205. One Roman (Vatican) Stop After a Catholic (German) Push

Roman Catholicism is, by definition, Catholic (inclusive, welcoming, absorbing) and Roman (centralized, hierarchical, institutional) at the same time. The former characteristic gives it its fluidity, the latter its rigidity. It is soft like velvet and abrasive like sandpaper. Certainly, there are historical phases in which the Catholic prevailed over the Roman and vice versa. There are different combinations in the way the two qualifications are intertwined with each other. 

For example, on the one hand, the Council of Trent (16th century) was very Roman with its dogmatic definitions and its excommunications of those who upheld Protestant convictions on the supreme authority of Scripture and salvation by faith alone. On the other, the Second Vatican Council (20th century) was very Catholic with its ecumenism towards non-Catholics and its embrace of the modern world. Pius IX (1792-1878) was a Roman pope who rejected religious freedom and freedom of conscience; Francis is a Catholic pope with his insistence on the fact that we are “all brothers” (Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, etc) regardless faith in Christ. We could go on with other examples. 

The point is that Roman Catholicism is always in a tense balance between its two sides: Catholic and Roman. Rome is not only Catholic – otherwise it would dilute and disperse its institutional project centered on its hierarchical structures. It is not only Roman – otherwise it would become hardened in a closed system. It is both at the same time. An example of the Catholic and Roman dynamic is precisely at work these days and has as protagonists the “Synodal Path” of the German Catholic Church and the Vatican, the Holy See.

For some years now a Catholic initiative, the “Synodal Path,” has been underway in Germany involving bishops, lay people and religious associations. This series of meetings, discussions and papers has gathered many critical voices within Roman Catholicism and has proposed innovations and changes to some consolidated Roman Catholic doctrines and practices: the German “Synodal Path” has approved the female diaconate (in view of the ordination of women to the priesthood), the official recognition of homosexual couples, the relaxation of admission to the Eucharist to all those who come forward, etc. These are all very Catholic measures, i.e. inclusive and progressive, broadening the traditional stance of the Roman Church.

Important sectors of German (e.g. Cardinal Walter Kasper) and international (e.g. conservative circles in the US) Roman Catholicism have expressed growing concerns over the disruptive turn of the “Synodal Path” and the “liquid” Roman Catholicism it endorses. To try to restore order, in 2019 Pope Francis wrote a letter to German Catholics whose essence can be summarized in this way: “the German Synod is fine, changes are fine to some extent, but always stay within the Roman structures and remain united to the whole ecclesiastical institution.” In spite of the papal message, this reminder went virtually unnoticed and the German “Synodal Path” continued undaunted with its very Catholic resolutions, challenging the Roman status quo.

On 21st July the news came out that, fearing a rupture of the balance between the Catholic and the Roman, the Vatican issued a “Declaration of the Holy See” in German and Italian. The declaration essentially says two things: first, that the “Synodal Path” is all right in so far as it does not change the well-established beliefs and practices of the whole universal church; and second, if anything, its requests and recommendations can and should be brought to the broader Synod of Bishops on synodality that will take place in Rome in 2023. This is the translation from the ecclesiastical jargon: “Dear German Catholics, you have pulled the rope too hard. Now the Roman structures of the Church are calling you back in order to make your journey flow back into the Roman Catholic synthesis.” In even fewer words: “Catholicity is fine, but not at the expense of the Roman identity.” Roman Catholicism is both Catholic and Roman.

The Vatican believed that the time had come to strike a Roman blow to the Catholic trajectory of the “Synodal Path.” Rome feared that the pendulum of Catholicity ran the risk of breaking the framework of Romanism.

This Roman initiative by the Holy See is just the latest in a series of continuous adjustments that keep the system in a dynamic equilibrium. Compared to theological liberalism which, from Friedrich Schleiermacher onwards, pushes the accelerator of the historical Protestant churches on the re-invention of Christianity to adapt it to the dominant culture, Roman Catholicism is open to “development” and “updating” without losing its dogmatic commitments and institutional structure. The Catholic expansion must serve the purpose of reinforcing the Roman system; otherwise, it is not different from the liberal agenda.

For this reason, Roman Catholicism is not interested in a “reformation” according to the gospel. Rome wants to incorporate new and different emphases (e.g. evangelical, charismatic, traditionalist, liberal) without changing its sacramental and hierarchical self-understanding. Rome says it wants the gospel, but Rome also wants mariology, the papacy, the sacraments – traditions and devotions that are contrary to the gospel – without obliterating its view that the Roman Church as it stands is a de iure divino institution, i.e. by divine law and therefore unchanging and unchangeable. If the tension between the Catholic and the Roman of Roman Catholicism is not broken and reformed by the truth of the gospel and by the power of the Holy Spirit, Rome will never really change: it will shift from here to there, always moving within the boundaries of its Catholic and Roman sides, but without getting closer to Jesus Christ.

204. Nature and Grace in the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger – A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (III)

The relationship between nature and grace is the framework that explains how mankind and God cooperate in bringing about salvation. In Roman Catholicism, the interdependence between the two is such that grace intervenes to elevate nature to its supernatural end, fully relying on its untainted capacity to be elevated and even to contribute to the process. Even if wounded by sin, Roman Catholic theology argues that nature maintains the ability to be graced because nature is always open to grace (the traditional view) and because grace is indelibly embedded in nature (the contemporary view).
 
In previous articles, I sketched the nature-grace interdependence both in its medieval (mainly Thomistic) account, i.e. “Gratia Supponit Naturam”? A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (Part I) and in its post-Vatican II and present-day one, i.e.“Grace as the Heart’s Desire” – A Historical Sketch of the Nature-Grace Interdependence (Part II). The two versions coexist in Roman Catholicism, indicating that Roman Catholic theology is neither a static nor a monolithic system. It also shows that for all their particularities, the two accounts differ in accents rather than basic theological assumptions. Both approaches uphold the view that we as creatures have a “capacity for God” inspite of sin and that grace comes to us in different forms and intensities because it already lies in us.
 
To further expand the analysis of the nature-grace interdependence in Roman Catholicism, it might be of some interest to look at how an outstanding Roman Catholic theologian like Joseph Ratzinger (1927- ) has accounted for and developed the theme in his work. Ratzinger’s importance does not need to be argued: a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), an eminent professor in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–77), archbishop of Munich (1977–81) and cardinal, then prefect, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005), pope Benedict XVI (2005–13), and, since 2013, pope emeritus after his somewhat tragic resignation, Ratzinger is one of the most authoritative voices of Roman Catholic theology today. One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his person and work.
 
The opportunity to sample his views of the nature-grace relationship is offered in a recent book by Simone Billeci, Gratia Supponit Naturam nella teologia di Joseph Ratzinger (Trapani: Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2020; Grace Supposes Nature in the theology of Joseph Ratzinger). In this important piece of scholarship, Billeci discusses the significance of Ratzinger’s historical and theological contribution to the exploration of the theme. Specifically, Ratzinger has worked on the interdependence in a twofold way:

  1. In his early books on Augustine’s view of the people of God (1954) and on Bonaventure’s understanding of revelation and history (1955)[1], and
  2. In Ratzinger’s mature works where he revisits the relationship in light of a new appreciation of the legacy of Thomas Aquinas[2] and the heated Roman Catholic debates on the issue around and after Vatican II.[3]

Ratzinger as Interpreter of Augustine and Bonaventure
In a sense, the vocabulary of the entire discussion was framed by Augustine, whose famous On Nature and Grace (415 AD) contains reference to both nature and grace individually and to their relationship. In writing against the Pelagians, who had an optimistic view of nature and a correspondently lower appreciation of grace, Augustine wants to highlight the supremacy of grace over nature. One limit of the way the whole issue was framed is that it neglects to mention sin and leaves it out of the big picture. True, Augustine has a somewhat radical view of the fall and the consequences of sin, but in comparing and contrasting “nature” and “grace” and not referring to sin in framing the relationship, he gives the impression that it all revolves around an ontological issue, i.e. the properties of nature as distinct from those of grace and vice versa, rather than presenting the discussion in the historical and moral trajectory of a good creation having fallen into sin and in need of redemption in Jesus Christ. Augustine has a proper view of “natura decaduta,” i.e. fallen nature, but his overall title Nature and Grace and the structure of his argument are still dependent on ontological categories.

It is no surprise that Ratzinger follows the Augustinian discussion on nature and grace by grappling with it in ontological terms rather than in historical and moral terms. For him “neither pure nature, nor pure grace” is the crux of the matter. Nature is never purely nature detached from grace, and grace is never purely grace existing outside of nature. The biblical emphasis in its historical sequence, i.e. God’s creation, the disruption of sin, and God’s salvation, is swallowed in the abstract and ontological distinctions and relationships between nature and grace, more defined by Christianized patterns of Greek thought than the biblical flow of salvation history.

In studying Bonaventure of Bagnoregio’s theology of revelation and history, Ratzinger focuses on the insistence of the medieval Franciscan monk that is summarized in the sentence“gratia non destruit sed perficit naturam,” i.e. grace does not destroy but perfects nature. The overall framework is still characterized by the Augustinian imprinting which underlies the ontological properties of nature and grace. Bonaventure understands grace as an upward move, an upgrade of nature that elevates it to a perfected state. Nature is open to be graced and, in perfecting nature, grace does not destroy it, but relies on it. Put in this way, nature and grace appear to be two steps in the chain of being, one implying the other, rather than a story of creation/fall/redemption culminating in the consummation of all things according to God’s plan.

Ratzinger’s interpretation of Bonaventure appreciates the dynamic movement of the perfecting of nature by grace. There is indeed a movement, and therefore a story, and not just the juxtaposition of two ontological realities. However, in spite of that, the underestimation of the impact of the fall and sin shows that it is not yet the Bible’s story to shape the overall understanding of nature and grace. In Bonaventure and in Ratzinger’s examination of him, it is not the biblical nature, i.e. creation, as it is permeated by common grace, that then falls in sin and whose only hope is in the special grace of redemption. It is still the kind of nature that is thought of in philosophical terms, and it is still an objectified kind of grace that is added to it.

