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.
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.
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.
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. 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”.
(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.
 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.
 Christ the Controversialist: A Study in some Essentials of Evangelical Religion (London: Tyndale Press, 1970).
J. Stott – B. Meeking (eds.), The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission 1977-1984 (Grand Rapids, MI – Exeter: Eerdmans – Paternoster, 1986).
On 18 July 1870, one hundred and fifty years ago, the First Vatican Council (Vatican I) approved the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, issued by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) in the solemn yet nervous atmosphere of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The political situation around the Pontifical State was extremely tense and the prospect of the end of an era was felt as imminent. In fact, at the battle of Sedan (1-2 September 1870) the Prussian army defeated Napoleon III, the principal defender of the pope, thus leaving the pope without the French military protection from which he had benefited in the past. Napoleon III’s capture meant the end of French support and paved the way to the “breach of Rome”, i.e. the entry of the Italian army in the city of Rome (20 September 1870) and the proclamation of Rome as the capital city of the Italian kingdom. The Council was therefore abruptly interrupted and suspended. It is striking – if not tragically ironic – that as the Pontifical State was about to collapse, the pope and the Roman Catholic Church felt it necessary to proclaim a new dogma, i.e. the infallibility of the pope. The initiative was largely driven by political concerns. That doctrine was elevated to a dogmatic status (i.e. being part of core, revealed, unchangeable and binding teaching) and used as an identity marker and a symbolic weapon to fight against a political and cultural enemy.
A Window on the Council A recent book by John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2018), focuses on the historical context of the Council and the theological significance of the discussion that took place around the infallibility of the pope. The Jesuit historian O’Malley is not new to writing re-assessments of pivotal events of modern Roman Catholic history. One can think of his important volumes on What Happened at Vatican II (2010) and Trent: What Happened at the Council (2013), which have proven to be trend-setting in their interpretation of present-day Roman Catholicism. In this new book on Vatican I it is as if he has completed the trilogy on the three modern councils.
More negative readings of Vatican I than O’Malley’s have been provided by A.B. Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion (1981), and H. Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (1983). O’Malley’s strength lies in the comprehensiveness of his historical reconstruction, whereas his reading of the doctrinal significance of the Council is only mildly critical and within the “progressive” side of Roman Catholic studies. He signals that the basic problem of Pastor Aeternus is its “historical naïveté” (p. 197), i.e. that it ignored historical differentiations and froze every possible development in the institutional outlook of the Roman Catholic Church. It is true that a century later Vatican II (1962-1965) softened the mode of papal authority but did not (could not) change its basic theological framework.
What Happened at Vatican I There were external and internal pressures that drove the Roman Catholic Church to issue the dogma of papal infallibility. As for the former, in the 19thcentury the Papacy had to face two staunch adversaries that were able to challenge its survival. On the political level, there was the absolutism of the princes and European states that claimed authority over the Church, thus bringing into question the difficult balance between powers that had been struck in previous centuries. The popes were perceived as being part of the Ancien Régime (Old regime) which the modern world would soon overcome on many fronts.
On the philosophical front, the spread of the French Enlightenment clashed with the traditional worldview of the Papacy. The insistence on the prominence of “reason” over the “superstition” of religion, the growing importance of evolutionary theory over more static accounts of reality, and the diffusion of socialist ideas against mere protection of the status quo caused popes to react strongly in order to safeguard their share in the established system of power. This negative attitude reached a climax in 1864 when Pius IX issued the Symbol of Errors, a list of statements that were condemned as incompatible with Christianity. Apart from banning modern philosophical ideas, religious freedom, and the activities of Bible societies, the Symbol included the following statement that the pope rejected: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization” (80).
The clash could not have been more strident. In O’Malley’s words, papal infallibility was seen “as the only viable answer to the cultural, political and religious crisis ignited by the French Revolution and its pan-European Napoleonic aftermath” (p. 3).
As far as the internal pressures are concerned, O’Malley surveys the confrontation between two tendencies that were especially strong in France (but had ramifications all over Europe) and polarized the debate: “Gallicanism”, stressing the freedom of particular churches over against Rome, and “Ultramontanism”, exalting the central authority of the pope over national churches. Fearing that “Gallican” positions – marked by the questioning of centralized power structures – would make inroads in the Roman Church, Pius IX pushed the consolidation of the pope’s absolute authority as the source from which everything else flowed. His conviction is well captured by Joseph de Maistre’s words: “The pope governs and is not governed, judges and is not judged, teaches and is not taught” (p. 65).
The Meaning of Papal Infallibility The cultural siege mindset was the background of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). O’Malley speaks of “an anxiety-ridden defensiveness” (p. 227). The felt danger of being assaulted by the modern world pushed Pius IX to insist that the Council clearly specify the juridical primacy of the pope as far as the leadership of the Church is concerned and proclaim the infallibility of his teaching under certain conditions. After issuing Dei Filius, the dogmatic constitution against atheism, pantheism, and materialism (and making them originate from Protestantism!), the Council was ready to address the ecclesiastical issue of papal infallibility. Here is what Vatican I declared:
“If anyone, then, shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the Pastors and the faithful; let him be anathema” (III).
The pope’s authority is “full and supreme over the Universal Church”, no mere oversight or moral leadership: it is a political role.
Its comprehensive scope, i.e. not only faith and morals, but also discipline and government: it entails the whole of life instead of accepting limitations and checks and balances.
