210. Four Tips for Communicating the Gospel to Roman Catholics

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

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

  • Beyond religion: Nominal Roman Catholics tend to separate “normal life” from religion. Make sure you carefully show the impact of the Word on daily life, e.g. personal experience, work, church, and society.
     
  • Beyond tradition: Roman Catholics tend to see religion as a set of practices to be repeated. Show the centrality of the relationship with Jesus who is the Lord of the whole of life.
     
  • Beyond the divide of the clergy/laity: Many Catholics tend to consider religion as a responsibility of the clergy that lay people don’t have. Show the fact that we are all responsible to nurture our Christian life in personal devotion and witness.
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Practical Tip #4: Be prepared to integrate personal witness and church life
Engaging in Bible reading and showing the power of the gospel in life cannot be limited to our individual lives only. Invite other Christian friends into the conversation to show how the gospel creates communities of followers of Jesus. Remember:

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

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

209. “God has many ways to save.” Cardinal Cantalamessa and Roman Catholic Universalism

Like every Christmas season, the tradition of the “advent sermons,” whereby the preacher of the Papal household addresses the Pope and the community working in the Vatican, was repeated this past December when Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, a capuchin, preached three sermons. This preaching role is important because it is officially appointed by the reigning Pope and assigned to a priest whose task is to preach to the community working and living in the Vatican (Pope included) on special liturgical festivities. More generally, the Vatican preacher contributes to setting the standard of Roman Catholic homiletics even beyond the little community of the recipients and is looked upon as a “model” for good Roman Catholic preaching. For these reasons, it is always useful to have an eye on what he says and how he says it.

In 2022, the first Advent sermon (5 December) had the theological virtue of faith at its center and was followed by one sermon on hope and charity, i.e. the three theological virtues. With faith being the general heading, one of the focuses of the cardinal’s sermon was the breadth and scope of salvation. The Italian edition of the Vatican News website effectively summed it up with the headline “God has many ways to save.” In a nutshell, according to the cardinal, all human beings will be saved by Christ, with or without faith in Christ.

This is how Cantalamessa presents the issue:

If faith that saves is faith in Christ, what to think of all those who have no chance of believing in him? We live in a pluralistic society, even religiously. Our theologies – Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant alike – developed in a world where practically only Christianity existed. It was, however, aware of the existence of other religions, but they were considered false from the start, or were not taken into consideration at all.

After acknowledging the traditional position of the church(es) whereby salvation is given to those who “believe” in Christ and therefore do manifest a personal commitment to Him, the cardinal goes on by saying:

Today this is no longer the case. For some time there has been a dialogue between religions, based on mutual respect and recognition of the values present in each of them … With this recognition, the conviction has taken ground that even people outside the Church can be saved.

Notice that he brings with him an argument stemming from the “development” of doctrine and practice due to the adaptation to time and culture. “Today this is no longer the case”: not because Scripture has changed but because “dialogue” has introduced a new perception of religions that has led to a revision of the traditional view. A new conviction has emerged and become mainstream in post-Vatican II and ecumenical theology, i.e., “even people outside the Church can be saved.”

The problem with this Roman Catholic view of development is always the same: what are the biblical boundaries of such a “development”? For example, can the Church develop its Mariology to the point of elevating two Marian dogmas (like the 1854 dogma on Mary’s immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption) without any biblical support? In other words, “development” without the biblical principle of Sola Scriptura (i.e. the Bible as the supreme authority for the church) safeguarding and guiding it can become a self-referential principle at the service of the institutional church. If the church can “develop” her own traditions even outside of the perimeter of the written Word of God, is it not a questionable development?

How does this updated theology work in salvation? Here is how Cantalamessa explains it:

God has far more ways to save than we can think of. He has established “channels” of his grace, but he has not bound himself to them… It is one thing to affirm the universal need of Christ for salvation and another thing to affirm the universal necessity of faith in Christ for salvation.

Translated in more simple language, this means that it is always Christ who saves, but believing in Christ is not necessary for salvation. All people (believers and non-believers) are saved, even those who do not believe in Christ. Faith in Christ is important but not necessary for salvation. Christ saves us all, with or without faith in Him.

Is it superfluous, then, to continue proclaiming the Gospel to every creature? – then asks the Cardinal.

Far from it! It is the reason that must change, not the fact. We must continue to proclaim Christ; not so much for a negative reason – otherwise, the world will be condemned – as for a positive reason: for the infinite gift that Jesus represents for every human being.

According to the cardinal, the gospel is only a positive message and contains no judgment against anyone. There is no condemnation for sinners, no reprobation. God’s judgment is no more. God’s mercy has swallowed it. The gospel only has “positive” reasons. We (the whole of humanity) are all already saved by Christ with or without faith in Christ. If how we are saved changes, the Christian mission changes too. Evangelizing today means “dialogue” with other religions always assuming the universal salvation of all in the presence or absence of faith in Jesus Christ.