Ratzinger’s Reception of Thomas Aquinas
The third part of Billeci’s study deals with Ratzinger’s interpretation of the nature-grace interdependence in Thomas Aquinas. After surveying Aquinas’ interpretation of the nature-grace motif, which does not significantly differ from the aforementioned accounts, Billeci offers a summary of what it means for Thomas to recognize the impact of the fall on man’s nature and what it is that grace does in response: “The kind of nature that subsists after sin is that of man who, from his first instant, had God as his ultimate end, was therefore able to know him and to love him at a supernatural level and who had been called to live in intimate fellowship with Him in beatitude. The deprivation of his highest possibility to reach that end leaves him in a nasty state of unsatisfaction to which the renewed gift of grace will be able to bring remedy” (p. 245).

We are here confronted with the nuances of Aquinas in a nutshell. On the one hand, he reiterates the natural openness of nature to grace; on the other, he argues that after the fall grace still relies on nature’s residual ability to be graced by way of healing it and elevating it to its supernatural end. The primary metaphor is that of “healing” a wound rather than “regenerating” the dead. Be it “integra,” i.e. integral and whole, or “corrupta,” i.e. corrupted and fallen, nature maintains the capacity for grace that opens up the possibility of human merit and the mediation of the sacraments of a human agency, i.e. the church. According to this Thomistic view that Ratzinger makes his own, it is rejected that salvation come by faith alone in Christ alone because human nature is still open to cooperate with grace even in its corrupted state. Grace is necessary but not sufficient to attain salvation because nature is weakened but not spiritually dead.

In the final part of the book, Billeci discusses other themes of Ratzinger’s theology in light of the nature-grace interdependence. By contesting modern accounts of reality that want to get rid of God and his grace from Western civilization, Ratzinger often criticizes “naturalism,” i.e. the widespread idea that nature is a self-contained mechanism that makes God’s involvement in the world redundant if not dangerous if man is understood to be free and autonomous. From another angle, Ratzinger applies the nature-grace interdependence to support the conviction that the Christian faith is “reasonable,” i.e. it does make sense according to “natural” criteria of right and wrong, good and evil. These reasonable (natural) criteria are supplemented and corroborated by the exercise of faith, i.e. grace at work in making sense of the world. Grace presupposes a weakened but still sufficiently reliable nature.

As already indicated, Ratzinger endorses the view that there is “neither pure nature, nor pure grace.” His dense historical studies and theological reflections remain in the traditional categories of Roman Catholicism since they have been received in the Thomistic interpretation of Augustine’s Nature and Grace and they continue to be discussed in present-day Roman Catholic theology. Instead of applying biblical categories in approaching “nature” and “grace,” the Roman Catholic tradition, in all its nuances and subtleties, is framed in ontological terms rather than historical and moral ones in the context of biblical revelation. Instead of taking into account the radical disruption of the fall and sin, Rome has preferred to view it in a milder way so as to safeguard nature’s inherent ability to cooperate with grace and the church’s role of mediating agency through the sacraments. Instead of receiving God’s grace as a divine gift that reaches us from outside, Rome has instead built a theological system whereby grace is always to be found within us. With all his theological acumen, Ratzinger’s theology perfectly fits the Roman Catholic nature-grace interdependence.  


[1]Volk und Haus Gottes in Augustins Lehre von der Kirchen (München: Karl Zink, 1954) and Offenbarungsverständnis und Geschichtstheologie Bonaventuras (1955). The English edition of both books can be found in his Opera Omnia (Freiburg, Basel, Vienna: Herder Verlag, 2011), vol. 1 and 2 respectively.

[2]e.g. Der Gott des Glaubens und der Gott der Philosophen (München-Zürich: Schnell & Steiner, 1960) now in Opera Omnia, cit., vol. 3.

[3]e.g. Einführung in das Christentum (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1968); English edition: Introduction to Christianity, 2nd edition (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004).

203. “Praedicate Evangelium” – Envisioning the Roman Catholic Church of the Future

The constitution of a country is a kind of identity card for the country itself. Its different components, its various articles, the procedures that are enacted… they all create a window into what the country stands for and what its rules are. Since a country’s identity is reflected in every change of the constitution, any change signals a modification in the self-understanding of the entity.
 
The Roman Curia is governed by a kind of constitution that is issued by the Pope as the Head of the Church and Head of the State of the Vatican. It contains the rules that preside over the functioning of the Vatican departments and offices, which are at the service of the universal mission of the Roman Pontiff. It is the blueprint of the Vatican institution and is centered on the office of the Pope and practically implemented by the Roman Curia.
 
The recent promulgation of the Apostolic Constitution Praedicate Evangelium (PE) on 19th March 2022 gives the opportunity to examine how the Roman Catholic Church understands and organizes her institutional life as far as the present and the future are concerned.[1] More importantly, PE shows the inherent connection between the theological vision and the institutional outlook of the Roman Church, at least from the viewpoint of the Curia. Prior to PE, the Roman Curia operated under the constitution Pastor Bonus issued by John Paul II in 1988 and so it is also interesting to notice the changes after 25 years. The constitution defines the Roman Curia as “the institution which the Roman Pontiff ordinarily makes use of in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office and his universal mission in the world.” Furthermore, it states: “The Roman Curia is composed of the Secretariat of State, the Dicasteries and other bodies, all juridically equal to each other.”
 
Of course, PE is a juridical document and some interest and expertise in canon law is needed to come to terms with its contents.[2] The focus of this article will not so much be on the institutional re-arrangement of the Roman Curia and its organizational structure, but rather, on the theological vision that sustains it and that constitutes its framework. In what follows, I will try to look at PE from two different angles: the reordering of institutional priorities that it envisages and the significance of those priorities for the overall life of the Roman Catholic Church.Evangelicals are not always aware of the institutional picture and pay little attention to it. However, Rome is a big institution and one cannot come to terms with it without considering it. Therefore, this will be an exercise of evangelical discernment applied to the changing structure of the Roman Curia.
 
The Reordering of Priorities
“Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way… to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is a human institution here on earth” (The Joy of the Gospel, n. 26). These words by Pope Francis, which are actually a quotation from Vatican II, reflect a deep conviction concerning the need for an ongoing reformation in the church.[3] What kind of reformation did he have in mind? In some sense, PE is the institutional answer to the question asked at the beginning of his pontificate.In a nutshell, Francis’ own understanding of the reformation of his Church has to do with the increase of “synodality,” i.e. the involvement of many players in the decision-making process. The Pope wants to change the way the universal Church is governed, in such a way that the local church — dioceses, bishops’ conferences — plays a much larger role in the decisions that affect it, without questioning the universal ministry of the Pope. In short, Francis wishes to shorten the distance between Rome and the particular churches, to ensure that they act better together. According to him, reformation is therefore a participatory dynamic in the internal organization of the Roman church in a synodical outlook. PE spells out what it means for the Pope to think and act toward this kind of reformation.
 
In The Joy of the Gospel, the Pope wrote: “I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself” (n. 27). Now 9 years after The Joy of the Gospel, PE is the tool by which the Pope wants mission to be at the center of the Vatican institutional life and not just a set of activities run by the Vatican institutions. It is a change of symbolic and conceptual significance.
 
PE attempts to make the Roman Curia at the service of mission. This concern is made clear by the prominence given to the Dicastery for Evangelization, which is the first in order of the departments of the Curia.[4] The Dicastery for Evangelization (directly chaired by the Pope with two pro-prefects in the sections into which it is divided) is formed through the merger of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization[5] and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The Pope himself takes full and direct responsibility to lead it. It has never happened before that the Pope would reclaim such a position and have such direct involvement.
 
In the list of PE, the Dicastery for Evangelization is followed by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (which historically always had the first position among the old Congregations). The reverse of the order between the two is significant. The latter dicastery is followed by the new Dicastery for the Service of Charity, which was previously a simple Office, that of Apostolic Charity. The triadic order is therefore: evangelization, doctrine, charity. The more prominent role of “charity” is signaled by the institutional upgrade from Office to Dicastery.
 
It is worth pausing for a moment and reflect on the order that is envisioned by PE. Evangelization comes first and takes priority over doctrine. Evangelization is to become the first concern of the Roman Curia. Doctrine seems to be at the service of evangelization, no longer the other way around as has been the case for centuries. The Roman Curia is no longer supposed to be primarily a defensive structure guided by a body watching over doctrine, but needs to become an outward vector at the service of the mission of the Church. The shift is indicative of the new trajectory Pope Francis wants his church to move even beyond his time.
 
PE is not a detailed plan yet, but from the institutional perspective, it signals a significant change of priority. It is as if what was envisioned in The Joy of the Gospel has come to fruition. Through the re-structuring of the Roman Curia, evangelization and mission are now at the institutional center of the Vatican. The legacy of Pope Francis is a subject open to various interpretations. Doctrine has never received much attention by Pope Francis. Many of his critics have pointed out the doctrinal confusion if not failure in his leadership.[6] Other aspects of his reign are receiving some pushback. Whatever one thinks of him, PE is perhaps his most important and lasting contribution and something that all people inside and outside of the Roman Catholic Church will have to deal with.[7]
 
What Does Evangelization Mean?
Given the importance of evangelization and mission in the new outlook of the Roman Curia, it is important to grapple with the theology of evangelization that lies at the heart of PE. “Evangelization” seems to be a popular word in Catholic circles. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (and also referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics, too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization.” It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel. With PE, evangelization is given institutional importance.
 