Its “fullness”: you either accept it in total or you deny it.
As to papal infallibility, Pastor Aeternus defines it this way:
“We teach and define that it is a divinely-revealed dogma: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex Cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. But if anyone — God forbid — should presume to contradict this Our definition; let him be anathema” (IV).
The emphatic subject “we”, i.e. the pope as head of the Church; no higher authority is invoked because on earth there is none;
The theological framework, i.e. “supreme Apostolic authority”: the papal office is mainly characterized in terms of “power”;
The dogmatic content, i.e. “infallibility”; a divine prerogatory is attributed to a man;
Its scope, i.e. when the pope speaks “from the chair”, i.e. exercising his ultimate prerogatives;
Its unchangeable nature, i.e. “irreformable”: it is a permanent mark of the Roman Church;
and the issuing curse on those (e.g. Protestants) who do not accept this doctrine: they are still under that curse issued by the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level with an irrevocable dogma.
These are strong terms that committed the Church of Rome to an extremely awkward doctrine that no “ecumenical” reading can soften. The only Biblical argument given to support this dogma is the citation of Luke 22:32 (Jesus says to Peter: “I prayed for you, so that your faith will not falter”). Yet, this citation does not support any of Pastor Aeternus’s definition in that Jesus in no way warrants Peter’s future infallibility and absolute power, and even less so the infallibility and powers of future popes, admitting and not granting that there is a relationship between Peter and subsequent leaders of the Church in the city of Rome. As it is the case with much of the doctrine of the papacy, this last doctrinal formulation is also founded on extra-Biblical arguments.
The First Vatican Council provided the most comprehensive and authoritative doctrinal statement on the papacy in the modern era. Instead of taking into account the Biblical remarks legitimately offered by the Protestant Reformation, and instead of listening to certain trends of modern thought that advocate freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, Vatican I further solidified the nature of the papal office as a quasi-omnipotent and infallible figure. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest doctrinal authority, i.e. the promulgation of a dogma, a binding, irreversible, unchangeable truth, to cement the institution of the papacy by furthering its absolute nature.
When Was Papal Infallibility Implemented? Only a month after the solemn pronouncement, Rome was no longer under papal control and the Council left an unfinished work. However, what it did decide upon proved to be of great significance, the greatest result of which is that the “Ultramontane Church” (i.e. pope-centered, Rome-led) became the present-day Roman Catholic Church (p. 242). After documenting the different phases leading to the promulgation of Pastor Aeternus, O’Malley deals with the aftermath of Vatican I. There were of course political consequences that needed decades to be settled in different national contexts. Another lasting consequence was that “The popes achieved a strikingly new prominence in Catholic consciousness for the ordinary believer” (p. 240). After being declared “infallible” and at the center of an absolutist power system, “an almost personal devotion to the pope became a new Catholic virtue”. It was the beginning of the celebrity culture attached to the papal office and to the person of the pope that spilled over into the 20th century.
There is yet another important observation that O’Malley omits but that is necessary to make. Vatican I restricts the pope’s infallibility to when he speaks “ex cathedra”, i.e. from the chair. The question is: When did he speak in such a way? What are the papal pronouncements – among the dozens of 19th and 20th century papal encyclicals and documents – that are endowed with the “infallibility” that Pastor Aeternus grants to the pope? Even in Catholic theological circles the issue of the extension of infallibility is debated.
Logically speaking, Pastor Aeternus must be one of them. The papal document defining papal infallibility must be considered infallible, otherwise the whole argument undergirding it collapses.
While there might be different opinions about the exercise of infallibility, there is at least one clear example of a subsequent papal teaching that Roman Catholics must take as infallible.
“We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (44).
This is clearly the formula of a papal infallible, “ex cathedra” statement. No Roman Catholic theologian can question it. In passing, the Bible is not interested in the final days of Mary nor in the way she died. She must have died like anyone else, and yet here we are confronted not with an opinion but with a dogma. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest magisterial authority to formulate a belief that the Scriptures are silent on, to say the least.
On the basis of a non-biblical dogma, i.e. the pope’s infallibility, another non-biblical dogma, i.e. Mary’s assumption, was built, thus becoming part of the binding and irreformable teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Biblically speaking, one could say: from bad to worse; but this is what Rome is committed to and will continue to be committed to, in spite of all “ecumenical” developments and friendlier attitudes. The flawed Roman Catholic theological system operates in this way: not reforming what is contrary to Scripture, but rather consolidating it with other non-biblical doctrines and practices. After the 150 years since Vatican I, the only hope for change is a reformation according to the biblical gospel that will question and ultimately dismantle and reject papal infallibility.
Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) is one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. Born in 1927, his impressive biography includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), holding various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957-1977), being Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), to eventually becoming Pope (2005-2013), and since 2013, Pope Emeritus. His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth. Needless to say, one cannot think about seriously dealing with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his work.
His stature makes his reputation spillover from the Roman Catholic world. So a book on The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, ed. T. Perry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), is no surprise and is a welcome contribution to approaching the work of Joseph Ratzinger from the outside. The volume contains 15 articles written by Protestant authors who cover various aspects of his work, especially in the areas of dogmatic and liturgical theology, offering an entry point into his theological vision. The overall tone of the articles is generally informative and understandably appreciative, as the subtitle indicates.
