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.

186. Children of Abraham? Pope Francis’ Equivocation

Whenever we talk about lands tormented by decades of wars and violence, sometimes perpetrated in the name of religions, divinities and faiths, we must do so with sobriety and circumspection. It is easy to pontificate from a distance, comfortably seated and safe, forgetting the tragic context and the widespread suffering in the situation you want to talk about. This is to say that commenting on Pope Francis’ recent trip to Iraq can become a pretext for easy criticism if one does not try to enter the complexity of the situation and the tragedy of the hour. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that the Roman pope’s call to religious freedom and freedom of conscience was very good. His appeal to respect for minorities was extremely helpful. His invitation to national conciliation and solidarity between the various components of society was also commendable.

REUTERS/Yara Nardi

Having said that, the theological framework of his visit to Iraq cannot be overlooked. The climax of his journey was the address given at the inter-religious meeting at the Plain of Ur (March 6th). In a very evocative and emotional way, his speech was centered on the figure of Abraham as the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims. According to Francis, “Abraham our father” is common to all: Jews, Christians and Muslims are the “descendants” promised by God to Abraham and therefore “brothers and sisters” among them. These three groups are called by God “to bear witness to his goodness, to show his paternity through our fraternity”. In the name of Abraham, they experience the same human (in Abraham) and divine (in God) fatherhood, thus being brothers and sisters. Applying it to today’s situation, according to the Pope,“there will be no peace as long as we see others as them and not us”.

All Brothers and Sisters
After laboring the point of the shared brotherhood in God and in Abraham, Francis ended his address in a way that boils down his vision:

Brothers and sisters of different religions, here we find ourselves at home, and from here, together, we wish to commit ourselves to fulfilling God’s dream that the human family may become hospitable and welcoming to all his children; that looking up to the same heaven, it will journey in peace on the same earth.

This heartfelt appeal was followed by the “Prayer of the children of Abraham” (recited with the Christian and Muslim representatives present at the meeting) in which, among others, these expressions are striking:

As children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with other believers and all persons of good will, we thank you for having given us Abraham, a distinguished son of this noble and beloved country, to be our common father in faith.

And again:

We ask you, the God of our father Abraham and our God, to grant us a strong faith, a faith that abounds in good works, a faith that opens our hearts to you and to all our brothers and sisters; and a boundless hope capable of discerning in every situation your fidelity to your promises.

Abraham is presented as “our common father in faith” and the prayer is addressed to “our God” without mentioning the name of Jesus Christ, taking for granted God’s fatherhood not as Creator of all things, but as “our God”, God of us “brothers and sisters”.

In addition, by concluding his address with an inter-religious prayer, the pope shifted the focus from a religious speech to a form of “spiritual ecumenism”, i.e. joint prayer. For him, speaking about  universal fraternity and praying as brothers and sisters to the same God are one and the same. Inter-religious dialogue becomes a spiritual form of unity based on the conviction that all humanity shares faith in the same God. In the Roman Catholic understanding and practice of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, joint prayer is always in view when talking about “unity”.

The papal address and his inter-religious prayer require a “grammar” to be fully understood. It is easy to stop at the level of a convinced call for religious freedom and peaceful coexistence. It would be reductive and not in line with the intentions of the pontiff. What Francis said and did is embedded in a truly Roman Catholic theology of the unity of the human race as it is made up of sisters and brothers, all children of the same God who, as such, can and must pray together.

The Pope’s Slippery Slope
There is an evident slippery slope in this train of argument related to the themes of otherness and coexistence between different people. Apart from the heavy implications of universalism (i.e. the idea that all religions lead to God), the pope says that in order to not be in conflict with one another, people must be friends; to be friends,they must be brothers and sisters; and to be brothers and sisters, it is necessary to refer to the same divinity which, although differently constructed on the theological level, is the same God. The train of thought ends in this way: being all children of the same God, we must pray together.

If we consider all the steps involved in this argument, we are faced with an impressive concentration of what the Roman Catholic vision looks like. 

There are strong theological implications as far as the doctrine of God is concerned: is the Muslim Allah the same as the Triune God of the Bible? If we are praying as brothers and sisters together, the pope’s answer is YES.

There are evident soteriological consequences: are we all saved regardless of faith in Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God? If we pray to the same God as brothers and sisters, implying that we are all accepted in His eyes, the pope’s answer is YES even though the language of “universal salvation” is not explicitly used.

There are also missiological overtones: what about the great commission to go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel in view of the conversion of the lost? If we are already brothers and sisters, praying together to the same God, the pope’s answer is that the church’s mission is to make visible and concrete what is already true: no one is really lost and, as human beings, we are already part of God’s family.

The Roman Catholic “Logic” and its Dangers
If one accepts this Roman Catholic “logic” of Pope Francis, in order to live in peace among those who are different, one must recognize the pan-religion that unites everyone. Having a common religion is foundational for striving towards peace. According to the pope, peace is possible among brothers and sisters who are children of Abraham, and who are ultimately children of God.

Those who do not accept this “logic”, i.e. those who believe that one should not have to have the same faith to live together in peace, that one should not have to pray together to love the neighbor as Christ commands us, that one should not have to resort to the rhetoric of “we are all brothers and sisters” to work together for the common good, they sow enmity, foment violence, and create conflicts. The slippery slope of the pope’s speech is extremely dangerous. It undermines the Christian “scandal” according to which Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and, at the same time, Christ’s disciples are called to live in peace with everyone (Romans 12:18) regardless their religious beliefs and practices. This is the Christian claim: in the process of loving the neighbor and living in peace, one should never fudge the gospel that says that apart from Jesus Christ there is no salvation (Acts 4:12). On the contrary, the pope thinks that in order to have peace one MUST profess the universal religion of “we-are-all-brothers-and-sisters-praying-to-the-same-God”. His is not the Christian way.

