196. Roman Catholicism as a “Temptation” for Evangelical Theology

Al Mohler

The Presidential Address at the Evangelical Theological Society is a helpful barometer to measure where the wind blows in North American evangelical theology. This year (on November 16), President Al Mohler dedicated his address at the 73rd annual convention in Fort Worth, Texas, to the four temptations for contemporary evangelical theology. In Mohler’s view, present-day evangelical theology faces these temptations: Fundamentalism, Atheism, Roman Catholicism, and Liberalism. These words are not to be taken lightly; the trajectory of evangelical theology has not always been peaceful. What is interesting is to understand the main dangers surrounding it. Let me briefly comment on three temptations and then focus on Roman Catholicism.

Fundamentalism, Atheism and Protestant Liberalism
As far as Fundamentalism is concerned, Mohler acknowledged that evangelicals are in some sense fundamentalists because they “hold to fundamental Christian doctrines such as the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the person and work of Christ, and the Trinity.” Fundamentalism becomes a threat when it creates a tendency to withdraw from culture and to focus on “theological eccentricities” rather than the gospel.

As for Atheism, Mohler observed that “evangelicalism is not a mediating position between belief and unbelief.” Either God is or He isn’t. Having said that, while evangelical theology may not flirt with a form of hard atheism, it may the tempted “to make room for some kind of middle ground on the question to court respect from secular universities.”

A third temptation is Protestant liberalism. According to Mohler, it “arises when Christians believe they must try to salvage the Christian faith to make it palpable to the culture. Over the past few decades, Protestant liberalism has rejected virtually all the central doctrines of Christianity in an attempt to make the faith more appealing to a secularized society.” In our present-day context, the danger is to see evangelical theology sacrifice gospel integrity on the altar of the cultural idols of our generation.

The Temptation of Roman Catholicism
Mohler’s analysis deserves to be discussed in evangelical theological circles. The issues raised are of crucial importance. However, what is most interesting in his address is the reference to Roman Catholicism as one of the main temptations facing evangelical theology. It is an unexpected and welcome acknowledgment.

For centuries, Roman Catholicism was considered the theological antagonist of evangelical theology par excellence. In recent decades, however, this perception has gradually diminished and the lines have become blurred. Today many evangelicals hold a very “sentimental” perception of ​​Roman Catholicism. Some mistake it for one of the many Christian denominations (perhaps a little “stranger” than others); others, frightened by the increasing challenges of secularization, see Rome as a bulwark for defending Christian “values;” still others, wanting to be legitimized at the ecumenical and interreligious table, overlook the theological differences in order to highlight what appears to unite all.

The fact that Mohler says that Roman Catholicism is a “temptation” (and therefore a danger to beware of) is a welcomed sign of spiritual vigilance. It indicates that even in the USA – where the (at best) confused initiative “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” has been underway since 1994 and where the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals are increasingly seen as a question of nuance rather than substance – it is still possible to find evangelical voices calling for theological discernment.

Here are some of Mohler’s statements on Roman Catholicism:

1. “To be evangelical is to understand that one of the questions we’ll always have to answer is why we’re not Catholic.”

Mohler rightly argues that being evangelicals means not being Roman Catholics. The two identities are mutually exclusive. Either we are one or the other. Evangelical and Catholic theologies and practices arise from different basic convictions about God, the Bible, sin, salvation, the Christian life, etc. and, while using the same words, they refer to distant, sometimes opposite meanings. In recent years, on the Catholic side, some have wanted to argue that it is possible to be “evangelical Catholics” (e.g. George Weigel),  combining the two identities and making them compatible. Mohler says no. Either we are one or the other, and if we are one we are not the other. The evangelical temptation is to mess with the evangelical identity, but the result is denying it.

2.“I believe to go to Rome is to abandon the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe it is to join a false church based on false and idolatrous presuppositions.” 

Roman Catholicism is not one of the many possible options for a born-again believer in Jesus Christ who wants to remain faithful to the Word of God and to grow in the church. On the contrary, to follow Roman Catholicism is to go against the gospel in some sense. Rome’s system is theologically flawed and its “church” is spiritually misleading. These are strong words by Mohler, in contrast to the “ecumenically correct” language so common today. Yet, they are true words that must be said and repeated to avoid the temptation to go astray and lead others astray, too.

3. “To be an evangelical is to recognize that we don’t have a backstop. We have no alternative. We’re left with the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God.”

For some evangelicals, the authority structure of Rome is a temptation in which they can find refuge. In a world where the traditional institutions are shaking (e.g. family, nations, religions) and in which everything is in constant disruption, knowing that there is a magisterium, a pope, a stable center can be a reason for attraction. The evangelical faith, Mohler says, while feeling totally part of the history of the faithful church and while cultivating a sense of belonging to the global church, is ultimately submitted to Scripture alone. Unwavering trust in the God of the Word and, therefore, in the Word of God is constitutive for the evangelical faith. Rome is no replacement for a lack of confidence in the Word of God and should not be a temptation for those whose faith is grounded in Christ alone on the basis of Scripture alone.

195. The Latest Evangelical Convert to Rome. What Does Rome Have to Offer?

I am not English, nor Anglican, but the story of the conversion of the former Anglican bishop Michael Nazir-Ali to Catholicism struck me. He is not the first evangelical Anglican to become Roman Catholic, and he probably will not be the last. He stands on a tradition that has important antecedents like the conversion to Rome of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and many more. However, Nazir-Ali was a well-known evangelical Anglican who belonged to the “evangelical” family and was a respected voice in that world.

Nazir-Ali. CREDIT: ALAMY

Transitions of this kind have personal motivations that ultimately only the Lord knows and the person(s) involved are aware of. This is to say that speculations are out of place. What is instead possible – and indeed necessary – is to reflect on the public and theological issues involved.

Here are a few remarks that can make us think. Commenting on it, the renowned evangelical thinker Os Guinness in a recent interview said: “Institutionally, the switch makes great sense… Rome is a far more prestigious liner to sail in than the battered barque of Lambeth”. However, “in terms of the Gospel itself, the switch makes no sense, and I hate to think that ecclesiastical factors outweighed theological factors at the end of the day”. And again: “the humblest West African church in the land, still faithful to the Gospel, would have been a better destination.”

In the same article, the Rev. Roger Salter added further food for thought: “How can Rome be the Home for any authentic adherent of the Augustinian 16th century Reformation where the doctrine of grace regained its bold and beautiful clarity? … Rome is as deeply divided as Anglicanism between the progressives and the orthodox. And the present pope not only betrays his own persecuted Church (in China, for example) but embraces a range of heresies, including universalism.” 

These comments underline important points and indicate at least two main flaws. Let me briefly elaborate on them.

The Danger of an Idealized View of Rome
Bishop Nazir-Ali’s concerns over the trajectory taken by the Anglican Church on some key doctrinal and moral issues made him look at Rome as a much safer place to identify with. Rome’s image was perceived as being a traditional, stable, authoritative institution with an aura of doctrinal and moral integrity.

As often happens in similar stories, given its “Roman” dogmatic and hierarchical structure, Rome is viewed as a safe haven in the turmoil of our day, a bulwark against liberal and secularizing forces, and a better place to find refuge and support. The question is whether Bishop Nazir-Ali is aware of the evolutions of Roman Catholicism under the papacy of Francis, which are the result of trends stemming from Vatican II. They not only relate to the “uncertain teaching” of the present Pope, but belong to well-established trends in contemporary Catholicism.

One example will suffice. In terms of its universalist trends, since John Paul II and even more so under Francis, Rome encourages joint prayer with Muslims given the fact that according to Vatican II they “along with us adore the one and merciful God” (Lumen Gentium 16). We are “all brothers” (to quote the title of the latest papal encyclical) after all, not only with Muslims but with the whole of humanity. Roman Catholicism has re-engineered the language of “brotherhood and sisterhood” replacing its spiritual meaning (i.e. belonging to the same family as believers in Christ) with a biological one (i.e. belonging to the same human species). This replacement has immense theological, soteriological, and missiological overtones. It is another way of saying that we are all children of God, we are all saved in following our different religious journeys, and we Christians no longer need to look for conversions to Christ from among people of other religions.

