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

Dean of European evangelical theologians, Henri Blocher needs little introduction. The opportunity to measure up to his work again is offered by the publication of the second volume on the church and the sacraments: La doctrine de l’Église et des sacrementsvol 2 (Charols: Excelsis; Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2024). The Parisian theologian’s ecclesiology and sacramentology are confirmed to live up to the notorious depth of his thought.

As with the first volume on the church, La doctrine de l’Église e des sacrements, vol. 1 (Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2023), which I reviewed in the article “What is at Stake with the Roman Catholic View of the Church? Ask Professor Henri Blocher” (1 February 2024), the focus of this review will also be on Blocher’s assessment of Catholic sacramentology. The book also contains a discussion of Reformed theology’s conception of the sacraments and that of the baptistic churches. Obviously, it is worth reading it all to appreciate not only Blocher’s critical reading of Roman Catholicism but also of the Reformed view, especially concerning pedobaptism.

Blocher begins the volume with an analysis of the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. While he acknowledges that it is a well-codified doctrine in the Roman magisterium, he does not hide the fact that in Catholic seminaries in the last century the “traditional” version has been subject to very discordant interpretations and versions. It is not so much a matter of detail, rather of different conceptualities with which it is approached: no longer the Aristotelian-Thomistic one with which it was constructed, but those borrowed from Heidegger’s philosophy, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Oddo Casel’s “mystery” theology or Austin and Searle’s speech-act theory. This is to say that Catholic sacramentality, while retaining a “Roman” hard core still tied to a certain causative mechanism, also has its own “Catholic” vitality that allows it not to limit itself to the mere repetition of past formulas and arguments, but to expand them to readings influenced by theories of signs, symbols and meanings inferred from modern currents of thought. An example of this internal dynamic of Catholic sacramental theology is, for Blocher (p. 11, 15-20, 37-40), represented by F. Schillebeeckx’s work, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1960 ; English edition 1987), who rereads sacramentality from a personalist perspective.

Questioning sacramental causation
For Blocher, at the heart of Catholic sacramentality lies the causative role in the administration of grace, that is, “the real efficacy of the sacramental operation” (p. 13). The cause is connected to the sign. While in the Church Fathers and the early Middle Ages the relationship between cause and sign is established but still fluid, Thomas Aquinas imprinted on Catholic theology the concept of “causative efficacy.” Famous is his phrase “significando causant” (Summa Theologiae III, qq. 60-65) as it refers to the sacraments as a cause of grace by means of signifying it. In an anti-Protestant function, the Council of Trent espouses this definition and carves it into its canons, which anathematize those who do not embrace it. In the Thomist-Tridentine line, Christ acts through “another Christ” (the priest) through the sign that causes the administration of grace contained and conferred by the sign.

Blocher warns against the temptation to have a “magical” view of Catholic sacramentality (p. 20). There is no impersonal mechanism that disregards the disposition and cooperation of each person (priest, faithful) and the absence of “obstacles.” However, while recognizing the role of the faith of the subjects, it is the sacramental conception of the church itself as an extension of Christ (p. 25) that makes up for the shortcomings of one or the other and ensures the efficacy of the sacrament. As the human and divine natures are united in Jesus Christ, the humanity of the element is joined to the “divinity” of grace bestowed by the church in the unity of the sacrament. As already argued in the first volume on the church, for Blocher the Roman Catholic understanding of the church as an extension of the incarnation is a distinctive feature of the entire Roman Catholic system, including its view of sacramentality.

Being the fine exegete that he is, Blocher reviews the biblical texts that Catholic theology reads from a sacramentalist perspective, noting that no evidence stands out about the plausibility of this reading. Moreover, it reverses biblical proportions about the relationship between interiority and exteriority (the former being more important than the latter). Moreover, it is in open contradiction with biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 1:17, Romans 14:17 and Hebrews 9-13. In addition, the New Testament never associates the sacraments with the action of Christ Himself, but with that of the disciples sent by Christ. In other words, it is not Christ who baptizes or administers the Supper (as Roman Catholicism believes), but it is the disciples who are commissioned to do so in His name. Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit but commands the church to baptize in water and administer the Supper.

The Roman Catholic sacramental system, thus infused with causal efficacy, turns out to be a mirror of pagan systems of rites of passage associated with birth, adolescence, marriage and death (p. 35). By minimizing the impact of sin, Roman Catholicism has opened itself to syncretistic forms and structural compromises with pagan forms of “natural” religiosity (pp. 36-37).

On the theories of causality at work in Catholic sacramentology, Blocher shows awareness of the nuances present between the Thomist reading already referred to (“significando causant”), the “occasional” one of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, the “moral” one by Melchor Cano,” and others. These are all variations on the theme of causality that do not eliminate the underlying problem: for Rome, grace is made to flow from an act of the church.