Tim Perry, the editor of the book, is not new to initiatives aimed at building an ecumenical bridge between Evangelicals and Catholics. One can think of his editorship of The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (2007), in which Pope Wojtyła was assessed in extremely generous terms– so generous that the analysis seemed to be selective and forgetful of major critical points of his legacy (e.g. see my review asking questions about John Paul II’s alleged but idiosyncratic “Christ-centered legacy”). Other volumes by Perry (e.g. Mary for Evangelicals, 2006, and with D. Kendall, The Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013) also show his desire to wet the evangelical appetite for Roman Catholic doctrine and spiritualità (e.g. Mariology) while not always indicating what is biblically at stake in them. His chapter on Mary in the book (pp. 118-135) confirms his desire to find ways to “redeem” the Catholic Marian dogmas and practices for evangelical readers, even when they should be simply rejected from a biblical standpoint.
In his introduction, Perry looks at the (ecumenical?) future and singles out four ways in which Ratzinger’s theological wisdom can be useful for tomorrow’s church. Learning from Benedict, the church will:
1. find her strength in holy Scripture; 2. affirm that Christian faith is reasonable; 3. depend much more on the visible holiness of her members; and 4. be humble (pp. 7-9).
These are all
important points. However, on either side of the Tiber (Protestant or Roman
Catholic), who can be against them? They are so generic that even along the liberal-conservative
dividing line within various Christian groups, who could say anything contrary?
The problem is: does this list fairly and accurately represent, if not the whole, at least the heart of Ratzinger’s theology? Would Benedict himself summarize his
work in these points? Are we sure that his message to the churches can be separated
from the sacramental, hierarchical, and institutional nature of the Roman gospel
and Rome’s “thick” claims on ecclesiology, soteriology, the papacy, Mariology, etc.?
The intention of “appreciating” Ratzinger’s theology is evident, but what about the ability to penetrate it? The impression of a similar gap is confirmed in other chapters of the book. For example, Ben Meyers and Katherine Sonderegger helpfully discuss the relationship between faith and reason in Ratzinger (11-25 and 28-45). The rationality of faith is certainly a theme dear to him, but as clearly demonstrated in his famous 2006 Regensburg Lecture “Faith, Reason and the University”, Benedict builds this rationality on the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” and firmly rejects what he identifies as the “programme of dehellenization” of the faith. According to him, this programme took place on the 16th century “Scripture Alone” Protestant principle, continued through 19th and 20th century theological liberalism, and eventually resulted in present-day relativistic multi-culturalism. One would have thought that in a book that presents a “Protestant” voice, someone would take issue with Benedict for his totally negative assessment of Sola Scriptura, one of the pillars of classic Protestantism, which he considers to hold the main responsibility for the wreckage of the Christian faith. Instead, the overall “appreciation” for Ratzinger’s defense of the rationality of faith over and against the “Scripture Alone” principle takes precedence over a truly Protestant analysis, thus skipping the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue (which involves biblical critique done in a gracious yet firm way).
Another example of
this weakness of the book has to do with Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology. In
his chapter on the topic, Fred Sanders commends his “powerful set of
Trinitarian commitments” (p. 136), a common theological foundation that is
often praised in the book as something that Ratzinger shares with Protestants.
Because of his Trinitarianism, Ratzinger is presented as an ecumenical
theologian from whom Protestants must learn. Staying on the surface of Trinitarian
theology, this might be true, but as soon as one begins to dig deeper, things significantly
change. In presenting his liturgical vision, Peter Leithart quotes Ratzinger
talking about the Eucharist:
“The Eucharistic Prayer is as entering into the prayer of Jesus Christ
himself, hence it is the Church’s entering into the Logos, the Father’s Word”
The Church enters into
the Logos! This is a view of the Eucharist that is heavily embedded in a Trinitarian
framework and implies that there is an organic “Christ-Church interconnection”
(an expression used by Gregg Allison, p. 63), which is biblically disputable. Ratzinger’s
Trinitarian theology demands that the Church enters into the Logos, thus
becoming one with Him and claiming to prolong (so to speak) His incarnation in
her teaching and her sacramental and ruling offices. This view is based on a Trinitarian
argument, but runs contrary to the standard Protestant view of the Church and
her relationship with Christ.
Or again, in
skillfully dealing with Ratzinger’s theology of the Word of God, Kevin
Vanhoozer quotes Benedict saying:
“As the Word of God becomes flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the
womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the
Church by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 69).
The theology of
Scripture is set in the context of Trinitarian theology, and the Church is
embedded in this Trinitarian dynamic as if she were the mother of the Word
because the presence of the Spirit is intrinsically tied to her. The link
between the Holy Spirit and the Church is so organic that “for Benedict, Scripture,
tradition, and the Roman magisterium always coincide because they are guided by
the same Spirit” (p. 85). His Trinitarian theology leads Ratzinger to “dismissing”
(p. 68) and “explicitly” denying Sola
Scriptura (p. 75), which is one of the tenets of the evangelical
understanding of the gospel.