The cardinal is neither the first nor the only to support this Roman Catholic account of the universalist re-interpretation of the gospel. Sadly, he is in good company; his position is the mainstream, present-day Roman Catholic view. It has its background in Vatican II texts (for example, Lumen Gentium 16) and Pope Francis (for example, the apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, 2013 and his latest encyclical All Brothers). It is the position of present-day Rome which believes that the church, as the sacrament of salvation, includes (willy-nilly) the whole of humanity and that Christ saves us all, whether someone believes in Him or not. The Roman Catholic gospel used to be compromised by its rejection of the biblical truth that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone. Now, it is further compromised by its universalism whereby all will be saved by Christ, with or without faith in Him.

Cardinal Cantalamessa’s sermon has provided further clarification on what “salvation” and “faith” mean for the present-day Roman Catholic Church. They are biblical terms that are reinterpreted in such a way that their biblical meaning is reshaped to fit the Roman Catholic version of universalism. This is another instance of Roman Catholics and Evangelicals using the same words but meaning very different things.

The whole of Roman Catholicism is “developing” towards becoming less “Roman” (hierarchical, top-down, doctrinaire) and more “Catholic” (embracing, inclusive, universalist). The Roman Catholic gospel was flawed when it had a more “Roman” focus and it continues to be so with the new “Catholic” emphasis, though the accents are put differently.

208. The End of the Tridentine Paradigm (or Where Is the Roman Catholic Church Going)?

It was the historian Paolo Prodi (1932-2016) who coined the expression “Tridentine paradigm” to indicate the set of identity markers that emerged from the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and which shaped the Catholic Church for centuries, at least until the second half of the 20th century. In one of his most famous books, Il paradigma tridentino (2010), Prodi explored the self-understanding of the institutional church of Rome which, in the wake of and in response to the “threat” of the Protestant Reformation, closed hierarchical and pyramidal ranks up to the primacy of the Pope. The church consolidated its sacramental system, regimented the church in rigorous canonical forms and parochial territories, and disciplined folk devotions and the control of consciences. It relaunched its mission to counter the spread of the Reformation and to anticipate the Protestant states in an attempt to arrive first in countries not yet “evangelized.” It promoted models of holiness to involve the laity emotionally and inspired artists to celebrate the new vitality of the church of Rome in a memorable form.

The Tridentine paradigm produced the Roman Catechism of Pius V (1566) as a dogmatic synthesis of the Catholic faith to which Catholics scrupulously had to abide, the controversial theology of Robert Bellarmine to support anti-Protestant apologetic action, and the great baroque creations by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (like the majestic colonnade of St. Peter’s) to represent the church as the winner over its adversaries and new patron of artists and intellectuals.

The Tridentine paradigm has withstood the challenge of the Protestant Reformation and more. With the same paradigm, Rome also faced a second push coming from the modern world: that of the Enlightenment (on the cultural side) and the French Revolution (on the political side) between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. With the same set of institutional, sacramental, and hierarchical markers that emerged from the Council of Trent, Rome defended itself from the attack of modernity and counterattacked. With the dogmas of the immaculate conception of Mary (1854) and papal infallibility (1870), which are children of the Tridentine paradigm, Rome elevated Mariology and the papacy to identity markers of modern Roman Catholicism. With Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864), Rome condemned the modern world, just as the Council of Trent had anathematized Protestants. With the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), Leo XIII elevated Thomism to a system of Catholic thought against all the drifts of modern culture.

The Tridentine paradigm exalted the church of Rome and condemned its enemies. It established who was in and who was out. It defined Roman Catholic doctrine and rejected “Protestant” and “Modernist” heresies. It solidified Roman Catholic teaching and consolidated practices. It authorized controlled forms of pluralism but within the compact structure of the central organization. According to the Tridentine paradigm, it was clear who Catholics were, what they believed, how they were expected to behave, and how the church functioned.

Then, the world changed, and Roman Catholicism changed with it. The Tridentine paradigm gradually eroded with the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), not in a frontal and direct way, but following the path of “development” and “aggiornamento” that Vatican II promoted. Of course, Rome does not make any U-turns or swerves sharply. Trent is still there, and the dogmatic and institutional structures of the Tridentine paradigm are standing. The Roman Catholic Church has begun to see its limits, wishing to overcome them by embracing a new posture in the world. Even if Paul VI immediately saw the risks of abandoning it, John Paul II tried to make the Tridentine paradigm elastic by extending it to the universal church. Benedict XVI coined the expression “reform-in-continuity” to try to explain the Catholic dynamic of change without breaking with the past.