“Evangelization” is a word that Rome has re-signified in order to suit its theological vision of embracing the world and in order to fulfill its calling to be, as Vatican II says, a “sign and instrument of the unity between God and mankind” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1). A similar genetic modification has occurred with  other words that have historically belonged to the Evangelical vocabulary, e.g. “conversion,” “unity” and “mission.” These words are some examples of the way in which Roman Catholicism can maintain the same spelling, while giving these terms a distinct Roman Catholic meaning.[8]
 
In The Joy of the Gospel, the “heart” of the Gospel is summarized in this way: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (n. 36). In this apparently Evangelical definition of the Gospel, something is missing: while the objective Good News of God is rightly related to the narrative of Jesus Christ, the subjective part of it (i.e. repentance from one’s own sin and personal faith) is omitted. The tragedy of being lost without Jesus Christ is also downplayed. For this reason, nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims, the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n.16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are associated to “the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254). The Gospel appears not to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead access to a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind. According to Francis, therefore, evangelization and mission are the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.
 
The word “evangelization” is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization, now in an embedded form in the Roman Curia. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.
 
Apart from Evangelii Gaudium, the most recent encyclical All Brothers (2020) is another window  into Pope Francis’ theology of evangelization. In this document, Francis pleads the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. Although it does not directly deal with evangelization, it nonetheless shapes the missiological framework of Francis’ theology of evangelization.
 
Among other issues, All Brothers raises a soteriological question. If we are all brothers as we are all children of God, does this mean that all will be saved? The whole encyclical is pervaded by a powerful universalist inspiration that also includes atheists (n. 281). Religions in the broad sense are always presented in a positive sense (nn. 277-279) and there is no mention of a biblical criticism of religions nor of the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the key to receiving salvation. Everything in the encyclical suggests that everyone, as brothers and sisters, will be saved. Evangelization is surely impacted by this assumption.
 
Then there is a Christological issue. Even though Jesus Christ is referred to here and there, his exclusive and “offensive” claims are kept silent. Francis wisely presents Jesus Christ not as the “cornerstone” on which the whole building of life stands or collapses, but as the stone only for those who recognize him. Above Jesus Christ, according to the encyclical, there is a “God” who is the father of all. We are children of this “God” even without recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is thus reduced to the rank of the champion of Christians alone, while the other “brothers” are still children of the same “God” regardless of faith in Jesus Christ. Evangelization cannot escape from being shaped by this shallow Christology.
 
Thirdly, there is an ecclesiological issue. If we are all “brothers,” there is a sense in which we are all part of the same church that gathers brothers and sisters together. The boundaries between humanity and church are so nonexistent that the two communities become coincident. Humanity is the church and the church is humanity. This is in line with the sacramental vision of the Roman Catholic Church which, according to Vatican II, is understood as a “sign and instrument of the unity of the whole human race”(Lumen Gentium, n. 1). According to All Brothers, the whole of the human race belongs to the church not on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, but on the basis of a shared divine sonship and human fraternity.
 
After sampling the theology of evangelization in Francis’ programmatic documents, it is useful to compare it with standard evangelical accounts of evangelization. According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation,” “historical and biblical Christ,” “persuasion,” and the emphasis on one’s personal reconciliation to God.
 
What “evangelization” is talked about in PE? The immediate answer is that of The Joy of the Gospel and All Brothers, and this is not really good news for Evangelicals. The word is the same, but the meaning is far different.[9] In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that with PE the Roman Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for: it is a flawed view of what “preach the Gospel” means according to the Bible.


[1] So far the text of PE is only available in Italian. This explains why the document has so far received less attention than what it would deserve.
[2]An introductory presentation of PE can be found in G. Ghirlanda, “‘Praedicate Evangelium’ sulla Curia romana”, La Civiltà Cattolica 4123 (2/16 aprile 2022) pp. 41-56 and O.A.R. Maradiaga, Praedicate Evangelium. Una nuova curia per un tempo nuovo (Roma: Pubblicazioni Clarettiane, 2022).
[3]Cfr. A. Spadaro – C.M. Galli (edd.), La riforma e le riforme nella chiesa (Brescia: Queriniana, 2016).
[4]Here is the list of the dicasteries as they are arranged by PE: Dicastery for Evangelization; Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Dicastery for the Service of Charity (formerly the Office of Papal Charities); Dicastery for the Eastern Churches; Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments; Dicastery for the Causes of Saints; Dicastery for Bishops; Dicastery for the Clergy; Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life; Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life; Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue; Dicastery for Culture and Education; Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development; Dicastery for Legislative Texts; Dicastery for Communication.
[5]The Council for Promoting the New Evangelization was created by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
[6]See my “‘Confusion’ and ‘Failure’: Other Roman Catholic Blows Against Pope Francis”, Vatican Files (March 1st, 2019) and “Is the Pope Catholic?”, Unio Cum Christo (2022) forthcoming.
[7]As an aside, another important nuance that PE introduced has to do with the possibility for a lay person to preside over a dicastery, and this by virtue of the principle that “the power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of orders, but from the canonical mission” received by the Pope with the conferral of office.
[8]In my book Same Words, Different Worlds: Do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals Believe the Same Gospel? (London: IVP, 2021), I explore words such are “generation,”“justification,”“cross,” etc. showing that the way these words are understood by Rome is significantly different from their biblical meaning.On Rome’s attempt at redefining biblical words, see my article “Left Without Words. How Roman Catholicism is Reshaping the Evangelical Vocabulary,”Vatican Files (April 1st, 2013).
[9]In Same Words, Different Worlds, cit. I argue that while Rome uses the same words of the gospel, its account of the gospel is flawed because the Roman Catholic Church is not committed to Scripture Alone as its foundational principle and therefore its understanding of the Bible is determined by non-biblical sources.

200. Who is Afraid of “Liquid” Roman Catholicism?

April 1st, 2022
Since the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman coined the expression Liquid Modernity (2000), the adjective “liquid” has been applied to almost all phenomena, e.g. liquid society, liquid family, liquid love, etc. In our world, liquidity seems to describe well the vacillating, uncertain, fluid and volatile feature of contemporary life. Everything is mobile, plastic and soft; nothing can be put into solid, stable and lasting casts.

To the already wide range of associations, liquidity has been added as a descriptor for a specific religious tradition, i.e. liquid Roman Catholicism. George Weigel, a conservative American intellectual, talks about it in a worried tone in his article “Liquid Catholicism and the German Synodal Path” (First Things, 16th February 2022).

For some time, Weigel and other exponents of US Roman Catholic traditionalism have expressed their frustration (to put it mildly) at the massive injection of liquidity into Roman Catholicism by Pope Francis. The uncertain teaching on doctrinal and moral subjects of primary importance; a kind of intolerance towards the pre-conciliar liturgy; the constant pickaxing of the Roman Catholic institution with repeated criticism of clericalism; the ways the pope acts outside the box that destabilize customs; the welcoming and merciful message at the expense of the doctrinal and moral requirements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, etc. All this makes Francis a “liquid” pope who is liquifying an institution that has made its rocky and immutable structure a distinctive trait of its identity.

In addition to Francis, Weigel sees other troubling sources of liquidity in the Roman Catholic church. The article indicates Weigel’s alarm at the requests that are emerging from the “Synodal Path” of the German Catholic Church, including a series of conferences of the Catholic Church in Germany to discuss a range of contemporary theological and organizational questions. Supported by the majority of German bishops, these requests include celibacy becoming optional for clergy (married life being the other option), opening ministries to women (the diaconate first, then one day the priesthood perhaps), recognition (with ecclesiastical blessing) of homosexual unions… these are just some of the proposals that are about to arrive at the Vatican and that have the strength to detonate a bomb in the Roman Catholic Church. There are growing concerns all over the Roman Catholic world about the German “Synodal Path.” In this regard, Francis’ liquidity is just a pale version of the turbo-liquidity that is coming from Catholic Germany.

Weigel and the circles of US Catholic traditionalism witness these processes of liquefaction horrified. For them, Roman Catholicism is a canonically compact religion, sacramentally coherent, institutionally stable, doctrinally integrated. They have in mind a Roman Catholicism that is more “Roman” than “Catholic”, anchored to its unchangeable dogmas, tied to its consolidated tradition, characterized by fidelity and obedience on the part of the faithful, and centered on its ecclesiastical hierarchies. Liquid Roman Catholicism, for them, is a pathology of catholicity that runs the risk of Protestantizing Rome and dispersing its uniqueness in the bewildering contemporary age.

It is interesting to observe these internal conflict dynamics in Roman Catholicism from the outside. Often, in the past, Roman Catholic apologetics contrasted evangelical fragmentation with Roman Catholic solidity, denigrating the former and exalting the latter. It was not a credible argument in the past, but it is even less so today. Roman Catholicism is as divided internally as any other religious movement of global reach. Moreover, traditional Roman Catholic apologetics contrasted the stability of Rome with the volatility of the Reformation. This argument too was superficial and one-sided and it is even more so now. Roman Catholicism goes through significant transformation processes. The fact that Rome is deemed to be “semper eadem” (always the same) needs to be seen in light of its ongoing updating and development.

The key elements to come to terms with in this issue are twofold. First, one needs to consider the dual nature of Roman Catholicism which is, at the same time, “Catholic” (liquid) and “Roman” (solid). Its genius has always been to combine the two faces in order to make them coexist and reinforce each other. Today it is its liquidity that seems to be prevalent, but its solidity will not fail as Roman Catholicism is both. The second key element is the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which fostered change, as a recent article by Shaun Blanchard has reminded us (Commoweal, 14th March 2022). Vatican II has given Roman Catholicism such an injection of liquidity that today it is impacting the solid structures of Rome as never before. Will the long term outcomes of Vatican II be able to liquefy them completely? Unlikely. 

