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

Dean of European evangelical theologians, Henri Blocher needs little introduction. The opportunity to measure up to his work again is offered by the publication of the second volume on the church and the sacraments: La doctrine de l’Église et des sacrementsvol 2 (Charols: Excelsis; Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2024). The Parisian theologian’s ecclesiology and sacramentology are confirmed to live up to the notorious depth of his thought.

As with the first volume on the church, La doctrine de l’Église e des sacrements, vol. 1 (Vaux-sur-Seine: Edifac, 2023), which I reviewed in the article “What is at Stake with the Roman Catholic View of the Church? Ask Professor Henri Blocher” (1 February 2024), the focus of this review will also be on Blocher’s assessment of Catholic sacramentology. The book also contains a discussion of Reformed theology’s conception of the sacraments and that of the baptistic churches. Obviously, it is worth reading it all to appreciate not only Blocher’s critical reading of Roman Catholicism but also of the Reformed view, especially concerning pedobaptism.

Blocher begins the volume with an analysis of the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. While he acknowledges that it is a well-codified doctrine in the Roman magisterium, he does not hide the fact that in Catholic seminaries in the last century the “traditional” version has been subject to very discordant interpretations and versions. It is not so much a matter of detail, rather of different conceptualities with which it is approached: no longer the Aristotelian-Thomistic one with which it was constructed, but those borrowed from Heidegger’s philosophy, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, Oddo Casel’s “mystery” theology or Austin and Searle’s speech-act theory. This is to say that Catholic sacramentality, while retaining a “Roman” hard core still tied to a certain causative mechanism, also has its own “Catholic” vitality that allows it not to limit itself to the mere repetition of past formulas and arguments, but to expand them to readings influenced by theories of signs, symbols and meanings inferred from modern currents of thought. An example of this internal dynamic of Catholic sacramental theology is, for Blocher (p. 11, 15-20, 37-40), represented by F. Schillebeeckx’s work, Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (1960 ; English edition 1987), who rereads sacramentality from a personalist perspective.

Questioning sacramental causation
For Blocher, at the heart of Catholic sacramentality lies the causative role in the administration of grace, that is, “the real efficacy of the sacramental operation” (p. 13). The cause is connected to the sign. While in the Church Fathers and the early Middle Ages the relationship between cause and sign is established but still fluid, Thomas Aquinas imprinted on Catholic theology the concept of “causative efficacy.” Famous is his phrase “significando causant” (Summa Theologiae III, qq. 60-65) as it refers to the sacraments as a cause of grace by means of signifying it. In an anti-Protestant function, the Council of Trent espouses this definition and carves it into its canons, which anathematize those who do not embrace it. In the Thomist-Tridentine line, Christ acts through “another Christ” (the priest) through the sign that causes the administration of grace contained and conferred by the sign.

Blocher warns against the temptation to have a “magical” view of Catholic sacramentality (p. 20). There is no impersonal mechanism that disregards the disposition and cooperation of each person (priest, faithful) and the absence of “obstacles.” However, while recognizing the role of the faith of the subjects, it is the sacramental conception of the church itself as an extension of Christ (p. 25) that makes up for the shortcomings of one or the other and ensures the efficacy of the sacrament. As the human and divine natures are united in Jesus Christ, the humanity of the element is joined to the “divinity” of grace bestowed by the church in the unity of the sacrament. As already argued in the first volume on the church, for Blocher the Roman Catholic understanding of the church as an extension of the incarnation is a distinctive feature of the entire Roman Catholic system, including its view of sacramentality.

Being the fine exegete that he is, Blocher reviews the biblical texts that Catholic theology reads from a sacramentalist perspective, noting that no evidence stands out about the plausibility of this reading. Moreover, it reverses biblical proportions about the relationship between interiority and exteriority (the former being more important than the latter). Moreover, it is in open contradiction with biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 1:17, Romans 14:17 and Hebrews 9-13. In addition, the New Testament never associates the sacraments with the action of Christ Himself, but with that of the disciples sent by Christ. In other words, it is not Christ who baptizes or administers the Supper (as Roman Catholicism believes), but it is the disciples who are commissioned to do so in His name. Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit but commands the church to baptize in water and administer the Supper.

