60 years ago) and “skepticism” around it (absorbed via modern critical readings), but the Word of God is powerful to break through in people’s hearts.


Practical Tip #2: Be prepared to wrestle with the exclusive nature of the Gospel
As you read or share Scripture together with your Catholic friends, all kinds of interesting conversations will come up. Usually, they will revolve around the sharp edges of the gospel. 
For example, Roman Catholics may have a high respect for the Bible, but for them, it’s not the ultimate authority. When confronted with something the Bible says that contradicts what their church teaches, they will rather question the authority of Scripture than the authority of the Roman Church. Moreover, Roman Catholics do commend believing in Jesus, but faith in Christ is not sufficient to be saved: something more needs to be done by men and women. Additionally, Roman Catholics often show a kind of love for Christ, but they also rely on other sub-mediators (e.g. Mary, the saints) who detract attention from Him. In other words, what is at stake with them is the rejection of the Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, and Christ Alone principles of the biblical faith.
Practical Tip #3: Be ready to show the personal elements of the Christian life
In reading the Bible together, make sure to share how the Bible impacts your life. In other words, combine biblical reading with your personal testimony. This step will be very helpful because it will encourage your friends to move:

  • Beyond religion: Nominal Roman Catholics tend to separate “normal life” from religion. Make sure you carefully show the impact of the Word on daily life, e.g. personal experience, work, church, and society.
  • Beyond tradition: Roman Catholics tend to see religion as a set of practices to be repeated. Show the centrality of the relationship with Jesus who is the Lord of the whole of life.
  • Beyond the divide of the clergy/laity: Many Catholics tend to consider religion as a responsibility of the clergy that lay people don’t have. Show the fact that we are all responsible to nurture our Christian life in personal devotion and witness.

Practical Tip #4: Be prepared to integrate personal witness and church life
Engaging in Bible reading and showing the power of the gospel in life cannot be limited to our individual lives only. Invite other Christian friends into the conversation to show how the gospel creates communities of followers of Jesus. Remember:

  • Believing and belonging go together. Roman Catholics tend to emphasize the latter at the expense of the former. Show the reality that the gospel forms a new community (i.e. the church). Invite them to church to see what a community of the gospel looks like.
  • The importance of the ordinances instituted by Jesus Christ for the church, especially the Lord’s supper. Catholics are not used to “listening” as their primary way of receiving a message; their religious mindset is shaped to see and experience through the other senses (e.g. sight, touch, taste) and in the context of community. Your local church services are wonderful evangelistic tools to invite your friends to see and experience. 

Every conversion to Christ is a miracle. As you communicate the gospel to your Roman Catholic friends, pray that God will move in their hearts to open them to see the truth of the gospel and to respond to its message in obedience and faith.