The question is: if
Catholics and Protestants have the same Trinitarian foundation (as many
chapters of the book assume), how is it that they come to very different
accounts of Revelation, the Bible, the Church, the sacraments, salvation, … the
gospel? If we have this foundational commonality, why does Ratzinger argue in
(his) Trinitarian terms that “Scripture Alone” is – for example – the main
cause of the departure from the rationality of faith (e.g. in the above
mentioned Regensburg Lecture) and is to be rejected in order to embrace a proper
view of the Eucharist and Revelation? Are we not dealing with gospel issues that stem from different Trinitarian views, which look
similar in language and on the surface but are undergirded by different core
commitments and result in ultimately different accounts of the gospel?
tone of the book shies away from asking the question, let alone responding to
it, with exceptions and with some interesting hints. The chapters by Allison
and Vanhoozer point to the idea that something deeper than acknowledging
generic commonalities runs in the Roman Catholic and Protestant theological
basic orientations. As Carl Trueman rightly observes in his chapter “Is the Pope
“Roman Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with a different set of
doctrines. It is a different way of thinking about Christianity, a way that
draws a very tight connection between Scripture, tradition, and the doctrine of
the church in a manner alien to Protestantism” (p. 153).
“A different way of
thinking”. Finally, someone in the book indicates what is at stake in dealing
with Roman Catholicism in general and with Ratzinger in particular. “A
different way of thinking” that has some overlap in the use of biblical and
theological language but is constructed with a different blueprint and results in
a different answer to the ultimate questions about God, the world, and eternity.
“A different way of thinking”. This is a clue that helps us to appreciate
Benedict’s theology much more than lazily praising what we Protestants have in
common with it. I think Ratzinger would agree more with this “different way of
thinking” type of appraisal than with words of praise that do not go deep
enough in the analysis of his theology. Trueman quotes him saying:
“The way one views the structure of Christianity will necessarily affect
in some measure, great or small, one’s attitude to various particular matters
contained within the whole” (n. 26, p. 163).
The book The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation contains several “particulars” of Ratzinger’s
theology from a Protestant viewpoint, but the “structure” of his view of
Christianity is only touched upon by few of them and is left as a homework that
is still to be done. The “appreciation” of the book should be heard, but not at
the expense of neglecting the fact that Benedict and Protestants have different
views of the “structure of Christianity” that impact the whole of their
What remains at stake with the Roman Catholic Church 500 years after the Protestant Reformation? This question is of capital importance given the general ecumenical climate, which blurs differences and even finds them disturbing to talk about. The book Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation provides timely food for thought in assessing the historical and theological implausibility of Rome being “catholic” and “Roman” at the same time. Written by two evangelical scholars (Kenneth Collins, professor of historical theology at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University), this work is an engaging exercise in historical theology that helpfully grapples with the defining claims of the Roman Catholic Church: on the one hand, its claim of “catholicity” (universality), and on the other, its “Roman” structure. This combination is essential to the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, but it is highly questionable on various grounds. The book is a well-argued critique of the very fabric of Roman Catholicism.
Roman and Catholic? First, let’s have a look at the main claim that shapes Roman Catholicism. Its catholicity has a Roman element so intertwined that it is an inextricable part of the whole. “Roman” is not just a geographical reference, but an essential and constitutive part of a system that is both Roman and catholic, or better still, “Roman Catholic” in a single breath. The romanitas of the system is co-essential with its catholicity. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “the name ‘Roman Catholic’ conjoined the universality of the Church over the entire world, which has long been the content of the term ‘Catholic’, with the specificity of only one single see”, that of Rome.
Within the Western tradition, then, Roman catholicity is a long-established union of catholic universality and Roman particularity, catholic plurality and Roman unity, catholic comprehensiveness and Roman distinctiveness, the catholic totus (whole) and the Roman locus (place), catholic fullness and Roman partiality, catholic breadth and Roman narrowness, catholic elasticity and Roman rigidity, the catholic universe and the Roman center, catholic organism and Roman organization, the catholic faith and the Roman structure. Roman Catholicism wants to affirm both. But is it a warranted claim biblically or even historically?
Pointed Critique Having briefly described the nature of the combination of Roman and Catholic elements in the Roman Catholic Church, the main critique of the authors is intelligently summarized at a number of points in the book. For example, the authors state, “Roman Catholicism represents not the universal church, as is so often claimed, but instead a distinct theological tradition, one among others” (p. 30, emphasis in the text). If Roman Catholicism is Roman, it cannot be truly catholic, and since Roman Catholicism wants to be Roman, it is not truly catholic.
The book surveys the development of Roman traditions that departed from the catholic (read: biblical) stream of the ancient church. Along the way, ecclesiastical voice and power supplemented and ultimately overtook biblical authority (ch. 2-4). The Roman Church grew its exclusive claims (ch. 6-7). The rise of the papacy became the climax of the Romanization of Catholicism (ch. 8 and 11-12). The sacraments were used to divide rather than to unite Christians (ch. 9). Accounts of the Mary of the Bible were idealized, which reflected the Roman Catholic synthesis (chps. 15-16).
“In short,” the authors say,“ironic though it is, the Church of Rome is not sufficiently catholic” (p. 83). The cumulative argument presented is that Rome wants to tie its romanitas (made of imperial structure, political power, hierarchical organization, extra-biblical traditions) to its status as the only church of Jesus Christ where the fullness of grace can be found. But this is exactly the point at issue. By wanting to be Roman, the Church ceases to be catholic. Hence the brilliant title: Roman but not Catholic!
This critique is always gently and respectfully put, but it has devastating effects on the self-understanding of the Roman Catholic Church if it is taken seriously. Among other things, it means that the Roman aspect of the church takes precedence over the biblical outlook and leads it away from clear biblical teaching in core areas like tradition, authority, Mariology, salvation, etc. It means that its Roman Catholicity was given primacy over its biblical catholicity, thus altering the fundamental commitments of the Roman Church.