The Roman Catholic sacramental system, thus infused with causal efficacy, turns out to be a mirror of pagan systems of rites of passage associated with birth, adolescence, marriage and death (p. 35). By minimizing the impact of sin, Roman Catholicism has opened itself to syncretistic forms and structural compromises with pagan forms of “natural” religiosity (pp. 36-37).

On the theories of causality at work in Catholic sacramentology, Blocher shows awareness of the nuances present between the Thomist reading already referred to (“significando causant”), the “occasional” one of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, the “moral” one by Melchor Cano,” and others. These are all variations on the theme of causality that do not eliminate the underlying problem: for Rome, grace is made to flow from an act of the church.

Roman Catholicism elevates the incarnation to a metaphysical principle that must reproduce itself to be efficacious. Because of that, it loses sight of the “once and for all” of the atonement, it shatters the “it is finished” of the cross, it derogates from the celebration of God alone and his glory, it questions justification by faith alone (without works). It elevates the church to a dispenser of grace (pp. 43-45). In short, Catholic sacramentology considers the church to be a “mediator” of grace and stands in radical contrast to the biblical message.

Continuing his discussion, regarding the seven sacraments dogmatized at the Council of Trent, Blocher notes that “the sacramental septenary leads to fragmenting grace in a way the New Testament does not” (p. 93). In breaking down grace, Roman Catholicism parcels it by losing sight of its being a divine gift: God’s grace is not a “thing” that the church slices up and serves individually, but God himself giving himself.

On baptism, the Parisian theologian dwells more on the critique of Protestant paedobaptism while glossing over the Catholic conception. This is a limitation of the book: not including a chapter on baptism according to Rome.

The Problems of the Roman Catholic Eucharist
Blocher focuses on the Roman Catholic Eucharist the most. He recalls that Thomas Aquinas described the Eucharist as the most important sacrament because it essentially contains Christ Himself, while the other sacraments only involve Christ by participation (meaning Christ’s presence not being as real and substantial as in the Eucharist). Blocher speaks of a “Catholic exaltation of the Eucharist” (p. 145) because it is considered the source and summit of all Christian life. In it, Roman Catholicism encapsulates all: ecclesiastical dogmatics and institutional belonging. Besides being prevented by Rome itself, evangelical participation in the Eucharist is therefore to be avoided precisely because it is the sacrament par excellence of those who are Roman Catholic (p. 187).

Blocher devotes an entire chapter to analyzing two pillars of the Catholic Eucharist: the “real presence” and the “sacrifice.” From the Council of Trent, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 1373-1377) speaks about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist by using the adverbs “truly, really and substantially.” Blocher notes that evangelicals too (even the Zwinglians!) speak of “presence.” One must understand what meaning to attribute to this presence: for evangelicals (except Lutherans who have a conception of their own), it is “spiritual,” that is, thanks to the Holy Spirit and in the Spirit; for Catholics, on the other hand, it implies the change of substance of the bread and wine brought about by the officiant into the sacramental body of Christ. These are two effectively distant experiences and concepts of presence.

Where does this Roman Catholic understanding come from? Blocher recalls the evolution of Catholic dogma. While the thinking of Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian swings and tends toward a realist interpretation, more spiritualist readings are found in other Church Fathers (p. 195): Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine are cited. The latter has an unresolved theology of the Supper: at times he identifies the divine reality and the sacramental sign, at other times he speaks of their difference (p. 200). Medieval development reached its peak with the dogma of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. This dogma adopted a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words, “this is my body,” and became a core part of Roman Catholic doctrine. It was accompanied by a devotion to the mystery of the Eucharist, a desire for physical contact to receive grace, and a heightened reverence for the ecclesiastical institution’s power to sanctify (p. 207).