Roman Catholicism elevates the incarnation to a metaphysical principle that must reproduce itself to be efficacious. Because of that, it loses sight of the “once and for all” of the atonement, it shatters the “it is finished” of the cross, it derogates from the celebration of God alone and his glory, it questions justification by faith alone (without works). It elevates the church to a dispenser of grace (pp. 43-45). In short, Catholic sacramentology considers the church to be a “mediator” of grace and stands in radical contrast to the biblical message.

Continuing his discussion, regarding the seven sacraments dogmatized at the Council of Trent, Blocher notes that “the sacramental septenary leads to fragmenting grace in a way the New Testament does not” (p. 93). In breaking down grace, Roman Catholicism parcels it by losing sight of its being a divine gift: God’s grace is not a “thing” that the church slices up and serves individually, but God himself giving himself.

On baptism, the Parisian theologian dwells more on the critique of Protestant paedobaptism while glossing over the Catholic conception. This is a limitation of the book: not including a chapter on baptism according to Rome.

The Problems of the Roman Catholic Eucharist
Blocher focuses on the Roman Catholic Eucharist the most. He recalls that Thomas Aquinas described the Eucharist as the most important sacrament because it essentially contains Christ Himself, while the other sacraments only involve Christ by participation (meaning Christ’s presence not being as real and substantial as in the Eucharist). Blocher speaks of a “Catholic exaltation of the Eucharist” (p. 145) because it is considered the source and summit of all Christian life. In it, Roman Catholicism encapsulates all: ecclesiastical dogmatics and institutional belonging. Besides being prevented by Rome itself, evangelical participation in the Eucharist is therefore to be avoided precisely because it is the sacrament par excellence of those who are Roman Catholic (p. 187).

Blocher devotes an entire chapter to analyzing two pillars of the Catholic Eucharist: the “real presence” and the “sacrifice.” From the Council of Trent, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 1373-1377) speaks about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist by using the adverbs “truly, really and substantially.” Blocher notes that evangelicals too (even the Zwinglians!) speak of “presence.” One must understand what meaning to attribute to this presence: for evangelicals (except Lutherans who have a conception of their own), it is “spiritual,” that is, thanks to the Holy Spirit and in the Spirit; for Catholics, on the other hand, it implies the change of substance of the bread and wine brought about by the officiant into the sacramental body of Christ. These are two effectively distant experiences and concepts of presence.

Where does this Roman Catholic understanding come from? Blocher recalls the evolution of Catholic dogma. While the thinking of Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian swings and tends toward a realist interpretation, more spiritualist readings are found in other Church Fathers (p. 195): Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine are cited. The latter has an unresolved theology of the Supper: at times he identifies the divine reality and the sacramental sign, at other times he speaks of their difference (p. 200). Medieval development reached its peak with the dogma of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This dogma adopted a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words, “this is my body,” and became a core part of Roman Catholic doctrine. It was accompanied by a devotion to the mystery of the Eucharist, a desire for physical contact to receive grace, and a heightened reverence for the ecclesiastical institution’s power to sanctify (p. 207).

Biblically speaking, Blocher notes that in Scripture the body and blood of Christ are not linked to the bread and wine: it is out of biblical parameters to think of a change in their nature. It is “methodologically irresponsible to invent a new use of language without the text requiring it” (p. 215). If anything, the church is the body of Christ and “nothing indicates that the bread becomes the body” (p. 217). In addition, the wine remains the “fruit of the vine” (Matthew 26:29). Moreover, bread and wine signify and represent the body and blood of Christ, without being transformed into Christ Himself. Finally, Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father does not allow for the “localization” of Christ’s presence on the Eucharistic table (p. 211).

Remaining tied to the Tridentine dogma of transubstantiation, Roman Catholicism has in recent decades paved the way for relational re-interpretations of substance (e.g., B. Sesboüé) or in the direction of “transignification” (e.g., P. Schoonenberg) that, however, do not change the Catholic sacramental system (p. 213). The bottom line of the problem remains: Roman Catholicism needs to locate a “substantial” contact by which divine life is transmitted (p. 220).

As for the Catholic conception of the Eucharist as a “sacrifice” (and therefore propitiatory), Blocher notes how in the early Church Fathers the Eucharist is primarily associated with the sacrifice of prayers (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian). It is only from the second half of the third century that the emphasis changes and the idea of the re-presented immolation of Christ’s sacrifice takes hold (Cyprian of Carthage, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom). Again, Augustine oscillates between positions. At the Council of Trent, Rome carved into its doctrine the sacrificial and expiatory conception of the Eucharist: according to Dutch theologian G. Berkouwer, it is a shadow cast over the sufficiency of Christ’s work (p. 232). The work of the atonement is not accomplished once and for all but is continually immolated. For Roman Catholicism, it is therefore not complete: it requires the substantial presence of the body of Christ and the continual offering of the church. Blocher is peremptory: “the idea of a sacrificial immolation of Christ on the Eucharistic table, transformed into an altar, has no justification whatsoever, be it biblical or theological” (p. 241). We are in the presence of an accretion of Roman Catholicism dependent on the natural and pagan religions absorbed into the corpus of Catholic experience.