One Standing Issue The book is outstanding in its impressive scholarship and careful argumentation. I have many words of commendation with only one remaining criticism. The authors, though masterly at presenting a convincing case, don’t go far enough in coming to terms with its consequences. They still operate with the mindset that what divides Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church is less than what unites them. Here is the way they put it: “Deep Disagreement despite Deeper Agreement” (p. 78). According to them, the deeper agreement is the Trinitarian and Christological foundation of the “catholic” tradition (as it is enshrined in the early creeds of the ancient church), whereas the deep disagreement refers to the later Roman accretions (as they are, for example, reflected in the papacy).
This way of understanding the dividing line between Evangelicals and Catholics is popular in ecumenical circles, but it is not fully consistent with the thesis endorsed by the authors. The fact that the Roman Catholic Church is committed to its Roman identity and to its catholic heritage means that even the catholic (i.e. Trinitarian and Christological) core is affected by its Roman commitment. According to the Catholic Church, the Roman and non-biblical elements (i.e. the Roman pontiff, the Roman imperial institutions, the Roman hierarchical ecclesiology) are not accidents of history; they are considered to be de iure divino (i.e. stemming from divine law, being rooted in God’s will) constitutive components of the church. For Rome, its catholic and Roman dual identity is grounded in the divine will. So these foundational Roman commitments do impact the way in which the “catholic” ones are understood and articulated in doctrine and practice. The “catholic” heritage of Rome has been shaped, curved, and bent by its Roman additions to the point that it is no longer the way it was in the ancient church. It is a different catholicity. It is Roman Catholicism.
Moreover, all of the spurious Roman elements are argued for in Trinitarian and Christological ways by Roman Catholic theology. For example, the Pope is believed to be the “vicar” of Christ and chosen by the Holy Spirit. This is a Trinitarian argument, but a kind of Trinitarianism that is significantly different from the biblical one to the point of allowing and demanding the wrong Roman developments.
The point is that the “deep disagreements despite deeper agreement” approach adopted in the book should actually be reversed. Between the Evangelical faith and Rome are deep agreements despite deeper disagreements. “Roman but not Catholic” means that the catholic that is in Rome is no longer biblically catholic, but distortedly Roman Catholic, and needs to be reformed according to the gospel.
J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1963) pp. 245-246.
Roman Catholics as individuals and groups may have different opinions about the Pope. After all, the Church of Rome is not a monolith, and even Popes polarize the assessments of the Catholic people. But what happens when negative voices become more frequent, more outspoken, more radical in their criticism, as seems to be the case in recent months? While public opinion is still heavily influenced by the overall positive image that Francis has, and continues to consider him as a kind of “hero”, within Catholic circles the “wait-and-see” approach toward some awkward aspects of his teaching is coming to an end. Groups of intellectuals, priests, and even cardinals are voicing their growing embarrassment and are doing it publicly and with a severe tone. In raising their concerns, what they point to are not some peripheral elements but important matters of doctrine. The irony is that the one who is supposed to guard the Roman Catholic deposit of faith is charged with allegations of introducing confusion, if not heresy.
Coming to Terms with Recent Criticism
There are at least three criticisms against Pope Francis that are worth considering. Let’s briefly look at them chronologically.
In September 2016, four cardinals (two of whom have recently died) sent to the Pope five questions (in Latin “dubia”, doubts) concerning the interpretation of key parts of his summary document on the synod on the family, Amoris Laetitia. In the explanatory note, they give voice to the “grave disorientation and great confusion” that exist in the Catholic community. According to the cardinals, the contrasting interpretations of the papal text arise from its ambiguity and the apparent contradictions with previous official teaching on the re-admission of divorced people to the Eucharist. Although they asked the Pope to clear any ambiguity, Francis never responded and perhaps will never do so. Their doubts will remain unanswered.
In July 2017, more than 200 Catholic priests and intellectuals from around the world wrote “a filial correction concerning the propagation of heresies” to the Pope , thus elevating the tone of the criticism to the denouncing of doctrinal deviations. Their observations were no longer questions, but real corrections made to the teaching of the Pope. The word “heresy” was evoked in looking at the demise of the traditional teaching on marriage and the sacraments, as they see happening, and severely threatening the future credibility of their Church.
At the end of July then, Father Thomas Weinandy, a capuchin priest and former chief of staff for the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and a current member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, made public a letter sent to the Pope. In it, he argued that “a chronic confusion seems to mark your pontificate obscured by the ambiguity of your words and actions. This fosters within the faithful a growing unease. It compromises their capacity for love, joy and peace”. Moreover, Weinandy charges Francis with “demeaning” the importance of doctrine, appointing bishops who “scandalize” believers with dubious “teaching and pastoral practice”, giving prelates who object the impression they will be “marginalized or worse” if they speak out, and causing faithful Catholics to “lose confidence in their supreme shepherd.”This is hard language coming from a mainstream Roman Catholic theologian who has spent the whole of his life in the service of his Church and the Vatican. What is happening in the Roman Catholic Church? Is Rome on the eve of an internal breaking point with disastrous consequences?
The Tensions between the Roman and Catholic components
These three criticisms are extremely serious and perhaps a tipping point in Catholic circles as far as the growing uneasiness towards Pope Francis is concerned. Various interpretations have been suggested in trying to understand what is happening. What might be useful, in coming to terms with it, is to relate both Francis’s apparent openness to change and ambiguity in teaching on the one hand, and the angrier reactions of the traditionalists on the other, to the inner and constitutive dynamics of Roman Catholicism.
