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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

222. From “Metaphysical” to “Popular”: A Window on the Roman Catholic Theology of the Future?

In the beginning was Roman Catholic metaphysics: Aristotelian in outline, revisited and improved by Thomas Aquinas, capable of integrating some biblical and Augustinian insights, elastic to the point of metabolizing mystical and rationalistic streams, open to updating with respect to modernity, while maintaining its solid structures. Metaphysics was taught in Roman Catholic seminaries (two years of metaphysics preceded the study of theology in the training of priests). It was at the heart of catechesis, the watermark of the church’s documents, and the imprint of its public morality and theology. In short, it was the recognizable mark of the Roman Catholic church. Metaphysics started from “first principles” and, in the light of reason as helped by revelation (coming from Tradition and the Bible), by deductive means and procedures, arrived at every nook and detail of human life. With this metaphysics, Rome fought against the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modernism.
 
Then came Vatican II (1962-1965), and that solid framework was stress-tested. It went through a season of development and updating, introducing a new set of emphases. The “pastoral” tone was preferred to the “doctrinal” one.  The top-down structure made room for more bottom-up processes. The season of “genitive” theologies (of demythologization, enculturation, hope, liberation, post-colonialism, ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, etc.) battered classical metaphysics. In the name of “renewal,” there was a certain theological restlessness and an eagerness to change the paradigm.
 
Then there was Pope Francis (2013- ). Of eclectic and unfinished theological training, Argentine and non-academic, the pope immediately showed his frustration with the schematism of metaphysics, denouncing its abstract and “clerical” character, in his view far away from people’s problems and offering answers to questions of the past that nobody is asking. In their own way, the “outgoing” trajectory of which he became an interpreter and the “synodality” he championed are formulas that apply to theology as well. In concrete terms, in 2018, with the Constitution Veritatis Gaudium, the pope sent signals to the ecclesiastical universities, preparing them for a new season. After the death of Benedict XVI, Francis changed the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, giving it to a “non-metaphysical” theologian like Víctor Manuel Fernández. Now, with the document Ad theologiam promuovendam (“Promoting Theology”, 1st November 2023; Italian textEnglish unofficial translation), he changed the statute of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, which is a Vatican institution at the service of the pope’s theological ministry. In this text, Pope Francis envisages his way of doing theology.
 
In imagining the Academy of the future, Francis hopes that theology will experience an “epistemological and methodological rethinking,” a “turning point,” a “paradigm shift,” a “courageous cultural revolution.” In the background is dissatisfaction with traditional metaphysics and its theological methods. According to Francis, theology must be “fundamentally contextual” and no longer start from “first principles.” It must translate into a “culture of dialogue” with all and no longer think of itself as only lecturing to the world, religions, and others. It must be “transdisciplinary” and no longer prioritize philosophy over the other disciplines. It must be “spiritual” and not abstract and ideological; “popular” and not detached from people’s common sense; “inductive” and not deductive.
 
In so doing, the pope distances himself from the legacy of metaphysical theology that has been the paradigm of Roman Catholicism throughout the ages. Is his way of looking at theology something that Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, Leo XIII, John Paul II, Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, etc., would recognize as being in line with the tradition of Rome? Not really. Perhaps Karl Rahner, some Liberation theologians, and their disciples would.
 
“Promoting theology” seems to be a manifesto of an account of Roman Catholic theology that, without naming traditional metaphysics, distances itself from it in significant ways. It does not appear to abolish metaphysics by decree but subjects it to accelerated “updating” and “development” such that its connotations are changed. In a nutshell, the Roman Catholic theology of the future will be done differently.
 
As noted at the outset, traditional metaphysics has absorbed all the orientations that have emerged, even those that initially seemed contrary to its arrangement. It has demonstrated great adaptability at the service of Roman catholicity, i.e. the ability to integrate new ideas and methods without changing the fundamental commitments of the Roman Catholic church. The question is: is the direction Francis wants theology to take compatible with its well-established patterns? Is it a radical change with unpredictable consequences? For sure, in the wake of Vatican II as interpreted by Francis, Roman Catholic theology will be increasingly different not only in emphasis but also in language, style, themes, and content. Those who think of Rome as the home of stability have yet another indication that Rome does develop and change. Tradition is an evolving process.
 
It is feasible to say that the Roman Catholic theology of the future will be et-et, both-and: both the one established over the centuries and the one Pope Francis desires. Both approaches to theology are not committed to Scripture as the supreme authority. The former reflects a philosophical system rather than the Bible; the latter mirrors the context more than the Word of God. In both cases, theology is hardly evangelical but rather two ways of voicing Roman Catholic theology: one more “Roman” (metaphysical), the other more “catholic” (contextual).

221. Should Evangelicals Pray with Roman Catholics?

(Leaders of twenty Christian faith confessions, including Thomas Schirrmacher, Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, pray with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square (Vatican) during the Ecumenical Prayer Vigil of 30 September 2023. / Photo: Facebook Gathering Together.) 