Contrary to the ecumenical reading that wants to see in the Roman Catholic conception of the Eucharist another and complementary way of understanding and practicing the Lord’s Supper, Blocher helps to clarify that, even in the presence of the same and similar words, Roman Catholic sacramentology operates in a universe other than the evangelical faith. For this reason, the Parisian theologian has rendered with this dense and profound book another useful service to evangelical theological discernment.

199.  Eating God? A History of the Eucharist and a Glimpse of Roman Catholicism

At first glance, it seems like a cannibalistic gesture, even if it is addressed to God and not to a human being. Yet it is the quintessence of Roman Catholicism. We are talking about “eating God,” an act that is at the heart of the Roman Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Can Roman Catholicism really be thought of as the religion of “eating God”? Matteo Al-Kalak, professor of modern history at the University of Modena-Reggio, explores this question is in his latest book, Mangiare Dio. Una storia dell’eucarestia (Turin: Einaudi, 2021; Eating God. A History of the Eucharist).

The book is a history of the Eucharist from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) onwards in the Italian context and focuses on how the Eucharist has been elevated to a primary identity-marker: practiced, taught, protected, abused, and used for various purposes, including extra-religious ones. Using “a mosaic technique” (p.xiv), he analyzes some pieces of the history of the Eucharist.
 
It is not surprising that facing the challenges posed by the Protestant Reformation (in all its Eucharistic variants, from the German Lutheran version to the Calvinian-Zwinglian Swiss version), the Council of Trent emphasized the sacrificial character of the Mass and made the Eucharist the symbolic pivot of the Counter-Reformation. Al-Kalak’s book is a collection of micro-stories aimed at forming a mosaic that reflects the crucial importance of the Eucharist in the construction of the post-Tridentine Roman Catholic imagination and strongly Eucharistic emphasis.
 
After reviewing the biblical data, the book summarizes the medieval debates starting from the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) which intertwined three pillars: who was to dedicate (in Roman Catholic language: consacrate) the bread and the wine (i.e. only the clergy), the confession to be preceded, and the true and proper Eucharist. One of the outcomes of the Council was the institution of the feast of Corpus Domini (The Body of the Lord, 1247). This Lateran synthesis was contested both before and after the Reformation. The pages on the heretical movements of the 16th century give voice to the “doctrinal fluidity of Italian heterodoxy” on the Lord’s Supper (p.19). In this regard, the opinion of Natale Andriotti from Modena is reported. Talking to a friend he said, “Do you think that Christ is in that host? It’s just a little dough” (p.149).
 
As pieces of the mosaic, other chapters tell stories of Eucharistic miracles, associated with various prodigies, and the development of a kind of preaching centered around Eucharistic themes (from the model offered by Carlo Borromeo in the 17th  century to the impetus given by Alfonso Maria de Liguori in the 18th century). Al-Kalak touches on the meticulous regulation given to the administration of the Eucharist (from the spaces, to the gestures, to the treatment of abuses) outside and inside the Mass (for example, at the bedside of the sick). Further chapters follow on the Eucharist represented in poetic, pictorial and architectural forms and on the desecrated Eucharist in witchcraft, magic and superstitious practices.
 
The discussion of the Eucharist in the face of the cultural disruption of the French Revolution is also of great interest. The Eucharist was seen as a polemical tool against the rationalism of modernity and for the re-Christianization of society (Pope Leo XIII). In recent years, though, Pope Francis is pushing to loosen the criteria for access to the Eucharist to allow the inclusion of those who are in “irregular” life situations. The book witnesses to the fact that the Eucharistic theologies and practices are not static and given once and for all, but always on the move.
 
The volume ends with an interesting “postscriptum” in which Al-Kalak dwells on the “scandal” of the Eucharist: “only the host is subject to the physiological mechanisms of the human being in such a radical way” (191), yet it is believed as a supernatural act filled with mystery. It combines rational language ​​with sensory ones, opening up to the irrational (p.193). If it is true to say that “the Eucharist – in the regular mass, in Eucharistic adoration, in Eucharistic processions – and fidelity to the pope and to the hierarchy are the two most distinguished features of Roman Catholicism from the Council of Trent onwards” (p.195), then a history of the Roman Catholic practice of “eating God” allows us to enter into the depths of the Roman Catholic religion.
 
Beyond the fascinating stories told by the book, what is of some interest is its title, “Eating God,” and its appropriateness to describe the soul of Roman Catholicism. Already in the early centuries of the church, Christians were sometimes accused of cannibalism precisely in relation to the Lord’s Supper. What did Jesus mean when he said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:54)? The meal of bread and wine associated with the memory of the body and blood of Jesus Christ could give rise to misunderstandings. Was it a truly human “body”? Was it the blood of a corpse? Was it then a cannibal meal? Christian apologetics of the early centuries tried to unravel the misunderstandings as much as possible, indignantly rejecting the accusation of cannibalism and, if anything, indicating the biblical parameters of the ordinance instituted by Jesus himself.
 
