166. Pope Francis Fears for the Planet, But Where Is the Gospel?

Europe, sovereignism (the “us first” type of politics), migrants, glaciers, the Amazon … these are the topics covered in a recent interview given by Pope Francis to the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa (8th August 2019). It is a fairly long conversation that mirrors the concerns the Pope has in looking at today’s global world: he begins with Europe and stretches to the Amazon, touching on social, political, environmental, and ecclesiastical issues. Some of the topics are politically controversial and divisive even among the Roman Catholic constituency. Beyond confirming stances on which the Pope is strongly convinced, however, what is striking in the interview are his silences.

The Biggest Fear for the Planet
None of the things that Francis said were really new. There have been multiple occasions at all levels in which the Pope has expressed his views on sovereignist ideology (“it leads to war”), the populist tendency in the public opinion (“It leads to sovereignism”), the migrant issue (the four imperatives are to “receive”, “accompany”, “promote”, and “integrate”), the exploitation of natural resources (“the Overshoot Day: On July 29th, we used up all the regenerative resources of 2019… It’s a global emergency”); the challenges that the Amazon region is facing (“deforestation means killing humanity”, “the issue of open-cast mines which are poisoning water and causing so many diseases”, “the issue of fertilizers”, “the economic and political interests of society’s dominant sectors”).

These are all serious points, most of which the Pope touched on in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ on “care for our common home”. They have to be thought through and acted upon. They are real emergencies. However, something is missing in the answers of the Pope. Reaching the climax of the interview, the question comes up: “Your Holiness, what do you fear most for our planet?”. The Pope’s answer is striking. Here it is: “The disappearance of biodiversity. New lethal diseases. A drift and devastation of nature that can lead to the death of humanity”.

The disappearance of biodiversity, new lethal diseases, a devastation of nature. These are the things that the Pope fears the most for the world. Again, these are real and scary threats. But isn’t there something missing from a Christian point of view? If Jesus were asked such a question, what would His response be? If Paul, John, Peter, and James were asked such a question, what would their response be? In the Pope’s answer, there is no mention of Christ, sin, the cross, repentance, conversion, God’s judgement, grace, the gospel. And yet he claims to be the “vicar of Christ”!

The question opened up wonderful opportunities to reply in such a way that those fears could be approached and framed in terms of the gospel, rather than in terms of a merely humanistic worldview. In what he said and what he didn’t say, Pope Francis acted as if he were the spokesperson of a secular NGO focused on humanitarian and environmental issues, rather than a Christian who is passionate to tell the whole world the biblical message of God’s creation, human sin, and redemption in Christ alone and to work out its implication for the church and the world.

Where is Christ in all this?
Actually, Christ is not only missing in this answer – He is never mentioned in the whole interview. Greta Thunberg, the young ecologist activist, is referred to by name, but Jesus isn’t. One might say: but the Pope wasn’t asked direct questions about Christ. That’s true; but it was a long interview with lots of questions, full of entry points for the gospel to be announced. These opportunities were all missed by the Pope. In reading the interview the reader is not at all challenged by the gospel. He or she is instead alerted to some pressing environmental and political issues that an informed and cunning politician could have raised. Does his silence say tell something about the kind of “gospel” the Pope has in mind?

Expressing concerns for the Amazon region, the interviewer talked about the upcoming Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon that is going to take place at the end of October 2019. At this point the Pope shared what is going to be the highlight of the Synod: “The important thing will be the ministries of evangelisation and the different ways of evangelising”.

Evangelisation and evangelising. One is left wondering what evangelisation even means to Francis. In the long interview the Pope does not spell it out. The only hint he gives is to “dialogue”:

This is crucial: starting from our own identity we must open to dialogue in order to receive something greater from the identity of others. Never forget that ‘the whole is greater than the parts.’ Globalisation, unity, should not be conceived as a sphere, but as a polyhedron: each people retains its identity in unity with others.

This is what the Pope says: we open up dialogue in order to form a polycentric unity with the people we dialogue with. Again, there is no reference to the biblical content of the “good news” (i.e. the message of salvation in Jesus Christ), nor the biblical expectation that conversions to Christ will result out of dialogue. For the Pope, the outcome of dialogue is an expanded, polymorphic unity among people. In the Bible, however, evangelisation entails dialogue, but also proclamation, preaching, persuading, etc. (e.g. Acts 17:16-31 ). These elements are totally missing in the Pope’s view of evangelisation. Moreover, the Bible is also soberly aware that when and where evangelisation takes place some refuse the gospel, and some believe it (e.g. Acts 17:32-34). No greater unity within humanity is expected, but the conversion of the lost is the goal of evangelism. This should be the greatest concern for all Christians: taking the gospel to the ends of the world so that those who believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the Pope’s vision, although he claims to be the highest representative of Christ on earth.

117. Talking With Catholics about the Gospel. A Book Review

December 16th, 2015

A review of Chris Castaldo, Talking With Catholics about the Gospel: A Guide for EvangelicalsGrand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, pp. 192.

posted on http://9marks.org/review/book-review-talking-to-catholics-about-the-gospel-by-christ-cataldo/

Wherever you live in the world, be it Buenos Aires, Manila or Philadelphia, you are likely to have Roman Catholic neighbors, colleagues, or friends. With its 1.2 billion people, Roman Catholics are the largest religious grouping around the globe. So if you want to share your faith in Jesus Christ with a Catholic, Talking With Catholics about the Gospel: A Guide for Evangelicals offers guidelines and encouragement on how to approach a conversation or a relationship with a Roman Catholic friend. The author, Chris Castaldo, is a pastor-theologian with an evangelist’s heart, and he is one the best guides in today’s evangelical church on the subject of evangelizing Catholics. He proves that with this book.