Biblically speaking, Blocher notes that in Scripture the body and blood of Christ are not linked to the bread and wine: it is out of biblical parameters to think of a change in their nature. It is “methodologically irresponsible to invent a new use of language without the text requiring it” (p. 215). If anything, the church is the body of Christ and “nothing indicates that the bread becomes the body” (p. 217). In addition, the wine remains the “fruit of the vine” (Matthew 26:29). Moreover, bread and wine signify and represent the body and blood of Christ, without being transformed into Christ Himself. Finally, Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father does not allow for the “localization” of Christ’s presence on the Eucharistic table (p. 211).

Remaining tied to the Tridentine dogma of transubstantiation, Roman Catholicism has in recent decades paved the way for relational re-interpretations of substance (e.g., B. Sesboüé) or in the direction of “transignification” (e.g., P. Schoonenberg) that, however, do not change the Catholic sacramental system (p. 213). The bottom line of the problem remains: Roman Catholicism needs to locate a “substantial” contact by which divine life is transmitted (p. 220).

As for the Catholic conception of the Eucharist as a “sacrifice” (and therefore propitiatory), Blocher notes how in the early Church Fathers the Eucharist is primarily associated with the sacrifice of prayers (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian). It is only from the second half of the third century that the emphasis changes and the idea of the re-presented immolation of Christ’s sacrifice takes hold (Cyprian of Carthage, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom). Again, Augustine oscillates between positions. At the Council of Trent, Rome carved into its doctrine the sacrificial and expiatory conception of the Eucharist: according to Dutch theologian G. Berkouwer, it is a shadow cast over the sufficiency of Christ’s work (p. 232). The work of the atonement is not accomplished once and for all but is continually immolated. For Roman Catholicism, it is therefore not complete: it requires the substantial presence of the body of Christ and the continual offering of the church. Blocher is peremptory: “the idea of a sacrificial immolation of Christ on the Eucharistic table, transformed into an altar, has no justification whatsoever, be it biblical or theological” (p. 241). We are in the presence of an accretion of Roman Catholicism dependent on the natural and pagan religions absorbed into the corpus of Catholic experience.

Contrary to the ecumenical reading that wants to see in the Roman Catholic conception of the Eucharist another and complementary way of understanding and practicing the Lord’s Supper, Blocher helps to clarify that, even in the presence of the same and similar words, Roman Catholic sacramentology operates in a universe other than the evangelical faith. For this reason, the Parisian theologian has rendered with this dense and profound book another useful service to evangelical theological discernment.

229. Thomas Aquinas, Man of Dialogue?

How can a man who lived 800 years ago be taken as a model of “dialogue” to deal with the cultural fragmentation and winds of war blowing through the world today? This was the question behind a major conference held in Naples (25-27 April) to mark the 750th anniversary of Thomas Aquinas’s death (1274). The conference’s title was “St. Thomas Aquinas. Man of the Mediterranean, Man of Dialogue,” and it was held partly at the Pontifical Theological Seminary of Southern Italy and partly at the Dominican Convent of Madonna dell’Arco. Twenty-five papers were presented including some by leading Italian scholars of Thomas, both Dominicans (e.g., Serge-Thomas Bonino, Angelicum, Rome; Giuseppe Barzaghi, Bologna; Giorgio Carbone, Bologna), university academics (e.g., Pasquale Porro, University of Turin; Luciano Malusa, University of Padua) and prominent Roman Catholic theologians (e.g., Antonio Staglianò, president of the Pontifical Academy of Theology).
 
The conference had three sections: 1. Thomas and Naples, 2. Thomas as a man of dialogue, and 3. Thomas and the dialogues of the 21st century. It aimed to highlight the comprehensive scope of Thomas’s thought, which can include and encompass the concerns of the dialogue partner in a greater whole. This is why he was referred to as a model of “dialogue”: his thought does not oppose what is different, does not reduce it, but enmeshes it by integrating and expanding it.
 