Pope Francis regularly asks Muslims to pray for him because we are all “children of God” and says that atheists go to heaven because, after all, they are good people. Though biblically untenable, these “politically correct” positions can be heard in the Anglican Church but also at the highest level of Roman Catholic teaching authority.

In many respects, in fact, the doctrinal and moral confusion that made the Church of England no longer bearable for Bishop Nazir-Ali is very similar to the one that Roman Catholicism has been going through since Vatican II. That confusion is even more evident today, given the many moral and financial scandals that have shown the brokenness and failures of the Roman Catholic system.

As it is “Roman,” i.e. centered on a hierarchical structure that gives an idea of stability, Rome is also “catholic,” i.e. a sponge capable of “updating” and developing itself to adapt to the changing situations. Has Bishop Nazir-Ali fallen prey to a shortsighted, selective and, in the end, idealized view of Rome – a sort of wishful thinking in times of personal crisis? Has he really grasped the present-day reality of Roman Catholicism as a whole before embracing it?

The Risk of Going from Bad to Worse
There is a further – and perhaps more important – point to be made. Rome is no better than Lambeth, and not only in terms of its unstable and unreliable doctrinal and moral standards. Rome is no better a place because it has created a theological system that is not committed to Scripture Alone, nor to Christ Alone and Faith Alone. In other words, Rome does not embrace the biblical gospel as it was rediscovered at the Protestant Reformation, although it contains elements of a “conservative” religious culture that is nonetheless rapidly evolving towards a more pluralist and inclusivist position.

As an evangelical, Bishop Nazir-Ali should have had enough spiritual awareness to see what is at stake with Roman Catholicism from a doctrinal viewpoint. How can a Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, that is dogmatically committed to salvation by faith and works, an augmented canon of Scripture, the intercession of the saints and Mary, a host of spurious devotions and practices, Eucharistic adoration, papal infallibility, the dogmas of Mary’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption, and so on be a better place for a Christian who is concerned with biblical truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Despite some areas of apparent and formal agreement (e.g. the Nicene creed), there are even deeper disagreements with Rome. The vocabulary of Nicaea is the same: God the Father, Jesus Christ, salvation, Holy Spirit, virgin Mary, church, a holy apostolic catholic church, baptism, remission of sins, but while the words are shared, the same cannot be said of their theological meaning. When a Roman Catholic refers to the “virgin Mary”, to “salvation”, to “the church”, etc., they mean things that are far from plain biblical teaching. The recent “catholic” moves in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice (e.g. historical-critical readings of Scripture and universalism in salvation) make the difference even sharper.

The 2016 article Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions, signed by dozens of evangelical global leaders, says it well: “The issues that gave birth to the Reformation five hundred years ago are still very much alive in the twenty-first century for the whole church. While we welcome all opportunities to clarify them, Evangelicals affirm, with the Reformers, the foundational convictions that our final authority is the Bible and that we are saved through faith alone.” Rome does not share these convictions.

Ours is not the time to cross the Tiber. On the other side of the river, the reality is different from what it appears to be and, even more importantly, it is flawed in terms of its basic commitments. Ours is the time to continue to uphold the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t know if Lambeth is the best place for a believer to find his spiritual home, but certainly, Rome is worse.

194. Christ Unfurled or the Roman Catholic Christ-Church Interconnection. Evangelical Remarks on David Meconi’s latest book

“Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ.” Here is how the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (§ 795) hammers out one of the two axes of the Roman Catholic theological system, i.e. the Christ-Church interconnection (the other being the nature-grace interdependence). If one wants to come to terms with the deep structure of the theological vision of Rome, they must begin by addressing this critical Christological-ecclesiological point whereby Rome considers itself the prolongation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

In his masterful book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (2014), Gregg Allison has done a great service in highlighting the foundational importance of the nexus between Christ and the Church for the whole Roman Catholic framework. Every doctrine and every practice occurs between the two axes: on the one hand an optimism about nature (regardless of the covenant-breaking brought about by sin) and on the other inflating the claims of the church that acts as another Christ. Now, from within the Roman Catholic tradition, David Meconi, S.J. reinforces the crucial importance of the fact that “the Church and Christ really are one” (2) given the fact that the Church is “an extension of Jesus Christ himself” (2).

Meconi is academically well-qualified to write from a conservative Roman Catholic perspective. In the past I have read his The One Christ: Saint Augustine’s Theology of Deification (2013) and consulted The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (2014) of which he is one of the chief editors. He is a Roman Catholic Augustinian scholar with a particular interest in a “whole Christ” theology. With the recent book Christ Unfurled: The First 500 Years of Jesus’s Life (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2021) Meconi labours on the Christ-Church interconnection even more closely, thus offering an account of what it means for Roman Catholic theology to affirm that “the Church is a replication of the incarnate God’s own human and divine life” (6).

The Early Centuries
He does it by emphasizing the historical perspective, i.e. reading the five centuries of the Christian church as if they were “the first five hundred years of Jesus’ life on earth” (14). Since “the Church is the extension of Christ’s very incarnate self” (15), the Church is therefore Christ unfurled as the title of the book indicates. In the first chapter, the thesis is repeatedly stated: “The Church is the unbroken continuation of Christ’s own incarnate self, the extension of his divine and human presence on earth” (17) so that “post-Ascension people could see, hear, and still touch the Lord” (17). Moreover, “The Church as founded by Jesus Christ is the continuation of his own divinely human, or humanly divine, life” (19). The unfurling of Christ in the church stretches to His work of salvation, establishing an interconnection between the cross of Calvary and the chief sacrament of the Church; in fact, “in and through his Church, the life-giving Body and Blood of Jesus continue to be with us in the Most Holy Eucharist” (19-20). Reiterating the point, Meconi goes as far as saying that “the hypostatic union of the incarnate Son’s humanity and divinity continues in the unity of the Eucharistic sacrifice” (114).

In subsequent chapters, Meconi attempts to prove that this Roman Catholic view has been upheld in the church since the beginning. As for Apostolic Fathers (e.g. Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch) and in writings such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas, he argues that the early Christians understood themselves “as envoys and extensions of Christ’s very presence in the world” (30). However, the proofs given for such a strong statement are less than convincing. In fact, the “canonicity of Scripture” (i.e. the recognition of the inspired books of the Bible) and the “rule of faith” (i.e. the comprehensive summary of the gospel) which the Apostolic Fathers were interested in are hardly early attestations of the Christ-Church interconnection. They are simply some of the concerns that the early church had in trying to faithfully live after the death of the apostles. Their tendency toward “monoepiscopacy” (i.e. one bishop over each local church) is more of an unfortunate influence of Roman imperial authority structures than a sign of their endorsing the “whole Christ” theology. As for later Fathers, Meconi is right in saying that, for example, Tertullian spoke of the church as the “mother Church” and Origen of the “bride of Christ” (69), but these two titles given to the church do not intrinsically imply the theology of the extension of the incarnation, unless one wants to see it retrospectively, having already decided that this is what he wants to see.

The Legacy of the Creeds
Examining the legacy of the early councils and creeds (Nicea and Constantinople) which focussed on the trinitarian nature of God and the divine and human natures of the person Jesus Christ, Meconi makes the point that “Jesus Christ founded a Church so he would have a visible locus, a freely-chosen Body, unto whom he could extend his life” (135). Again, this is an inference that stretches what the creeds say by filling in the terms with meanings they don’t have. The language of “extension” and “continuation” is not found in the creeds. The union or fellowship between Christ and the church (or the believers) is certainly maintained, but whether this relationship points to the “extension” of the incarnation is beyond what the texts of the councils say. In order to cross the boundaries between the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the life of the church, one needs further theological elaboration than what can be found there.