Yet, already starting from the Fourth Lateran Council, and even more so from the Council of Trent, the church of Rome embraced “transubstantiation,” i.e an understanding of the sacrament according to which, after the consecration of the bread and wine and the transformation of their nature into the body and blood of Christ, there is a sense in which the Roman Catholic Eucharist is a real “eating of God.” If the bread really becomes the flesh and blood of Jesus (the God-man), taking it in some way means “eating God,”
 
Can it really go that far? Evidently yes, according to Rome. While the Reformation insisted on recovering the distinction between Creator and creature, the radical nature of sin and the sufficient mediation of the God-man Jesus Christ for the salvation of those who believe, the Roman Catholic Church instead veered on the analogy between Creator and creature and on the prolongation of Christ’s mediation in the hierarchical and sacramental church, to the point of considering the creature’s “eating God” as possible, even necessary. For Roman Catholicism, man is “capable of God” (capax dei) to the point of having to really “eat” him.
 
Is this the meaning of the meal that the Lord Jesus instituted the night he was betrayed and that he gave to the church as a memorial of him in view of his second coming? The debate on this question in history has been very lively and is still crucial. In the “eating God” of the Eucharist, Roman Catholicism puts all its worldview at work: its view of reality as touched but not marred by sin, the extension of the incarnation in the church, the divinization of man, and the “already” of salvation enjoyed in the fruition of the sacraments without waiting for the “not yet” of the final banquet. If you think about it, as absurd as it appears, “eating God” is a synthesis of Roman Catholicism.

194. Christ Unfurled or the Roman Catholic Christ-Church Interconnection. Evangelical Remarks on David Meconi’s latest book

“Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ.” Here is how the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§ 795) hammers out one of the two axes of the Roman Catholic theological system, i.e. the Christ-Church interconnection (the other being the nature-grace interdependence). If one wants to come to terms with the deep structure of the theological vision of Rome, they must begin by addressing this critical Christological-ecclesiological point whereby Rome considers itself the prolongation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In his masterful book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (2014), Gregg Allison has done a great service in highlighting the foundational importance of the nexus between Christ and the Church for the whole Roman Catholic framework. Every doctrine and every practice occurs between the two axes: on the one hand an optimism about nature (regardless of the covenant-breaking brought about by sin) and on the other inflating the claims of the church that acts as another Christ. Now, from within the Roman Catholic tradition, David Meconi, S.J. reinforces the crucial importance of the fact that “the Church and Christ really are one” (2) given the fact that the Church is “an extension of Jesus Christ himself” (2).

Meconi is academically well-qualified to write from a conservative Roman Catholic perspective. In the past I have read his The One Christ: Saint Augustine’s Theology of Deification (2013) and consulted The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (2014) of which he is one of the chief editors. He is a Roman Catholic Augustinian scholar with a particular interest in a “whole Christ” theology. With the recent book Christ Unfurled: The First 500 Years of Jesus’s Life (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2021) Meconi labours on the Christ-Church interconnection even more closely, thus offering an account of what it means for Roman Catholic theology to affirm that “the Church is a replication of the incarnate God’s own human and divine life” (6).

The Early Centuries
He does it by emphasizing the historical perspective, i.e. reading the five centuries of the Christian church as if they were “the first five hundred years of Jesus’ life on earth” (14). Since “the Church is the extension of Christ’s very incarnate self” (15), the Church is therefore Christ unfurled as the title of the book indicates. In the first chapter, the thesis is repeatedly stated: “The Church is the unbroken continuation of Christ’s own incarnate self, the extension of his divine and human presence on earth” (17) so that “post-Ascension people could see, hear, and still touch the Lord” (17). Moreover, “The Church as founded by Jesus Christ is the continuation of his own divinely human, or humanly divine, life” (19). The unfurling of Christ in the church stretches to His work of salvation, establishing an interconnection between the cross of Calvary and the chief sacrament of the Church; in fact, “in and through his Church, the life-giving Body and Blood of Jesus continue to be with us in the Most Holy Eucharist” (19-20). Reiterating the point, Meconi goes as far as saying that “the hypostatic union of the incarnate Son’s humanity and divinity continues in the unity of the Eucharistic sacrifice” (114).

In subsequent chapters, Meconi attempts to prove that this Roman Catholic view has been upheld in the church since the beginning. As for Apostolic Fathers (e.g. Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch) and in writings such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas, he argues that the early Christians understood themselves “as envoys and extensions of Christ’s very presence in the world” (30). However, the proofs given for such a strong statement are less than convincing. In fact, the “canonicity of Scripture” (i.e. the recognition of the inspired books of the Bible) and the “rule of faith” (i.e. the comprehensive summary of the gospel) which the Apostolic Fathers were interested in are hardly early attestations of the Christ-Church interconnection. They are simply some of the concerns that the early church had in trying to faithfully live after the death of the apostles. Their tendency toward “monoepiscopacy” (i.e. one bishop over each local church) is more of an unfortunate influence of Roman imperial authority structures than a sign of their endorsing the “whole Christ” theology. As for later Fathers, Meconi is right in saying that, for example, Tertullian spoke of the church as the “mother Church” and Origen of the “bride of Christ” (69), but these two titles given to the church do not intrinsically imply the theology of the extension of the incarnation, unless one wants to see it retrospectively, having already decided that this is what he wants to see.