A final word on Abraham. What the pope said about the patriarch, the apostle Paul would not have said. For Paul, Abraham is the father of the believers in Jesus Christ (Romans 4:11-12). For Paul, the descendants of Abraham are the disciples of Jesus Christ from every nation (Romans 4:16-17): his inheritance, in fact, does not follow the biological line of flesh and blood but is received and transmitted “by faith” in Jesus Christ (4:16). Jesus himself questioned ethnic and cultural appropriations of the common fatherhood of Abraham (John 8:39), saying that Abraham rejoiced in waiting to see the day of the Lord Jesus (John 8:56). Without Jesus, and outside of faith in Jesus Christ, being children of Abraham can be a cultural identity marker, but not the basis for unity in faith and prayer.

185. Fides et Ratio (1998): Three Theses on the Roman Catholic Synthesis Between Faith and Reason

The publication of the encyclical letter “Fides et Ratio” (FR) on 14 September 1998 by John Paul II brought to the attention of the religious world and public opinion a theme of fundamental importance for Christianity, i.e. the relationship between faith and reason. This document is considered to be one of the most important contributions given by the Roman Catholic Church to the interplay between theology and philosophy, Christianity and culture, and the Church and the world. These “theses” are an attempt to highlight its main message and to critically assess it from an evangelical perspective.

1. FR Is Important for What It Says and for What It Omits to Say
FR shows the vastness and depth of Roman Catholic wisdom in a condensed and meditated form. In the classic style of the encyclicals, FR is a document that brings together a series of ideas woven into a discourse that tends towards a synthesis. To address the question of the relationship between faith and reason, FR lays the foundations starting from the reading of some biblical data, taken above all from the Wisdom literature and from Pauline writings. These biblical references are put in a theological framework that makes use of some patristic sources summarized in the expressions “credo ut intelligam” (i.e. I believe in order to understand) and “intelligo ut credam” (i.e. I understand in order to believe).

FR makes abundant use of references to texts, authors, and schools in the history of the church and more general intellectual history. Understandably, the text abounds in quotations or references to the pronouncements of the Catholic magisterium over the centuries[1]. However, FR extends beyond magisterial boundaries, and the choice of thinkers, philosophers, theologians[2], and schools of thought[3] mentioned or cited is interesting. This foundation is followed by a historical analysis of the trends of thought that shaped Western culture.

FR is interesting in what it says but also in what it omits to say. Its silences are just as revealing as its explicit citations. The catholicity of Rome is not all-encompassing, but responds to the selective logic of Roman catholicity. Above all, it is worth noting the lack of any reference to evangelical Protestant authors or sources. There is no citation of the Protestant Reformers, and the same negligence can be extended to Protestant orthodoxy (XVII century), to philosophers such as Jonathan Edwards, or to neo-Calvinism (e.g. A. Kuyper and H. Bavinck). On the one hand FR tries to include the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy (n. 74), while on the other hand it excludes that of Protestantism. Evidently, the Roman Catholic center of gravity of Thomism, on which the encyclical rests, may lean in one direction but not in the other.

2. FR Understands the Relationship Between Faith and Reason on the Basis of the Nature-Grace Interdependence
From its beginning, FR has an unmistakable Thomistic inspiration. The encyclical can be considered to be an authoritative affirmation of the importance of Thomism for the Roman Catholic worldview. Without the scaffolding provided by Thomism, FR would be unthinkable. FR is explicit in supporting the “enduring originality” of Thomas’s thought (nn. 43-44). It endorses the philosophical framework of the 1870 dogmatic constitution “Dei Filius” of Vatican I (nn. 52-53), the 1879 encyclical “Aeterni Patris” (n. 57), and the Neo-Thomistic renewal of the twentieth century (nn. 58-59). Thomism is the trajectory that joins together medieval Roman Catholicism to the post-conciliar one. It represents “the most elevated synthesis ever attained by human thought” (n. 78).

FR does not stop at indicating the “enduring originality” of Thomism, but understands the relationship between faith and reason on the basis of the Thomist interdependence between nature and grace. The latter is upstream from the former. In a programmatic sentence, FR affirms that “as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason” (n. 43; see also n. 75). Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism, and the oil of anointing that convey grace), in the ability of reason to develop a “natural theology”, in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened by sin, nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism in whatever is natural to be graced. The nature-grace interdependence is particularly evident in the way FR conceives the autonomy of reason and the weak consequences of sin.

2.1 FR Credits Reason with an Unsustainable Autonomy
The encyclical reaffirms the Thomist thesis sanctioned by Vatican Councils I and II of the existence of two orders of knowledge, each of which has its own principles and objects of knowledge (nn. 9, 13, 53, 55, 67, 71, 73, 75, 76). Faith and reason therefore operate in distinct, though not separate, spheres. If, on the one hand, reason has its own area of autonomy with respect to faith, on the other, faith cannot disregard the contribution of reason which, while pertaining to another order of knowledge, is nevertheless indispensable for a correct exercise of faith. Reason opens up to faith and faith is grafted onto reason. In line with the Thomist vision, FR considers faith something beyond the “natural” realm of reason and brings it to completion.

