Ecclesia in Europa. An Evangelical Reading of the Roman Catholic Public Theology for Europe

(Paper presented at the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians’ Conference in 2004) 

Public theology fits the Roman Catholic Church for two main reasons. The first is that she is the only church which is also a sovereign state (i.e. the Vatican) with its own political, financial, juridical and diplomatic structure. It the only ecclesial body which deals with other states at a peer-level. When she signs agreements with a state in the form of a concordat, for instance, she does so according to the rules of international law as a sovereign country vis-à-vis another sovereign country. The pope is both head of the church and head of state. When he visits a nation he is welcomed as if he were a king, not simply as archbishop or another ecclesiastical figure. Though small and symbolic, the Church also has an army, like any other state. She cleverly plays with her double identity (ecclesial and political) which is the fruit of her long and complex history, but also an indication of her composite institutional nature: both church and state in one. Theology and politics are so intertwined in the system of the Catholic Church and in her activities that it is impossible to separate them.

The second reason why public theology fits the Roman Church is that she has been an important player in the political history of the Continent. Any attempt to survey European history would be utterly impossible without taking into account the fundamental, yet controversial, contribution of the Roman Church. This prominent role has been undergoing a profound change in terms of the forms of political involvement since 1870 onward.[1] The severe reduction of the extension of the Pontifical State determined the modification of its political profile in Europe. In the present-day scene, Rome does not seem in the forefront of contemporary politics but has a strong influence on events and trends through her powerful diplomatic apparatus and media attention. For example, the crucial role of John Paul II in the fall of the Communist regimes is unanimously recognised as one of the main factors of the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Even before Karol Wojtyla, however, the Church had developed her distinct Ost-Politik in confronting Easter European oppressive governments. Moreover, there is no international crisis, no major world-wide issue, no current global debate which is not significantly dealt with by the Vatican, both theologically and diplomatically, hence politically.

Public theology is therefore at the centre of the Roman Catholic raison d’être and any serious analysis of the Catholic public theology should be aware of it. Of course, her role in contemporary Europe is not mere politics and social concern, but is has inherent public and political dimensions attached to it.

The aim of this paper is to explore the political significance of Rome’s involvement in the public square in present-day Europe and to ask questions about the challenge that it brings for Evangelicals as they address the challenge to witness to the Gospel in the European public arena. This objective will be hopefully achieved, first, by introducing the Social Doctrine of the Church which is the ideological platform of the Roman Church; second, by assessing a recent authoritative document which sets forth the Catholic political concerns for Europe and the role of the Church in this context.


1. The Social Doctrine of the Church as Rome’s Public Theology

Magisterial Roman Catholic language does not use the expression “public theology” to indicate the socio-political reflection and action of the Church. We should therefore look for another vocabulary to find out how she perceives the role of the Church in the world-wide political situation. In this respect, Rome refers to the Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC) as the established, yet dynamic and ever growing body of teachings which delineate her theological framework, moral values and socio-political principles.


The theological framework

One of the first things to be said about SDC is that it is a set of doctrines. The social views of the Church have a high theological profile, given the fact that they are considered as part and parcel of a doctrinal body of reference. They are not mere opinions or majority views within Catholic hierarchy, but are ascribed as nothing less than doctrines. The Roman Church is very aware of the mediation which is always needed to address historical and social realities from a magisterial point of view. This mediation entails a sober appreciation of the contingency of magisterial indications which stem from and are directed to transient situations. Yet, she is also conscious of the specific contribution that she can make towards society as a whole and this contribution is primarily a doctrinal one. SDC is not a second-order Roman Catholic teaching, but an integral part of its doctrinal worldview to be understood in connection with the whole theological teaching office of the Church. Rome’s involvement in politics and society emerges from doctrine from where it receives inspiration towards the implementation of a project. 