The Legacy of the Creeds
Examining the legacy of the early councils and creeds (Nicea and Constantinople) which focussed on the trinitarian nature of God and the divine and human natures of the person Jesus Christ, Meconi makes the point that “Jesus Christ founded a Church so he would have a visible locus, a freely-chosen Body, unto whom he could extend his life” (135). Again, this is an inference that stretches what the creeds say by filling in the terms with meanings they don’t have. The language of “extension” and “continuation” is not found in the creeds. The union or fellowship between Christ and the church (or the believers) is certainly maintained, but whether this relationship points to the “extension” of the incarnation is beyond what the texts of the councils say. In order to cross the boundaries between the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the life of the church, one needs further theological elaboration than what can be found there.

Finally, a long section of a chapter is dedicated to Augustine’s views of the “whole Christ,” Meconi’s own area of expertise. According to him, “for Augustine, the ‘whole Christ’ is not just Jesus now seated at the right hand of the Father but the entire Christ is Jesus as well as those whom Jesus loves” (182). Together they form “one mystical person” (197). This is accurate as far as Augustine is concerned, although in Augustine there is also a strong emphasis on the distinction between Christ and the church and the submission of the latter to the former. On this point, Augustine is at best confused. I have written elsewhere of the damages of Augustine’s formula (totus Christus) and the corrections brought about by the Protestant Reformation in stressing the uniqueness of Christ (solus Christus).

The Whole Christ or Christ Alone?
On the axes of the Christ-church interconnection,Rome builds its self-understanding as a church endowed with the authority of Christ the King, the priesthood of Christ the Mediator, and the truth of Christ the Prophet. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church – in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word and its administration of the sacraments. But this is not what the gospel teaches. This is an inflated view of the church based on a defective view of Christ. According to Rome, there is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the church) and ecclesia in Christo (the church in Christ).

The emphasis on the Christ–church interconnection seems to forget that the Church is made up of creatures (human beings). Because the church is made up of creatures, it is part of creation, and is not the creator, while Christ is the divine Creator, the One from whom all things are and who is perfect now and always. When we talk about Christology, we are talking about the unique relationship between human nature and divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the Creator; when we talk about ecclesiology, we are talking about the people of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit – all of these titles referring to a created reality. The distinction between Creator and creature is decisive for not falling into the trap of elevating the church into a quasi-divine body.

After the Ascension to the right hand of the Father, Christ did not continue his incarnation in the church. Having formed the church through his finished work on the cross, He sent it to the ends of the earth and empowered it with the Holy Spirit to preach and to bear witness to his gospel of salvation. Christ is the head of the church, and the church serves His purposes and His alone, until He comes again.

192. Who Will be the Next Pope?

There is a general perception that Pope Francis’s pontificate has entered an irreversibly declining phase, a sort of late autumn that is a prelude to the end of a season. It is not just a question of age: yes, Pope Francis is elderly and in poor health. But aging aside, the pontificate finds itself navigating a descending parable. It started with the language of “mission” and “reform”. Francis’ reign, now nearly 10 years old, was immediately engulfed in a thousand difficulties, particularly within the Catholic Church. Many of these problems were caused by the ambiguities of Francis himself, to the point that the push envisaged at the beginning turned out to be broken, if not wholly inconclusive.

Given the predictable end of a season, the question is therefore legitimate: after Francis, who is next? Who will be the next pope? This question is asked not by some bitter secularist or even a seasoned bookmaker, but by the devout Roman Catholic scholar George Weigel, former biographer of John Paul II (Witness of Hope. The Life of John Paul II, 1999) and author, among other things, of a book in which he proposes a change in the meaning of the term “evangelical”: from being a descriptor of the Protestant faith grounded on Scripture Alone and Faith Alone to an adjective describing a fully-orbed Roman Catholicism (Evangelical Catholicism. Deep-reform in the 21st Century, 2013, see my review here). Weigel is a bright intellectual and an exponent of the conservative American Roman Catholicism that has often been outspoken against Francis.

In his book The Next Pope. The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2020) Weigel draws a composite sketch of the new pope.[1] The next pope will be a man who was either a child or very young during the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). For the first time, Rome will have a pope more “distant” from the controversies of the 1960s-1970s. For this reason, perhaps he will be more free from the interpretative wars over the Council, i.e whether it was a Council that continued with tradition or broke from it. However, as Weigel admits (but it doesn’t take much acumen to recognize it), “there are profound divisions over Catholic doctrine and identity, praxis and mission, within the Church itself” (p. 9). The next pope will find these divisions on his desk. How will he deal with them?