A Snapshot of the Conference
Thomas Aquinas was presented by S.-T. Bonino as a “catholic” intellectual who could gather the thoughts of other philosophers and theologians, purify them, and recapitulate them in Catholic fullness. As J. Ellul argued, Thomas could leverage the principles of “natural reason” and thus invited interlocutors of other faiths, e.g., Muslims, to reason with him by assuming the universal possibility of “right” reason. As a way of application, what we need in our world is not the kind of reason that polarizes issues and people but the one that can build bridges between them. Thomas is a champion of this approach. According to M. Benedict, reason is the hinge that holds together his dialogue and confrontation with the Jews. According to F. Tramontano, Thomas argues that reason is accessible to all, especially in the Summa contra Gentiles; against this background, Aquinas challenges non-Christians to use reason to arrive at what all can attain and then open themselves to faith. A. Cortesi went as far as saying that as for today’s inter-religious dialogue, Thomas helps to see “more” of reality that will make us discover “more” of truth to make “more” friends among us. These are just a few insights that help to get an idea of what was presented at the conference.
 
This understanding of Thomas serves the catholicity of Roman Catholicism, i.e. its willingness and ability to include all in its synthesis. Today, it has a very attractive and inviting trajectory. Still, it loses sight of the integrity of the biblical gospel because it underestimates the devastating effects of sin on all life, including reason. It also loses sight of the antitheses of the gospel (“God vs the idols,” “either with me or against me,” “light vs darkness,” “sin vs holiness”), and the call to take every thought captive to Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) instead of flirting with the thought-patterns of the world. What was presented was a fascinating, welcoming, non-oppositional Thomism, inviting one to participate in the extended synthesis that Roman Catholicism aspires to, i.e. Bible and traditions, nature and grace, faith and reason, Christians and non-Christians, Christianity and religions.
 
On Elenctic and Eclectic Readings of Thomas
As the only evangelical scholar contributing to the conference, my paper was entitled “Between Eclectic Reading and Elenctic Theology: Thomas Aquinas in the Reception of Protestant Theology.” In it, I identified two ways of reading Thomas that have been common on the evangelical side: on the one hand, the “elenctic” one (i.e., objecting and refuting), of those who approached him to challenge his system (Martin Luther is the chief example, Francis Schaeffer is the latest); on the other, the “eclectic” one (i.e. appropriating sections and parts), of those who used him in a selected and circumstantial way, taking cues here and there from his thought, always maintaining a certain distance from his system (Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli are examples in the sixteenth century, Francis Turretin in the seventeenth century, Herman Bavinck in the last century).
 
On the Reformation’s side, the long history of Protestant interactions with Thomas Aquinas can be summarized with a series of theological exercises between evangelical eclecticism and elenctics. On the one hand, Thomas was never considered as belonging to the Protestant camp as if he were a proto-Reformer. On the other, he did belong to the Medieval tradition with which the Reformation has always been in critical dialogue, at times retrieving and expanding it, other times radically departing from it. The best link that can be established is eclectic, on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, with strong resistance, if not opposition, to embrace Thomas and Thomism as shapers of the theological architecture of Protestant thought.
 
Protestant discomfort with Thomas concerned his view of the nature-grace relationship and its repercussions on understanding and living out of the Christian faith. His overly positive view of human reason and his too-optimistic trust in it are signs of Aquinas’s moderate consideration of the effects of sin. Thomas seems to concede too much to natural reason and too little to the disruptive consequences of sin. From an evangelical standpoint, his problem is not in the details or some compartments of his thought (which can be brilliant as they mirror Scripture’s teaching) but in the fabric of his system that is permeated by a thoroughgoing optimism in human capabilities. This was the conclusion of my paper.
 
Having an evangelical voice contribute to this academic conference on Thomas was important. The lesson of historical evangelical theology should be kept in mind by present-day retrievers of Thomas: between elenctic (critical) and eclectic (selected appropriation) reading lies what is the proper approach for evangelical faith vis-à-vis Thomas Aquinas and tradition in general, always to be subject to the supreme scrutiny of Scripture.
 