Rome will remain liquid and solid, perhaps in a different arrangement than their present-day combination, but still “Catholic” and, at the same time, “Roman.” Weigel and other Roman Catholic traditionalists dream of a return to a more “Roman” Catholicism: but have they not yet understood that their religion is also increasingly “Catholic” at the same time?

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.

198. The (Not So) Puzzling Theology of Pope Francis

Among the many puzzling things introduced by Pope Francis, his teaching (magisterium) is perhaps the level that was most impacted by the Argentinian Pontiff. The contents of his encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, bulls, speeches, occasional interviews, etc. have been described as “uncertain,” “in motion,” “ambiguous,” “nuanced,” at times even “heretical” – and by Roman Catholics!

Many Roman Catholics (and also many non-Catholic observers), accustomed to associating the papal magisterium with an authoritative, coherent and stable form of doctrinal teaching, are perplexed if not dismayed by a pope who seems both to say and not say, to argue for something and to undermine it, to state one position and then contradict it the next breath. As a Jesuit, Pope Francis tends to use an equivocal style, a dubitative and incomplete form of argumentation, an “open” logic, a colloquial if not casual tone, and a pastoral trait which often lacks clarity and coherence. Officially, the Pope’s teaching is set in the context of the historical traditions of the church. In this sense, nothing changes. In reality, however, Francis is accentuating the developmental and inclusive dynamic of Roman Catholicism as it emerged from Vatican II (1962-1965). According to this trend, while there is a sense in which nothing changes, everything is nonetheless re-thought, re-expressed, and updated. The “Roman” side of the teaching does not change while the “catholic” side does change.

A recent book by the Sicilian Roman Catholic theologian Massimo Naro, Protagonista è l’abbraccio. Temi teologici nel magistero di Francesco (2021: The Protagonist is the Hug. Theological Themes in Francis’ Magisterium) is a helpful guide in the theological universe of Pope Francis. From the outset, Naro readily acknowledges that the theology of Pope Francis is “an innovative proposal” even when compared with the updating trends of the Second Vatican Council.

Above all, the Pope’s vocabulary needs to be taken into consideration. If you want to try to enter the world of Francis, here are his central words: “mother church,” “faithful people of God,” “popular spirituality,” “mercy,” “synodality,” “polyedric ecclesiology,” “processes to initiate,” “existential peripheries,” “humanism of solidarity,” “ecological conversion,” “dialogue,” “fraternity and brotherhood” (p. 19). Not all are new words; some of them are terms that have been already used in Roman Catholic teaching, but are now given a new nuance or a distinct significance by Francis.

Naro further suggests that there are two theological frameworks that give meaning to his words, i.e. the “theology of the people” and the “theology of mercy.” For Francis, theology does not begin with biblical revelation nor from the abstract principles of the official teaching of the Church, but from the common and daily stories of men and women who must be welcomed and affirmed in their particular contexts and life journeys. This attention to the “inside” of the world and to the level where the “people” live pushes him to elevate forms of popular spirituality as authentic religious experiences. He is not scandalized by the “irregular” situations of life in which people find themselves, e.g. divorce, co-habitation, or same-sex relationships. Instead of teaching an external standard (in theology or in morality), the Pope begins where people are assuming that where they are, there is something good that needs to be affirmed.

According to Francis, the “people” are not the passive and obedient recipients of a top-down ecclesiastical magisterium, but active subjects whose religious experiences are true and real (even though not squared with traditional patterns) and therefore need to be part of the teaching itself. The “people” make the teaching as much as the ecclesiastical authorities of the Roman Church promulgate it.

You don’t need to be a trained theologian to catch how this version of the “theology of the people” is far from the evangelical belief that Scripture, as the inspired Word of God, is the source by which God teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains. And who does He train? Not those who want to affirm their own experiences and lifestyles, but those who wish to repent from sin and reform their lives following the path indicated by the Bible. From a biblical perspective, Francis’ “theology of the people” does not have the external criterion of the Word of God, which questions hearts, practices, sinful habits, etc. and forges a new humanity that is always open to renewal in a process of ongoing sanctification.

Mercy is another keyword in the Pope’s magisterium. In his way of putting it, mercy is “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite the limits of our sins” (Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy Misericordiae Vultus, n. 2, 2015).[1] In this dense sentence there is a strategic theological point. Among other things, as Cardinal Matteo Zuppi writes in the introduction, the Pope means that “at the center of the biblical message is not sin, but mercy” (p. 16). In Naro’s words, Christian theology must be freed from “hamartiocentrism” (p. 93), i.e., from the centrality of sin. Sin must be replaced by the pervasiveness of God’s mercy which “can help us to break free from hamartiocentrism and to rediscover the tenderness of God” (p. 114). In his view, Pope Francis has replaced sin with mercy at the center of his message.

In the Pope’s theology, sin is at most “the human limit” (p. 91), but not the breaking of the covenant, the rebellion against God, the disobedience to his commandments, or the subversion of divine authority that results in the righteous and holy judgment of God. If sin is a “human limit,” then the cross of Christ did not atone for sin but only manifested God’s mercy in an exemplary way. The words used by the Pope are the same as those of the evangelical faith (e.g. mercy, sin, grace, gospel), but they are given a different meaning than the gospel.

Francis sees everything from the perspective of a metaphysic of mercy that swallows sin without passing through propitiation, expiation, or reconciliation, which the cross of Jesus Christ wrought to give salvation to those who believe in Him. If everything is mercy and sin is only a limit, the resulting message is fundamentally different from the biblical gospel.

The traditional Roman Catholic teaching (from the Council of Trent to the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church) conflicts at crucial points with the evangelical faith summarized in the Reformation slogans “Christ Alone,” “Scripture Alone,” and “Faith Alone.” The “popular” and “merciful” account of the gospel taught by Pope Francis is another “catholic” variant of the deviation on which the church of Rome was established and on which, sadly, it continues to move forward.


[1] The English translation of the papal text on the Vatican website is blurred and incorrect. It says “the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness” (italics added). However, the Latin official text says “praeter nostri peccati fines” which needs to be translated as “despite the limits or bounds of our sins” as the Italian, French and Spanish versions rightly translate.

190. Imagining Roman Catholic Theology Today and Tomorrow: Alarmed Diagnosis, Reserved Prognosis

Today and Tomorrow: Imagining Theology” was the title of a conference organised by the John Paul II Pontifical Theological Institute on 5th May 2021, attended by three heavyweights of European Roman Catholic theology: Christoph Theobald (Jesuit, professor at the Centre Sèvres in Paris), Elmar Salmann (Benedictine, professor at the Pontifical University S. Anselmo) and Pierangelo Sequeri (Dean of the JPII Theological Institute). It was a good opportunity to hear what is brewing in Roman Catholic theological reflection in the face of the current crisis. It is impossible to account for all the ideas collected and the avenues evoked. It is no coincidence that these are profound authors whose thought cannot be reduced to a few lines. A few quick impressionistic hints will suffice for a concluding reflection.

More Catholic, Less Roman
Theobald started from John XXIII’s intuition, made his own by the Second Vatican Council, to redefine the magisterium of the Roman church into a “pastoral magisterium”. According to Theobald, the church withdraws from its role of absolute and hierarchical leadership and chooses one of accompaniment, with other subjects and alongside humanity. Its teaching is no longer dogmatic, but the voice of a tradition made up of traditions and articulated through multiple voices (official magisterium, theologians, the people).

Theobald sees in the figure of Pope Francis, who speaks of a multifaceted church and field hospital, of integral ecology, of all human beings as “brothers and sisters”, etc., a utopia generating the future. The eschatological language is what is needed to speak to the contemporary world. This utopia must be translated into Eucharistic hospitality (i.e. the Eucharist given to all who ask for it), shared ministry (married priests? women priests?), accompaniment of every human situation (beyond the distinction between “regular” and “irregular” life-styles) without questioning people’s life choices. It is evident that Theobald’s is a theology that stretches the Roman Catholic “catholicity”, i.e. its tension towards the encompassing universality, to the maximum and puts its Roman-centeredness, i.e. its rootedness in an imperial-sacramental ideological structure, in the background.

Unresolved Challenges
Salmann wondered about the challenges for theology to face the ongoing cultural transformation. Theology has to deal with three changes that have taken place and are still ongoing.

1. The emergence of democratic man. In the anthropological turn of modernity, other sciences have become the ones that speak to the contemporary man (sociology, economics, depth psychology, aesthetics). Theology no longer says anything. It is no longer salvation that distresses man, but health, wellness, well-being. Extreme freedom is demanded together with extreme equality, extreme security, extreme control, etc. You cannot have both, but the world wants them all at once. Today’s religiosity is agnostic and gullible, experimental and with a touch of mysticism, always reclaiming freedom from institutionalized “religion”.

2. The emergence of another form of Christianity. Christianity is today perceived as a ferment and not a doctrine, a trace and not a way, a comfort and not a direction. The image of God that most people have has passed from the eternal Father, Omnipotent Creator and Lord, to Jesus the Brother and Friend at my side. Then the age of the Spirit (the charismatic movements) came in followed by the God with feminine traits. The Magna Carta of today’s Christianity is no longer Paul (as it was the case with Protestantism), nor John (preferred by Eastern Orthodoxy), let alone Matthew (cherished by Roman Catholicism), but Luke 10 (the parable of the Good Samaritan), Luke 15 (the prodigal son), Luke 24 (the journey of the confused disciples). It is Luke, the gospel of the poor and of women, that is more meaningful today.The themes perceived as important are no longer “blood”, salvation, and truth, but freedom, therapy, and immediacy.

3. The emergence of a theology of divine unheard-of names. In the pre-modern era God was the criterion for everything (Judge, Holy, Eternal), but after Kant we must strive to find a reason why God deserves to exist for contemporary man. In order to make God palatable to an appetite-stricken world, other unheard-of divine names are sought: a God who is spherical (not squared), dialogical, hospitable, a “Franciscan”, friendly God. Will Roman Catholic theology be up to these challenges?