According to FR, if properly understood and practiced, there is no conflict between faith and reason but only harmony and collaboration. It is no coincidence that the encyclical begins with the programmatic statement according to which “faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (n. 1). FR argues for the autonomy of reason. This autonomy reflects “the autonomy of the creature” (n. 15) and manifests itself on methodological (nn. 13 and 67) and normative (nn. 67, 73, 77) levels. Within the Thomist framework in which “Faith intervenes not to abolish reason’s autonomy” (n. 16), autonomy is conceived as “legitimate” (nn. 75 and 79) and “valid” (nn. 75, 106).

From an evangelical perspective, the Thomist picture of FR is flawed because it envisions an unwarranted autonomy to reason. According to the Bible, all of existence, reason included, must be lived coram Deo, and this excludes the idea that reason can be divorced from faith as if it were a self-subsisting faculty or detached from the reality of God. Life in its entirety finds its frame of reference in the broken or re-established covenant with God. Any human activity is experienced in the context of the covenant between God and man. Reason, therefore, is essentially religious: either in a broken-covenantal framework due to sin, or in a reconciled-covenantal framework given by Jesus Christ.

2.2 FR Weakens the Significance of the Noetic Effects of Sin
In continuity with the non-tragic vision of sin proper to Thomism, FR also presents a biblically deficient doctrine of sin in relation to its impact on reason. The fragility, fragmentation, and limitations of reason are recognized (nn. 13 and 43), as well as an inner weakness (n. 75) and a certain imperfection (n. 83). Sin intervenes on the structure of reason, bringing wounds, obstacles, obfuscation, debilitation, and disorder (nn. 23, 82, 71). However, according to FR, the “capacity” of reason to know the transcendent dimension “in a true and certain way” (n. 83) remains as well as its ability to grasp some truths (n. 67), to rise towards the infinite (n. 24) and to reach out to the Creator (n. 8). The very fact that FR often refers to reason in an absolute sense highlights the effective intangibility of reason with respect to sin. Ultimately, FR is an invitation to nurture “trust in the power of human reason (n. 56), demonstrating the fact that sin has had only a marginal impact. According to FR, even if touched by sin, reason has retained its potential and its autonomous status.

From an evangelical point of view, the encyclical does not account for the biblical teaching regarding the radical and tragic effects that sin has determined in every area of ​​life, including reason and the exercise of reason. For the Bible, sin has introduced a total distortion to the point that there is no longer any reason that is only partially affected by sin, but all reason is entirely imbued with sin. The noetic effects of sin undermine any confidence in the intrinsic capacities of reason and require abandoning any claim of absolute or partial neutrality of reason with respect to sin. The only hope that can be cultivated lies in the message of the salvation of Jesus Christ, which is aimed at the redemption of reason through the regeneration of the reasoning subject and the biblical reformation of the criteria of reason.

3. FR Explicitly Rejects “Scripture Alone”
The encyclical is very critical towards numerous trends of thought present in today’s world. Among these, the pope lists the danger of “biblicism”, which is defined as a “fideistic tendency” which “tends to make the reading of Sacred Scripture or its exegesis the only truthful point of reference” (n. 55). Here is the full text:

One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a “biblicism” which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles”. Scripture, therefore, is not the Church’s sole point of reference. The “supreme rule of her faith” derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.

The recognition of the triad of Tradition-Scripture-Magisterium as the combined reference point for Roman Catholicism places the encyclical in the wake of the Council of Trent (1545-1563),which rejected the “Scripture Alone” principle of the Reformation. The point is further reinforced when John Paul II writes that “theology makes its own the content of Revelation as this has been gradually expounded in Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Church’s living Magisterium” (n. 65).

In FR we find the traditional doctrine that the Reformers of the sixteenth century and the evangelicals of the following centuries rejected, i.e. Scripture is with and under the Tradition of the Church past and present. The re-presentation of the Tridentine doctrine that is in direct contrast to the Reformation (even though it is not explicitly referred to) is central to FR. It shows that while renewing itself, Roman Catholicism never reforms itself in the light of Scripture. In short, FR reproduces the dynamics of the development of the Roman Catholic doctrine, i.e. updating without changing.

FR thinks of “Scripture Alone” as a danger. In the light of this contrast, it must be acknowledged that the triad of Tradition-Scripture-Magisterium is not compatible with the evangelical conviction that Scripture is the ultimate criterion for faith and reason. Either the former is true or the latter. Whereas FR, in continuity with Tridentine Catholicism, incorporates the Bible into Tradition and allows the Bible to speak only through the voice of the Magisterium, the evangelical faith recognizes the Bible as “norma normans non normata”, i.e. the rule that rules without being ruled.

FR stems from the Thomistic commitment of Roman Catholicism that presents severe problems for the evangelical faith at some fundamental points. While being full of interesting observations and comments, FR is not a reliable document to begin to frame the relationship between faith and reason in a biblical way.

Short Bibliography
L. Jaeger, “La foi et la raison. A propos de la letter encyclique: «Fides et ratio»”, Fac-Réflexion 46-47 (1999) pp. 35-46.

M. Mantovani, S. Thuruthiyil, M. Toso (edd.), Fede e ragione. Opposizione, composizione? (Roma: Las, 1999).

R.J. Neuhaus, “A passion for truth: the way of faith and reason”, First Things 88 (1998) pp. 65-73.

C. O’Regan, “Ambiguity and Undecidability in Fides et Ratio”, International Journal of Systematic Theology 2:3 (2000) pp. 319-329.