The kind of doctrine envisaged in SDC is aimed at shaping society according to its own principles and objectives. SDC is Roman Catholic doctrinal convictions coming to terms with the social outlook in view of bringing a corresponding change. In this respect, SDC indicates what is necessary to “the construction of social life which aims at being ordained to Christ towards the human fulfilment in God, without negating a properly understood earthly autonomy, but empowering it”.[2] On the one hand, there is a reference to a theological framework which encompasses a Christological consummation which, in turn, is the requisite for human realisation. On the other, there is the recognition of a limited sphere of social and political autonomy in striving to the human fulfilment in God. As the old Thomist saying remarks, gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit. Grace provides the way for nature to achieve its supernatural calling while respecting its natural prerogatives. In a nutshell, this is the Roman Catholic theological vision whereby nature is elevated by grace to its supernatural fulfilment. As part of Catholic doctrine, SDC shares the same basic theological framework.[3]


The main documents

Historically speaking, SDC has known a significant development in contemporary history when the magisterial authority has begun to address contentious issues emerging from the modern world. In the second half of XIX century, the magisterial authority increasingly felt the need to respond to matters of widespread social concern. Since then, this attention has been a shared priority of many pontiffs. Here is a brief overview of the main documents which form the backlog of SDC.

Rerum novarum (1891) by Leo XIII is the first modern encyclical devoted to social issues and deals especially with the condition of working classes. The exploitation of work and workers is condemned while private property is recognised as natural right.

Quadragesimo anno (1931) by Pius XI marks the 40th anniversary of Rerum novarum. The emphasis is on the structural (i.e. political) dimension of justice. It calls for a profound change in social and economic institutions in order to purse justice and charity for the common good.

Mater et magistra (1961) by John XXIII summarises the social teaching of previous popes and develops it in the post-second world war context. For the first time, it tackles the problem of underdeveloped countries against the background of humanity’s common destiny.

 Gaudium et spes (1965) is the more inspirational Vatican II text for subsequent SDC. It explores the relationship between the Church and modern world and calls the former to a renewed sense of mission at the service of the human person, the whole community of mankind and the promotion of common good.

Populorum progressio (1967) by Paul VI reinforces Mater et magistra around the notion of “integral development” for all mankind. It strongly relates social development, freedom and world peace. Private property, though lawful, has also a social dimension which cannot be overlooked.  

Labor exercens (1981) by John Paul II recalls and develops important themes of Rerum novarum. It underlines the anthropological significance of work and asserts its priority over capital and private interest. Work needs to be at the service of man, though this attitude does not mean endorsing liberation theology uncritically.

Sollicitudio rei socialis (1987) again by John Paul II celebrates the 20 anniversary of Populorum progressio and criticises highly consumerist trends in contemporary society. Solidarity is the key principle which is evoked towards establishing peace and promoting integral development.

            On the whole, these documents show the radical turn that the Catholic Church has undergone in the last 150 years. From being a Church inward looking and on the defence, it has become a missionary minded, socially concerned, culturally alert and truly catholically oriented Church. Her social thought provides her public involvement with an ideological platform which is now sufficiently stabilised though is always open for further refinements by magisterial authority. The Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the only ecclesial subject which has a coherent body of teachings which cover a lot of ground in terms of public theology. From work ethic to labour legislation, from world peace to fair development, from solidarity to subsidiarity, from private property to common destination of goods, from local policies to international order … many key themes are given a Catholic flavour in view of Catholic involvement. SDC is a comprehensive social perspective which testifies to the vitality of the Roman Catholic worldview confronting the modern world.


2. Ecclesia in Europa: which Church in which Europe?

After briefly touching on the rich and vast domain of SDC, we are better equipped to deal with a recent magisterial document which contains an indication of how the Church perceives the general European outlook and her role in it. The Roman Church is an active agent in the European scene and in recent years she has given an even more careful consideration to it against the background of SDC. In this respect, John Paul II has issued the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (henceforth EiE) in 2003 prolonging the 1999 Synod of European bishops which had focussed on the life of the Continent on the eve of 2000 Jubilee[4]. The document well reflects many consolidated magisterial concerns and provides a interesting case-study to come to grips with Rome’s public theology in the European context.