Roman Catholicism is what it is because it inherently combines the “Roman” element with the “Catholic” one. Both are essential components of the synthesis offered by the Roman Catholic system. The genius of Roman Catholicism is its being at the same time Roman and Catholic, one and the other, one never at the expense of the other.
It is “Roman” in the sense that it is organically attached to the city and the Church of Rome, and by extension to the institutions, canon laws, dogmas, hierarchy, and the political outlook associated with it. Much of this derives from a complex history marked by an imperial ideology.
It is “Catholic” in the sense of its being inclusive, global, embracing, and open to different movements, trends, and trajectories. The Roman elements provide stability and continuity; the Catholic element fosters development and renewal. Roman Catholicism is able to hold the tension deriving from its dual identity and to maintain it at a manageable balance.
What is happening with Pope Francis is to be understood against the background of the tensions between the Roman and Catholic poles within Roman Catholicism. Francis is strongly pushing the “catholic” agenda of Rome, embracing all, affirming all, expanding the traditional boundaries of the Church.
Some traditionalist circles are reacting strongly because they see the danger of losing the Roman elements represented by the well-established teachings and practices of the Church. They see the Catholic swallowing the Roman. They see the risk of the Catholic taking precedence over the Roman and therefore severing the dynamic link that has characterized Roman Catholicism for centuries.
Whereas with the previous Pope (Benedict XVI), the overall balance was more in favor of the Roman than the Catholic, with Francis the Roman Catholic pendulum is swinging towards the catholicity of Rome. Francis’s critics believe that he has gone too far and want the pendulum to reverse towards more reassuring Roman elements.
Can There Be a Biblical Reformation in Roman Catholicism?
As we are celebrating 500 years of the Protestant Reformation, with its call to the Church to submit to the authority of Scripture and its recovery of the good news that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone, it is appropriate to ask whether Rome is still grappling with the same issues that gave rise to it.
Luther took issue with the Pope and his theology and practice of dispensing God’s pardon through indulgences. Luther’s standard was the biblical gospel, and he challenged the Church to embrace afresh the gospel. Rome responded by absorbing some of Luther’s concerns about grace and faith within the sacramental system largely shaped around Roman elements and within its synergistic theology significantly marked by Catholic components, thus reinforcing the overall Roman Catholic synthesis rather than reforming it according to the Word of God.
Ever since, the Roman Catholic system has been swinging and bending one way or another to accomodate either progressive or traditional trends, either reiterating Roman emphases or introducing Catholic ones, and then rebalancing the whole. But the Church was not reformed because it did not recognize the external and supreme authority of Scripture and the gospel of salvation by faith alone. As it stands, it will never be renewed according to the Word of God. It will certainly accomodate “Catholic” movements like the Charismatic renewal and “Roman” movements like the Marian groups, and then re-fix the overall synthesis. It will even accomodate an emphasis on biblical literacy, as well as commend unbiblical devotions and beliefs: both-and, Roman and Catholic!
What is happening now with the criticism of Pope Francis is business as usual in the Roman Catholic Church: at times the pendulum swings one way before readdressing the overall balance. It could be argued that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was a great push towards the Catholic element and the reigns of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were subsequent attempts to moderate it in terms of reinforcing the Roman elements. With Francis the Catholic is again winning the day. These tensions will go on as long as Roman Catholicism exists. They are inner movements within the system. If one looks at Roman Catholicism as a system, then even the doubts of the cardinals, the criticism of priests and intellectuals, and even their charges of heresy against the Pope become easier to come to terms with. Roman Catholicism is both Roman and Catholic, and will always be so.
Nothing is going to break abruptly and, more importanly, no biblical reformation is possible under these conditions. Roman Catholicism will be stretched and go through a stress test, but will be able to handle both Francis’ catholicity and his critics’ insistence on the Roman component. The synthesis will be expanded, but the gospel will not be allowed to change Rome. This is the reason why the Reformation is not over.
This is an excerpt of a much longer paper soon to be published in Rerum Novarum: Neo-Calvinism and Roman Catholicism, James Eglinton and George Harinck, eds. (Edinburgh: Bloomsbury,forthcoming).
In the book of Daniel (chapter 2), Daniel tells us that King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in which he saw a great statue. This statue had several parts made of different materials, but the narrative is particularly interested in describing its feet. They were made “partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron”. The text goes on to associate some distinctive properties to both materials: the iron speaks of “firmness”, while the clay is materially and metaphorically “soft”. The statue’s feet were partly strong and partly brittle (3:42). After describing the feet, Daniel becomes the interpreter of the dream. The mixture of iron and clay gave the statue a very weak foundation because iron and clay don’t hold together. The statue therefore seemed powerful and looked frightening, but in reality it stood on shaky legs and weak feet. It was going to be broken into pieces by a stone that was “cut out by no human hand” (3:34) and carried away by the wind.
Interestingly, Dutch philosopher and theologian Cornelius Van Til (1896-1987) used the metaphor of the mixture between “clay” and “iron” to describe his view of Roman Catholicism.
Clay and Iron in Roman Catholicism
Van Til argued that “Romanists mix a great deal of the clay of paganism with the iron of Christianity”. The result is a religious framework in which a variety of different materials merge so as to form a composite and complex system of thought which is neither mere paganism nor mere Christianity: it is a synthesis of both, a combination of different materials. These metaphors suggest the idea that Roman Catholicism is not a random encounter between different elements, but rather a sophisticated mélange whereby clay and iron are joined together in something unique, distinct, and new.