Finally, a long section of a chapter is dedicated to Augustine’s views of the “whole Christ,” Meconi’s own area of expertise. According to him, “for Augustine, the ‘whole Christ’ is not just Jesus now seated at the right hand of the Father but the entire Christ is Jesus as well as those whom Jesus loves” (182). Together they form “one mystical person” (197). This is accurate as far as Augustine is concerned, although in Augustine there is also a strong emphasis on the distinction between Christ and the church and the submission of the latter to the former. On this point, Augustine is at best confused. I have written elsewhere of the damages of Augustine’s formula (totus Christus) and the corrections brought about by the Protestant Reformation in stressing the uniqueness of Christ (solus Christus).

The Whole Christ or Christ Alone?
On the axes of the Christ-church interconnection,Rome builds its self-understanding as a church endowed with the authority of Christ the King, the priesthood of Christ the Mediator, and the truth of Christ the Prophet. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church – in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word and its administration of the sacraments. But this is not what the gospel teaches. This is an inflated view of the church based on a defective view of Christ. According to Rome, there is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the church) and ecclesia in Christo (the church in Christ).

The emphasis on the Christ–church interconnection seems to forget that the Church is made up of creatures (human beings). Because the church is made up of creatures, it is part of creation, and is not the creator, while Christ is the divine Creator, the One from whom all things are and who is perfect now and always. When we talk about Christology, we are talking about the unique relationship between human nature and divine nature in the person of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the Creator; when we talk about ecclesiology, we are talking about the people of God, the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit – all of these titles referring to a created reality. The distinction between Creator and creature is decisive for not falling into the trap of elevating the church into a quasi-divine body.

After the Ascension to the right hand of the Father, Christ did not continue his incarnation in the church. Having formed the church through his finished work on the cross, He sent it to the ends of the earth and empowered it with the Holy Spirit to preach and to bear witness to his gospel of salvation. Christ is the head of the church, and the church serves His purposes and His alone, until He comes again.

193. The Church is Burning, What Can Be Done? On Andrea Riccardi’s Insights on the Crisis of Present-Day Roman Catholicism

(AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris (April 15, 2019) is a symbol of the church that burns in secularized Europe and, more generally, in the globalized world. Andrea Riccardi’s book, La Chiesa brucia: Crisi e futuro del cristianesimo (The Church Burns: Crisis and Future of Christianity) (Bari-Rome: Laterza, 2021) starts with the evocative image of the burning Notre-Dame.

Riccardi is well-positioned to bring forth his analysis, being professor of Contemporary History at the University of Rome III and a biographer of John Paul II. He is also known internationally for having founded, in 1968, the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the most active ecclesial lay movements within the Roman Catholic Church. In addition to his social commitment and his many development projects in the southern hemisphere, Riccardi played a role in mediating various conflicts and contributed to attaining peace in several countries, such as Mozambique, Guatemala and the Ivory Coast. In 2003, TIME magazine included him onits list of thirty-six “modern heroes” of Europe, individuals who stand out because of their professional courage and humanitarian commitment. He is an insiders and scholarly voice on the inner dynamics of Roman Catholicism. 

The Notre-Dame cathedral is in the center of Paris, in the heart of Europe, embedded in its history and an emblem of its culture. It burned and, by burning, it represents the state of profound crisis in which (Roman and institutionalized) Christianity finds itself. This is not fake news, but a factual observation. Practitioners are declining across the continent, vocations are collapsing everywhere, traditions are eroding and entering the tunnel of oblivion, adherence to belief and morals are plummeting, and local parishes are in an identity crisis. The processes of secularization seem unstoppable and are dismantling the bricks of institutional religiosity one piece at a time. The church is certainly experiencing a period of decline. Does it even risk disappearing?

In painting this fresco in dark colors, Riccardi documents the indicators of the crisis of Roman Catholicism and he does so keeping in mind the various national quadrants (France, Italy, Spain, Germany) with their particularities. He also dwells on the forms of “national-Catholicism” (Hungary and Poland) which are attempts to intertwine religion and national identity to make Roman Catholicism and cultural Christianity a sort of religious-civil bulwark in the face of contemporary disorientation.

The crisis, according to Riccardi, starts from afar. In fact, the question of whether European Christianity was about to die had already been posed by Jean Delumeau in 1977 (Is Christianity about to die?) and, even earlier, by the French cardinal Suhard in 1947 when he spoke of “decline”. From this point of view, Vatican II (1962-1965), with its “pastoral” focus, was a response to the crisis. Indeed, Vatican II was an attempt to embrace the modern world by re-understanding it on the side of the enlarged catholicity of Rome, rather than stubbornly bringing it back to the Roman canons from which it seemed to have taken leave. With Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) Paul VI launched a call to “evangelization” as a method to regain ground after having lost it with Humanae Vitae on sexual morality (1968). The effort did not produce the results hoped for. The long wave of the 1968 revolution actually dug deeper the gap between Europe and the church (and inside the church itself). While Roman Catholicism has proven equipped to tackle the social question (e.g. mitigating Capitalism) and political ideologies (e.g. against Communism), it has not been able to stand up to contemporary individualism, sexual libertarianism, and unbridled and globalized consumerism. 

The long and energetic pontificate of John Paul II seemed to make up ground, but, in reality, it covered the crisis rather than solved it. With Benedict XVI, the crisis reached a culminating point with the shocking resignation of the Pope. Following the pastoral “spirit” of Vatican II, Pope Francis is trying to further widen the mesh of catholicity to build bridges with the “first unbelieving generation” (p. 116) on the basis of mercy for all, universal brotherhood, and care for the environment, all themes very distant from traditional “Roman” and institutional Catholicism. How effective this strategy will be remains to be seen, though it does not appear to have reversed the course.

As a Catholic scholar, Riccardi talks about the crisis and points out some ideas for a different future. He takes up the argument by French sociologist Hervieu-Léger that Roman Catholicism has characterized itself as a “cold religion” (top-down and moralistic) and should melt, learning to become “warmer”. This means, for example, living in the contemporary world with “multiple ecclesial presences, capable of charismatic, diversified, close encounters, and in dialogue with the people” (p. 207). It is not surprising that the founder of Sant’Egidio supports the role of ecclesial movements as horizontal Roman Catholic players, capable of interfacing with different niches of secularized society, intercepting particular needs, “freeing” the relationship with religion with respect to the only channel represented by the institutional church and, therefore, offering a range of different and more contextualized “Catholic” responses. Given that Roman Catholicism has the Eucharist at its center and that it takes a priest to administer the sacrament, to remedy the lack of priests Riccardi goes so far as to support the possibility of recognizing married priests (pp. 199-203).

The analysis of the crisis suggested by the book is honest and without reticence. And yet, the imagined way out remains within the intangible framework of the pillars of Roman Catholicity. It seems that, for Riccardi, in the face of the ongoing fire, the answer must beat the level of a “pastoral” attitude, without providing for a doctrinal rethinking of the self-understanding of the Church of Rome. 

The Church is burning, to borrow Riccardi’s language, but in the end is untouchable in its core elements. The hierarchical structure, the sacramental framework, the theology founded not on Scripture alone but on Tradition (that both includes Scripture and is bigger than Scripture), the non-biblical dogmas, the absorbed spurious devotions, etc., all this cannot be changed. In the end, faced with a very serious diagnosis, the imagined cure seems to be a placebo. If the church burns, the best minds of Roman Catholicism (and Riccardi is one of them) are not compelled by the need to go deeper into understanding the reasons for the crisis. They are not open to a biblical reformation. 