            Though it does not contain a full orbed ecclesiology, EiE is primarily an ecclesiological document. It stems from a clearly defined ecclesiological consciousness and is aimed at encouraging the Church’s involvement in this crucial time for Europe. Typical of this Roman Catholic ecclesiological self-awareness is the bold statement whereby the Church is indicated as being “the channel in which the grace pouring from the pierced Heart of the Saviour flows and spreads” (31). In EiE, the Roman Church through the voice of her highest authority analyses the challenges of the current situation, recalls the main tenets of her ecclesial identity and indicates ways in which she can contribute to the shaping of Europe. Some of these points need to be grasped more fully in order to appreciate what kind of public theology is envisaged in the document. The focus on public theology means that other important aspects of EiE (e.g. cultural analysis on European secularism, the ecumenical vision and commitment, references to the Bible – especially the book of Revelation, the final entrustment to Mary) will not be addressed as they would merit. Suffice it to remember that Roman Catholic public theology (especially in a magisterial text such as EiE) is always framed in ecclesial language and within a comprehensive ecclesiological framework.

            Looking at Europe, “the Catholic Church is convinced that she can make a unique contribution to the prospect of unification” (117) and, in this prospect, “a guiding role should be played by the Church’s social teaching” (98). So, which (Catholic) Church in which Europe? The thrust of the document seems to indicate what the Church wishes to be and do for Europe and what kind of Europe she would expect for the present and future.


The institutional setting

As for what the Church wishes to do, two brief remarks are in place. Firstly, on the institutional level, the Church thinks she can model for Europe a unity-in-plurality pattern as Europe seeks to find its way towards further integration. “One and universal, yet present in the multiplicity of the Particular Churches, the Catholic Church can offer a unique contribution to the building up of a Europe open to the world. The Catholic Church in fact provides a model of essential unity in a diversity of cultural expressions, a consciousness of membership, and a sense of what unites beyond all that divides” (116). As Europe strives to combine integration and differentiation, the Catholic Church is a living organisation which is in herself both unity and plurality in a reconciled combination. While “the Church is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution” (19), she nonetheless calls Europe to look at herself for seeking inspiration towards a viable model which can foster diversity while preserving unity. In this respect, few questions are in place. Is the Roman model (hierarchical, centralised, founded on divine law, non-democratic) the only Christian suggestion to the shaping of European institutions? It is difficult to see how European unity-in-diversity can really benefit from the Roman Catholic pattern. Perhaps, Evangelical ecclesiological models of unity-in-diversity are better fitted for the purpose in their being more inclined to democratic procedures and collegial leadership.