P.S. For a more in-depth evangelical study of Thomas, I recommend my newly published book Engaging Thomas Aquinas. An Evangelical Approach (London: Apollos, 2024).

228. The Filioque and Christian Unity

On a recent symposium addressing the old controversy in the hope of breaking new ground
 
Filioque (“and from the Son”) is the Latin expression that the Western church added to the article of the Nicene Creed concerning the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Filioque).
 
The point that was intended to be made by the insertion was twofold. On the one hand, it wanted to honor what Jesus himself had affirmed when He said: “I will send you the Helper … the Spirit of truth” (John 15:26; see also 14:26), thus indicating an active role of the Son in the procession of the Spirit. On the other hand, the Filioque wanted to reinforce the recognition of the full deity of Jesus Christ, which had been challenged by the heresy of Arianism, according to which Jesus was a divine creature but not God himself.
 
The Eastern Church rejected the Filioque because it was introduced without prior consultation and because the Church feared that it could infringe on the Father’s unique role in the procession of the Spirit.[1] Of course, there are better places to review the millennium-old controversy which has complex theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural overtones. However, the reference to the Filioque is nonetheless necessary to introduce a conference that took place in Rome on the topic.
 
On April 9th, I participated in a theological symposium on the Filioque at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the flagship academic institution of the powerful Catholic organization, Opus Dei. Professor Giulio Maspero’s book Rethinking the Filioque with the Greek Fathers (Eerdmans, 2023) was at the center of the discussion, and the symposium was the opportunity to test the book’s ecumenical proposal. In a nutshell, Maspero suggests to re-signify the Filioque in a way that is acceptable to the West and the East, and to do so, he goes back to the lesson of Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappadocian Fathers who used relational and non-essentialist categories in thinking about the procession of the Spirit.
 
“In the fourth century, when Pneumatomachians denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the Cappadocian Fathers came to a relational understanding” of the Holy Spirit, i.e., He “was conceived of as the glory and power eternally exchanged between the Father and the Son.”
 
According to Maspero, the Cappadocians help us to overcome the misunderstanding of the procession of the Spirit. They taught that the Son has an “active role” in it, not a “causative” one which only the Father has.
 
At the symposium, prominent scholars took part and debated the proposal. Among them were Khaled Anatolios, dean of the School of Theology of the University of Notre Dame and a leading authority on Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea; Edward Siecienski, author of The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy (OUP, 2013), the definitive book on the topic; and Msgr. Andrea Palmieri, of the Pontifical Dicastery for Christian Unity. I was invited to the table to represent an evangelical voice.
 
In my remarks, I underlined that Maspero’s distinction between the essentialist approach (with its emphasis on cause/causation) and the personalist one that was apparently favored by Gregory of Nyssa strikes as very promising. On the one hand, the Reformers arguably abandoned essentialism and theories of causation, which are not biblical and almost inevitably must lead to some form of subordinationist heresy, whether it is linear or triangular. On the other hand, a personalist approach allows for the full equality of the Persons of the Trinity and emphasizes their mutual relations. It is into those relations that believers are drawn by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, making it vitally important for us that he should communicate an equal relationship with the Father and the Son. If that is what Gregory of Nyssa was saying (as Maspero seems to think it was), then evangelical theology has much in common with him.
 
In short, the rediscovery of the Cappadocians’ personalist and relational categories that challenge the essentialist categories of Greek metaphysics introduced into much Christian theology is laudable. The appreciation of the active role of the Son in the procession of the Spirit from the Father helps to break out of the impasse of thinking of the procession as “caused” by the Father and the Son, with the risk of having two sources of divinity and not one.
 