A. Howe, “Faith and reason”, Evangelical Times (April 1999) pp. 14 and 30.

E.J. Echeverria, “Once Again, John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio”, Philosophia Reformata vol. 69/1 (2004) pp. 38-52.


[1]E.g.:

– Councils: Synod of Constantinople, Chalcedon, Toledo, Braga, Wien, Lateran IV, Lateran V, Vatican I, Vatican II;

– Encyclicals: “Redemptor hominis” (1979), “Veritatis splendor” (1993), “Aeterni patris” (1879), “Humani generis” (1950), “Pascendi dominici gregis” (1907), “Divini redemptoris” (1937), “Dominum et vivificantem” (1986);

– Apostolic Letters: “Tertio millennio adveniente” (1995), “Salvifici doloris” (1984), “Lumen ecclesiae” (1974);

– Liturgical texts: Missale romanum;

– Other Magisterial texts can be found innn. 33-34, 41, 43, 52, 54, 61, 67, 92, 94, 96-97, 99, 103, 105-106.

[2] (in order): Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Augustine, Origen, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocians, Dionysusthe Areopagite, Pascal, Aristotle, Tertullian, Francisco Suarez, John Henry Newman, Antonio Rosmini, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, Edith Stein, Vladimir S. Solov’ev, Pavel A. Florenskij, Petr J. Caadaev, Vladimir N. Lossky, Kierkegaard, Bonaventura, pseudo-Epiphanius.

[3] (in order): Idealism, Atheistic Humanism, Positivist mentality, Nihilism, Fideism, Radical Traditionalism, Rationalism, Ontologism, Marxism, Modernism, Liberation Theology, Religious and Philosophical traditions of India, Cina, Japan, other Asian and African Countries, Eclectism, Historicism, Scientism, Pragmatism, Postmodernity.

184. Pope Francis, the Chaplain of the United Nations?

The pandemic hit hard in 2020. Disruption broke in at all levels. The Vatican, as the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, was no exception. Programs in Rome were canceled or held in a low-key form. Was it then a stand-by or – even worse – a wasted year? Not at all.

2020 was a year of intense activity behind the scenes, especially in the area of expanding the borders of Rome’s “catholicity”. The catholicity of Roman Catholicism is one of the two pillars of the whole system: while it is “Roman” – i.e. centered on Rome’s hierarchical institution, focused on Rome’s catechism and canon law, based on its sacramental machinery– it is also “Catholic” – i.e. ever-expanding its synthesis, assimilating trends and movements, aiming at becoming more fully universal through absorbing the world. Outside of the spotlight of media attention, it was the catholicity of Rome that gained a great deal from the COVID year.

While its ordinary events were negatively impacted, the long-term, “catholic” vision of the Roman Church was fueled with impressive consequences. Pope Francis was the architect and proactive director of all these moves. In observing the recent global activities of the pope, the Argentinian philosopher Rubén Peretó Rivas compared them with those of an international organization and asked whether Pope Francis aims at becoming the “Chaplain of the United Nations”. His 2020 “universal” initiatives indeed look like those of the United Nations in language, scope and content. Three projects deserve to be mentioned in this respect.

“All Brothers”
It has been rightly called the “political manifesto” of Pope Francis’s pontificate. In fact, there is a lot of politics and a lot of sociology in the latest encyclical “All Brothers” (3rd October 2020). In it, Francis wants to plead the cause of universal fraternity and social friendship. To do this, he speaks of borders to be broken down, of waste to be avoided, of human rights that are not sufficiently universal, of unjust globalization, of burdensome pandemics, of migrants to be welcomed, of open societies, of solidarity, of peoples’ rights, of local and global exchanges, of the limits of the liberal political vision, of world governance, of political love, of the recognition of the other, of the injustice of any war, of the abolition of the death penalty. These are all interesting “political” themes which, were it not for some comments on the parable of the Good Samaritan that intersperse the chapters, could have been written by a group of sociologists and humanitarian workers from some international organization. The vision proposed by “All Brothers” is the way in which Rome sees globalization with the eye of a Jesuit and South American pope.

Its basic message is sufficiently clear: we are all brothers as children of the same God. This is Pope Francis’ theological truth. When “All Brothers” talks about God, it does so in general terms that can fit Muslim, Hindu, and other religions’ accounts of god, as well as the Masonic reference to the Watchmaker. To further confirm this, “All Brothers” ends with a “Prayer to the Creator” that could be used both in a mosque and in a Masonic temple. Having removed the “stumbling block” of Jesus Christ, everyone can turn to an unspecified Divinity to experiment with what it means to be “brothers” – brothers in a Divinity made in the image and likeness of humanity, not brothers and sisters on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ who has died and risen for sinners. “All Brothers” has genetically modified the biblically understood meaning of fraternity by transferring it to common humanity. In doing so, it has lost the biblical boundaries of the word and replaced them with pan-religious traits and contents. The papal document is deist, at best theistic, but not in line with biblical and Trinitarian Christianity.

“All Brothers” shows that the mission that Pope Francis has in mind is not the preaching of the Gospel in words and deeds, but the extension to all of a message of universal fraternity. This is the theological framework of the pope as he stretches the boundaries of the catholicity of his church.