The pope who seems to perceive the Tridentine paradigm in negative terms is Pope Francis. His invectives against “clericalism” are directed at Roman Catholic people and practices nourished by the Tridentine spirit. The typical distinctions of the Tridentine paradigm are rendered fluid and are progressively dissolved: clergy/laity, man/woman, Catholic/non-Catholic, heterosexual/homosexual, married/divorced, etc. If the Tridentine paradigm distinguished and selected things and people, Francis wants to unite everything and everyone. The first paradigm separated Roman Catholicism from the rest; this pope wants to mix everything. The first worked with the pair white/black, inside/outside, faithful/infidel. Francis sees the world in different shades of gray and welcomes everyone into the “field hospital” that is the church.

The “synodal” church dear to Francis seems to overturn the traditional pyramidal structure. The direction of the church is determined by the “holy people of God” made up of migrants, the marginalized, the poor, the laity, and people in irregular life situations. Before there were heretics, pagans, and excommunicated, now we are “all brothers.” It is no longer the center that drives, but the peripheries. It is not sin, judgment, and salvation that occupy the discourse of the church, but its message today touches on themes such as peace, human rights, and the environment. The church no longer wants to present itself as a “magistra” (teacher) but only as a “mater” (mother).

With its calls for the extension of the priesthood to women and the blessing of same-sex couples, the German “synodal path” is effectively striking the Tridentine paradigm. The first results of the “synodal process” in European dioceses are attacks on the Tridentine paradigm. It is true that there are conservative circles (in the USA in particular) who claim the Tridentine paradigm and would like to revive it. However, the point is that Roman Catholicism globally is at a crossroads. Has the Tridentine paradigm reached the end of its journey? If so, what will be the face of Roman Catholicism tomorrow? Neither the Tridentine paradigm nor the various synodal paths dear to Pope Francis indicate an evangelical turning point in the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome was and remains distant from the claims of the biblical gospel.

207. “Go to Thomas!” Who Will Follow the Pope’s Invitation?

Nothing could be more explicit: “Go to Thomas!” This warm invitation was issued by Pope Francis to participants of the International Thomistic Congress (Sept. 21-24) during an audience at the Vatican. In his address, the pope extolled the thought of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) as a sure guide for Roman Catholic faith and a fruitful relationship with culture. Citing Paul VI (Lumen ecclesiae, 1974) John Paul II (Fides et ratio, 1998), who had magnified the importance of Thomas’ thought for the contemporary Roman church, Francis stood in the wake of recent popes in emphasizing superlative appreciation for the figure of Thomas while adding his own.

This is nothing new. For centuries, Roman Catholicism has regarded Thomas Aquinas as its champion. His voice is often considered the highest, deepest, and most complete of Roman Catholic thought and belief. Canonized by John XXII as early as 1323, he was proclaimed a doctor of the church by Pius V in 1567 to be the premier Roman Catholic theologian whose thinking would defeat the Protestant Reformation. During the Council of Trent, the Summa theologica was symbolically placed next to the Bible as a testament to its primary importance in formulating the Tridentine decrees and canons against justification by faith alone and other Protestant doctrines. In the seventeenth century, he was considered the defender of the Roman Catholic theological system by Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), the greatest anti-Protestant controversialist who influenced many generations of Catholic apologists over the centuries. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris in which he pointed to Thomas as the highest expression of philosophical and theological science. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stipulated that the formation of priests should have Thomas as the supreme guide in their studies: “The students should learn to penetrate them (i.e. the mysteries of salvation) more deeply with the help of speculation, under the guidance of St. Thomas, and to perceive their interconnections” (Optatam Totius [1965] n. 17). Of recent popes, this has already been mentioned. Considering this, what could Pope Francis say but, “Go to Thomas!”

Francis indicated not only the need to study Thomas, but also to “contemplate” the Master before approaching his thought. Thus, to the cognitive and intellectual dimension, he added a mystical one. In this way, he caused Thomas, already a theologian imbued with wisdom and asceticism, to be seen as even more Roman Catholic. This mix best represents the interweaving of the intellectual and contemplative traditions proper to Roman Catholicism.

The International Congress had the exploration of the resources of Thomist thought in today’s context as its theme. Thomism is not just a medieval stream of thought, but a system that is both solid and elastic at the same time. All seasons of Roman Catholicism have found it inspiring for the diverse challenges facing the Church of Rome, including the Reformation first, the Enlightenment project second, and now post-modernity. As a result of the Congress, we will continue to hear more about Thomas and Thomism, not only in historical theology and philosophy, but also in other fields of knowledge that were once far from previous interpretative traditions of Thomas.