According to Weigel, the next pope will have to find inspiration from Leo XIII (1810-1903), whose papacy from 1878 to his death in 1903 generated a ferment in the life of the then tormented church: Leo anchored its life and thought to Thomist philosophy; he developed its social doctrine; and launched a challenge to the modern world at the cultural level instead of adopting a defensive attitude towards it. The reverberations of this vitality were then channeled by John XXIII in convening Vatican II and by John Paul II in the Great Jubilee of 2000. For the American scholar, this is the militant Roman Catholicism that the next pope will have to embody and promote: faithful to its traditional doctrine, integral in its moral teaching, consistent in its ecclesial practices, made up of devout Catholics. For Weigel, taking inspiration from Leo XIII and John Paul II, the agenda of the new pope needs to be the “new evangelization”. Here is the way he puts it: the new pope “will have to devote himself fully to the new evangelization as the great strategy of the Church of the 21st century” (p. 23).

In order to “evangelize”, the Roman Catholic Church must, according to Weigel, regain its identity as a sacramental and hierarchical church, combining this with its consolidated cluster of doctrines and practices handed down by tradition, i.e. the “fullness of the Catholic faith”. Weigel warns Roman Catholicism against going down the bankrupt path of liberal Protestantism which, by way of adapting to modern times, has lost its convictions and has also seen its churches empty. From his North American point of view, Weigel says that “the growing branches of Protestantism in the world are evangelicals, Pentecostals or fundamentalists” (p. 56), all characterized by “clear teaching and firm moral expectations”. It is as if to say: Roman Catholicism can follow the path of liberal Protestantism, become “light” (that is, confused in doctrine and mixed with the world) and die, or it must recover its “full” identity and flourish again. For Weigel, “light Catholicism will lead to zero Catholicism” (p. 59), the loss of faith and a dissolutive process. For this reason, he hopes that the next pope will be the expression of a full, convinced, devoted Roman Catholicism that aims at “evangelizing” (that is, Catholicizing) the world rather than being penetrated by the world.

This language of “light” versus “full” Catholicism helps explain why Weigel is critical of Francis. The present pope is seen as embroiled in proposing a “light” form of Roman Catholicism: he speaks of “mission” (e.g. in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium), but he works it out in a very different way from the “new evangelization”. For Francis, mission is to go out to meet “all brothers” (i.e. Francis’ latest enclycical argument for a universal brotherhood) with mercy, highlighting the unity that already exists among all human beings without lingering over differences. The strategy is to avoid facing disputes, not to challenge anyone, and to express mercy without a doctrinal backbone. Quite the opposite of what Weigel is hoping for. It is clear that Weigel’s new pope will have to make a vigorous shift away from Francis’s trajectory.

Weigel often uses a kind of “evangelical” language to describe the pope of his dreams. He speaks of fervor of spirit and solidity of convictions, all indicators not so much of doctrinal contents, but of the experiences of the evangelical faith. At the same time he speaks a very Roman Catholic language: he refers to salvation through baptism, Roman hierarchy, papal primacy, and Marian devotions. As a traditionalist Catholic, Weigel believes that everything Roman Catholicism has collected througout history (e.g. the Council of Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, etc.) should be kept and nothing lost. All of this is very Catholic. He wants to make people believe that Roman Catholicism can (indeed must) also be “evangelical” without losing its Catholic tenets. He has in mind a pope who is very traditional in doctrine (anti-evangelical), yet very passionate and committed like an “evangelical”. This is the kind of pope he hopes for.

When he was elected in 2013, Francis too was presented as very close to the “evangelical” ethos. Spontaneous prayer, experiential language, and a certain fervor in spirituality seemed to make him a different pope. Many evangelicals were impressed, only to discover some time later that Francis was and is also very Marian, universalist, Jesuit, and anti-evangelical. Now Weigel, indirectly criticizing Francis, hopes for an “evangelical” Catholic pope, even if a very different pope from the present one. Both Francis and Weigel have an experiential (non-doctrinal) meaning of “evangelical” in mind. They want to appropriate the evangelical ways of living out the faith, while remaining anchored to the traditional (Weigel) or “outgoing” (Francis) doctrine of Roman Catholicism. Both of them distort the evangelical faith and want to dissolve it in the dogmatic-institutional synthesis of Roman Catholicism.

Whoever is elected, the next pope will unlikely be an “evangelical” if the word “evangelical” retains its doctrinal and historical meaning. The “evangel” is not the paramount commitment of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, its head will never be an “evangelical” pope if the Roman Church will not undergo a reformation according to the “evangel”.


[1] I had access to the Italian translation of the book Il prossimo papa. L’ufficio di Pietro e la missione della chiesa (Verona: Fede & Cultura, 2021) and quotations will be taken from it.