The Global Compact on Education
Soon after releasing “All Brothers”, there was another indication of Pope Francis’ universalist agenda. In a video message aired on 15th October 2020, he commended the “Global Compact on Education” (GCE), i.e. an ambitious plan in the field of education worldwide to bring about a “change of mentality”. The GCE is worked out with Mission 4.7, a U.N.-backed advisory group of civil and political leaders aiming to meet the educational target (numbered 4.7) of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

SDG number 4 strives for “quality education”, and within that goal, target 4.7 aims to “ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship, and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”. 

This is the U.N.’s globalist language, but the Roman Catholic language significantly overlaps with it. GCE speaks of “human fraternity” regardless of and beyond religious beliefs. In the plan, the watchwords are wholly secular. The dominant formula is “new humanism”, explained in terms of “common home”, “universal solidarity”, “fraternity” (as it is defined in “All Brothers”), “convergence”, “welcome”, overcoming “division and antagonism” …  The “new humanism” is coupled with the “universal brotherhood” so as to embrace the whole of humanity in a human, common project. In the “new humanism” Rome reads its increased catholicity, the U.N. its globalist agenda.

In the video Francis also praised the U.N.’s role and contribution in offering a “unique opportunity” to create “a new kind of new education”, and quoted St. Paul VI’s 1965 message of appreciation of the U.N. in which he lauded the institution for “teaching men peace”. Francis is certain that this plan will bring about “the civilization of love, beauty and unity”. No explicit Christian reference is made and there is no indication that the root problem is human sin. It seems that as we will have better education opportunities for all, the “new humanism” will come. This is in line with the U.N. vision, but is it realistic from a Christian viewpoint? 

The Economy of Francesco
If “All Brothers” is the theological framework and GCE is the project in education, a third area that Pope Francis has strongly pushed forward is an initiative in the field of economics. Making reference to Francis of Assisi’s reconciled view between humanity and the earth and drawing inspiration from it, the initiative was called the “Economy of Francesco” (EF).

In a video broadcast on 21st November, the pope called young economists, entrepreneurs and business leaders “to take up the challenge of promoting and encouraging models of development, progress and sustainability in which people, especially the excluded (including our sister earth), will no longer be – at most – a merely nominal, technical or functional presence. Instead, they will become protagonists in their own lives and in the entire fabric of society”. The goal is to strive towards “a pact to change the current economy” and to “give a new soul to the global economy”, and indeed to radically overthrow it in the wake of the “popular movements”.

Again, this project is another extension of the catholicity of the Roman Catholic Church, with no explicit reference to a Christian framework, but falling in line with an apparently globalist view of an economic reality marked by the “new humanism”.

As Francis promoted EF, he also included as partner in the initiative the “Council for Inclusive Capitalism”, meaning the magnates of the Ford Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Mastercard, Bank of America, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the like. The Council is formed by around 500 companies, which together represent 10.5 trillion dollars in assets under management and 200 million workers in over 163 countries. This is to say that simply painting Rome’s catholicity as anti-capitalist is wrong. Pope Francis aims at including all parties in his “new humanism”. In these relationships with the global companies there are also strategic opportunities for funding the initiatives of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a win-win relationship.

As already mentioned, Francis’s activism on the global scene in 2020 prompted someone to label him as “Chaplain of the United Nations” because of the striking convergence between the “new humanism” that he has been advocating in the areas of fraternity, education and the economy and the goals of the U.N. In doing what the pope does, the impression is not to be given that Francis is awkwardly operating outside of Roman Catholic principles and convictions. While there are apparent similarities with the ethos of an international organization such as the U.N., what the pope did in 2020 is an attempt to implement the vision cast at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

In one of its foundational documents on the church, Vatican II argues that the church is a “sacrament”. Here is how it explains what this means: the church is a “sacrament” because she is “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1). The idea of the global “human fraternity” and the Roman Church being a sign and instrument of it is embedded in the self-understanding of Rome. With these recent projects, Pope Francis is making it plain what it means for the Roman Catholic Church to be a “sacrament” in the world in the realms of global politics, education and economy, i.e. uniting the whole of humanity around itself.

In his 2013 document “Evangelii Gaudium”, Francis wrote that “initiating processes rather than possessing spaces” (n. 223) is what he wanted to achieve. “All brothers”, GCE and EF are all processes initiated by the expansion of Rome’s catholicity. Those who are used to think of Roman Catholicism as a “Roman” system (e.g. dogmatic, rigid, locked-in) and not as a “Catholic” project (e.g. open-ended, absorbing and expanding) may be surprised and even puzzled. But Roman Catholicism demands that its Roman-centered institution be unceasingly fertilized by its evermore Catholic horizon, and vice versa.

183. Defining Roman Catholicism: An Evangelical Attempt

Defining something is a bold undertaking. Yet “naming”, and by extension providing an appropriate description of things, is an integral part of the human vocation that cannot be escaped. Like it or not, we always operate with explicit or implicit, accurate or gross definitions.

The next question here is the following: is it possible to define Roman Catholicism? Is it possible to capture the heart of the Roman Catholic worldview in a short description? Obviously “Roman Catholicism” is an extremely rich and complex universe. The risk of oversimplification, if not caricaturization, is always a trap to be avoided.

In recent decades, important heavyweights in Roman Catholic theology have helpfully contributed to the task of identifying the core of Roman Catholicism: think of Karl Adam (The Spirit of Catholicism, 1924, Eng. ed. 1929), Romano Guardini (Von Wesen katholischer Weltanschauung, 1924), Henri de Lubac (Catholicism, 1938; Eng. ed. 1950), Hans Urs von Balthasar (In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic, 1975; Eng. ed. 1988), Walter Kasper (The Catholic Church, 2012; Eng. ed. 2015), just to name a few. This is to say that the question of singling out the gist of Roman Catholicism is deeply felt within Roman Catholicism itself.

