225. What is at Stake with the Roman Catholic View of the Church? Ask Professor Henri Blocher

Opening a book by Henri Blocher is like being invited to a wedding dinner. It is a theologically and culturally rich, tasty, and challenging experience. I consider Blocher among the top four living evangelical systematic theologians, along with John Frame, Paul Wells and Pietro Bolognesi. So, the release of his latest book La doctrine de l’Église e des sacrements, vol. 1 (Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2023), is a feast for theology, all the more so because it is a work (the one on ecclesiology) long awaited by the Parisian theologian (while we wait for the second volume on the sacraments).
 
The book consists of two parts. In the first, Blocher expounds on the biblical data, while in the second, he analyzes three types of church conceptions and models: the Catholic, the Reformed (paedobaptist) and the Confessing (credobaptist). This article will gloss over much of the book to focus on the section regarding Roman Catholic ecclesiology.
 
Blocher does not enter the conversation as a novice. In his long theological career, he has participated in international and national (French) dialogues between Catholic and evangelical theologians, and was among the leading architects of the 1986 World Evangelical Fellowship (now Alliance) “Roman Catholicism. A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective”, edited by Paul G. Schrotenboer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publ., 1998), which contains a solid evangelical assessment of Roman Catholicism. In this section of his book, Blocher offers a thoughtful theological analysis that is the fruit of a lifetime of study and interactions with Roman Catholic theology.
 
Methodologically, in addition to Roman Catholic magisterial texts (above all Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium), Blocher constantly interacts with Y. Congar (“a theologian of exceptional breadth and finesse,” p. 108), A. Dulles, H. De Lubac, B. Sesboüé and W. Kasper: practically the best and most representative Roman Catholic ecclesiological reflection since the Second Vatican Council. In the background, there is a constant focus on Thomas Aquinas, who “embodies the Catholic option in theology” par excellence (p. 109). Among evangelical authors, Blocher acknowledges a particular debt to Alain Nisus (p. 7), author of L’Église comme communion et comme institution. Une lecture de l’ecclésiologie du cardinal Congar à partir de la tradition des Églises de professants (Paris: Cerf, 2012): a “fundamental work” (p. 108, n. 2). In the Protestant camp, Blocher treats Vittorio Subilia’s work, e.g. The Problem of Catholicism (London: SCM, 1964) and Le Nouveau Visage du Catholicisme (Genève: Labor et Fides, 1968) with great respect as it expounds an “in depth critique of conservative Barthian inspiration” (p. 105). Blocher reads Subilia’s interpretation of Roman Catholicism very carefully and generally approvingly, except to point out that for the Italian Waldensian theologian, his rejection of Catholic temple theology also means the Barthian rejection of the “deposit” of biblical revelation (pp. 150-151). For Blocher, the restlessness of dialectical theology concerning the inspired status of Scripture is not the evangelical position: while the latter criticizes the Roman Catholic reconstruction of the temple system (with its sacerdotalism, ritualism and church mediation), it receives the Bible as the written Word of God, the stable and reliable record of divine Revelation.
 
Blocher’s analysis of Roman Catholic ecclesiology is an ordered one. First, he focuses on the “heart” of it, that is, the conception of the church as a “continuation of the Incarnation” in its various articulations (body of Christ, mystery, sacrament, church and Mary). He then dwells on the “main dualities” present in Catholic ecclesiology (institution and community, pilgrimage and glory, church and society); third, he suggests four critical remarks that summarize an evangelical evaluation: 1) the exaltation of the human, 2) the attack on God’s rights, 3) the monophysite temptation, 4) the weakening of the significance of the biblical “once-and-for-all.”
 