This point is worth unpacking. Van Til argued that the fundamental nature of Roman Catholicism is not the on-going, organic development of the early form of Christianity, as John Henry Newman’s account of Catholicism suggests. On the contrary, it is characterized by a structural combination of Christian and non-Christian features that lies at the very heart of the Roman Catholic fabric. The theological task of a Reformed apologetic is to detect this combination, assess it, and constructively criticise it against the background of a Reformed worldview. The ultimate constitution of Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, marred by the co-existence of Christian and non-Christian elements.
Shifting the focus from categories to contents, Roman Catholicism is, for Van Til, the historical outcome of a process of assimilation of non-Christian and pagan thought-products by what used to be authentic Christianity, which has led to a radical transformation of the latter. Actually, Van Til went so far as to argue that Roman Catholicism is, strictly speaking, “a deformation of Christianity” itself, whereby non-Christian presuppositions and pagan connotations are given a Christianised status and contribute to shaping the whole system in ways that depart from the original outlook. Thus, the Christian “iron” and the pagan “clay” are constitutive parts of the system and are the two legs maintaining the system. Or, in Van Til’s terms, “the concrete blocks may be those of Christianity, but the cement is nothing other than the sand of paganism”.
What is important to underline here is that, according to Van Til, the combination of “iron” and “clay” is to be found everywhere in the Catholic system, perhaps not always in the same measure and balance, but nevertheless throughout the whole spectrum of its theological horizon. The point of difference between the Reformed and the Roman Catholic systems is not in one particular locus on only a few isolated doctrines (e.g. ecclesiology, Mariology, soteriology), but rather is traceable in all loci. The synthesis may be less evident or consistent in some domains than others, but it is to be found everywhere because of the constitutive composite nature of Roman Catholicism. For Van Til, there may be “formal” occasional agreements with the Reformed view, but a closer scrutiny will highlight the presence of iron and clay scattered everywhere beyond the surface of apparent convergences.
The Roman Catholic “Aristotle-Christ” and “Kant-Christ”
Van Til’s view of Roman Catholicism can be summarized in this way: Roman Catholicism is a dynamic and evolving synthesis of Christian and pagan elements. The iron and the clay stand intermingled, forming an inextricable combination that mars the whole fabric of the system. The most established forms are the Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the Kant-Christ synthesis. In the Middle Ages, the Church’s reliance on the writings of Aristotle ended up suffocating the Catholic Christ. In modernity it is Kant who has become the destroyer of the Catholic Christ. There is a significant difference between these syntheses, but also substantial continuity because of the stability of the overarching system that supports them. Roman Catholicism does not stand on Christ alone, but on Christ plus something else.
According to Van Til, the system is governed by a thoroughgoing et-et (both-and) epistemology that needs – indeed requires – the supplementation of Christ with something else. In Van Til’s way of putting it, “the former Aristotle-Christ synthesis and the former Kant-Christ synthesis have joined hands to form the Aristotle-Kant-Christ synthesis”. Modern Catholicism is therefore “a synthesis of medieval essentialism and modern existentialism”. There is no epistemological safeguard that is granted by the Solus Christus principle, but the catholicity of the system makes it possible to expand it in various ways, depending on historical circumstances.
Limits and Insights
Methodologically speaking, Van Til’s systemic approach sometimes prevented him from dealing more extensively with Catholic sources and allowing them to speak for themselves. He often seemed to deductively presume what Catholicism holds, rather than actually following the train of reasoning of individual Roman Catholic theologians or the official Magisterium. Less attention was given to important details and nuances than was granted to the big picture. Moreover, from a theological point of view, he did not invest as much energy in studying post-Vatican II developments as he had done in exploring Thomistic Catholicism. Because the Second Vatican Council is only touched on superficially and selectively, Van Til’s post-Vatican II perspectives are only sketched briefly and are in need of further elaboration in order to become plausible.
Nonetheless, his apologetic method, which looked for the “heart” of a religious worldview in order to figure out what is at stake as far as its basic orientation is concerned, is an asset that cannot be underestimated. Much ecumenical dialogue focuses on minutiae and loses sight of the big picture. Going back to Daniel’s dream, Van Til helps to see the vision of the big statue as a whole and to notice its intrinsically weak foundation if iron and clay are to be found in its legs. This is not only true for Roman Catholicism, of course. Every Christian tradition needs to ask itself to what degree iron and clay are mixed in its building blocks and to be self-critical about the Gospel sustainability of its foundation.
What Van Til argued is that although there is considerable diversity in its forms of expression, Roman Catholicism is a basically unitary reality whose underlying tenets can be discerned. In dealing with Roman Catholicism, especially in times of mounting ecumenical pressure, evangelical theology should go beyond the surface of theological statements and attempt to grasp the internal frame of reference of Roman Catholic theology. Any analysis which does not take into account the fact that Roman Catholicism is a system will fall prey to a superficial and fragmented understanding of it. In this task Van Til was, and continues to be, a voice that may not sound ecumenically friendly, but is nonetheless prophetically true.
Christian Theory of Knowledge, 185. Later in the same book, Van Til writes: “the (Catholic) church has enlarged the vision of herself and of her mission by means of adding the Kant-Christ synthesis with which neo-orthodox Protestantism operates to its own Aristotle-Christ synthesis”, 192.