Therefore, the search for a definition of Roman Catholicism is not a weird idea. The best minds of contemporary Roman Catholicism have tried to analyze what is essential to Roman Catholicism. What can evangelical theology say about it? Can we participate in the discussion on the nature of Roman Catholicism? In times marked by ecumenical correctness, can we say something about it that dares to be biblically critical? Can evangelical theology take on the responsibility of distilling the tenets of the Roman Catholic system in a brief definition that is both descriptive and evaluative?

Dialogue is best served by transparency and honesty. It is more respectful to speak the truth in love than to hide it behind a screen of “being nice” that fails to address the decisive issues, even if they are painful to tell and listen to. With great approximation and also with a certain amount of courage given the complexity of the task, I suggest a provisional definition. Here it is:

Roman Catholicism is a deviation from biblical Christianity
consolidated over the centuries
reflected in its Roman imperial institution
based on an anthropologically optimistic theology and on an abnormal ecclesiology
defined around its sacramental system
animated by the (universal) Catholic project of absorbing the whole world
resulting in a confused and distorted religion.

In suggesting this definition, we are addressing Roman Catholicism as a system from an evangelical viewpoint. We are not dealing with Roman Catholic people (more on this in the final section). Let us provide a brief treatment of each line.

1. A Deviation from Biblical Christianity
This statement breaks a well-established narrative in the self-understanding of Roman Catholicism, namely that Roman Catholicism is, due to the mechanism of apostolic succession, the legitimate and orthodox embodiment of apostolic Christianity. Others are schismatics (Eastern Orthodox) or heretics (Protestants), as they broke the unbroken line of Roman Catholicism and strayed from its trunk. The truth is, as was already argued by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, this reading must be reversed. Roman Catholicism is not biblical Christianity in its apostolic form, but a departure from it. Its sacramental, hierarchical and devotional developments were consolidated in its dogmatic (tragically irreformable) structure, which took leave of the Gospel. Roman Catholicism turns out to be a deviation furthered hardened into a non-biblical dogmatic system (Marian dogmas, papal infallibility), intertwined with a political state (the Vatican) with which the church must not be confused, in view of a vision that is more similar to the aspiration of an empire than to the mission of the church of Jesus Christ.

In his Treatise on the True Church and the Necessity of Living in It (published in Geneva in 1573), the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) defended exactly this point: “we (the Protestants) did not leave the church, but rather went to the Church”. The Protestant Reformation was necessary to return to the gospel that the Roman system had corrupted to the point of being removed from it. Biblical Christianity, never dormant in history despite the presence of multiple corruptions, did experience a new flourishing at the Reformation and subsequent Evangelical Awakenings.

As a deviation from biblical Christianity, Roman Catholicism is not even one of the many legitimate “denominations” through which the church has expressed itself over time. Given that its dogmatic system (blurred at crucial points), its institutional structure (with a political entity at its core) and its devotional practices (many of which are borrowed from paganism) have departed from the truth of the biblical gospel, the Roman Catholic Church cannot be considered to be one “denomination” among others. While evangelical theology has its own biblical standards by which it accepts Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, “independent” declensions, etc. of the church, the Church of Rome belongs to another category. No “denomination” has a religious head and political leader, no “denomination” has non-biblical and irreformable dogmas, no “denomination” has an “imperial” structure like Rome. Therefore, Roman Catholicism is not one “denomination” among others.

Roman Catholicism relies on a mechanism of institutional succession that has guaranteed monarchical continuity (from one pope to another through a well-refined system), but on the level of adherence to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and fidelity to the Word of God, it is a deviation that has become a self-referential system.

2. Consolidated Over the Centuries
After arguing that Roman Catholicism is a deviation from biblical Christianity, it is time to consider the historical claim according to which it has “consolidated over the centuries”. There is no date of birth for Roman Catholicism, a precise moment to coincide with its beginning. Rather, there have been historical phases and transitions that have had a particular impact on its development.

Surely the “Constantinian shift” of the fourth century was one of the key moments. In this century, which culminated with the promulgation of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius I (380 AD), the church gradually took on a “Roman” institutional form, increasing the power claims of the center over the peripheries. It was Roman bishops like Damasus I and Siricius who assumed for themselves the role of “popes”, which resembled that of an ecclesiastical emperor. After this crucial passage, the imperial cloths taken on by the Roman church have never been abandoned. On the contrary, they have been legitimized by an ecclesiology that has considered them part of the God-given nature of the church. The departure from the biblical form of the church (i.e. made up of converts to Jesus Christ, practicing the priesthood of all believers, in networks of churches connected but not within a hierarchical structure) was gradual, progressive and, tragically, irreversible for Roman Catholicism. Starting from the claims of authority by Damasus and Siricius, to the self-attribution of the “two swords” of the government of Boniface VIII, and arriving at the dogma of papal infallibility of 1870, the supporting structure of the Roman Church was (and still is) imperial.

Another defining moment in the deviant parable of Roman Catholicism was the way in which the title of Mary as “mother of God” (theotokos) was received and developed. That pronouncement of Ephesus (431 AD) gave rise to an explosion of Mariology that was twice elevated to the rank of dogma: in 1854 with the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary and in 1950 with the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary. From a title intended to support the full divinity of Jesus Christ, Roman Catholicism has made Mariology a non-biblical pillar of its dogmatic and devotional practice, with important repercussions on Christology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology; in short, cascading over the whole of faith. This deviance too is irreversible and has made Roman Catholicism porous to the absorption of pagan elements.