A Theology in Parables
Finally, Sequeri underlined the fact that theology must learn to speak in “parables” rather than in propositional discourses. In telling “parables” the church must decode its theology in narrative and existential terms, allowing the listeners to fill their meaning in. With Thomism, the medieval church took the philosophy of an atheist (Aristotle) and made a Christian system out of it; can it not do the same with the agnosticism of psychoanalysis and the economics of today?

In the gospels there are three actors: Jesus, the disciples, and the crowd. By analogy, today’s church must learn not only to speak to the “neighbours” (the disciples), but also use parables to the “distant” (the crowd), reaching out to the Zacchaeus, Centurions, and Samaritans of our day. According to Sequeri, while society apparently no longer needs God to function, it maintains a link with the “sacred” in the sense of having an idea of “consecration” and one of “sacrifice”. Even secular society knows what it wants to “consecrate” and what it wants to “sacrifice”. To consecrate means to protect, to defend for the good. To sacrifice means to remove and lose for the sake of good. Secular society also obeys the injunction of the sacred: it is clear about who and what can be sacrificed and what things can be consecrated. Theology must press society by unmasking the bad sacred and telling (in parables) about the sacred: not saying what God wants from us, but what He wants for us.

In these papers, especially those by Salmann and Sequeri, there is a perception of the crisis in which the traditional and official narrative of Roman Catholic theology finds itself. The diagnosis is alarming, and the prognosis is reserved. Even if the call to listen to the Word of God is present in the folds of these speeches, it seems to lead to an increased catholicity rather than an appeal to recover the biblical gospel. Imagining theology today and tomorrow remains an arduous challenge for Roman Catholic theologians. The simple reiteration of traditional accounts and answers do not fit.

These three Roman Catholic theologians are not fringe or isolated voices in Europe; they are all mainstream Roman Catholic scholars teaching at pontifical institutions or in highly qualified academic centers. Those who have a picture of Roman Catholic theology as a discourse based on a solidified and rigid tradition or staunchly grounded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church may find it difficult to square their view with what comes out of the conference with all its uncertainties, doubts, and awkward directions. Present-day Roman Catholic theology is not the shelter for those who look for doctrinal fidelity and “Roman” stability, but the workshop that tries to implement the “catholicity” of Vatican II in the face of the challenges of our day.

187. Hans Küng (1928-2021), perhaps very little “Roman” but certainly very much “Catholic”

The Swiss theologian was the forerunner of positions considered at the time “extreme” or even “disruptive” which then became “mainstream”.

Hans Küng in a visit to the UNED university in Madrid, 2011. / UNED, Flickr, CC

With Hans Küng (1928-2021) a piece of contemporary theology has gone. 

Expert at the Second Vatican Council, from a very young age a professor in Tübingen, a brilliant (and very verbose) theologian with dozens of books on almost all knowledge in the religious field, suspended by the Vatican as a “Catholic theologian” for a critical book on papal infallibility, becoming a sort of guru on universalist and pan-religious theology, Küng has in some way represented the dynamics of Catholic theology of the late twentieth century. It can be said that, in the pendulum between Catholicity and Romanity which are the ellipses of Roman Catholicism, Küng has pushed heavily on Catholicity and has put Romanity into suffering, but without ever breaking the Roman and Catholic synthesis that holds Roman Catholicism together.

Even before Vatican II, the search for catholicity had prompted him to support in his doctoral thesis (1957) the compatibility between the doctrine of justification of the Council of Trent and that of Karl Barth. Almost 40 years before the 1999 “Joint Declaration between Catholics and Lutherans on Justification”, Küng had substantially anticipated that the Catholic Church would officially do its own.

It is true that in the 1960s Küng published some critical books on the traditional ecclesiology of Rome up to his volume on infallibility (1970) in which he questioned not the infallibility itself of the Roman Pope, but the formulation of the dogma of infallibility of 1870, too static and ahistorical for him.

For these critical positions he was deprived of recognition as a Catholic theologian, making him a symbol of the dissident Catholic Church, together with the liberation theologians who in Latin America were subjected to similar disciplinary measures by the Vatican for their positions close to Marxism. Küng did not miss an opportunity to criticize the Catholic Church’s failure to assimilate Vatican II, emphasizing the moral rigorism of the hierarchy, the power structure that dominated everything, the imposition of celibacy, etc.

After a few decades, however, both Küng and the liberation theologians have been essentially re-assimilated by the absorbing catholicity of Rome. It does not mean that the Vatican has fully accepted their theses, but it has included them as legitimate expressions of the search for truth within the parameters of the present-day generous ecclesiastical magisterium. Moreover, after Küng’s book on infallibility, Rome has practically abandoned this controversial dogma from its public discourse. The dogma is still there, but nobody talks about it.

Küng’s catholicity found its climax in its openness to religions in search for a “world ethos” which served as a prelude to a mutual recognition of all religions as legitimate forms of divine revelation and ways to salvation. According to this project, there is no peace between nations without peace between religions; there is no peace between religions without dialogue between religions; there is no dialogue between religions without a global ethical model; there is no survival on our planet in peace and justice without a new paradigm of international relations on global ethical models.

It seems to read as an embryonic form of what Pope Francis writes in the encyclical “All Brothers” (2020). Actually, the Pope surpasses Küng in proclaiming the universal brotherhood among all religions and in affirming that without spiritual brotherhood there is no peace. What then seemed to be Küng’s avant-garde positions are now the circulating capital of the magisterium which has even extended and developed them in an even more universalist sense. If compared with what Pope Francis says today, Küng’s theses appear timid and partially open. The Vatican has largely surpassed them “on the left”.

Therefore, the Swiss theologian was the forerunner of positions considered at the time “extreme” or even “disruptive” which then became “mainstream”. He was among the theologians who stressed the catholicity over the Roman aspect, but without breaking the synthesis of Roman Catholicism, indeed helping to rebalance the point of tension between the two.

185. Fides et Ratio (1998): Three Theses on the Roman Catholic Synthesis Between Faith and Reason

The publication of the encyclical letter “Fides et Ratio” (FR) on 14 September 1998 by John Paul II brought to the attention of the religious world and public opinion a theme of fundamental importance for Christianity, i.e. the relationship between faith and reason. This document is considered to be one of the most important contributions given by the Roman Catholic Church to the interplay between theology and philosophy, Christianity and culture, and the Church and the world. These “theses” are an attempt to highlight its main message and to critically assess it from an evangelical perspective.

1. FR Is Important for What It Says and for What It Omits to Say
FR shows the vastness and depth of Roman Catholic wisdom in a condensed and meditated form. In the classic style of the encyclicals, FR is a document that brings together a series of ideas woven into a discourse that tends towards a synthesis. To address the question of the relationship between faith and reason, FR lays the foundations starting from the reading of some biblical data, taken above all from the Wisdom literature and from Pauline writings. These biblical references are put in a theological framework that makes use of some patristic sources summarized in the expressions “credo ut intelligam” (i.e. I believe in order to understand) and “intelligo ut credam” (i.e. I understand in order to believe).

FR makes abundant use of references to texts, authors, and schools in the history of the church and more general intellectual history. Understandably, the text abounds in quotations or references to the pronouncements of the Catholic magisterium over the centuries[1]. However, FR extends beyond magisterial boundaries, and the choice of thinkers, philosophers, theologians[2], and schools of thought[3] mentioned or cited is interesting. This foundation is followed by a historical analysis of the trends of thought that shaped Western culture.

FR is interesting in what it says but also in what it omits to say. Its silences are just as revealing as its explicit citations. The catholicity of Rome is not all-encompassing, but responds to the selective logic of Roman catholicity. Above all, it is worth noting the lack of any reference to evangelical Protestant authors or sources. There is no citation of the Protestant Reformers, and the same negligence can be extended to Protestant orthodoxy (XVII century), to philosophers such as Jonathan Edwards, or to neo-Calvinism (e.g. A. Kuyper and H. Bavinck). On the one hand FR tries to include the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy (n. 74), while on the other hand it excludes that of Protestantism. Evidently, the Roman Catholic center of gravity of Thomism, on which the encyclical rests, may lean in one direction but not in the other.

2. FR Understands the Relationship Between Faith and Reason on the Basis of the Nature-Grace Interdependence
From its beginning, FR has an unmistakable Thomistic inspiration. The encyclical can be considered to be an authoritative affirmation of the importance of Thomism for the Roman Catholic worldview. Without the scaffolding provided by Thomism, FR would be unthinkable. FR is explicit in supporting the “enduring originality” of Thomas’s thought (nn. 43-44). It endorses the philosophical framework of the 1870 dogmatic constitution “Dei Filius” of Vatican I (nn. 52-53), the 1879 encyclical “Aeterni Patris” (n. 57), and the Neo-Thomistic renewal of the twentieth century (nn. 58-59). Thomism is the trajectory that joins together medieval Roman Catholicism to the post-conciliar one. It represents “the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought” (n. 78).

FR does not stop at indicating the “enduring originality” of Thomism, but understands the relationship between faith and reason on the basis of the Thomist interdependence between nature and grace. The latter is upstream from the former. In a programmatic sentence, FR affirms that “as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason” (n. 43; see also n. 75). Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism, and the oil of anointing that convey grace), in the ability of reason to develop a “natural theology”, in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened by sin, nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism in whatever is natural to be graced. The nature-grace interdependence is particularly evident in the way FR conceives the autonomy of reason and the weak consequences of sin.