For all churches and for all Christians, the turning point is not a greater pastoral attention nor a new missionary strategy (however important these factors might be), but a return to the Word of God accompanied by repentance from sin and a response of faith ready to call into question all the compromised structures built over time. These are the steps towards the “future” of Christianity as is evoked in the subtitle. The fire of secularization risks incinerating the church, but to borrow the title of a book by Michael Reeves, the unquenchable flame of the reformation according to the Gospel can eliminate the accumulated toxins and open the way to a path of conversion. The ultimate issue is not to switch from a “cold” to a “warm” religion; it is to faithfully respond to the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ in truth and love.

192. Who Will be the Next Pope?

There is a general perception that Pope Francis’s pontificate has entered an irreversibly declining phase, a sort of late autumn that is a prelude to the end of a season. It is not just a question of age: yes, Pope Francis is elderly and in poor health. But aging aside, the pontificate finds itself navigating a descending parable. It started with the language of “mission” and “reform”. Francis’ reign, now nearly 10 years old, was immediately engulfed in a thousand difficulties, particularly within the Catholic Church. Many of these problems were caused by the ambiguities of Francis himself, to the point that the push envisaged at the beginning turned out to be broken, if not wholly inconclusive.

Given the predictable end of a season, the question is therefore legitimate: after Francis, who is next? Who will be the next pope? This question is asked not by some bitter secularist or even a seasoned bookmaker, but by the devout Roman Catholic scholar George Weigel, former biographer of John Paul II (Witness of Hope. The Life of John Paul II, 1999) and author, among other things, of a book in which he proposes a change in the meaning of the term “evangelical”: from being a descriptor of the Protestant faith grounded on Scripture Alone and Faith Alone to an adjective describing a fully-orbed Roman Catholicism (Evangelical Catholicism. Deep-reform in the 21st Century, 2013, see my review here). Weigel is a bright intellectual and an exponent of the conservative American Roman Catholicism that has often been outspoken against Francis.

In his book The Next Pope. The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2020) Weigel draws a composite sketch of the new pope.[1] The next pope will be a man who was either a child or very young during the years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). For the first time, Rome will have a pope more “distant” from the controversies of the 1960s-1970s. For this reason, perhaps he will be more free from the interpretative wars over the Council, i.e whether it was a Council that continued with tradition or broke from it. However, as Weigel admits (but it doesn’t take much acumen to recognize it), “there are profound divisions over Catholic doctrine and identity, praxis and mission, within the Church itself” (p. 9). The next pope will find these divisions on his desk. How will he deal with them?

According to Weigel, the next pope will have to find inspiration from Leo XIII (1810-1903), whose papacy from 1878 to his death in 1903 generated a ferment in the life of the then tormented church: Leo anchored its life and thought to Thomist philosophy; he developed its social doctrine; and launched a challenge to the modern world at the cultural level instead of adopting a defensive attitude towards it. The reverberations of this vitality were then channeled by John XXIII in convening Vatican II and by John Paul II in the Great Jubilee of 2000. For the American scholar, this is the militant Roman Catholicism that the next pope will have to embody and promote: faithful to its traditional doctrine, integral in its moral teaching, consistent in its ecclesial practices, made up of devout Catholics. For Weigel, taking inspiration from Leo XIII and John Paul II, the agenda of the new pope needs to be the “new evangelization”. Here is the way he puts it: the new pope “will have to devote himself fully to the new evangelization as the great strategy of the Church of the 21st century” (p. 23).

In order to “evangelize”, the Roman Catholic Church must, according to Weigel, regain its identity as a sacramental and hierarchical church, combining this with its consolidated cluster of doctrines and practices handed down by tradition, i.e. the “fullness of the Catholic faith”. Weigel warns Roman Catholicism against going down the bankrupt path of liberal Protestantism which, by way of adapting to modern times, has lost its convictions and has also seen its churches empty. From his North American point of view, Weigel says that “the growing branches of Protestantism in the world are evangelicals, Pentecostals or fundamentalists” (p. 56), all characterized by “clear teaching and firm moral expectations”. It is as if to say: Roman Catholicism can follow the path of liberal Protestantism, become “light” (that is, confused in doctrine and mixed with the world) and die, or it must recover its “full” identity and flourish again. For Weigel, “light Catholicism will lead to zero Catholicism” (p. 59), the loss of faith and a dissolutive process. For this reason, he hopes that the next pope will be the expression of a full, convinced, devoted Roman Catholicism that aims at “evangelizing” (that is, Catholicizing) the world rather than being penetrated by the world.

This language of “light” versus “full” Catholicism helps explain why Weigel is critical of Francis. The present pope is seen as embroiled in proposing a “light” form of Roman Catholicism: he speaks of “mission” (e.g. in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium), but he works it out in a very different way from the “new evangelization”. For Francis, mission is to go out to meet “all brothers” (i.e. Francis’ latest enclycical argument for a universal brotherhood) with mercy, highlighting the unity that already exists among all human beings without lingering over differences. The strategy is to avoid facing disputes, not to challenge anyone, and to express mercy without a doctrinal backbone. Quite the opposite of what Weigel is hoping for. It is clear that Weigel’s new pope will have to make a vigorous shift away from Francis’s trajectory.

Weigel often uses a kind of “evangelical” language to describe the pope of his dreams. He speaks of fervor of spirit and solidity of convictions, all indicators not so much of doctrinal contents, but of the experiences of the evangelical faith. At the same time he speaks a very Roman Catholic language: he refers to salvation through baptism, Roman hierarchy, papal primacy, and Marian devotions. As a traditionalist Catholic, Weigel believes that everything Roman Catholicism has collected througout history (e.g. the Council of Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, etc.) should be kept and nothing lost. All of this is very Catholic. He wants to make people believe that Roman Catholicism can (indeed must) also be “evangelical” without losing its Catholic tenets. He has in mind a pope who is very traditional in doctrine (anti-evangelical), yet very passionate and committed like an “evangelical”. This is the kind of pope he hopes for.

When he was elected in 2013, Francis too was presented as very close to the “evangelical” ethos. Spontaneous prayer, experiential language, and a certain fervor in spirituality seemed to make him a different pope. Many evangelicals were impressed, only to discover some time later that Francis was and is also very Marian, universalist, Jesuit, and anti-evangelical. Now Weigel, indirectly criticizing Francis, hopes for an “evangelical” Catholic pope, even if a very different pope from the present one. Both Francis and Weigel have an experiential (non-doctrinal) meaning of “evangelical” in mind. They want to appropriate the evangelical ways of living out the faith, while remaining anchored to the traditional (Weigel) or “outgoing” (Francis) doctrine of Roman Catholicism. Both of them distort the evangelical faith and want to dissolve it in the dogmatic-institutional synthesis of Roman Catholicism.

Whoever is elected, the next pope will unlikely be an “evangelical” if the word “evangelical” retains its doctrinal and historical meaning. The “evangel” is not the paramount commitment of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, its head will never be an “evangelical” pope if the Roman Church will not undergo a reformation according to the “evangel”.


[1] I had access to the Italian translation of the book Il prossimo papa. L’ufficio di Pietro e la missione della chiesa (Verona: Fede & Cultura, 2021) and quotations will be taken from it.

191. John Stott (1921-2011) and His Contribution to an Evangelical Analysis of Roman Catholicism

(Summary of a lecture held in Rome at the Istituto di Cultura Evangelica e Documentazione on 12 June 2021 as part of the series “1921-2021: The Evangelical Faith Between Yesterday and Tomorrow” marking John Stott’s centenary. I wish to thank my friend and colleague Reid Karr for sharing the responsibility of the lecture, especially as far as the second section is concerned. A video of the lecture in Italian can be found here).

John Stott’s international stature and influence on the evangelical movement of the 20th century have been widely recognized and appreciated. His global standing in present-day evangelicalism makes him a towering figure also to be consulted on the relationship between the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism. By helping post-World War II evangelicals to regroup around the biblical gospel and for the Christian mission, Stott also had a role (albeit not a primary one) in influencing the evangelical reading of Roman Catholicism that emerged from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Stott did not write a book on Catholicism and therefore did not have the opportunity to develop his analysis in an in-depth way. However, there are significant traces in his books and in the initiatives in which he had a leading role that can be assessed. This article will focus on three moments in Stott’s contribution to the evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism. The first is based on his book Christ the Controversialist (1970), the second on his involvement in the “Evangelical-Catholic Dialogue on Mission” (ERCDOM 1977-1984), and the third on what is stated on the subject in the “Manila Manifesto” (1989).