Jack Mulder Jr., What Does it Mean to be Catholic? (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2015) 226 pp.
What does it mean to be Catholic? The question is simple but the answer is fraught with complexities. Is there a recognizable core, a pervasive blueprint, a distinct pattern of what Roman Catholicism is all about? The issue is worth tackling, especially in times like ours where confessional identities are often blurred and flattened. The merit of this book is to present a comprehensive, albeit short and readable, introduction to what is constitutive of the Roman Catholic identity. The intention of the Author, an associate professor of philosophy at Hope College (Michigan, USA), is to show “a small glimpse of the internal coherence, the beauty, and the depth of the Catholic faith” (p. 9). Rather than testing Roman Catholicism in terms of biblical truth or gospel faithfulness, the primary interest is to underline the coherent nature of Roman Catholicism in terms of its aesthetical attraction and profound structure of thought. In itself this is already an indication of what it means to be Catholic: looking for coherence, beauty and depth, not necessarily according to and under God’s revealed Word. The Author was raised in the Protestant faith and converted to Roman Catholicism in his adulthood. So he knows the evangelical subculture quite well. In presenting his newly found faith he often and interestingly interacts with concerns and questions that are normally asked by evangelical protestants.
The opening sentence of chapter 1 well captures the essence of what Roman Catholicism is all about in its practical outworking. “In my wallet I carry a little card with a picture of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and a tiny piece of cloth laminated to it. Next to the cloth it reads: This piece of cloth has been touched by his relics” (p. 11). What used to be thought of as being the quintessence of idolatry, i.e. the reliance on pictures, relics and saints, is now seen as expressing the genuine longing of the Catholic faith: the blessed presence of divine grace accessed through tangible objects and human holy mediators. The Author readily acknowledges that in order to make sense of this practice one needs to have a wider concept of Divine Revelation than Scripture alone. According to Roman Catholicism, Scripture and tradition are streams of the same wellspring of Revelation that the Church is given the task to rightly interpret and duly apply, thus governing the “development” of doctrine and practice. From the religious point of view, carrying the card with St. Thomas Aquinas makes sense given the fact that the “formal principle” of the Roman faith is not Scripture alone, but Scripture as interpreted as part of a bigger Tradition ultimately received and spelt out by the teaching office of the Church. As it was the case in the XVI century, the evangelical “Scripture alone” is utterly incompatible with Roman Catholicism.
Having clarified this foundational epistemological point, the rest of the book aptly presents the Roman Catholic faith, introducing topics as central and diverse as The Church and her Magisterium, God and Humanity, The Person and Work of Christ, Mary and the Communion of the Saints, The Seven Sacraments, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, The Human Person. All in all, the Author well manages to navigate the complexities of Catholic doctrine and practice, always trying to trace their doctrinal development and pointing to the coherence of the whole in terms of the present-day teaching of Roman Catholicism. He does a great job in expounding the coherence of the system given its wide foundations which go well beyond the Bible. The problem is: is it what the biblical Gospel is all about? Once established that the normative reference point is not Scripture alone, every point he deals with raises serious concerns from a biblical perspective.
A Gradualist View of Salvation
A test-case of the deviant direction of Roman Catholicism has to do with the view of salvation as having a universal scope and a hopeful end for all. The Author sides with the post-Vatican II account whereby there are circles of salvation which ultimately embrace the whole of humanity. Quoting Paul VI and John Paul II, but evoking standard Vatican II teaching, “There are four concentric circles of people: first, all humanity; second, the worshipers of the one God; third, all Christians; and fourth, Catholics themselves” (p. 9). Salvation is seen as a gift that people receive in different degrees depending on the circle they chose to identify with or find themselves in. Roman Catholics receive God’s grace in the fullest measure through the sacraments administered by the (Roman) Church under the Pope and the bishops who are the successors of the apostles; other Christians receive God’s grace to a lesser extent because they retain true elements of the faith but lack the fullness of it in not being in full fellowship with the Church of Rome. Religious people receive it because they have a sense of the divine, although they miss important aspects of the faith. Finally, the whole of humanity receives it because they are human and therefore existentially open to God’s grace which works in mysterious ways. Ultimately, “the only real way to get outside of God’s grace is to expel oneself from it” (p. 190). The conditions for such self-expulsion are so remote and limited that practically there is hope that all will be saved. This is quite different from clear biblical teaching that turns the picture upside down. According to Scripture we are all by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), all sinners (Romans 3:23), all under his judgment (John 3:18). It is not us who exclude ourselves from God’s grace. Because of sin we are all born into this condition. Roman Catholicism turns the argument around and believes the contrary, i.e. we are all born into God’s grace albeit at various levels of depth and at different degrees.
As an aside comment, the Author interestingly says that “when evangelical leader Rob Bell came out with a book called Love Wins, which only raises the possibility of everyone ending up in heaven, and never definitively claims that this will happen, controversy erupted in evangelical circles, but Catholics took very little notice” (p. 187). This is no surprise given the hopeful scope of the Roman Catholic gradualist view of salvation for all.
The book is very honest in presenting the Roman Catholic faith and not hiding points of controversy with other Christian traditions. Contrary to some attempts to blur the lines, this volume does a good job in highlighting what is distinctive of Roman Catholicism and therefore in showing how it is different from the evangelical faith. Even in its post-Vatican II outlook, Roman Catholicism is still idiosyncratic to Scripture alone, Christ alone and faith alone.