While locating itself on the Western side of the Filioque, Evangelical theology has always shown at least implicit appreciation of the Cappadocians (e.g., John Calvin), thought that the East was not heretical for not subscribing to the Filioque (e.g., Francis Turretin), and more recently maintained an open-minded attitude toward the issue (e.g., Gerald Bray, Robert Letham, John Frame).
 
After appreciating Maspero’s proposal, I took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions to contribute to further the discussion, especially regarding the ecumenical proposal.
 
First, if it is right to move beyond the “causative” categories to recover the biblical ones that are relational, should we not also do so for the sacraments and thus move out of the causative sacramental mechanisms of Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology to appreciate the action of the Spirit in communicating grace by faith alone in Christ alone? In other words, we cannot limit the recovery of relationality to the Filioque issue alone but must extend it to all theology, as Scripture invites us to do and as the Reformation did.
 
Evangelicals do not believe that the Holy Spirit comes down into the sacramental elements by an act of invocation or epiclesis. That idea fits in very well with the mystical notion of the resting of the Spirit on the Son and is explained in terms of “causation,” but the Bible does not teach that the Spirit works in that way. It is not through the ministry or sacraments in causative terms but by a direct conviction of sin in our hearts that the Spirit builds up the church. While it is good to move away from causative categories in addressing the Filioque, should we not do the same in the area of the sacraments to re-discover the relational import of how God bestows his grace in his Son by the Spirit?
 
Second, since Maspero’s proposal is ecumenical, the question is: Are we sure that by smoothing the corners on the Filioque there is a genuine rapprochement? Historic divisions in Christianity are made of layers and levels that have affected the deep structures of the different confessions. The Catholic “system” differs from the Orthodox and Protestant systems. What lies at the heart of the respective faiths is a complex combination of theology, history, politics, culture, etc. The Filioque may have some weight, but other issues have a much greater impact on the real differences and divisions.
 
One indicative example in the Catholic-Protestant dialogue is the acclaimed 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed 25 years ago between Lutherans and Catholics. Ecumenical theologians and leaders considered it a watershed in ecumenical relationships and overcoming the issues that had caused the Reformation. These initial enthusiastic expectations have proved to be wishful thinking. JDDJ is so ambiguous and inconclusive that it has left both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran “systems” untouched. Not unsurprisingly, very little has changed since JDDJ. This is a sober reminder even for the conversations around the Filioque. We may come to a more common appreciation of the issue across the Christian spectrum, but will this new awareness touch on the foundational commitments of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical faiths?
 
Ultimately, we must ask if we are prepared to review and revise our traditions in light of Scripture as our ultimate authority and be willing to change accordingly. This is the real benefit and promise of the “Scripture Alone” principle, whether for Trinitarian discussions or the cause of Christian unity. Far from being reductionist or one-sided, the Scriptural principle goes deeper into the heart of issues and is the reliable entry point into divine truth to be confessed and lived out.


[1] On the whole issue see Gerald Bray, “The Filioque Clause in History and Theology”Tyndale Bulletin 34 (1983) pp. 91-144, and Id., “The Double Procession of the Holy Spirit in Evangelical Theology Today: Do We Still Need It?,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41 (1998) pp. 415-426

227. Thomas Aquinas, a test case for evangelical discernment

Thomas Aquinas died on March 7, 1274, exactly 750 years ago. This year and next (the eighth centenary of his birth) will be special occasions to reckon with his legacy. Indeed, there will be conferences, publications, and various initiatives worldwide.
 
To approach Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is to encounter one of the all-time giants of theology. Thomas is second only to Augustine in his influence on Western Christianity. More specifically, for centuries, Roman Catholicism has regarded Thomas as its champion, the highest, most resounding, most complete voice of Roman Catholic thinking and believing. Canonized by John XXII as early as 1323 only forty-nine years after his death, he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pius V in 1567 as the quintessential Catholic theologian whose thinking would defeat the Reformation. During the Council of Trent, the Summa theologiae was symbolically placed next to the Bible as evidence of its primary importance in formulating the Tridentine decrees and canons against justification by faith alone. In the seventeenth century, Thomas was considered the defender of the Catholic theological system by Robert Bellarmine, the greatest anti-Protestant controversialist who influenced entire generations of Roman Catholic apologists.
 
