An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism

The document was released after the Annual Theological Conference of IFED (Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione) in 1999 and subsequently endorsed by the Italian Evangelical Alliance. It was published in several languages, e.g.  “Orientamenti evangelici per pensare il cattolicesimo”, Ideaitalia III:5 (1999) 7-8; anche in Comunicazioni cristiane XI (1999/12) 13-14 [trad.: “Le catholicisme romain: une approche évangélique”, Vivre, 8-9 (2000) 10-14 e Fac-Réflexion 51-52 (2000/2-3) 44-49; “Ein Evangelikaler Ansatz zum Verständnis des Römischen Katholizismus”, Freie Theologische Akademie, 2000 e Bibel Info 59/3 (2001) 10-13; “An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism”, Evangelicals Now, Dec 2000, 12-13; European Journal of Theology X (2001/1) 32-35].


In the years following Vatican II (1962-65) Evangelicals have shown renewed interest in Roman Catholicism. On an international level this interest has led to a series of meetings on the theme of Mission, “The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission 1977-1984”, and has opened the way for an ongoing dialogue between The World Evangelical Fellowship and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity on the themes of Justification, Scripture and Tradition (Venice 1995) and the Church (Jerusalem 1997). In 1986 the World Evangelical Fellowship also published an important document on Catholicism entitled, “An Evangelical Perspective on Roman Catholicism”. In the United States more controversial documents have been drawn up such as, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) and “The Gift of Salvation” (1997). Until quite recently it could be said that the overall evangelical evaluation of Catholicism was invariably critical. Today this is no longer true. In many areas there are clear signs of a definite change in the way many Evangelicals perceive the Catholic Church. The common understanding has given way to a comprehension which is less certain and often confusing. The following document is intended to be a contribution to the evangelical understanding of Catholicism and the criteria which should be used when relating to it.


The nature of Roman Catholicism

1. Roman Catholicism is a complex reality. A global view of Catholicism, must take into account its doctrine, culture, and its institutions. It is a religious worldview which has been promoted throughout history by the ecclesiastical institution whose centre is in Rome. Although there is considerable diversity in its forms of expression, Catholicism is a basically unitary reality whose underlying tenets can be discerned. Any analysis which does not take in to account the fact that Catholicism is a system will fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding of the phenomenon.


2. Catholicism’s starting point is the Thomist conception of the relationship between “nature” and “grace” into which is engrafted the idea of the Church as the extension of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Both of these themes can be presented with subtle diversity and with any number of interpretative variations, but by virtue of the fact that they form Catholicism’s ideological framework, they will always be found to be present. This basic orientation in its presuppositions explains why Roman Catholicism has no sense of the tragedy of sin, tends to encourage an optimistic view of man’s abilities, sees salvation as a process in which nature is made more perfect and justifies the Church’s role as a mediator between man and God.


3. The global objective of Catholicism is catholicity. In the Roman Catholic understanding catholicity has to do simultaneously with unity and totality. The basic premise is that multiplicity should be brought into a unity. The Church is seen as an expression, a guarantor and a promoter of true unity. As long as the institutional structure which preserves this unity remains intact, everything can and must find its home somewhere within the kingdom of Catholicism.


4. Given the fundamental presupposition and the main objective of Catholicism, the method chosen for its realisation is that of integration (et-et). Roman Catholicism is a master at incorporating into its system elements which are not only different but contrasting and perhaps even incompatible. The essential criterion is not that of evangelical purity or christian authenticity but that of a progressive inclusion – the insertion of the particular into a broader perspective which eliminates its specificity by dissolving it in the service of universality.


The strategy behind Roman Catholicism

5. In today’s religious panorama it is evident that Catholicism has a very clear programme in its pursuit of catholicity. This is particularly noticeable in its ecumenical strategy following the Second Vatican Council – every opportunity to advance this cause has been seized upon. The apparent signs of willingness for dialogue and availability for interaction with evangelicals should make them ask themselves whether the final goal of the Catholic church is not in actual fact the extension of its own synthesis so as to include the evangelicals’ ideals within its own horizons. This strategy, however, does not only include evangelicals, but also extends to all religions and all religious bodies around the world.