At the “Heart” of Roman Catholic Ecclesiology
Given the breadth and historical stratification of Roman Catholic ecclesiology, one could get lost in the meanderings of individual aspects. To prevent the risk of an atomistic reading, Blocher argues that Roman Catholic ecclesiology has a pulsating “heart” from which everything else radiates and that this heart is the conception of the church as a “continued incarnation” or prolonged incarnation. It is affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 521), evoked by Lumen Gentium (nos. 8, 48 and 52), and argued with different nuances and accents by such modern theologians as J. Möhler, J.H. Newman, M.-J. Scheeben and Y. Congar. Some emphasize the “theandric” (divine and human) nature of the church, some the almost symmetric convertibility between Christ and the church, some the mystical indwelling of Christ in the church, others the continuation of the story of Jesus in the church’s sacramental life …
 
It is true that in recent years there are those who, like Congar, have argued that the relationship should be thought of with the mediation of pneumatology, i.e. the church continues the incarnation of Christ in the Spirit. Others, like W. Kasper, are more reticent to employ it and, if they do, use it with sophisticated clarifications. The ecclesiological point is that the church as an extension of the incarnation remains a “pertinent” (p. 110) category for touching the heart of the Roman Catholic church’s self-understanding. From it, the following definitions of church find their roots and framework of reference:
 
– the “body of Christ” (pp. 114-115) which Catholicism bungles by not correctly distinguishing the “head,” i.e., Christ, and the “body,” i.e., the church, and thus maintaining the ambiguity of the “total Christ” introduced by Augustine.
 
– the church as “mystery” (pp. 115-116); Roman Catholicism uses it plastically and fluidly to speak of the actualization of Christ in the church and His making himself present in the church’s sacramental life.
 
– the church as “sacrament” (pp. 116-117); Catholic theology employs it in a participatory way to emphasize the co-participation between Christ and the church and the sacramental mediation of grace.
 
– the church as a reality defined by the Marian principle (pp. 120-122) through which Mary is seen as the “type” of the church and the church is seen as prototyped in Mary.
 
As a systematician, Blocher aims to penetrate Catholic ecclesiology, not just by piling up data. He dissects its internal structure and tries to grasp the connections that legitimize Rome’s high view of itself and its inflated prerogatives.
 
Roman Catholic Dualities
Relying on Congar, Blocher recognizes that Roman Catholic ecclesiology is crossed by some dualities that give it both solidity and elasticity.
 
First is its dialectic between institution and community (pp. 122-131). In the Roman Catholic conception of the church, there is the clergy and the laity, the hierarchical institution and the Catholic communion, the Roman monarchical primacy and the universal catholicity, the teaching church and the hearing church, the sacramental structure and the people of God, the perfect society and the gathered humanity, the universal church and the particular church. The duality is not a matter of degrees but of a genuine diversity of essence between the two poles.
 
This first duality grounds the second, which allows the Roman Catholic church to think of itself simultaneously as militant and triumphant, as an “already” all accomplished and a “not yet” in the making (pp. 131-134). Its unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity are thought of within this elastic duality. In doing so, Roman Catholic ecclesiology has developed an outstanding ability to bring opposites together: a robust theology of complexio oppositorum (p. 133), i.e. unity of opposites.
 
The third Roman Catholic duality involves the church and society (pp. 134-139), the internal and external boundaries, its juridical constitution and its all-encompassing horizon. The Catholic church thinks of itself at the center of an ecumenical project that embraces the “separated brethren” (no longer considered heretics or excommunicated), viewing in them “elements” of the church and at therefore including them within an even bigger “catholic” vision that envelops all of society. Rome wants to “dialogue” with the world to pilot its progress toward unity. After Vatican II, it is no longer a matter of reconstructing a lost “medieval synthesis” (p. 138), but of encouraging increasingly advanced forms of catholicity.
 
Four Critical Evangelical Remarks
Blocher acknowledges that this system has “great persuasive power” (p. 139) but is based on “insufficient” biblical foundations that have led to “ambiguities in its construction” (p. 113). He suggests four observations for critically evaluating Roman Catholic ecclesiology from a biblical perspective. Let us briefly review them:
 
1. The too-human exaltation of the human (pp. 140-148)
As the Bible teaches, one recognizes the tree by its fruit. If one looks at the “products” of Catholic ecclesiology such as the inflated Mariology and the institutionalized papacy, one cannot help but take note of the departure from biblical principles that led to the “impossibility of scriptural verification of dogmas” (p. 141). In Roman Catholicism, biblical data are used in a manner that robs Scripture of its full sovereignty as a critical instance over the church. Historical processes and evolutions of dogma have taken over from biblical “evidence” resulting in a construction that has lost sight of the roots of God’s Word. In exalting what is human, it endangers (with the risk of breaking?) the distinction between Creator and creature.
 