In 1879, Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, where he pointed to Thomas as the highest expression of philosophical and theological science in a climate marked by bitter confrontation with modern thought. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) stipulated that the formation of priests should have Thomas as the supreme guide in their studies (Optatam Totius, no. 17).
 
In more recent years, Paul VI (Lumen ecclesiae, 1974) and John Paul II (Fides et ratio, 1998) expressed deferential appreciation by pointing to Thomas as a “master of thought and model of the right way of doing theology” (FR, no. 43). This is to say that the Church of Rome has appropriated Thomas persistently and convincedly, elevating him to the Roman Catholic theologian par excellence. Moreover, Thomas is the recognized authority behind many unbiblical developments in medieval and modern Roman Catholicism, from Trent to Vatican I and II. One cannot fail to see the distorting elements at the heart of his system that have generated departures, rather than approaches, to biblical faith.
 
In recent decades and with increasing intensification, Thomas has instead been brought closer to a Protestant theological sensibility. Today, there seems to be a widespread perception that Thomas is no longer a heritage for Roman Catholics and that evangelicals can and should learn much from Thomas. Protestant theologians (from Peter Martyr Vermigli to Herman Bavinck via Francis Turrettini) generally exercised theological discernment that enabled them to appreciate the aspects of his theology that fell within the groove of biblical and orthodox faith and to reject his teaching where it conflicted with Scripture. In other words, they did not espouse the Thomist system as such (including its metaphysics and epistemology). Still, they broke it down into its parts as far as possible to do so with integrity and used it “eclectically.” Their attention to Thomas was more methodological than substantive. They merely borrowed some of his ideas but did not assign them architectural importance.
 
While certain sectors of evangelical theology know a genuine flirtation with the thought of Thomas, it may be useful to recall the lesson of a great Reformed theologian like Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). As with other ancient and medieval church fathers, Bavinck adopts an approach to Thomas that has been described as “eclectic,” that is, free to pick up insights and theses from him in awareness of his being on the other side (the Roman Catholic side) from the foundations of evangelical theology. Within a theology anchored in Scripture, Bavinck reads Thomas with intelligence and spiritual acumen, using various elements without espousing his system. For Bavinck, grace does not elevate or perfect nature but redeems it from sin. This eclecticism is also how the Reformers and Reformed and Lutheran scholastics read Thomas, sometimes endorsing his positions and arguments but being clear that the framework of Thomas’ theology built on the nature-grace motif was distinct and distant from the evangelical faith.
 
This is not to reject Thomas as a quintessentially toxic theologian to be avoided at all costs, nor to elevate him as a champion of Christian orthodoxy, but to regard him as an indispensable interlocutor in the history of Christian thought to be read critically and generously in light of the principle of “sola Scriptura” that the Reformation called to the attention of the whole church.
 
P.S. Let me point out my upcoming book (May 2024) that can help evangelical discernment related to Thomas: Engaging with Thomas Aquinas. An Evangelical Approach (London, Apollos, 2024).

226. If the Pope thinks that Rome is a “mission field.”

Evangelicals have known for centuries that Rome is a “mission field.” It is no coincidence that as soon as the breach of Porta Pia opened in 1870 (when Rome was liberated from papal power and the Pontifical State ended), Bibles and Christian tracts were immediately smuggled in to further the evangelization of the city. Despite being considered the cradle of Christianity, Rome had experienced a somewhat tyrannical religious monopoly by Roman Catholicism over the centuries. Still, it could not be said to be an evangelized city. Very religious, yes, but Christian, no. Rome was a mission field because it prevented the free circulation of God’s Word in the vernacular language and suppressed any attempts to bring about a biblical reformation.
 