The Controversialist
In the cultural climate of the late Sixties that wanted a soft and inclusive Jesus (more of an inspirational friend than the Savior and Lord of our lives), Stott wrote a courageous book for that time. The title is programmatic: Christ the Controversialist: A Study in Some Essentials of Evangelical Religion. The Jesus Christ of the Bible is not a nice guy who gets along with everyone, but one who unites because he divides, who challenges, who unmasks hypocrisies. Stott has three main interlocutors in view: one is theological liberalism that would like a “moral” but not doctrinal Jesus; the other is downward ecumenism that wants unity without truth; and the third (although less treated than the first two) is Roman Catholicism that places the church before Christ. To these deviations, Stott contrasts the evangelical faith which, for him, is nothing but biblical Christianity.

In the aftermath of Vatican II, Stott is aware that Roman Catholicism is in a transition phase. He shows particular attention to the fact that Rome has opened the doors to the circulation of the Bible among the laity, overcoming the age-old resistance to a direct access to Scripture by the faithful. This “greater biblical awareness” can have “incalculable consequences” (p. 79). That said, Stott also points out that Catholicism, although involved in a process of “updating”, has in no way changed any of the anti-Protestant positions of its remote and recent past. What matters most is that the non-biblical practices elevated by Rome to identity markers (e.g. the auricular confession to the priest) are still there. Particularly critical is Stott’s reading of the “Credo of the People of God” which Paul VI promulgated at the conclusion of the Council to emphasize Catholic fidelity to its confessional principles: Mariology, the papacy, and the Mass. For Stott these are “entirely non-biblical traditions” (p. 25).

In addition to this, Stott notes in the texts of Vatican II a series of contradictions due to the reaffirmation of traditional doctrines juxtaposed with expressions that give voice to a previously unknown doctrinal development. Is Roman Catholicism the traditional one or the one being updated? For Stott, Rome is in a state of confusion, a situation that cannot be maintained for long. With these perplexities, Stott believes that the only wish for the future is “a thoroughgoing biblical reformation” (p. 23). This “reformation” has a deconstructive and a constructive part. On the one hand, Rome must abandon its unbiblical beliefs and practices, e.g. its dogmas about the immaculate conception and bodily assumption of Mary; on the other hand, Roman Catholicism must embrace “the doctrines of scriptural supremacy and free justification”. In other words, if Roman Catholicism really wants to take the path of biblical renewal, a commitment attested in words by Vatican II but in fact denied by the post-Council years, then the Reformation that Rome rejected in the 16th century remains a necessity in the 20th.

In Christ the Controversialist John Stott rehearses classic evangelical critique of Roman Catholicism. He is attentive to the dynamics arising from Vatican II, but not impressed by them, and is firmly convinced that the Reformation is the only way for a real change in Rome according to the biblical gospel.

The Dialogue Partner
A second moment in Stott’s contribution to the evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism is linked to his involvement in ERCDOM (The Evangelical and Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission). In fact, Stott was the main referent of the evangelical group that participated in this informal dialogue in three meetings that were held between 1977 and 1984: Venice (1977), Cambridge (1982) and Landévennec (1984).

It is important to note that ERCDOM does not represent a theological agreement reached between Evangelicals and Catholics. It is not a joint declaration; that was not even the aim. The purpose of ERCDOM was to exchange ideas and theological convictions to see if there were points in common, since, with the “Lausanne Covenant” (1974) and with the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi” of Paul VI (1975), both Evangelicals and Catholics had dealt with the theme of mission. ERCDOM is an account of the ideas exchanged and shared during these three meetings that highlights – according to the participants – some points in common and other areas where significant disagreements exist between the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism, especially in their way of understanding and practicing mission.

The realistic purpose of ERCDOM is welcome. The participants knew that, due to existing theological differences, it would not be very wise to try to reach agreement on the many topics discussed. Instead, they chose to dialogue on issues of common interest.

That said, there are at least two weaknesses of ERCDOM to point out. The first is the approach that the participants used in discussing the various theological themes. Evangelicals in particular used an atomistic approach, which examines theological themes one at a time, as if each of them were in some way detachable from the whole. For example, it is as if the themes of revelation and authority were independent of Mariology. Or it is as if the theme of the reformation of the church were detached from the theme of the mission of the church. The risks of this approach, however, are highlighted when we compare it with a systemic approach. Unlike an atomistic approach – which examines theological themes one at a time, giving the impression that each theme can be isolated from all others – a systemic approach sees evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism as integral and integrated theological systems, that is, systems of faith and life in which everything is intimately connected. With this approach, if Christology is somehow detached from soteriology, Mariology, or missiology, the system collapses.

The second weakness to underline is the fact that ERCDOM has taken for granted the definitions of many theological terms that are crucial for a biblical understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and which are, then, essential for a healthy and biblical missiology. In other words, the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism have a very similar vocabulary. Terms such as “gospel”, “salvation”, “conversion”, “sin”, “Holy Spirit”, “redemption”, “grace”, “Trinity”, “justification”, “church”, etc., are central to the vocabulary of both constituencies. The evangelicals who participated in ERCDOM, and Stott above all, erred in assuming that many of the terms they discussed, and which were central to their dialogues and the conclusions they reached, had the same biblical meaning. In Roman Catholic theology many key words of the Christian faith have a different meaning than the evangelical understanding. If we want to dialogue with Rome, this difference should be taken into account and not overlooked.

The Diplomat
John Stott’s third and final contribution to the evangelical analysis of Roman Catholicism is not included in one of his writings, but has to do with his role as the main drafter of the “Manila Manifesto” (1989) at the conclusion of the Second Congress for World Evangelization. While the “Lausanne Covenant” (1974) does not contain any specific reference to relations with Roman Catholicism or other non-evangelical ecclesiastical bodies, the “Manila Manifesto” (a longer and more articulated text) refers to the question of what the posture of evangelicals before the church of Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the World Council of Churches (WCC) should look like. In this regard, a quote from the “Manila Manifesto” is useful where Stott’s mediation is recognized in composing a differentiated framework and in the attempt to maintain a unitary discourse on the part of the whole evangelical world represented at the Congress:

Our reference to ‘the whole church’ is not a presumptuous claim that the universal church and the evangelical community are synonymous. For we recognize that there are many churches which are not part of the evangelical movement. Evangelical attitudes to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches differ widely. Some evangelicals are praying, talking, studying Scripture, and working with these churches. Others are strongly opposed to any form of dialogue or cooperation with them. All evangelicals are aware that serious theological differences between us remain. Where appropriate, and so long as biblical truth is not compromised, cooperation may be possible in such areas as Bible translation, the study of contemporary theological and ethical issues, social work, and political action. We wish to make it clear, however, that common evangelism demands a common commitment to the biblical gospel. (n. 9)

Here Stott is no longer a controversialist, nor a simple dialogue partner, but more of a photographer of the global situation. He takes a snapshot of the diversified situation within the evangelical world, records it, and describes it, without trying to identify useful criteria for increasing evangelical maturity in addressing the theological and systemic issues that the relationship with Rome and the WCC entail. Some evangelicals do it one way, others do it another way. Some participate in the ecumenical movement, others do not. Who has biblical reasons to do what she does and who does not, is not certain. The text simply affirms the legitimacy of both approaches and hurries to the next point.