179. After 150 Years of Papal Infallibility, What?

On 18 July 1870, one hundred and fifty years ago, the First Vatican Council (Vatican I) approved the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, issued by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) in the solemn yet nervous atmosphere of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The political situation around the Pontifical State was extremely tense and the prospect of the end of an era was felt as imminent. In fact, at the battle of Sedan (1-2 September 1870) the Prussian army defeated Napoleon III, the principal defender of the pope, thus leaving the pope without the French military protection from which he had benefited in the past. Napoleon III’s capture meant the end of French support and paved the way to the “breach of Rome”, i.e. the entry of the Italian army in the city of Rome (20 September 1870) and the proclamation of Rome as the capital city of the Italian kingdom. The Council was therefore abruptly interrupted and suspended. It is striking – if not tragically ironic – that as the Pontifical State was about to collapse, the pope and the Roman Catholic Church felt it necessary to proclaim a new dogma, i.e. the infallibility of the pope. The initiative was largely driven by political concerns. That doctrine was elevated to a dogmatic status (i.e. being part of core, revealed, unchangeable and binding teaching) and used as an identity marker and a symbolic weapon to fight against a political and cultural enemy.

A Window on the Council
A recent book by John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2018), focuses on the historical context of the Council and the theological significance of the discussion that took place around the infallibility of the pope. The Jesuit historian O’Malley is not new to writing re-assessments of pivotal events of modern Roman Catholic history. One can think of his important volumes on What Happened at Vatican II (2010) and Trent: What Happened at the Council (2013), which have proven to be trend-setting in their interpretation of present-day Roman Catholicism. In this new book on Vatican I it is as if he has completed the trilogy on the three modern councils.

More negative readings of Vatican I than O’Malley’s have been provided by A.B. Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion (1981), and H. Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (1983). O’Malley’s strength lies in the comprehensiveness of his historical reconstruction, whereas his reading of the doctrinal significance of the Council is only mildly critical and within the “progressive” side of Roman Catholic studies. He signals that the basic problem of Pastor Aeternus is its “historical naïveté” (p. 197), i.e. that it ignored historical differentiations and froze every possible development in the institutional outlook of the Roman Catholic Church. It is true that a century later Vatican II (1962-1965) softened the mode of papal authority but did not (could not) change its basic theological framework.

What Happened at Vatican I
There were external and internal pressures that drove the Roman Catholic Church to issue the dogma of papal infallibility. As for the former, in the 19thcentury the Papacy had to face two staunch adversaries that were able to challenge its survival. On the political level, there was the absolutism of the princes and European states that claimed authority over the Church, thus bringing into question the difficult balance between powers that had been struck in previous centuries. The popes were perceived as being part of the Ancien Régime (Old regime) which the modern world would soon overcome on many fronts.

On the philosophical front, the spread of the French Enlightenment clashed with the traditional worldview of the Papacy. The insistence on the prominence of “reason” over the “superstition” of religion, the growing importance of evolutionary theory over more static accounts of reality, and the diffusion of socialist ideas against mere protection of the status quo caused popes to react strongly in order to safeguard their share in the established system of power. This negative attitude reached a climax in 1864 when Pius IX issued the Symbol of Errors, a list of statements that were condemned as incompatible with Christianity. Apart from banning modern philosophical ideas, religious freedom, and the activities of Bible societies, the Symbol included the following statement that the pope rejected: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization” (80).

The clash could not have been more strident. In O’Malley’s words, papal infallibility was seen “as the only viable answer to the cultural, political and religious crisis ignited by the French Revolution and its pan-European Napoleonic aftermath” (p. 3).

As far as the internal pressures are concerned, O’Malley surveys the confrontation between two tendencies that were especially strong in France (but had ramifications all over Europe) and polarized the debate: “Gallicanism”, stressing the freedom of particular churches over against Rome, and “Ultramontanism”, exalting the central authority of the pope over national churches. Fearing that “Gallican” positions – marked by the questioning of centralized power structures – would make inroads in the Roman Church, Pius IX pushed the consolidation of the pope’s absolute authority as the source from which everything else flowed. His conviction is well captured by Joseph de Maistre’s words: “The pope governs and is not governed, judges and is not judged, teaches and is not taught” (p. 65).

The Meaning of Papal Infallibility
The cultural siege mindset was the background of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). O’Malley speaks of “an anxiety-ridden defensiveness” (p. 227). The felt danger of being assaulted by the modern world pushed Pius IX to insist that the Council clearly specify the juridical primacy of the pope as far as the leadership of the Church is concerned and proclaim the infallibility of his teaching under certain conditions. After issuing Dei Filius, the dogmatic constitution against atheism, pantheism, and materialism (and making them originate from Protestantism!), the Council was ready to address the ecclesiastical issue of papal infallibility. Here is what Vatican I declared:

“If anyone, then, shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the Pastors and the faithful; let him be anathema” (III).