2.1 FR Credits Reason with an Unsustainable Autonomy
The encyclical reaffirms the Thomist thesis sanctioned by Vatican Councils I and II of the existence of two orders of knowledge, each of which has its own principles and objects of knowledge (nn. 9, 13, 53, 55, 67, 71, 73, 75, 76). Faith and reason therefore operate in distinct, though not separate, spheres. If, on the one hand, reason has its own area of autonomy with respect to faith, on the other, faith cannot disregard the contribution of reason which, while pertaining to another order of knowledge, is nevertheless indispensable for a correct exercise of faith. Reason opens up to faith and faith is grafted onto reason. In line with the Thomist vision, FR considers faith something beyond the “natural” realm of reason and brings it to completion.

According to FR, if properly understood and practiced, there is no conflict between faith and reason but only harmony and collaboration. It is no coincidence that the encyclical begins with the programmatic statement according to which “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (n. 1). FR argues for the autonomy of reason. This autonomy reflects “the autonomy of the creature” (n. 15) and manifests itself on methodological (nn. 13 and 67) and normative (nn. 67, 73, 77) levels. Within the Thomist framework in which “Faith intervenes not to abolish reason’s autonomy” (n. 16), autonomy is conceived as “legitimate” (nn. 75 and 79) and “valid” (nn. 75, 106).

From an evangelical perspective, the Thomist picture of FR is flawed because it envisions an unwarranted autonomy to reason. According to the Bible, all of existence, reason included, must be lived coram Deo, and this excludes the idea that reason can be divorced from faith as if it were a self-subsisting faculty or detached from the reality of God. Life in its entirety finds its frame of reference in the broken or re-established covenant with God. Any human activity is experienced in the context of the covenant between God and man. Reason, therefore, is essentially religious: either in a broken-covenantal framework due to sin, or in a reconciled-covenantal framework given by Jesus Christ.

2.2 FR Weakens the Significance of the Noetic Effects of Sin
In continuity with the non-tragic vision of sin proper to Thomism, FR also presents a biblically deficient doctrine of sin in relation to its impact on reason. The fragility, fragmentation, and limitations of reason are recognized (nn. 13 and 43), as well as an inner weakness (n. 75) and a certain imperfection (n. 83). Sin intervenes on the structure of reason, bringing wounds, obstacles, obfuscation, debilitation, and disorder (nn. 23, 82, 71). However, according to FR, the “capacity” of reason to know the transcendent dimension “in a true and certain way” (n. 83) remains as well as its ability to grasp some truths (n. 67), to rise towards the infinite (n. 24) and to reach out to the Creator (n. 8). The very fact that FR often refers to reason in an absolute sense highlights the effective intangibility of reason with respect to sin. Ultimately, FR is an invitation to nurture “trust in the power of human reason (n. 56), demonstrating the fact that sin has had only a marginal impact. According to FR, even if touched by sin, reason has retained its potential and its autonomous status.

From an evangelical point of view, the encyclical does not account for the biblical teaching regarding the radical and tragic effects that sin has determined in every area of ​​life, including reason and the exercise of reason. For the Bible, sin has introduced a total distortion to the point that there is no longer any reason that is only partially affected by sin, but all reason is entirely imbued with sin. The noetic effects of sin undermine any confidence in the intrinsic capacities of reason and require abandoning any claim of absolute or partial neutrality of reason with respect to sin. The only hope that can be cultivated lies in the message of the salvation of Jesus Christ, which is aimed at the redemption of reason through the regeneration of the reasoning subject and the biblical reformation of the criteria of reason.

3. FR Explicitly Rejects “Scripture Alone”
The encyclical is very critical towards numerous trends of thought present in today’s world. Among these, the pope lists the danger of “biblicism”, which is defined as a “fideistic tendency” which “tends to make the reading of Sacred Scripture or its exegesis the only truthful point of reference” (n. 55). Here is the full text:

One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “biblicism” which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles”. Scripture, therefore, is not the Church’s sole point of reference. The “supreme rule of her faith” derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.

The recognition of the triad of Tradition-Scripture-Magisterium as the combined reference point for Roman Catholicism places the encyclical in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545-1563),which rejected the “Scripture Alone” principle of the Reformation. The point is further reinforced when John Paul II writes that “theology makes its own the content of Revelation as this has been gradually expounded in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Church’s living Magisterium” (n. 65).

In FR we find the traditional doctrine that the Reformers of the sixteenth century and the evangelicals of the following centuries rejected, i.e. Scripture is with and under the Tradition of the Church past and present. The re-presentation of the Tridentine doctrine that is in direct contrast to the Reformation (even though it is not explicitly referred to) is central to FR. It shows that while renewing itself, Roman Catholicism never reforms itself in the light of Scripture. In short, FR reproduces the dynamics of the development of the Roman Catholic doctrine, i.e. updating without changing.

FR thinks of “Scripture Alone” as a danger. In the light of this contrast, it must be acknowledged that the triad of Tradition-Scripture-Magisterium is not compatible with the evangelical conviction that Scripture is the ultimate criterion for faith and reason. Either the former is true or the latter. Whereas FR, in continuity with Tridentine Catholicism, incorporates the Bible into Tradition and allows the Bible to speak only through the voice of the Magisterium, the evangelical faith recognizes the Bible as “norma normans non normata”, i.e. the rule that rules without being ruled.

FR stems from the Thomistic commitment of Roman Catholicism that presents severe problems for the evangelical faith at some fundamental points. While being full of interesting observations and comments, FR is not a reliable document to begin to frame the relationship between faith and reason in a biblical way.

Short Bibliography
L. Jaeger, “La foi et la raison. A propos de la letter encyclique: «Fides et ratio»”, Fac-Réflexion 46-47 (1999) pp. 35-46.

M. Mantovani, S. Thuruthiyil, M. Toso (edd.), Fede e ragione. Opposizione, composizione? (Roma: Las, 1999).

R.J. Neuhaus, “A passion for truth: the way of faith and reason”, First Things 88 (1998) pp. 65-73.

C. O’Regan, “Ambiguity and Undecidability in Fides et Ratio”, International Journal of Systematic Theology 2:3 (2000) pp. 319-329.

A. Howe, “Faith and reason”, Evangelical Times (April 1999) pp. 14 and 30.

E.J. Echeverria, “Once Again, John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio”, Philosophia Reformata vol. 69/1 (2004) pp. 38-52.


[1]E.g.:

– Councils: Synod of Constantinople, Chalcedon, Toledo, Braga, Wien, Lateran IV, Lateran V, Vatican I, Vatican II;

– Encyclicals: “Redemptor hominis” (1979), “Veritatis splendor” (1993), “Aeterni patris” (1879), “Humani generis” (1950), “Pascendi dominici gregis” (1907), “Divini redemptoris” (1937), “Dominum et vivificantem” (1986);

– Apostolic Letters: “Tertio millennio adveniente” (1995), “Salvifici doloris” (1984), “Lumen ecclesiae” (1974);

– Liturgical texts: Missale romanum;

– Other Magisterial texts can be found innn. 33-34, 41, 43, 52, 54, 61, 67, 92, 94, 96-97, 99, 103, 105-106.

[2] (in order): Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Origen, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Dionysusthe Areopagite, Pascal, Aristotle, Tertullian, Francisco Suarez, John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Edith Stein, Vladimir S. Solov’ev, Pavel A. Florenskij, Petr J. Caadaev, Vladimir N. Lossky, Kierkegaard, Bonaventura, pseudo-Epiphanius.

[3] (in order): Idealism, Atheistic Humanism, Positivist mentality, Nihilism, Fideism, Radical Traditionalism, Rationalism, Ontologism, Marxism, Modernism, Liberation Theology, Religious and Philosophical traditions of India, Cina, Japan, other Asian and African Countries, Eclectism, Historicism, Scientism, Pragmatism, Postmodernity.

183. Defining Roman Catholicism: An Evangelical Attempt

Defining something is a bold undertaking. Yet “naming”, and by extension providing an appropriate description of things, is an integral part of the human vocation that cannot be escaped. Like it or not, we always operate with explicit or implicit, accurate or gross definitions.

The next question here is the following: is it possible to define Roman Catholicism? Is it possible to capture the heart of the Roman Catholic worldview in a short description? Obviously “Roman Catholicism” is an extremely rich and complex universe. The risk of oversimplification, if not caricaturization, is always a trap to be avoided.

In recent decades, important heavyweights in Roman Catholic theology have helpfully contributed to the task of identifying the core of Roman Catholicism: think of Karl Adam (The Spirit of Catholicism, 1924, Eng. ed. 1929), Romano Guardini (Von Wesen katholischer Weltanschauung, 1924), Henri de Lubac (Catholicism, 1938; Eng. ed. 1950), Hans Urs von Balthasar (In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic, 1975; Eng. ed. 1988), Walter Kasper (The Catholic Church, 2012; Eng. ed. 2015), just to name a few. This is to say that the question of singling out the gist of Roman Catholicism is deeply felt within Roman Catholicism itself.

Therefore, the search for a definition of Roman Catholicism is not a weird idea. The best minds of contemporary Roman Catholicism have tried to analyze what is essential to Roman Catholicism. What can evangelical theology say about it? Can we participate in the discussion on the nature of Roman Catholicism? In times marked by ecumenical correctness, can we say something about it that dares to be biblically critical? Can evangelical theology take on the responsibility of distilling the tenets of the Roman Catholic system in a brief definition that is both descriptive and evaluative?

Dialogue is best served by transparency and honesty. It is more respectful to speak the truth in love than to hide it behind a screen of “being nice” that fails to address the decisive issues, even if they are painful to tell and listen to. With great approximation and also with a certain amount of courage given the complexity of the task, I suggest a provisional definition. Here it is:

Roman Catholicism is a deviation from biblical Christianity
consolidated over the centuries
reflected in its Roman imperial institution
based on an anthropologically optimistic theology and on an abnormal ecclesiology
defined around its sacramental system
animated by the (universal) Catholic project of absorbing the whole world
resulting in a confused and distorted religion.