A third crucial step was the Council of Trent (1545-1563), when the Church of Rome officially rejected the message of the Protestant Reformation, anathematizing the call to return to the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone on the basis of the teaching of Scripture alone. “Tridentine” Catholicism (i.e. Roman Catholicism relaunched at Trent) has thickened the Roman deviation, making it tougher and more unwilling to listen to the appeals of the Reformation – indeed consolidating its non-biblical commitments in every area of Christian theology, from the doctrine of salvation to that of the church, from Christology to spirituality.

Finally, the long parable of deviations cannot omit the last mile in the history of Roman Catholicism, i.e. the one following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Without denying anything of its past, the Roman church has “updated” and further “developed” it in a dialogical, absorbing, encompassing, but not purifying, way. All the heavy Roman structure of the past has been reaffirmed by juxtaposing it with a “Catholic” profile: soft, ecumenical, open to absorbing everything and everyone. To many, the changes introduced by Vatican II seemed like a real turning point; in reality, it was just a further stage in the self-centering of a system that does not want to reform itself according to the Word of God, but to relaunch itself in a new historical phase without losing any of its unbiblical tenets.

3. The Imperial Roman Structure
The Roman Catholic Church presents itself as a rigid hierarchical and top-down institution, divided between a (restricted) class of clerics and a (large) mass of lay people. The sacrament of order is reserved for the former (with the attached teaching and governing authority), while the latter are relegated to a sacramentally marginal (and in any case never substantial) role as executors. Already this subdivision between a large base of lay people and a small circle of clerics is against the biblical nature of the church, which is a body formed of various members all under one head (which is Christ) and at His service. The same hierarchical structure is found within the class of clerics divided between parish priests, bishops, archbishops and popes all strictly in a hierarchical line. Now this imprint of the ecclesial institution is not biblical, but imperial. It is the Roman imperial culture, and its concept of the exercise of power, that have decisively forged the structure of the Church of Rome and its corresponding hierarchical vision.

The papacy is the institution that best reflects this imperial origin. Even the most generous readings of Peter’s role in the first church described in the New Testament cannot in any way justify the emergence of the papacy as the apical office of the church. The papacy resembles the office of the emperor transposed to the reality of a religious institution. Many papal titles are ecclesiastical translations of imperial titles. Think, for example, of “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles (i.e. Peter)”, “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”, “Primate of Italy”, and “Sovereign of the Vatican City State”. They are imperial titles. They are political roles. In the language used and in the culture they underlie, they are indebted to the politics of the Roman Empire, not to the exercise of responsibility in the church according to the Gospel. Where does the Bible speak of a human head of the church who is “prince”, “pontiff”, “primate”, even “sovereign” of a state? It is clear that we are in the presence of a transposition of titles that are alien to the Church of Jesus Christ because they derive from the political ideology of a human empire.

Think of how the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) defines and describes the role of the Roman Pope. In paragraph 882 it says that “the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as Pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered”. Full, supreme and universal power: this is an imperial power, not defined by Scripture which, on the contrary, limits all powers, inside and outside the Church. See paragraph 937 where we read that “The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls”. Power is still talked about and defined in imperial terms, except to attribute it to the divine will!

The papacy is the child of an imperial conception, at the top of which is the emperor (pope) surrounded by a senate of aristocrats (cardinals and bishops) who govern free men (priests) and a mass of slaves (laymen). Roman Catholicism took over the imperial structure and reproduced it in its own self-understanding and in its internal organization. The tragedy is that it has also clothed it with a divine “imprimatur” as if it descended directly from God’s will and made it unchangeable. The attempt to biblically justify the imperial structure of the church is an after-thought that has tried, in vain, to see Roman Catholicism as the organic “development” of the New Testament church. The reality shows that the Church of Rome is the daughter of the Roman Empire. When the empire fell, from its ashes emerged the ecclesiastical structure that has perpetrated its ideology for centuries, up to the present day.

4. Optimistic Theology and Abnormal Ecclesiology
The time has come to deepen the theological foundation of Roman Catholicism: an anthropologically optimistic theology and an abnormal ecclesiology. These are the two main axes of the whole Roman Catholic theological system.

The first axis concerns, technically speaking, the relationship between nature and grace or, as Gregg Allison usefully called it in his book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (2014), the “nature-grace interdependence”. In its understanding of reality, Roman Catholicism recognizes God’s creation (nature) and has a sense of God’s grace. Nature (i.e. the universe, the world, humanity) exists, just as divine grace exists in relation to it. What is lacking in this scheme is a biblical, and therefore realistic, understanding of sin. In the biblical worldview, the first act is creation followed by the second act, the breaking of the covenant caused by sin, with devastating and cascading effects on everything. Roman Catholicism, though it has a doctrine of sin, does not have a biblically radical one. While it considers sin a serious illness, it does not consider it spiritual death. For Roman Catholicism, nature, before and after sin, is always “capax dei” (i.e. capable of God), intrinsically and constitutively open to the grace of God.