In so doing, it is no longer the John Stott who, on the basis of the fundamental gospel issues at stake, has the courage to engage in a controversy with Rome, but it is the diplomat who, having practiced a rather atomistic approach to Roman Catholicism (as is the case of ERCDOM) and by extension to ecumenism, extends it to the drafting of the “Manila Manifesto”. The fact that evangelicals do not have a unified approach to non-evangelicals is not Stott’s responsibility. Yet, since Manila is concerned with mission and evangelization, doing mission and evangelization in communion with Rome or without any ecumenical relationship with Roman Catholicism makes a big difference.

The relationship with Roman Catholicism is one of the areas left unresolved by Stott’s long and blessed evangelical leadership. On other crucial issues (the authority of Scripture, the centrality of the cross, the need for conversion, the urgency of mission, the call to collaboration among evangelicals) Stott’s ministry was positively decisive and is still inspiring; on how to relate to the non-evangelical world, and above all to the Roman Catholic Church, Stott’s global ministry has been increasingly open-ended.

[1] More on Stott and Roman Catholicism can be found in L. De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Oxford-Bern: Peter Lang, 2003) pp. 106-118, 211-212, 295-297.

[2] Christ the Controversialist: A Study in some Essentials of Evangelical Religion (London: Tyndale Press, 1970).

[3]J. Stott – B. Meeking (eds.), The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission 1977-1984 (Grand Rapids, MI – Exeter: Eerdmans – Paternoster, 1986).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

189. A Biography of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Is It Also A Radiography of Roman Catholicism?

Like it or not, “there is no way to escape Thomas”. With this annotation, the Canadian historian Bernard McGinn introduces his book Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). The volume is by one of today’s most acclaimed scholars of medieval Christianity and has an original cut. It is not an introduction to Aquinas, nor an essay on the Summa as such, but is instead a biography of this outstanding work. The Summa consists of one and a half million words and is divided into 2668 articles. Moreover, it has had over a thousand commentaries in history (only the Bible has received more), thus becoming a catalyst for theological and philosophical thought over the centuries.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae holds a unique place in Western religion and philosophy. Written between 1266 and 1273, it was conceived by Aquinas to be an instructional guide for teachers and novices and a compendium of all the approved teachings of the Catholic Church—and it was still unfinished at the time of Aquinas’s death. The Jesuit Bernard Lonergan called the Summa a “synthesis of medieval culture”.

Thomas Aquinas’ World
In the first chapter, McGinn explores the intellectual world in which Thomas Aquinas lived. He particularly emphasizes the role of scholastic theology, i.e. a teaching method and style centered on the analysis of different quaestiones (issues, questions) on the basis of the waving and screening of various auctoritates (authorities). Scholastic theology had become a coherent and teachable model of inquiry. The leader of this tradition was Peter Lombard (1096-1160) with his Sentences, a work which had become the standard textbook of theology at the medieval universities and that Thomas commented upon extensively.

The second chapter presents a succinct biography of Thomas and a quick introduction to his writings (over a hundred works attributed to him). Here, McGinn argues that the traditional association of Thomas Aquinas with Aristotelianism must be intertwined with the impact of Platonism on his thought through Boethius and Dionysius the Areopagite and, above all, Augustine. In Thomas, the easy classifications do not respond to the complexity of his philosophical and theological universe.

The Summa is a full-fledged scholastic work. Each article of which it is composed poses the question to be examined, exposes a series of arguments contrary to the position one wants to support, cites an authoritative text, argues in favor of a solution and, finally, responds in detail to possible objections. Beyond the scholastic structure of the argument, in Thomas the central point is his acceptance of the Aristotelian starting point according to which science (and therefore also theology) is “certain knowledge through causes”. The entire procedure is guided by reason, which does not reach to revealed truths (like the Trinity), but which for everything else (including the existence of God) is the instrument for knowing. Reason proceeds in a circular motion: it starts from (Aristotelian) principles, argues up to conclusions, and returns to principles with a deeper understanding of the principles themselves. Even “sacred doctrine”, for Thomas, works in a similar manner. It is clear that, at the bottom of this approach, one finds the recognition of the full feasibility of human reason as a natural capacity. Although touched by sin, human reason remains the reliable instrument for all knowledge (even knowledge of God).

Exitus-Reditus, But Where is Sin?
To understand the heart of the theology of Aquinas, very enlightening pages are dedicated to the movement of the Summa based on the exitus-reditus model: all things come from God (exitus) and, in different ways, return to him (reditus). This is the macro-structure of the Summa and the grand-motif of Thomistic theology. The movement starts with God and goes back to Him as a circle.

In this Thomist view there are two basic problems, which McGinn does not discuss and which can only be briefly touched on. The first is the cyclical, rather than linear trend of its trajectory: the Bible presents a plotline not of returning to the starting point, but of arriving at a goal that is no longer the starting point. The New Jerusalem is not the initial garden of Eden; the eschaton is no longer “in the beginning”. The Omega of the story is no longer its Alpha. In the biblical plot there is a historical-redemptive progress from creation to the new creation, more than a return to the origin.

The second problem is that, in the Thomist scheme of exitus-reditus, the breaking of the covenant (and therefore the breach of sin) is missing. There is creation (going out), there is redemption (coming back), but sin is missing. Obviously Thomas has a theology of sin, but sin has no “architectural” importance. It is inside the back-and-forth movement, without a directional upheaval. For this reason, the Thomist tradition has been able to summarize its own worldview with the adage: “grace does not remove nature, but perfects it”; between nature and grace there is a distinction of order, but not a breach caused by sin. For this reason, Thomism does not have a tragic understanding of sin and its consequences. For this reason, the relationship between nature and grace in Thomistic Roman Catholicism underestimates the effects of sin and has an optimistic view of human capacities in cooperating with salvation. The grace of reditus corresponds to the nature of the exitus, but what about sin? In the context of this overall optimism, the Roman Church has built its inflated self-understanding and its sacramental mediation.

In light of these remarks, it is perhaps clearer why the new wine of the Protestant motif of “creation-fall-redemption” cannot fit in the old skin of Thomism of the exitus-reditus motif. Sin entered the world and altered it to the point that redemption is not an elevation of nature nor an addition to it, but can be biblically explained in terms of regeneration, life out of death, light out of darkness, salvation out of reprobation. Therefore, one can begin to perceive why the difference between Thomism and the evangelical faith touches on a crucial, structural, foundational point, even in the presence of terms and themes that are sometimes overlapping.

The Summa at the Core of the Roman Catholic System
The second part of the book is dedicated to the biography of the Summa across the centuries, from the first wave of Thomism immediately following Thomas’s death up to the neo-Thomism of the 19th-20th century. McGinn remembers in particular Tommaso de Vio, Cardinal Gaetano, at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, who clashed with Luther. It is well known that the German Reformer had an unquestionably negative understanding of Thomism. For him, Thomas was “the source and foundation of all heresy, all error and the obliteration of the Gospel”. It is also interesting that at the Council of Trent a copy of the Summa was placed next to the Bible, symbolically signifying the elevation of Thomas’s work to a source of authority for the Roman Church. No wonder Thomas was recognized as a “doctor of the church” by Pope Pius V in 1567. From that point on, Thomas became an immovable cornerstone of Roman Catholic theology. On the basis of the Summa, the Jesuit Robert Bellarmine would have built his anti-Protestant apologetics that became standard up to the first half of the 20th century. Neo-Thomism found in Leo XIII a pope who wrote the encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), in which he officially elevated the thought of Thomas Aquinas to be the normative theological system for Roman Catholicism.

McGinn recalls the controversies over the “modernists” who were not so much opposed to Thomas as to a “triumphalistic” or “authoritarian” form of Thomism. In the twentieth century, McGinn identifies four strands of Thomism still existing in the Roman Church:

  • “Strict-Observance Thomism” (in the wake of Aeterni Patris: R. Garrigou-Lagrange, the “sacred monster of Thomism”);
  • “Recovered Thomism” (M.-D. Chenu, Y. Congar, H. de Lubac);
  • “Metaphysical Thomism” (J. Maritain, E. Gilson);
  • “Transcendental Thomism” (P. Rousselot; J. Maréchal, K. Rahner).