In suggesting this definition, we are addressing Roman Catholicism as a system from an evangelical viewpoint. We are not dealing with Roman Catholic people (more on this in the final section). Let us provide a brief treatment of each line.

1. A Deviation from Biblical Christianity
This statement breaks a well-established narrative in the self-understanding of Roman Catholicism, namely that Roman Catholicism is, due to the mechanism of apostolic succession, the legitimate and orthodox embodiment of apostolic Christianity. Others are schismatics (Eastern Orthodox) or heretics (Protestants), as they broke the unbroken line of Roman Catholicism and strayed from its trunk. The truth is, as was already argued by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, this reading must be reversed. Roman Catholicism is not biblical Christianity in its apostolic form, but a departure from it. Its sacramental, hierarchical and devotional developments were consolidated in its dogmatic (tragically irreformable) structure, which took leave of the Gospel. Roman Catholicism turns out to be a deviation furthered hardened into a non-biblical dogmatic system (Marian dogmas, papal infallibility), intertwined with a political state (the Vatican) with which the church must not be confused, in view of a vision that is more similar to the aspiration of an empire than to the mission of the church of Jesus Christ.

In his Treatise on the True Church and the Necessity of Living in It (published in Geneva in 1573), the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) defended exactly this point: “we (the Protestants) did not leave the church, but rather went to the Church”. The Protestant Reformation was necessary to return to the gospel that the Roman system had corrupted to the point of being removed from it. Biblical Christianity, never dormant in history despite the presence of multiple corruptions, did experience a new flourishing at the Reformation and subsequent Evangelical Awakenings.

As a deviation from biblical Christianity, Roman Catholicism is not even one of the many legitimate “denominations” through which the church has expressed itself over time. Given that its dogmatic system (blurred at crucial points), its institutional structure (with a political entity at its core) and its devotional practices (many of which are borrowed from paganism) have departed from the truth of the biblical gospel, the Roman Catholic Church cannot be considered to be one “denomination” among others. While evangelical theology has its own biblical standards by which it accepts Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, “independent” declensions, etc. of the church, the Church of Rome belongs to another category. No “denomination” has a religious head and political leader, no “denomination” has non-biblical and irreformable dogmas, no “denomination” has an “imperial” structure like Rome. Therefore, Roman Catholicism is not one “denomination” among others.

Roman Catholicism relies on a mechanism of institutional succession that has guaranteed monarchical continuity (from one pope to another through a well-refined system), but on the level of adherence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and fidelity to the Word of God, it is a deviation that has become a self-referential system.

2. Consolidated Over the Centuries
After arguing that Roman Catholicism is a deviation from biblical Christianity, it is time to consider the historical claim according to which it has “consolidated over the centuries”. There is no date of birth for Roman Catholicism, a precise moment to coincide with its beginning. Rather, there have been historical phases and transitions that have had a particular impact on its development.

Surely the “Constantinian shift” of the fourth century was one of the key moments. In this century, which culminated with the promulgation of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius I (380 AD), the church gradually took on a “Roman” institutional form, increasing the power claims of the center over the peripheries. It was Roman bishops like Damasus I and Siricius who assumed for themselves the role of “popes”, which resembled that of an ecclesiastical emperor. After this crucial passage, the imperial cloths taken on by the Roman church have never been abandoned. On the contrary, they have been legitimized by an ecclesiology that has considered them part of the God-given nature of the church. The departure from the biblical form of the church (i.e. made up of converts to Jesus Christ, practicing the priesthood of all believers, in networks of churches connected but not within a hierarchical structure) was gradual, progressive and, tragically, irreversible for Roman Catholicism. Starting from the claims of authority by Damasus and Siricius, to the self-attribution of the “two swords” of the government of Boniface VIII, and arriving at the dogma of papal infallibility of 1870, the supporting structure of the Roman Church was (and still is) imperial.

Another defining moment in the deviant parable of Roman Catholicism was the way in which the title of Mary as “mother of God” (theotokos) was received and developed. That pronouncement of Ephesus (431 AD) gave rise to an explosion of Mariology that was twice elevated to the rank of dogma: in 1854 with the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary and in 1950 with the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary. From a title intended to support the full divinity of Jesus Christ, Roman Catholicism has made Mariology a non-biblical pillar of its dogmatic and devotional practice, with important repercussions on Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology; in short, cascading over the whole of faith. This deviance too is irreversible and has made Roman Catholicism porous to the absorption of pagan elements.

A third crucial step was the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when the Church of Rome officially rejected the message of the Protestant Reformation, anathematizing the call to return to the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone on the basis of the teaching of Scripture alone. “Tridentine” Catholicism (i.e. Roman Catholicism relaunched at Trent) has thickened the Roman deviation, making it tougher and more unwilling to listen to the appeals of the Reformation – indeed consolidating its non-biblical commitments in every area of Christian theology, from the doctrine of salvation to that of the church, from Christology to spirituality.

Finally, the long parable of deviations cannot omit the last mile in the history of Roman Catholicism, i.e. the one following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Without denying anything of its past, the Roman church has “updated” and further “developed” it in a dialogical, absorbing, encompassing, but not purifying, way. All the heavy Roman structure of the past has been reaffirmed by juxtaposing it with a “Catholic” profile: soft, ecumenical, open to absorbing everything and everyone. To many, the changes introduced by Vatican II seemed like a real turning point; in reality, it was just a further stage in the self-centering of a system that does not want to reform itself according to the Word of God, but to relaunch itself in a new historical phase without losing any of its unbiblical tenets.

3. The Imperial Roman Structure
The Roman Catholic Church presents itself as a rigid hierarchical and top-down institution, divided between a (restricted) class of clerics and a (large) mass of lay people. The sacrament of order is reserved for the former (with the attached teaching and governing authority), while the latter are relegated to a sacramentally marginal (and in any case never substantial) role as executors. Already this subdivision between a large base of lay people and a small circle of clerics is against the biblical nature of the church, which is a body formed of various members all under one head (which is Christ) and at His service. The same hierarchical structure is found within the class of clerics divided between parish priests, bishops, archbishops and popes all strictly in a hierarchical line. Now this imprint of the ecclesial institution is not biblical, but imperial. It is the Roman imperial culture, and its concept of the exercise of power, that have decisively forged the structure of the Church of Rome and its corresponding hierarchical vision.

The papacy is the institution that best reflects this imperial origin. Even the most generous readings of Peter’s role in the first church described in the New Testament cannot in any way justify the emergence of the papacy as the apical office of the church. The papacy resembles the office of the emperor transposed to the reality of a religious institution. Many papal titles are ecclesiastical translations of imperial titles. Think, for example, of “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles (i.e. Peter)”, “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”, “Primate of Italy”, and “Sovereign of the Vatican City State”. They are imperial titles. They are political roles. In the language used and in the culture they underlie, they are indebted to the politics of the Roman Empire, not to the exercise of responsibility in the church according to the Gospel. Where does the Bible speak of a human head of the church who is “prince”, “pontiff”, “primate”, even “sovereign” of a state? It is clear that we are in the presence of a transposition of titles that are alien to the Church of Jesus Christ because they derive from the political ideology of a human empire.

Think of how the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) defines and describes the role of the Roman Pope. In paragraph 882 it says that “the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as Pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered”. Full, supreme and universal power: this is an imperial power, not defined by Scripture which, on the contrary, limits all powers, inside and outside the Church. See paragraph 937 where we read that “The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls”. Power is still talked about and defined in imperial terms, except to attribute it to the divine will!

The papacy is the child of an imperial conception, at the top of which is the emperor (pope) surrounded by a senate of aristocrats (cardinals and bishops) who govern free men (priests) and a mass of slaves (laymen). Roman Catholicism took over the imperial structure and reproduced it in its own self-understanding and in its internal organization. The tragedy is that it has also clothed it with a divine “imprimatur” as if it descended directly from God’s will and made it unchangeable. The attempt to biblically justify the imperial structure of the church is an after-thought that has tried, in vain, to see Roman Catholicism as the organic “development” of the New Testament church. The reality shows that the Church of Rome is the daughter of the Roman Empire. When the empire fell, from its ashes emerged the ecclesiastical structure that has perpetrated its ideology for centuries, up to the present day.

4. Optimistic Theology and Abnormal Ecclesiology
The time has come to deepen the theological foundation of Roman Catholicism: an anthropologically optimistic theology and an abnormal ecclesiology. These are the two main axes of the whole Roman Catholic theological system.

The first axis concerns, technically speaking, the relationship between nature and grace or, as Gregg Allison usefully called it in his book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (2014), the “nature-grace interdependence”. In its understanding of reality, Roman Catholicism recognizes God’s creation (nature) and has a sense of God’s grace. Nature (i.e. the universe, the world, humanity) exists, just as divine grace exists in relation to it. What is lacking in this scheme is a biblical, and therefore realistic, understanding of sin. In the biblical worldview, the first act is creation followed by the second act, the breaking of the covenant caused by sin, with devastating and cascading effects on everything. Roman Catholicism, though it has a doctrine of sin, does not have a biblically radical one. While it considers sin a serious illness, it does not consider it spiritual death. For Roman Catholicism, nature, before and after sin, is always “capax dei” (i.e. capable of God), intrinsically and constitutively open to the grace of God.

For this reason, Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism and the oil of anointing that convey grace), in the ability of reason to develop a “natural theology”, in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of religions to be ways to God, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth, in the capacity of the Pope to speak infallibly when he does so “ex cathedra”. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened by sin, nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism in whatever is natural to be graced.

The second main axis of Roman Catholicism touches on the relationship between Christ and the church. In Allison’s terms, it is the “Christ-Church interconnection”. The basic idea is that, after the ascension of the risen Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father, there is a sense in which Christ is “really” present in his “mystical body” (the church) which is inseparably connected to the hierarchical and papal institution of the Roman Church. For Roman Catholicism, the incarnation of Christ did not end with the ascension, but is prolonged in the sacramental, institutional and teaching life of the church. The Roman Church exercises the royal, priestly and prophetic offices of Christ in the real and vicar sense: through the priests who act “in persona Christi“, the church governs the world, dispenses grace and teaches the truth.