Notice:

  • The pope’s authority is “full and supreme over the Universal Church”, no mere oversight or moral leadership: it is a political role.
  • Its comprehensive scope, i.e. not only faith and morals, but also discipline and government: it entails the whole of life instead of accepting limitations and checks and balances.
  • Its “fullness”: you either accept it in total or you deny it.

As to papal infallibility, Pastor Aeternus defines it this way:

“We teach and define that it is a divinely-revealed dogma: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex Cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. But if anyone — God forbid — should presume to contradict this Our definition; let him be anathema” (IV).

Notice:

  • The emphatic subject “we”, i.e. the pope as head of the Church; no higher authority is invoked because on earth there is none;
  • The theological framework, i.e. “supreme Apostolic authority”: the papal office is mainly characterized in terms of “power”;
  • The dogmatic content, i.e. “infallibility”; a divine prerogatory is attributed to a man;
  • Its scope, i.e. when the pope speaks “from the chair”, i.e. exercising his ultimate prerogatives;
  • Its unchangeable nature, i.e. “irreformable”: it is a permanent mark of the Roman Church;
  • and the issuing curse on those (e.g. Protestants) who do not accept this doctrine: they are still under that curse issued by the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level with an irrevocable dogma.

These are strong terms that committed the Church of Rome to an extremely awkward doctrine that no “ecumenical” reading can soften. The only Biblical argument given to support this dogma is the citation of Luke 22:32 (Jesus says to Peter: “I prayed for you, so that your faith will not falter”). Yet, this citation does not support any of Pastor Aeternus’s definition in that Jesus in no way warrants Peter’s future infallibility and absolute power, and even less so the infallibility and powers of future popes, admitting and not granting that there is a relationship between Peter and subsequent leaders of the Church in the city of Rome. As it is the case with much of the doctrine of the papacy, this last doctrinal formulation is also founded on extra-Biblical arguments.

The First Vatican Council provided the most comprehensive and authoritative doctrinal statement on the papacy in the modern era. Instead of taking into account the Biblical remarks legitimately offered by the Protestant Reformation, and instead of listening to certain trends of modern thought that advocate freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, Vatican I further solidified the nature of the papal office as a quasi-omnipotent and infallible figure. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest doctrinal authority, i.e. the promulgation of a dogma, a binding, irreversible, unchangeable truth, to cement the institution of the papacy by furthering its absolute nature.

When Was Papal Infallibility Implemented?
Only a month after the solemn pronouncement, Rome was no longer under papal control and the Council left an unfinished work. However, what it did decide upon proved to be of great significance, the greatest result of which is that the “Ultramontane Church” (i.e. pope-centered, Rome-led) became the present-day Roman Catholic Church (p. 242). After documenting the different phases leading to the promulgation of Pastor Aeternus, O’Malley deals with the aftermath of Vatican I. There were of course political consequences that needed decades to be settled in different national contexts. Another lasting consequence was that “The popes achieved a strikingly new prominence in Catholic consciousness for the ordinary believer” (p. 240). After being declared “infallible” and at the center of an absolutist power system, “an almost personal devotion to the pope became a new Catholic virtue”. It was the beginning of the celebrity culture attached to the papal office and to the person of the pope that spilled over into the 20th century.

There is yet another important observation that O’Malley omits but that is necessary to make. Vatican I restricts the pope’s infallibility to when he speaks “ex cathedra”, i.e. from the chair. The question is: When did he speak in such a way? What are the papal pronouncements – among the dozens of 19th and 20th century papal encyclicals and documents – that are endowed with the “infallibility” that Pastor Aeternus grants to the pope? Even in Catholic theological circles the issue of the extension of infallibility is debated.

Logically speaking, Pastor Aeternus must be one of them. The papal document defining papal infallibility must be considered infallible, otherwise the whole argument undergirding it collapses.

While there might be different opinions about the exercise of infallibility, there is at least one clear example of a subsequent papal teaching that Roman Catholics must take as infallible.

It was in 1950 that Pius XII issued the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary as a binding belief for the Roman Catholic faith. With the dogmatic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Rome committed to it:

“We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (44).

This is clearly the formula of a papal infallible, “ex cathedra” statement. No Roman Catholic theologian can question it. In passing, the Bible is not interested in the final days of Mary nor in the way she died. She must have died like anyone else, and yet here we are confronted not with an opinion but with a dogma. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest magisterial authority to formulate a belief that the Scriptures are silent on, to say the least.

On the basis of a non-biblical dogma, i.e. the pope’s infallibility, another non-biblical dogma, i.e. Mary’s assumption, was built, thus becoming part of the binding and irreformable teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Biblically speaking, one could say: from bad to worse; but this is what Rome is committed to and will continue to be committed to, in spite of all “ecumenical” developments and friendlier attitudes. The flawed Roman Catholic theological system operates in this way: not reforming what is contrary to Scripture, but rather consolidating it with other non-biblical doctrines and practices. After the 150 years since Vatican I, the only hope for change is a reformation according to the biblical gospel that will question and ultimately dismantle and reject papal infallibility.