After defining what he means by “evangelical,” Castaldo goes on by helping the reader to come to terms with the different sub-categories of Catholics that one may encounter. He explains that there are “traditional Catholics,” “evangelical Catholics,” and “cultural Catholics.” Each category has its own particular way of living out the Roman Catholic identity and each one brings specific challenges and opportunities in terms of gospel witness.

I guess that this typology needs to be refined according to the context one finds himself in. In my corner of the world (Rome, Italy), I find some “traditional Catholics” and tons of “cultural Catholics,” but I also meet with many people whose Catholicism is largely characterized by folk-religion practices like devotions to the saints and the cult of the dead. I am not sure which of the three categories they fit in or if they need another category on their own, like “folk Catholics.”

How one formulates a question shapes one’s answer in a profound way. I also have to say that I find it difficult to accept the “evangelical Catholics” category. For me it is an oxymoron. Castaldo rightly defines evangelicalism in theological terms by referring to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant as a representative evangelical document. Lausanne highlights the authority of Scripture, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, the need for conversion, the commitment to evangelism and mission. If this is the meaning of evangelical (and I fully agree with it), then this “evangelical catholic” category falls apart. According to this meaning of evangelical you are either an evangelical or a Roman Catholic. You cannot be both.

If the word “evangelical” is instead understood in sociological terms as being a qualifier of a spirituality marked by passion and commitment, then you move away from its more doctrinal definition. This is the meaning given by George Weigel, the author of the book Evangelical Catholicism to which Castaldo refers.[1] Weigel wants us to believe that evangelical has no theological substance, but only denotes a spiritual fervor that can be applied to a committed Catholic as well. Weigel’s champions of an “evangelical Catholic” are Paul VI and John Paul II, whose theological commitments were far away from the theologically understood evangelical core. So instead of blurring the meaning of “evangelical” and passively accept Weigel’s rebranding of the term, I suggest that “passionate Catholics” is a better description of this category of people, i.e. people who seem to have commitments similar to an evangelical but adhere to the traditional outlook of Roman Catholicism.


Castaldo also provides a helpful taxonomy of evangelical approaches towards Roman Catholics. They range from “actively anti-Catholic” to “passively anti-Catholic”; from “co-existent” to “positive identity”; from “symbiotic” to “ecumenical” and “internal renewal.” Each approach is based on certain evaluations of Roman Catholicism. The reader will find it a helpful exercise in placing himself in one these categories in order to be aware of his spiritual motifs, theological convictions, and personal experiences.

After clarifying the terms, the book devotes one long chapter on the modern history of Roman Catholicism, thus showing the historical complexity that lead to the present-day Roman Catholicism. This section is very informative and helpful in giving some historical context to the evangelistic task.


Another important chapter is devoted to clarifying the theological issues at stake by way of expounding “similarities and differences” between evangelicals and Catholics. There are multiple doctrinal divergences, but the ultimate point of difference, says Castaldo, lies in the contrasting view of the incarnation of Christ as it is related to the nature and mission of the Church. Here he quotes Joseph Ratzinger, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI: “The notion of the body of Christ was developed in the Catholic Church to the effect that the Church designated as ‘Christ living on earth’ came to mean that the Church was described as the Incarnation of the Son continuing until the end of time” (87). Understood in this way, the church assumes the prerogatives of Christ in his roles as prophet, priest, and king. His prophetic role becomes the magisterial office of the church. His priestly role becomes the sacramental structure of the church. And his kingly role becomes the political authority of the Roman church.

From this fundamental difference, other divergences emerge in relation to authority, salvation, the perpetual sacrifice of the Mass, purgatory, indulgences, veneration of the Saints, penance, and the mediating role of Mary (83). The difference between evangelicals and Roman Catholics can be found with different intensities and at various levels, but given the fundamental nature of the division it can be traced in all areas of faith and practice while recognizing certain convergences of language and thought-forms, especially in the Trinitarian framework of the Christian faith. It seems to me that the premises of the chapter lead to this conclusion.


Behind history and doctrines, however, are real people with their stories and beliefs, and this is something that is often overlooked in evangelism. Castaldo’s aim is to encourage all true disciples of Jesus Christ to be actively involved in personal witness of the gospel and to do it in ways that embody the good news. With his characteristic personal warmth and theological acuteness, Chris Castaldo is educating us evangelicals to engage in meaningful conversations with our Catholic friends and neighbors.

At the beginning of the book, he suggests that any evangelistic effort toward Catholics should occur under the biblical rubric of “grace and truth.” The final chapter persuasively argues that if evangelism is not done in grace and truth it becomes something that does not honor God nor advances the cause of the gospel.

To that end, Talking With Catholics about the Gospel well manages to strike the balance between biblical clarity and Christian love. My hope is that it will set the tone for present and future engagements by evangelicals to their Catholic friends.


[1] In private correspondence, Castaldo has made a distinction between “evangelical catholicism” as Weigel understands it and “evangelical catholics” as individual people holding on seemingly evangelical convictions while remaining catholic. Unfortunately, this distinction doesn’t make it into the book.