In recent years, we have witnessed a growing fascination with Thomas Aquinas and Thomism by evangelical theologians, especially coming from the North American context. They seem to be attracted to the “great tradition” he represents. This phenomenon should be studied because it signals the existence of internal movements within evangelical theological circles. Protestant theology of the 16th and 17th centuries had a critical view of Thomas. In a sense, Thomas could not be avoided, given his stature and importance for theology, but he was read with selective and theologically adult eyes. Then, for various reasons, there has been a certain neglect not only of Thomas but with pre-Reformation historical theology as a whole. Today, in the face of the pressures coming from secularization and the identity crisis felt in some evangelical quarters, Thomas is perceived as a bulwark of “traditional” theology that needs to be urgently recovered. It is often overlooked that Roman Catholicism has considered Thomas as its champion in its anti-Reformation stance and also in its subsequent anti-biblical developments, such as the 1950 Marian dogma of the bodily ascension of Mary. Rome considers Thomas as the quintessentially Roman Catholic theologian and thinker.

“Go to Thomas!” is an invitation that even a growing number of practitioners of evangelical theology would take up. The point is not to uncritically study or absolutely avoid Thomas, but rather to provide the theological map with which one approaches him. It is necessary to develop an evangelical map of Thomas Aquinas. If Rome considers Thomas its chief architect, can evangelical theology approach him without understanding that Thomas stands behind everything Roman Catholicism believes and practices?  

206. New Cardinals for the Future Conclave

When the reigning Pope creates new cardinals, it is because he is thinking not only of the Roman Catholic Church of today but, above all, that of tomorrow. Cardinals are those who, in addition to assisting the Pope with governing the universal Church, meet in conclave and elect the successor once the reigning one has died or, as in the case of Pope Ratzinger, resigns. By the end of August, Pope Francis has created 21 new cardinals (of which 16 are electors, that is, still under 80 years of age). In doing so, he has appointed two-thirds of the voting college of cardinals (should the conclave meet today) from the beginning of his pontificate. Note that the majority required for the election of the pope is just two-thirds. Most of the new cardinals and all those voting seem to belong to the pro-Francis area, that is, loyal to the line of the pope and in continuity with his approach.

(CNS photo/Vatican Media)

When it comes to electing Francis’ successor, the overwhelming majority of the cardinals will have been created by Francis himself. Does this mean that they will vote for a “Franciscan” candidate, that is, one who carries out the agenda of the current papacy? It’s not for sure. The history of the conclaves, including the last one, indicates that electoral majorities do not predictably follow in the way they were formed, but can be constructed in an unexpected way. In any case, it is an indisputable element that Francis has now filled the conclave with cardinals of his appointment. On this point he followed not so much a “catholic” policy of choosing representatives of all the trends within Roman Catholicism (e.g. progressives, traditionalists, centrists, …) but a partisan one: he chose cardinals who meet his personal theological and pastoral preferences.

The geographical origins of the new cardinals are different. In this regard, it should be noted that Pope Francis has chosen the new cardinals from the “peripheries” of the Roman Catholic world: think of the bishops of Singapore, Mongolia and East Timor, small and decentralized episcopal sees that now become much more important. In Italy he appointed as cardinal the bishop of Como (a small diocese) while the nearby and large archdiocese of Milan still remains without a cardinal. In the USA he created as cardinal the bishop of San Diego (small in size) but left the much larger diocese of Los Angeles without. Pope Francis is like this: he is predictable in his willingness to unsettle established patterns that subvert expectations.

What does all this mean regarding the prospects of Roman Catholicism? Not much. Or rather: much as regards the internal dynamics in Rome, but much less with regards to the expectation of a “turning point” of Roman Catholicism in an evangelical direction. Whether the next pope is a “Franciscan” or a conservative, from the southern hemisphere or the Western world, elected by a narrow majority or by a large majority, in favor of synodality or centralizer, little of theological significance is going to change.

If the conclave would meet today, the most quoted candidates for the papacy are: 

  • Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle (Philippines), who is thought of as being in line with Francis and represents the Roman Catholic Global South, but is perhaps too young (being born in 1957); 
  • Cardinal Matteo Zuppi (Italy), close to Francis but with his own independent posture;
  • Cardinal Peter Ërdo (Hungary), a good candidate of the conservative wing, but European and therefore still from the “old” world; 
  • Cardinal Pietro Parolin (Italy), the current Vatican Secretary of State, in case the conclave ends up in a stand still and looks for a mediation between different groups.

Whoever the next pope is, unless there is a surprise that stems from the extraordinary providence of God, he will remain within the logic of Roman Catholicism, which moves along the lines of ecclesiastical politics but whose agenda does not include a way towards a reformation according to the gospel. The true reformation requires abandoning all that Rome has added to the evangelical faith (Marian dogmas, sacraments and practices that are not taught in Scripture, imperial and hierarchical structures, spurious if not really pagan devotions, etc.) to return to the biblical faith that is grounded in Scripture alone and centered on Christ alone. Unfortunately, everything that precedes the conclave does not seem to indicate any movement towards an evangelical reformation of the Roman Catholic Church, but only another page in the long history of Roman Catholicism.