Although Thomism is a legacy that is variously assimilated and understood, its permanent and pervasive influence on Roman Catholicism is undeniable. McGinn refers to the fact that Aquinas is cited in the texts of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) 734 times (the second most cited father is Augustine with 522 citations) and is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) 61 times. Moreover, according to Thomas G. Guarino in The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), the real theological mind behind Vatican II is not a modern theologian but Thomas Aquinas himself. It was Aquinas who “furnished the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the bases and structure (les assises et la structure) of their thought; again, “while Thomistic language was absent at Vatican II, Thomist ideas were in plain sight”. A modernized form of Thomism, perhaps away from the rigidity of 19th century Neo-Thomism, but always within the same tradition expanded in dialogue with the modern world, was and is the framework that provides “the bases and the structure” of Rome. Furthermore, John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998) is a quintessentially Thomist reflection on the relationship between faith and reason.

Although no longer monumental (perhaps) and certainly not monolithic, Thomism is still “substantial” for Roman Catholicism, representing its main theological backbone. Giving the Summa a central place in the work of Thomas Aquinas and coming to terms with its “biography” allows us to access the radiography of what lies at the heart of Roman Catholicism then and now. When we deal with the Summa and its impact across Church history we should be aware of the fact that we are not dealing with a generic work belonging to the “Great Tradition” which is common to all strands of Christianity. We are dealing with a specific account of it that Roman Catholicism consistently calls its own.

188. “When halfway through the journey of our life”. Dante Between the Bible and Medieval Roman Catholicism

On the occasion of the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) there are several initiatives taking place around the world to celebrate this great medieval poet. Among them, Pope Francis wrote an Apostolic Letter to celebrate Dante as “prophet of hope and poet of mercy”. The magnitude of Dante’s significance for Western civilization is too extensive to be properly handled in a short article and would deserve specific expertise that I have only in part. Here the focus will be to sample Dante’s relationship with the Bible in the Comedy – his most known work – and to see how the Bible shapes its overall theological orientation. As Dante was led by Virgil (through the Inferno and Purgatory) and by Beatrice (through Paradise), in my journey I will be led by Giuseppe Ledda, La Bibbia di Dante (2015), since on my own I would get lost in the “dark forest” given the complexity of the task. Of course, the theological evaluations will be mine.

Where to start talking about the influence of the Bible on Dante? Perhaps making reference to numbers. There are about a thousand references to the Bible present in the Comedy. Sometimes they are direct quotations from the Latin Vulgate or in vernacular translations provided by Dante himself, other times they are allusions to characters or episodes of the biblical story intertwined in the events of the poem. The Bible is pervasively present and is one of the texts from which Dante drew constant inspiration. Scripture is a constitutive element of his religious imagery.

1. Bible Reminiscences at the Beginning of the Comedy
The beginning of the Comedy is universally known: “When half way through the journey of our life”. Dante immediately recalls a biblical text such as Psalm 90:10. The fact that he does not speak only of his (Dante’s) life but of “our life” (of all humanity) is connected to the verse of Psalm of Moses according to which “the years of our life are seventy”. For this reason, scholars believe that Dante was 35 years old when he wrote the Comedy. The point is that in calculating the duration of life Dante uses a biblical parameter: 70 years. Furthermore, the first verses of Inferno speak of life as a “path”. That of the journey is a biblical metaphor to describe life. Dante uses it to talk about his life and that of all humanity.

Beyond these indirect references, in the incipit there is a clear allusion, almost a reworking, of Isaiah 38:10 in which King Hezekiah, after being healed, writes: “In the middle of my days I must depart”. As Hezekiah escaped death by being allowed to continue living, so Dante passes through a “forest dark”, but comes out of it when he finds himself in front of an illuminated hill.

Dante had lost the “the path which led aright”. Within the metaphor of the journey, the “path” has very strong resonances in the Old Testament (e.g. the path of the righteous: Psalm 1) and in the New Testament (Jesus as the only way, John 14:6). In the first verses Dante acknowledges that he has lost his way and that he has gone into a dark forest, in sin and backsliding.

Arriving in front of the illuminated hill (Inferno I,16-18), he looks up, echoing Psalm 121:1, which says, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?”. The gesture of looking up is the beginning of a change in the midst of a trial. Looking up, man can find the light of God to get out of the darkness of sin.

Starting the climb up the hill, Dante’s journey is interrupted by the presence of three ferocious animals: a leopard, a lion and a wolf (I,31-54). For the poet they are representations of evil that obstruct the path and try to prevent it. Although not in the same order, they are the same animals found in Jeremiah 5:6. Dante attributes to these animals a symbolic meaning of deadly sins, but the imagery from which the animal representation is drawn comes from the Bible.

Obstructed by the fairs, Dante rolls down and sees a figure with indistinct outlines to whom he asks for help with the words, “Have pity on me” (I,65). The reader of the Bible immediately recognizes the quotation from Psalm 51:1: “Have mercy on me, O God”, the most famous penitential psalm of the collection. It is the cry of the sinner who, in contrition and repentance, invokes divine mercy to be forgiven. Dante will repeat the same quotation from Psalm 51 in Paradise XXXII, 10-12. David, who exclaims that request for help from the Lord, becomes for Dante a model of a repentant sinner to inspire him on his journey as a penitent sinner.

As can be seen from these hints, from the first verses of the Comedy, it is clear that Dante’s imagination is significantly shaped by biblical elements. Whether or not his overall vision is biblical is another matter: certainly it is steeped in direct and indirect references to the Bible, but this is not in itself a guarantee that his poem reflects a biblically oriented journey. Its biblical references are mediated by a medieval theology and spirituality which, although rich in biblical ideas, is at the same time marked by other points of reference far from Scripture.

2. Biblical Themes and Imagery in the Inferno
The Comedy is a journey into the realms of the afterlife. Dante imagines the world beyond death and, to do so, draws on classical and biblical sources in an original mix of settings and encounters. His journey starts from Hell (Inferno) which is a biblically attested space even if he imagines it as a chasm in the shape of an inverted cone, a shape that has no biblical origin.

In the first canto of Inferno, Virgil explains to Dante that, having come out of the dark forest, one cannot climb the hill of happiness except by taking another path through the kingdoms of the afterlife. It was forbidden to human beings, except for Aeneas (in the Aeneid) and Paul (according to an interpretation of 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, which in reality does not speak of hell but of heaven). In this double inspiration (classical and biblical) we find the sources of Dante’s thought: on the one hand the classical graeco-roman heritage, on the other the biblical one interpreted according to the canons of medieval Christianity. Dante does not feel worthy to retrace the footsteps of these great characters of the past and objects by saying: “I’m not Aeneas, nor yet Paul am” (Inferno II,32). In the perplexity of his ability to face the journey, Dante echoes the doubt that Moses had when he said to God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11).

Dante’s Inferno is preceded by “limbo”, a place not attested in the canonical gospels, but in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. In this place that is neither hellish nor heavenly, he meets the virtuous non-Christians who lived before Christianity. There he finds a string of biblical characters from the Old Testament: Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Jacob and others. Here Dante, while showing great familiarity with the biblical text, differs substantially from the Bible which instead considers these believers before Christ as belonging to the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12) and therefore destined for Paradise. A sacramental interpretation of baptism as necessary for salvation (and which these Old Testament believers had not received) makes Dante think that the saints of the Old Testamentare are not truly saved. This theology is outside of biblical teaching and is within medieval Roman Catholicism.

Entering Hell, Dante shows off a poetic imagination imbued with many biblical elements. At canto XIX he meets the “simoniacs”, churchmen who take their name from Simon the magician who wanted to buy the power of God with money (Acts 8:20-21). The simoniacal church is seen by Dante as fornicating with kings (XIX,108) evoking the image of the “harlot” of Revelation 17:1-8. The poet shows that he is imbued with Roman Catholicism in his theological vision, but is at the same time very “free” to criticize the ecclesiastical institution which he sees as guilty of serious compromises.