2. The attack on God’s rights (pp. 148-151)
Blocher aligns himself with the classical Protestant (also Barthian) critique that Roman Catholicism attacks God’s freedom and robs him of his glory, which is then attributed to the creature, of whom Mary is the emblem and the church the institutional embodiment. The three great maxims of the Protestant Reformation (sola Scripturasola fide and sola gratia) capture the heart of the evangelical critique in that they want to safeguard God’s “jealousy” (p. 149). Following Herman Dooyeweerd’s categories of the nature-grace ground motif, this does not mean pitting nature and grace against each other (the risk of Barthianism) or even synthesizing them (the risk of Roman Catholicism): both are symmetrical errors. It means being guided by Scripture that, in dealing with the relationship between God and humankind, accentuates “the language of exclusion over that of inclusion” (p. 149).
 
3. The Monophysite (one nature, namely the divine one) temptation (pp. 151-152)
The concept of the church as a continued incarnation touches Christology and, in particular, the hypostatic union. In Roman Catholicism, a “larval monophysitism” manifests itself, i.e., the church is attributed divine traits that override human ones. Blocher agrees with Congar that the disagreements between Protestants and Catholics have their root in the different role attributed to Christ’s humanity and, therefore, must come to terms with the interpretation of the Chalcedonian dogma, whereby the two natures of Christ are confessed as related “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”.
 
The point is that the problem with Roman Catholicism is not only in the different understandings of Christ’s work but also in His person. The overemphasis on Christ’s divinity extended to the Church is at stake. Here, respectfully, a note should be made to Blocher. Earlier, he had spoken of an important agreement between Protestantism and Catholicism on the dogmas of the Trinity, incarnation, virgin birth and resurrection. At the same time, the difference is traceable to the areas of grace and sacraments (above all: the eucharist). In support of this view, he cites works (such as those by Geisler and Mackenzie and those related to the French Catholic-Evangelical dialogues, p. 140, n. 1)[1] that are atomistic, i.e., they put together pieces of the issue without offering an overall framework to understand the big picture theologically. From these books it appears that Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have in common the same Christology and Trinitarian theology.

In contrast, the matter of contention concerns soteriology and ecclesiology. But then, as we have seen, Blocher argues that the underlying problem lies in the different interpretation of the Christology of Chalcedon, which, contrary to earlier assertions, is all about Christology (and implicitly Trinitarian theology) and not only about grace and the church. Blocher seems to move between an atomistic and a systemic understanding of the underlying problem. While the entire section of the book tends toward the latter until concluding with the critical statement that “Roman theology is too little Trinitarian” (p. 156), he fails to see the apparent limitations of the former. Perhaps it is the case that the unresolved issues with Roman Catholicism appear more clearly in soteriology and ecclesiology but are rooted in deeper Trinitarian and Christological differences.
 
4. The Weakening of the Significance of the Biblical “once-and-for-all” (pp. 152-156)
The last suggested critical remark concerns the erroneous Roman Catholic understanding of the biblical éphapax: once-and-for-all. Driven by an eagerness to actualize and make grace present in the church’s action, Roman Catholicism makes fluid and open-ended what should instead be considered a once-and-for-all event: both the once-and-for-all events of the cross and the ascension of Jesus Christ mark a watershed in the economy of salvation. Since the Roman church is thought of as prolonging the incarnation, Christ’s vicar is the pope, and Christ’s grace is the sacraments. Quoting Tertullian, Blocher argues that the only vicar of the risen Christ is the Holy Spirit (p. 154) and that, if anything, the only prolongation that took place is the Word of Christ, i.e. Scripture.
 
Blocher’s analysis of Roman Catholic ecclesiology should be read and studied by all evangelicals who aspire to “dialogue” with Roman Catholicism at every level: local, national, and international. They would gain depth in their ability to penetrate the “heart” of the Catholic system without getting lost in embarrassing theological naiveté that damage the cause of evangelical witness. With his style and finesse, Henri Blocher has enriched contemporary evangelical theology with a contribution that lives up to his reputation.


[1] N.L. Geisler & R.E. Mackenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995) and P. Le Vallois & D. Bresch, Des catholiques et des évangéliques se questionnent mutuellement (Charols: Excelsis, 2014).