Again on the institutional level but as far the relationship between church and state is concerned, the Roman Church wishes to maintain her juridical privileges achieved and consolidated at national levels, while supporting religious freedom and equal opportunities for all. In the new development of European legislation, a distinction should be retained between “simple agencies or private organisations” and “the Particular Churches in Europe” (20). The argument behind such a request is that the institutional nature of the Church is different from other social bodies and this specific institutional dimension “merits legal recognition” (20). According to EiE, this is true for all churches, but is even truer for the Roman Church. As already noticed, the Roman Church is uniquely both church and state, therefore not a simple private religious organisation. While many Christian churches may wish to have European institutions recognising their “specific institutional import” (114), the Catholic Church is even more concerned about it because of her distinct double ecclesial and political identity. However, while raising the important question on the juridical status to be ascribed to churches, EiE has more to say about it. In envisaging a “healthy cooperation” between Europe and the Churches, the document stresses that the former should pay “respect for the juridical status already enjoyed by Churches and religious institutions by virtue of the legislation of the member states of the Union” (114). This is an understandable self-protecting clause of a majority Church in many European countries[5]. In her relationship with other states, the Roman Church aims at establishing it in the form of a concordat in the context of international law. In traditionally Catholic countries, these concordats contain privileges for the Catholic Church (e.g. in terms of access to religious teaching in public schools, public funding, the officially recognised role in society) which penalise other churches and religious communities which do not receive the same treatment by the state. The same would be true for other European state-churches which enjoy a privileged status in countries where they have a traditional majority role. From their point of view, the privileged juridical status already acquired at the national level should not be questioned in Europe, but should be assumed and protected. This is perfectly understandable on their part, but is it fair? In other words, is it theologically justifiable to maintain the traditional “ecclesiocentric-inculturational model”[6] shaped by highly questionable patterns of church-state relationship? Of course, this self-protecting attitude may have its rational explanations and should not be dismissed in a superficial way. Yet, one is left wondering whether a Christian public theology needs to safeguard the unfair privileges of the Church inherited from the past instead of questioning them from a renewed ecclesiological awareness which frees the Church from her ecclesiocentricity. Against this background, one may ask whether the strong call by EiE not to loose sight of the European “Christian memory and heritage” (e.g. 7, 19, 24, 108)[7] is also an attempt to secure the privileged position of state-churches in an increasingly secularised Continent. What is the moral strength of an appeal to Europe “to rediscover its true identity” (109) in terms of Christian heritage if the Church is not willing to rediscover hers?


The moral vision

The second main Catholic contribution to Europe envisaged by EiE recalls the main tenets of SDC and echoes many themes and concerns which have been set forth in various magisterial documents. In this respect, the breadth of the Catholic vision is impressive. As far as the pillars of SDC are concerned, EiE lists them as follows: “the value of the human person and his inalienable dignity, the sacredness of human life and the centrality of the family, the importance of education and freedom of thought, speech and religion, the legal protection of individuals and groups, the promotion of solidarity and the common good, and the recognition of the dignity of labour” (19). These are considered as the universal values which form the objective moral basis for legislation, governance and policy. Both individually and collectively, they can be traced back in the historical development of SDC through the Twentieth century and belong to the heart of the message of the Church in the socio-political realm.

More specifically related to the present-day European situation, EiE pinpoints the areas of greatest concern in considering the problems of continental dimension. This concern is also backed by the commitment to establish a “healthy cooperation” between European institutions and the Church in order to face them. According to EiE, Europe is called to respond to issues like the “preferential love for the poor” (86), “the challenge of unemployment” (87), “the pastoral care of the sick” (88), “the proper use of the goods of the earth” (89), “the truth about marriage and the family” (90-94) “the culture of acceptance” (100-103), “international cooperation in terms of a new culture of solidarity” (111), the promotion of “a globalisation ‘in’ solidarity” and “globalisation ‘of’ solidarity” (112). In highlighting them, EiE calls European institutions to grasp their moral universality and to implement them in the policy-making process, while pledging the full support and cooperation of the Catholic Church.

As for the more worrying and urgent problems that Europe faces in its dealing with life issues, EiE rehearses typical pro-life concerns about “falling birthrate”, “abortion”, “euthanasia” (95). To these increasingly pressing challenges, the Church wants to respond with “a great campaign in support of life” inspired by “a new culture of life” (96).

This brief sketch of SDC applied to the European context well captures the interesting blend of moral conservatism and social progressivism of Rome’s public theology. The Roman Church is strongly conservative as far as moral issues are concerned and, at the same time, she appears to be on the progressive side when it comes to international politics and global issues. The Catholic blend helps the Church not to be reduced to a right-wing or left-wing agency in socio-political debates, while enhancing her universal profile and authoritative standing in public life.