Continuing on his journey to Hell, Dante meets other biblical characters, such as Caiafa (XXIII,109-126), the high priest who condemned Jesus. At canto XXXIV there is Lucifer holding Judas – the traitor of Jesus – in his mouth. The pains that Dante assigns to each person is a parody of his sin, and their execution makes use of the technique of retaliation: what they caused in life with their sins, they now receive in return in their infernal existence.

Summing up, the punishment of hell seems to be a retribution for the evil works committed in life and is proportionated to the gravity of the same. When Dante speaks of divine grace, he associates it with sacramental grace and dilutes it in a view of the Christian life still encrusted with a work-based gospel. Far away is the biblical gospel of grace received by Christ alone by faith alone, which was preached by the apostolic church and which would be fully rediscovered by the Protestant Reformation three centuries after Dante.

3. What Does Purgatory Have to Do With the Bible?
The second canticle of the Comedy is Purgatory. Through Dante’s poetry this place (which is the fruit of the Roman Catholic religious imagination) has taken on a universally recognized literary guise. Purgatory is a child of medieval theology that broke off from the biblical vision of the afterlife, which added a state to that of the blessing of heaven for believers and the reprobation of hell for non-believers, and adapted it to the need to have an “intermediate” place between Hell and Heaven. For the historian Jacques Le Goff, Dante’s Purgatory is a “middle way placed at an unequal distance between the two extremes, which extends towards Paradise” (The Birth of Purgatory, 1986; Italian edition: La nascita del Purgatorio, Torino: Einaudi, 1982, p. 401). 

In the prevailing conception of the Middle Ages (and which Dante makes his own in the Comedy), salvation is not a gift that is received by faith alone according to the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Salvation for Dante is a path of continuous purification which, once earthly life is ended, continues in Purgatory and then finally reaches its completion in Paradise. Except for the saints (the heroes of the faith), for the “normal” Christians salvation is always “incomplete”. As the readers of the Bible know, the gospel of Jesus Christ gives the believer a certainty which is not the fruit of personal arrogance, but the result of the completeness of the Savior’s work received by faith. Evidently, with his vision of Purgatory, Dante does not know the benefits of justification by faith based solely on the work of Christ alone: for this reason he must provide for an otherworldly “middle ground” through which Christians pass in order to be purified. For Dante, salvation is a mountain to be climbed from below with a view to progressive sanctification, not a divine declaration on the penitent sinner which clothes him with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

One of the biblical metaphors that Dante uses in Purgatory to describe the Christian life is that of the exodus: life is a slavery from which one is liberated through a journey of purification. To underline the parallel between life and the exodus, it is no coincidence that the souls destined for Purgatory sing Psalm 114:1, “When Israel went out from Egypt” (Purgatory II,46-48), evoking the idea that it is a journey back to God by us pilgrims (II,63). Again, Dante mixes biblical elements with themes and trajectories present in medieval Christianity. They are more dependent on the theology of the time based on a conception of salvation by works and through penance than on the biblical message centered on the perfect righteousness of Christ freely given to the believing sinner.

Dante’s Purgatory has a mountain shape divided into seven terraces. In each of them the souls are purged of one of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony and lust. Only after they are purified will they be admitted to heaven. In this path of purification, in addition to abandoning vices, souls will have to embrace the Christian virtues that Dante identifies in the beatitudes contained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12): humility, merciful love, meekness, diligence, detachment from earthly goods, temperance and chastity. For Dante, each of these Christian virtues finds its supreme realization in Mary. The evangelical episodes of her life are considered illustrations of Mary’s virtues that souls must learn. Mary is “humbler and loftier than any creature” (Paradise XXXIII,2). Also in this case, in line with the Roman Catholic Mariology of the Middle Ages, Mary is considered “more than a creature”, endowed with the highest level of Christian virtues and the model par excellence of Christian life. It is true that Dante also recalls other biblical characters such as, for example, King David (humility), Stephen (meekness), Daniel and John the Baptist (temperance). However, Mary surpasses everyone in that she eminently embodies the virtues/beatitudes that Jesus Christ proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. Even in this pervasive Mariology, Dante is more of a spiritual and cultural child of his time than a believer whose faith is shaped by the Bible.

4. The (Un)Biblical Paradise
After crossing the seven terraces of Purgatory, Dante and Virgil arrive in the earthly Paradise, which is located on the top of the mountain of Purgatory. Here Virgil, who has been the guide up to now, disappears, and Beatrice appears. She will accompany Dante on the remaining journey. Beatrice reflects divine beauty and is full of Christological reminiscences, a sort of alter Christus (i.e. another Christ). She personifies the love that saves and encourages the poet to penance. In fact, in order to proceed Dante must undergo a further purification rite to become worthy to ascend to heaven. In the procession in which Dante takes part, he refers to elements of the books of Revelation and Ezekiel, as well as being inspired by the story of the transfiguration in which the apostles taste an anticipation of the glory of Christ and are somehow overwhelmed by it.

Entering Paradise, Dante still refers to classical and biblical motifs, in this case from the poet Ovid and from the apostle Paul. In particular, it is Paul’s abduction to third heaven that serves as a model for Dante. The intertwining of pagan and Judeo-Christian literature provides for the poet the categories within which he “sees”, “feels” and experiences Paradise. Dante’s poetics were born at the confluence of these currents (classical and biblical). He blended them together with his literary genius in the context of his medieval theological vision.

Arriving at the sky of the stars, Dante meets Peter, James and John who examine him respectively on the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. Once again, Dante must demonstrate that he knows and possesses these virtues. In heaven one is not welcomed for the merits of Christ on the basis of the imputation to the sinner of His virtues received by faith alone, but, in line with Roman Catholic theology, on the basis of a journey of sanctification that passes through successive stages in which one must demonstrate something infused and grown in himself. The canticle of Paradise is imbued with biblical references and Christian ideas, but the theological framework is not evangelical. Salvation is a mountain to climb and a state to deserve, not a confident response of faith to a gift already accomplished by Jesus Christ. In Dante sanctification effectively swallows and in the end cancels justification.

Towards the end of Paradise, Dante reaches a peak of Marian devotion, further demonstrating the profound but spurious character of the biblical influence on his poem. Mary is defined as “the face which to the Christ is most resemblant” (XXXII,85-86). The climax is a Marian prayer placed in the mouth of Bernard of Clairvaux (a Father of the medieval church much loved by Dante) which opens with the famous verses, “O Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son, humbler and loftier than any creature” (XXXIII,1-2). The vision of Mary is followed by that of God, the unitary principle that gives meaning to the chaos of the universe, the divine Triunity and a special mention of the Son who is seen in the image of a human being. A sort of trinitarian architecture is also witnessed in Dante’s choice to write in triplets, to write three canticles, each of which is composed of thirty-three chants, which also evoke the years of the life of Jesus Christ (even if Inferno, in reality, has an extra song that serves as a preface to the Comedy).

To the vision of God at the end of Paradise, language is placed in front of its limits and Dante concludes by referring to theology as “high imagining”, a lofty knowledge that cannot but resort to poetry in the face of the unspeakable. Compared to contemporary scholastic trends aimed at rationalizing or intellectualizing the discourse on God, Dante presents a poetic theology in which truth and beauty, proclaimed and experienced, go together.

The Comedy is a masterpiece that, in its extraordinary richness and complexity, reflects a culture mixed with those ingredients that made Italian culture in particular what it is: ingeniously absorbed by a religiosity that mixes the Bible and pagan culture, artistically interwoven into a spirituality that does not understand the gospel as a gift from God received by faith alone, strongly attracted to the figure of the “mother” (Mary) and the “woman” (Beatrice) in whom to look for love. It is this comedy that, from Dante onwards, is the canvas of Italian life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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