224. Why Zygmunt Bauman saw “the light at the end of the tunnel” in Pope Francis

“You are the light at the end of the tunnel.” This is how Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) addressed Pope Francis during their meeting in Assisi in 2016 on the sidelines of a Sant’Egidio (i.e. a Roman Catholic charity) peace initiative. In his conversation with Francis, Bauman said, “I have worked all my life to make humanity a more hospitable place. I arrived at the age of 91 and I have seen many false starts, until I became a pessimist. Thank you, because you are for me the light at the end of the tunnel.”
 
How did the sociologist most known for his books on the “liquid society” happen to see the “light” in the Pope? The book by Zeger Polhuijs, Zygmunt Bauman and Pope Francis in Dialogue: the Labyrinth of Liquid Modernity (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2022) examines the long-distance intellectual relationship between the two. Polhuijs is a Roman Catholic priest of the Community of Sant’Egidio and currently studies fundamental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. The book was presented at the Roman campus of the Australian Catholic University on 28th November 2023 and allows more digging into the matter.
 
Bauman’s attraction to Pope Francis is an episode that shows an interesting and widespread tendency in contemporary culture: how post-Marxist intellectuals, disillusioned by the failures of ideologies and preoccupied with the explosions of world fragmentation, find in Pope Francis a figure who, with his message of mercy, inclusion, and fraternity, instills hope in the general dullness.
 
Returning to Polhuijs’ book, it highlights how, in his examination of the ills of the contemporary world, Francis uses Bauman’s language and, conversely, the sociologist’s analyses overlap with the pope’s. There is a certain parallelism between them. Bauman, an agnostic, Jewish, post-Marxist, was attracted to Francis’ open and concrete thinking and the “transcendence” of the human fraternity he presents. In it, Bauman sees the awareness of the danger of the globalization of indifference, which is an effect of the liquid society, disengaged from traditional values and which has lost all sense of proximity. The antidote to liquidity is not a nostalgic and definitively lost solidity (Francis would call it “backwardism,” “clericalism,” “proselytism”), but solidarity among all: believers and non-believers. To contrast the adverse effects of liquid society, one does not need a common reference to God, but the appreciation of human fraternity.
 
For Bauman, Francis embodies this: not a reactionary religious voice saying to go back to traditional society or the Catholic church as the only agency that grants happiness for the afterlife, but an encouragement to connect with everyone by discovering the closeness of solidarity, regardless of one’s beliefs, religious commitments, or life practices. “The light at the end of the tunnel” is a new form of humanism that Francis seems to champion.
 
The proximity between Bauman and Pope Francis was indirectly observed by the conservative American intellectual George Weigel when he coined the term “liquid Roman Catholicism” as a description of the kind of Roman Catholicism that is emerging under Francis. Liquid Catholicism is marked by the uncertain teaching on doctrinal and moral subjects of primary importance; a kind of intolerance towards the pre-conciliar liturgy; the constant pickaxing of the Roman Catholic institution with repeated criticism of clericalism; the ways the Pope acts outside the box that destabilize customs; the welcoming and merciful message at the expense of the doctrinal and moral requirements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc. All of this makes Francis a pope who is liquifying an institution that in the past has made its rocky and immutable structure a distinctive trait of its identity.
 
Liquid Catholicism embraces believers, non-believers, Christians, non-Christians, practicing and non-practicing religious people. The important thing is that all are included. Everyone, in his or her own way, will decide the ways and times of their participation, but the assumption is that everyone is already a participant. Not surprisingly, Roman Catholics accustomed to thinking of their Church in terms of doctrinal clarity, unambiguousness of interpretations, and predictability of practices are puzzled by Pope Francis.
 
The point I want to make is this. In Bauman’s attraction to Francis, he was not interested in God, the Bible, sin, Jesus Christ, and salvation; the sociologist remained agnostic and did not convert to Roman Catholicism or the Christian faith. He was interested in society’s degradation, for which the recipes of ideology advocated in his youth had proved unsuccessful. On the other hand, Francis did not challenge him to believe in God, just as he does not confront his interlocutors with the need for biblical conversion. The Pope encourages them and all to feel that they are “all brothers,” to welcome each other, to consider fraternity the source of transcendence, leaving each to regulate his relationship with God in his own way, should he be interested.
 