3. Concluding Remarks and Open Questions

There is much to commend in looking at contemporary SDC from an Evangelical perspective. Comparing it with the content of Evangelical documents like the 1974 Lausanne Covenant and the 1992 Manila Manifesto, for instance, many overlapping points are apparent and many areas of cooperation are possible. Some would consider the fact that Evangelicals and Catholics share the same basic values and convictions as an indication of a profound convergence that exists as far as social ethics is concerned. Outside of Europe, the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project has been launched on the basis of this perceived unity within the context of a highly secularised society.[8] While there may be truth in these considerations, no hurried theological conclusion should be drawn from the partial Evangelical-Catholic consensus.

In this respect, it may be helpful to recall the document “An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism” issued by the Italian Evangelical Alliance in 1999.[9] The document sets a theological framework according to which Roman Catholicism is viewed in systemic terms, rather than just in some of its various expressions. Here are some pertinent points which can be useful for our theme: “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”.

            Again, the document tackles the issue of co-belligerence which is an essential part in dealing with an Evangelical reading of SDC: “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”.

The full strength of Roman Catholicism – the comprehensiveness of its system, the breadth of its vision, the scope of its project, the complexity of its structure, the powerful appeal of its values – is evident throughout SDC. The Roman Catholic Church is a religious agency with a strong public theology for Europe. What about Evangelical Christians?




[1] 1870 was the year when Rome was conquered by the Italian army. The transition between the established forms of Catholic involvement and the new challenges before the modern world is well explored by Bill Mc Sweeney, Roman Catholicism. The Search for Relevance (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1980).

[2] Mario Toso, Verso quale società? La dottrina sociale della Chiesa per una nuova progettualità, Roma, Libreria Ateneo Salesiano 2000, p. 68. Other introductory books on SDC include Mauro Cozzoli, Chiesa, vangelo e società. Natura e metodo della dottrina sociale della Chiesa (Cinisello Balsamo: Ed. San Paolo, 1996) and José Miguel Ibáñez Langlois, Doctrina social de la Iglesia (Barañáin: Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 1987).

[3] The social and political thought of Roman Catholicism has not been thoroughly studied by Evangelical scholars as part of the Roman Catholic system. One defective exception is John W. Robbins, Ecclesiastical Megalomania. The Economic and Political Thought of Roman Catholicism, Unicoi, The Trinity Foundation 1999. A useful survey of the main missiological options backing different types of public theology in Europe is Friedemann Walldorf, “Towards a Missionary Theology for Europe”, European Journal of Theology XIII (2004/1) pp. 29-40.

[4] The text is easily accessible through the Vatican official website ( 

[5] The 2002 contribution to the European Convention by COMECE (Commission of the Catholic European Episcopacies) precisely contains this request to indicate the value attributed to it by Catholic hierarchy.

[6] The expression is used by Friedemann Walldorf in his article; cfr. n. 3.

[7] This recommendation is also strongly made in the document by COMECE (cfr. n. 5). The Catholic Church insistently, yet vainly, asked to insert the name of God or the reference to Judeo-Christian heritage in the preamble of the constitutional treaty. The impression is that many Evangelicals would have supported this Catholic initiative. Again, this poses a theological question: is it appropriate for a constitution to name or to appeal to God?

[8] For a critical review of the project, cfr. my article “Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: a Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Dialogue”, Evangelical Review of Theology 27:4 (2003) pp. 337-352.

[9] The text can be found in Ideaitalia III:5 (1999) pp. 7-8.  Translations are available in French: “Le catholicisme romain: une approche évangélique”, Vivre  8-9 (2000) pp. 10-14 and Fac-Réflexion 51-52 (2000/2-3) pp. 44-49. In German: “Ein Evangelikaler Ansatz zum Verständnis des Römischen Katholizismus”, Bibel Info 59/3 (2001) pp. 10-13. In English: “An Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism”, Evangelicals Now, Dec 2000, pp. 12-13 and European Journal of Theology X (2001/1) pp. 32-35.


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