As I speak at conferences on Roman Catholicism worldwide and how Evangelicals should relate to it, a question often arises: “What about joint prayer? Could or should Evangelicals pray with Roman Catholics?” Let me offer my rules of thumb as I wrestle with the issue.
 
1. The Bible is clear that we should pray for all men and women (e.g. 1 Timothy 2:1), so praying for those friends, colleagues, and family members who are Roman Catholics is mandatory. There is no doubt that praying for Roman Catholics is a God-given responsibility for all evangelicals.
 
2. The issue becomes critical when discussing praying with Roman Catholics. Praying with someone is a spiritual activity that presupposes the existence of spiritual bonds, i.e. fellowship in Christ. In other words, prayer with someone is legitimate when the people praying together are brothers and sisters in Christ, joining their hearts and voices to praise the Triune God and intercede for various topics in the name of Jesus Christ. Here comes the first problem: according to Roman Catholic doctrine, one becomes a Christian at baptism, normally received when the person is a newborn. It is the sacrament of baptism that makes the person a Christian. For the evangelical faith, one becomes a Christian at conversion when the person believes the gospel of Jesus Christ. The turning point is not the reception of the sacrament (the Roman Catholic view), but personal faith resulting in a transformed life (the biblical view). The reality is that a Roman Catholic person might have received the sacrament of baptism, but she/he is not a believer in Christ in that she/he was never converted. If this is the case, she/he is not a sister/brother in Christ and therefore there is no spiritual bond in Him making it possible to elevate our joint prayers to God. If we pray together, we are saying that we are united in Christ, but since this is not the case, joint prayer should be avoided and practiced with converted people only. This is my daily experience with my Roman Catholic neighbors: most of them were baptized by the Roman Catholic Church but show no evidence of any spiritual life biblically understood. I cannot relate to them as “brothers and sisters.” While I gladly pray for them, I don’t ask for their prayers, nor do I pray with them on the assumption that we are “brothers and sisters” in Christ since we are not.
 
3. Another aspect that makes common prayer impossible is that Roman Catholicism believes in a different account of the gospel than the biblical one. There are some overlaps in language but fundamental differences in basic truths of the gospel, e.g. the ultimate authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and life and salvation by faith alone. From these different commitments arise contrasting appreciations of the gospel. For example, as far as prayer is concerned, because Scripture is not the ultimate standard and we are thought of as contributing to our salvation through the merits of the saints, Roman Catholicism prescribes prayer to the saints and Mary as intercessors. These are not biblically warranted practices. The Catholic faithful are taught that they can pray to Mary and the saints for their petitions, not to Jesus Christ alone. If you pray with a Roman Catholic, you may use similar words but express different faiths. It is better to avoid generating confusion and ambiguity and respectfully abstain from joint prayer if the people involved have yet to give signs of being converted to Christ. The fact that they are Roman Catholics does not mean they are “brothers and sisters” in the faith.
 
4. I don’t deny that there are Roman Catholics who are genuinely converted. God’s grace is at work in men and women who trust in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation and desire to follow the Word of God. However, these people have a problem with their Roman Catholic identity. If they follow Christ alone according to the Bible alone, they are inconsistent with their alleged Roman Catholic faith. They may be believers in the biblical sense, but they are inconsistently Roman Catholics. While encouraging one another to grow in our faith, even if this means questioning Roman Catholic beliefs and practice, if they are converted to Jesus Christ and not simply baptized, we can pray with them in private settings characterized by informality.
 
5. I abstain from participating in joint prayer in public settings and events. Apart from the reasons above (# 2 and 3), another consideration must be made. Once you pray with someone in public, you are conveying that all the participants share the same Christian faith and are “brothers and sisters” in Christ. All existing differences are but footnotes that do not impede biblical fellowship. Because the Roman Catholic account of the gospel is flawed, if we participate in public joint prayer, we accept it as a legitimate version of the true gospel, with minor concerns over secondary issues: this is the symbolic message that comes from public prayers with Catholics. This is even more true when the people we pray with are Roman Catholic priests. If we pray in public with them, we recognize that the Church they belong to and the account of the gospel it promotes are biblical expressions of the Church and sufficiently faithful appreciations of the gospel. It is essential to pay attention to the power of symbols. “Ecumenical” gatherings that include joint prayers want to affirm that all participants recognize one another as “brothers and sisters” in Christ and their respective communities as legitimate expressions of the biblical church.
 
6. In European ecumenical circles, many joint prayer events are organized around the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January each year) by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. Their view of the gospel and unity is based on the sacrament of baptism (see # 2) and not on personal conversion to Christ. The symbolic message that this initiative wants to promote is that all Christians, despite the denomination and tradition they belong to, are “one,” “united” as “brothers and sisters.” Since this is not the case, I don’t participate in it. While I am willing to engage in dialogue with Roman Catholics at all levels, I consider joint prayer to be the privilege of born-again Christians and not necessarily members of ecclesiastical bodies.