The prerogatives of Christ are transposed into the self-understanding of the church: the power of the church is universal, the sacraments of the church transmit grace “ex opere operato” (by reason of them being enacted), the magisterium of the church is always true. The biblical distinction between “head” (Christ) and “members” (church) is confused in the category of “totus Christus” (the total Christ which includes both). The consequences of this confusion impact (and pollute) everything. The mystical-sacramental-institutional-papal church is conceived in an inflated, abnormal way.

Roman Catholicism lies within these two axes: the underlying optimism based on the interdependence between nature and grace corresponds to the leading role of the Roman ecclesiastical institution based on the interconnection between Christ and the church.

5. The Sacramental System
The time has come to deal with the sacramental system, the true operational infrastructure of Roman Catholicism. Sacramentality refers to the idea of “mediation”: since nature is intrinsically capable of being elevated by grace, grace is not received immediately or externally, but always through a vehicle or a natural vector. The sacrament is the natural “lever” with which divine grace is communicated to nature. From the Roman Catholic sacramental point of view, the grace of baptism is imparted with water, that of extreme unction with oil, that of order with the imposition of hands, that of the Eucharist with consecrated bread and wine. Grace cannot be received “by faith alone” but always through a natural element imparted by the Church, which acts in the name of Christ and transforms it from a merely natural element to the “real presence” of divine grace.

There are therefore two elements necessary for the Roman Catholic sacrament: a physical-natural element and the agency of the church, which is believed to have the task of transfiguring matter and imparting grace. Therefore, the natural object becomes grace and the church is in charge of administering it. The interdependence between nature and grace means that grace comes into nature and through nature; the interconnection between Christ and the church makes the church of Rome dispense it in the name of Christ himself. Since it is Christ who works through the sacraments of the church, these have an effect “ex opere operato“, by the very fact of being imparted.

In response to the Protestant Reformation, which had emphasized that the work of Christ is received by faith alone through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) designed the sacramental layout of the Church of Rome: from baptism to extreme unction, a sacramental journey is envisaged for the Catholic faithful. The journey is made up of seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, confession, Eucharist, order, marriage, extreme unction) that accompany human life from birth to death. The Roman Church dispenses God’s grace in every age and throughout life. Some sacraments are administrations of grace received once and for all (i.e. baptism, confirmation, order, marriage, extreme unction), others are received cyclically and repeatedly (confession and the Eucharist). In this way, God’s grace becomes “real” and pervasive through the action of the church. For the Council of Trent, being excluded from the sacraments (by excommunication, schism, or belonging to other religions) was equivalent to being excluded from grace.

While not denying the Tridentine system, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) added an important emphasis. The last Council shifted attention from the sacramental acts of the Catholic Church to the sacramental essence of the church. In the famous conciliar definition, “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1). It is the church as such that is a sacrament, that is, the “real presence” of Christ. It is so as a “sign and instrument”: an already given reality and also at the service of its growth. The church expresses the unity with God and the unity of the whole human race. The Roman Catholic Church is thought of as a sign and instrument of the unity of all women and men. For this reason, Rome can speak of everyone as “brothers and sisters”: those that Trent considered excluded from grace because they were excluded from the sacraments (Protestants, Muslims, Jews, etc.), the Church of Rome now considers as “brothers and sisters” already impacted by grace (albeit in a mysterious way) and already in some way ordained to the Catholic Church. From the sacraments as specific acts, to the sacramentality of the Church as a whole: this is where the Roman Catholic Church stands today.

The Gospel recognizes the goodness of creation, but also the radical nature of sin. The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit if they are not revealed to him (1 Corinthians 1:12-15). The flesh (the sinful nature) does not receive grace: it is the Spirit who gives life (John 6:63). Jesus instituted the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “visible words” (according to the beautiful expression of the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli) that testify to the grace received by faith, not as objects through which grace is made present by a church that believes itself to be the extension of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

6. The Catholic Project
After touching on the sacramental system, it is time to talk about the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. The Apostles’ Creed describes the church as “catholic” in the sense of universal as it is extends throughout the world. The meaning given to catholicity by the Church of Rome goes beyond the universality of the church.

Following the conclusion of Vatican II, the Italian Protestant theologian Vittorio Subilia published a book in which the approved documents were examined and in which he provided an overall interpretation of Roman Catholicism that emerged from the Council. The title of that book, The New Catholicity of Catholicism (1967), sums up well what catholicity means.

The kind of Roman Catholicism that emerged from Vatican II has given up the theocratic claims inherited from the long centuries of its history and has invested heavily in increasing its catholicity. It can no longer think of dominating the world in an absolutist way and so it tries to infiltrate the world to modify it from the inside. It no longer hurls anathemas against modernity but strives to penetrate and elevate it. It can no longer impose its power coercively, but tries to exercise it in a more graceful way. The Church of Rome no longer has much popular following when it speaks of doctrine and morals, but tries to maintain its ability to influence, to condition, to direct society. It can no longer afford a wall-to-wall contrast with the world in order not to be relegated to a nook, and so it accepts modern society in order to permeate it from within.

In a military metaphor, it can be said that the tactics of Roman Catholicism are no longer those of a head-on collision but of the wrapping of the wings. The goal is no longer the annihilation of the opponent, but its incorporation. The aim is no longer conquest, but absorption through the expansion of the boundaries of catholicity. Everything falls within the jurisdiction of Roman Catholicity.

The catholicity of Roman Catholicism is the ability to incorporate divergent ideas, different values, heterogeneous movements, and to integrate them within the Roman system. If the evangelical faith chooses (Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone), Roman Catholicism adds (Scripture and tradition, Christ and church, grace and sacraments, faith and works). In fact, Roman Catholicism has such a broad framework that it can accommodate everything, a thesis and its antithesis, one instance and another, one element and another.

In the Roman Catholic worldview, nature is conjugated to grace, Scripture to tradition, Christ to the church, grace to the sacraments, faith to works, Christian life to popular religion, evangelical piety to pagan folklore, speculative philosophy to superstitious beliefs, ecclesiastical centralism to Catholic universalism. The biblical gospel is not its parameter, and therefore Roman Catholicism is a system always open to new integrations in view of its progressive expansion.

The basic criterion of Roman Catholicism is not evangelical purity nor Christian authenticity, but the integration of the particular into a universal horizon at the service of a Roman institution that holds the reins of the whole plan.

7. A Confused and Distorted Religion
After briefly discussing the various elements of the definition, it is time to close the circle by trying to reach a conclusion, however provisional it is. So what can be said about the doctrinal outlook, the devotional patterns, and the institutional structure of Roman Catholicism as a whole? Roman Catholicism can be said to be a confused and twisted religion.

Its “formal principle” is not submission to Scripture alone, but to an acceptance of the Word of God in which Scripture sits alongside the Church’s Tradition and ends up being under the teaching office of the Roman Church. Not having Scripture as the ultimate authority to submit to, Roman Catholicism can only be biblically confused, twisted, ambiguous and, ultimately, erroneous. Each of its uses of Scripture, however linguistically adherent to the Bible from which it borrows its words, is crossed by a principle contrary to the Word of God.

Its “material principle” is not the grace of God received by faith alone which saves the sinner, but a sophisticated system that merges divine grace with the performance of the person through the reception of the sacraments of the church. Roman Catholicism speaks of “sin”, “grace”, “salvation”, “faith”. Using these words, it employs them not according to their biblical meaning, but by bending them according to its own sacramental system. The words are the same but, not being defined by Scripture, their meaning is fraught with internal deviations that make them phonetically equal and theologically different from the Christian faith.

Some distortions of Roman Catholicism are obvious, as in the case of Marian dogmas without biblical support, or the case of the institution of the papacy which is the child of the Roman Empire, or the case of devotions that are drawn from pagan practices. Others are subtler and more sophisticated, as in the case of doctrinal “developments” which have accrued over the centuries, or the Roman Catholic ecclesiology or view of salvation.

In light of these pervasive distortions, even what appears to be in common must be carefully questioned. As the document “Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism” (1999) of the Italian Evangelical Alliance says:

The doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals, which is expressed in a common adherence to the Creeds and Councils of the first five centuries, is not an adequate basis on which to say that there is an agreement concerning the essentials of the Gospel. Moreover, developments within the Catholic Church during the following centuries give rise to the suspicion that this adherence may be more formal than substantial. This type of observation might also be true of the agreements between Evangelicals and Catholics when it comes to ethical and social issues. There is a similarity of perspective which has its roots in Common Grace and the influence which Christianity has generally exercised in the course of history. Since theology and ethics cannot be separated, however, it is not possible to say that there is a common ethical understanding – the underlying theologies are essentially different. As there is no basic agreement concerning the foundations of the Gospel, even when it comes to ethical questions where there may be similarities, these affinities are more formal than substantial. (n. 9)

How are we to relate to Roman Catholics as individuals and groups? Again the same document helpfully argues:

What is true of the Catholic Church as a doctrinal and institutional reality is not necessarily true of individual Catholics. God’s grace is at work in men and women who, although they may consider themselves Catholics, trust in God alone, and seek to develop a personal relationship with him, read the Scriptures and lead a Christian life. These people, however, must be encouraged to think through the issue of whether their faith is compatible with membership of the Catholic Church. They must be helped to examine critically residual Catholic elements in their thinking in the light of God’s Word. (n. 12)

All women and men are called to return to God the Father, who manifested himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be saved and to re-learn how to live under the authority of the Bible for the glory of God alone.

(An Italian version of this article can be found on “Loci Communes”)