This kind of “catholicity”, i.e. liquid Catholicism, pleases the post-Marxist culture, which, from being anti-religious and atheistic, has now become agnostic, perhaps indifferent to the discourse about God, but still characterized by its humanitarian concerns. This is the common ground with Francis’ catholicity. It makes the pope a “popular” figure in the eyes of progressive culture because it grounds transcendence on horizontal relationships (God is not needed), exalts fraternity among fellow human beings (reconciliation with God is not sought), and encourages proximity with one another (without fellowship with God). It bypasses Jesus Christ who said: “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Biblically speaking, then, is what Bauman found in Pope Francis the true light at the end of the tunnel, or is it instead not another shade of darkness?

223. The Icing on the Cake of Pope Francis: the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions

The Roman Catholic Church officially opens for the blessing of same-sex unions. After much winking and hinting that this would be the outcome of the current pontificate, the official statement came out, putting pen to paper. “One should neither provide for nor promote a ritual for the blessings of couples in an irregular situation. At the same time, one should not prevent or prohibit the Church’s closeness to people in every situation in which they might seek God’s help through a simple blessing” (n. 38). So says the declaration Fiducia supplicans (18/12/2023) by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with explicit approval from Pope Francis.
 
The die is cast. What had been a decade-long debate between those who hoped for this opening, considering it an advancement of Catholic morality toward greater inclusiveness, and those who saw it as a sign of Roman Catholicism’s irreversible ruin is now resolved. With a “declaration” of high hierarchical value in the authority of Vatican pronouncements (observers note that the Congregation’s last statement was Joseph Ratzinger’s Dominus Iesus dating back to 2000), Roman Catholicism is now officially in favor of blessing gay unions, as are many liberal Protestant churches around the world.
 
It all began with “Who am I to judge?” (2013) to “All, all, all” at the Lisbon Youth Day (2023). The trajectory was clear from the start: Pope Francis’ inclusive, embracing, “Catholic” afflatus and his distance from positions that he calls “clerical” and “backwardism” but that are also part of the doctrinal baggage of Roman Catholicism. In between are many steps, not the least of which is the appointment of trusted Argentine theologian Víctor Manuel Fernández as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who signed the Declaration. Now Francis has his back covered even within the Vatican’s “official” theology. Indeed, Fiducia supplicans openly contradicts another 2021 document of the same Congregation, when Cardinal Ladaria was Prefect. Then, responding to “doubts” precisely about the possibility of blessing same-sex unions, the Vatican had still responded with a (somewhat) clear “no.” Two years later, however, the answer is “yes.” Evidently, the evolution toward Roman Catholic inclusion has accelerated further.
 
Of course: the Vatican says that there is no question of recognizing gay unions as marriage, that Catholic doctrine does not change, that the blessing is not a sacrament but a sacramental, … all secondary doctrinal clarifications that do not modify the main point. The Roman Catholic Church today officially offers blessing to same-sex couples: something, moreover, already in place (and for years) in Roman Catholic churches in many European (e.g. Germany and Belgium) and Latin American (e.g. Argentina) countries.
 
Roman Catholics must ask themselves whether Fiducia supplicans is consistent with the previous magisterium or is in open conflict with it. By its nature, Roman Catholicism is constantly on the move to possibly encompass the whole world within the institutional-sacramental structures of its Roman system. Not being hinged on and guided by the biblical gospel, Roman Catholicism fluctuates between asserting its Roman power and accentuating its Catholic embrace. In Dominus Iesus (2000) the Vatican restated its Roman understanding of the Catholic Church being the only and true church. With Fiducia supplicans (2023), the Vatican opens its Catholic embrace to same-sex couples.
 
Fiducia supplicans is the icing on the cake of his pontificate. The main ingredients of Francis’ Jesuit recipe have been two: we are “all brothers” (Christians, non-Christians, atheists and agnostics: everyone) and the Catholic Church is the “field hospital” for all. Now, there is also the icing on the cake.
 
Fiducia supplicans is in open contrast to biblical teaching. Pope Francis is a shrewd Roman Catholic Jesuit who leads his church toward the most “catholic” form it has ever had, but not toward the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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?


AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER!

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.


AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER!
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.