6. An important part of this strategy has been the proclamation of the year 2000 as a Holy Year, improperly called a ‘Jubilee’ Year. The beginning of the new millennium is an event in which the Catholic Church has heavily invested and carefully prepared for. The year 2000, as a Holy Year, is an event which clearly reveals the multifaceted nature of contemporary Catholicism. The Vatican’s ‘Jubilee’ shows very clearly what the dominant tendencies within Catholicism are today and its short term goals in the direction of catholicity.


Evangelical Diversity with respect to Roman Catholicism

7. In seeking to come to a better understanding of Catholicism, evangelicals must examine their own identity: a proper understanding of Catholicism also implies a proper understanding of the evangelical faith.  A clear position regarding the one requires a clear position regarding the other.


8. Although there are many differences between Catholicism and the evangelical faith at various levels they are all inter-connecting and in the last analysis stem from a radically different basic orientation. It is a difference which cannot simply be explained in psychological, historical or cultural terms, nor does it derive from different doctrinal emphases which could somehow be complementary. The difference is at the level of the presuppositions, and this necessarily influences and determines both the objectives and the methods of the two Confessions.


9. 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.


10. The biblical teaching re-discovered during the 16th Century Reformation regarding the “sola, solus” as the crucial point of the Gospel is a crux which an evangelical understanding considers to be ‘non-negotiable’. Scripture alone, Christ alone, Grace alone, Faith alone, to God alone be glory, these together constitute the criteria for the study of Catholicism and the hermeneutic principle which should be used in interpreting the dynamics within the Roman Catholic Church. On the basis of the sola, solus, the distance which separates contemporary Catholicism from the Evangelical faith is no less than it was at the time of the Protestant Reformation. In fact, after the First and Second Vatican Councils, Catholicism continues to add to Scripture the authority of tradition and magisterial teaching; to Christ it has added the Church as an extension of the Incarnation; to grace it has added the necessity of the benefits which come through the sacramental office of the church; to faith it has added the necessity of good works for salvation; to the worship of God it has added the veneration of a host of other figures which detract from the worship of the only true God. When compared to Roman Catholicism at the time of Trent, the contrast concerning the important issues is much less sharply defined today, but no basic change has taken place. The exclusiveness of the evangelical faith concerning the essential elements of the Gospel must be seen as an alternative to the Catholic proposal of an all encompassing catholicity.


11. The current flurry of activity within contemporary Catholicism (the return to the Bible, liturgical renewal, the valorisation of the laity, the charismatic movement, etc.) does not indicate, in and of itself, that there is hope for a reformation within the Catholic church in an evangelical sense. It will only be as these developments make changes in the structural elements underlying the nature of Catholicism, not expanding it further but purifying it in the light of God’s Word, that they can have a truly reforming function. In today’s scenario, these movements, although interesting, seem to promote the project of Catholicity rather than that of reformation.


Relationships with Roman Catholics

12. 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.


13. In the fulfilment of the cultural mandate there may be moments of interaction in which there is a co-operation and united action between Evangelicals and Catholics, as in fact may be possible between Evangelicals and people with other religious orientations and ideologies. Where common values are at stake in ethical, social, cultural and political issues, forms of co-belligerence are to be encouraged. These necessary and inevitable forms of co-operation, however, must not be perceived as ecumenical initiatives, nor must they be construed as implying the recovery of a doctrinal consensus.


14. The fulfilment of the missionary mandate demands that its missionaries come from the community of believers who are united in a common confession of faith regarding all the fundamental aspects of the Gospel, especially the crucial points which concern the 5 “sola, solus” of the Reformation. In this sense, all evangelistic activity, at home or abroad, in which there is a co-operation between Catholics and Evangelicals, must be seriously re-examined. A faithful witness to the Risen One must be given to all men and women everywhere quite apart from their religious affiliation.


15. Roman Catholicism is a reality which must be seriously studied and examined. The basic difference between Catholicism and the Evangelical faith is no reason for Evangelicals to ignore the internal developments within Catholicism, or to cultivate an arrogant attitude, or to be excessively polemical. As much as is possible an open, frank and constructive interaction with Catholicism should be sought, especially when it concerns the basic orientation of the two Confessions. Even in this situation, what is currently called ‘dialogue’ should not be considered as an ecumenical activity, but simply as an expression of the desire to understand and to witness.


Padua, 10-11th September 1999

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