For this reason, after 1870, evangelism and church planting activities were initiated by evangelicals surrounded by suspicion and, at times, opposition. This continues to this day. By evangelical standards, Rome was and is still a mission field. With around 100 evangelical churches and a population of 4 million, it is indeed a mission field.
 
Since 1870, much water has passed under the bridges of the river Tiber. Today, even the Roman Catholic pope says Rome is “a mission field.” Meeting with the Roman Catholic clergy on 13th January, Francis said just that: the heart of Roman Catholicism, the seat of the papacy, the center of Roman Catholicism, the city that Popes have claimed their own is a “mission field.”
 
What does that mean? The challenges of secularization, disengagement, and abandonment of religious practice are putting increasing pressure on the Roman Catholic Church right here in the eternal city. Accustomed to imposing its primacy on consciences for centuries, now that its authority structure and the social imposition of customs no longer work automatically, even Roman Catholicism in Rome is in a crisis of numbers and participation. Masses (with exceptions) are semi-deserted, and parishes (with exceptions) are perhaps attended for the services they offer to the young or the poor, but certainly are no longer known to be places of spirituality (e.g. prayer, catechesis). Much of the Roman population is not “active” in Catholic practices.
 
Rome is still religious in its “hardware” but less and less so in its “software.” Everything in Rome speaks of the established and pervasive presence of the Roman Catholic Church (palaces, institutions, churches, the Vatican). Still, it is beginning to perceive itself as a presence needing self-defense and promotion. So, the pope, who is the Roman Catholic bishop of Rome, says that the city must be considered as a mission field to be reached with the “new evangelization” by an “outgoing” church, the two passwords that he has been using since the 2013 programmatic document “The Joy of the Gospel.”
 
Although it may appear so, what Pope Francis said is not a new thing. Back in 1974 (exactly 50 years ago), Cardinal Poletti, then the pope’s vicar for the city of Rome, said that Rome was a “mission field.” It caused a stir then. Ten years after celebrating the splendors of the Second Vatican Council, the church began to see Rome not so much as “our” city but as a place to be reached.
 
When Francis says Rome is a “mission field,” one must also see the other side of the coin. On 4th January, he met with the Mayor of Rome, Roberto Gualtieri, and the President of the Lazio Region, Francesco Rocca—something that does not happen for any other faith community. The city’s two highest political and administrative authorities are not generally received “in audience” by religious leaders in their offices. However, the pope does it frequently, and they go to him with deferential attitudes. He is a top political figure.
 
Four days later on 8th January, the president of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, signed the hiring of 6,500 new religion teachers (chosen by Roman Catholic bishops and paid for by Italian taxpayers) with the Italian government. This, too, is not a practice of a “mission field” but of a country enslaved to a religious denomination. A mirror of an unjust privilege is the fact that in public, state-funded schools, Roman Catholic teaching is the only option available for students and is paid for by the state.
 
And then, on Sunday evening, 14th January, Pope Francis was interviewed live on prime-time: an hour-long, almost kneeling interview by anchorman Fabio Fazio on “Che tempo che fa” show. It was on this program that, after defending the blessing of same-sex and irregular couples, when asked about the reality of hell, the pope said: “I like to think hell is empty; I hope it is.” Again, this is not an opportunity that other religious leaders are given, but it does not signal the fact that Italy is a “mission field” in the sense that evangelicals would give to the expression. Rome is rather an “occupied” field by a religion only.
 
The Roman Catholic hierarchy may consider Rome to be a “mission field,” but the pope and the Roman Catholic Church are not letting go of their grip on the city. Evidently, the pope feels the ground shaking under his feet and clings to the political-economic-institutional-media privileges of the past. He says he wants to do “mission,” but what he does is manage power.
 
For evangelicals, Rome was and is a mission field in need of evangelization by people and churches who witness the biblical gospel. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6). Neither the promise of political favour nor the prospect of social status, the gospel is the message of salvation in Jesus Christ alone by faith alone according to the Bible alone. This is the evangelical mission to the city of Rome. The pope’s is something else.

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.