For this reason, Roman Catholicism is pervaded by an attitude that is confident in the capacity of nature and matter to objectify grace (the bread that becomes Christ’s body, the wine that becomes Christ’s blood, the water of baptism and the oil of anointing that convey grace), in the ability of reason to develop a “natural theology”, in the person’s ability to cooperate and contribute to salvation with his/her own works, in the capacity of religions to be ways to God, in the capacity of the conscience to be the point of reference for truth, in the capacity of the Pope to speak infallibly when he does so “ex cathedra”. In theological terms, according to this view, grace intervenes to “elevate” nature to its supernatural end, relying on it and presupposing its untainted capacity to be elevated. Even if weakened by sin, nature maintains its ability to interface with grace because grace is indelibly inscribed in nature. Roman Catholicism does not distinguish between “common grace” (with which God protects the world from sin) and “special grace” (with which God saves the world) and, therefore, is pervaded by an optimism in whatever is natural to be graced.

The second main axis of Roman Catholicism touches on the relationship between Christ and the church. In Allison’s terms, it is the “Christ-Church interconnection”. The basic idea is that, after the ascension of the risen Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father, there is a sense in which Christ is “really” present in his “mystical body” (the church) which is inseparably connected to the hierarchical and papal institution of the Roman Church. For Roman Catholicism, the incarnation of Christ did not end with the ascension, but is prolonged in the sacramental, institutional and teaching life of the church. The Roman Church exercises the royal, priestly and prophetic offices of Christ in the real and vicar sense: through the priests who act “in persona Christi“, the church governs the world, dispenses grace and teaches the truth.

The prerogatives of Christ are transposed into the self-understanding of the church: the power of the church is universal, the sacraments of the church transmit grace “ex opere operato” (by reason of them being enacted), the magisterium of the church is always true. The biblical distinction between “head” (Christ) and “members” (church) is confused in the category of “totus Christus” (the total Christ which includes both). The consequences of this confusion impact (and pollute) everything. The mystical-sacramental-institutional-papal church is conceived in an inflated, abnormal way.

Roman Catholicism lies within these two axes: the underlying optimism based on the interdependence between nature and grace corresponds to the leading role of the Roman ecclesiastical institution based on the interconnection between Christ and the church.

5. The Sacramental System
The time has come to deal with the sacramental system, the true operational infrastructure of Roman Catholicism. Sacramentality refers to the idea of “mediation”: since nature is intrinsically capable of being elevated by grace, grace is not received immediately or externally, but always through a vehicle or a natural vector. The sacrament is the natural “lever” with which divine grace is communicated to nature. From the Roman Catholic sacramental point of view, the grace of baptism is imparted with water, that of extreme unction with oil, that of order with the imposition of hands, that of the Eucharist with consecrated bread and wine. Grace cannot be received “by faith alone” but always through a natural element imparted by the Church, which acts in the name of Christ and transforms it from a merely natural element to the “real presence” of divine grace.

There are therefore two elements necessary for the Roman Catholic sacrament: a physical-natural element and the agency of the church, which is believed to have the task of transfiguring matter and imparting grace. Therefore, the natural object becomes grace and the church is in charge of administering it. The interdependence between nature and grace means that grace comes into nature and through nature; the interconnection between Christ and the church makes the church of Rome dispense it in the name of Christ himself. Since it is Christ who works through the sacraments of the church, these have an effect “ex opere operato“, by the very fact of being imparted.

In response to the Protestant Reformation, which had emphasized that the work of Christ is received by faith alone through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) designed the sacramental layout of the Church of Rome: from baptism to extreme unction, a sacramental journey is envisaged for the Catholic faithful. The journey is made up of seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, confession, Eucharist, order, marriage, extreme unction) that accompany human life from birth to death. The Roman Church dispenses God’s grace in every age and throughout life. Some sacraments are administrations of grace received once and for all (i.e. baptism, confirmation, order, marriage, extreme unction), others are received cyclically and repeatedly (confession and the Eucharist). In this way, God’s grace becomes “real” and pervasive through the action of the church. For the Council of Trent, being excluded from the sacraments (by excommunication, schism, or belonging to other religions) was equivalent to being excluded from grace.

While not denying the Tridentine system, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) added an important emphasis. The last Council shifted attention from the sacramental acts of the Catholic Church to the sacramental essence of the church. In the famous conciliar definition, “the Church is in Christ like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1). It is the church as such that is a sacrament, that is, the “real presence” of Christ. It is so as a “sign and instrument”: an already given reality and also at the service of its growth. The church expresses the unity with God and the unity of the whole human race. The Roman Catholic Church is thought of as a sign and instrument of the unity of all women and men. For this reason, Rome can speak of everyone as “brothers and sisters”: those that Trent considered excluded from grace because they were excluded from the sacraments (Protestants, Muslims, Jews, etc.), the Church of Rome now considers as “brothers and sisters” already impacted by grace (albeit in a mysterious way) and already in some way ordained to the Catholic Church. From the sacraments as specific acts, to the sacramentality of the Church as a whole: this is where the Roman Catholic Church stands today.

The Gospel recognizes the goodness of creation, but also the radical nature of sin. The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit if they are not revealed to him (1 Corinthians 1:12-15). The flesh (the sinful nature) does not receive grace: it is the Spirit who gives life (John 6:63). Jesus instituted the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “visible words” (according to the beautiful expression of the Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli) that testify to the grace received by faith, not as objects through which grace is made present by a church that believes itself to be the extension of the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

6. The Catholic Project
After touching on the sacramental system, it is time to talk about the catholicity of Roman Catholicism. The Apostles’ Creed describes the church as “catholic” in the sense of universal as it is extends throughout the world. The meaning given to catholicity by the Church of Rome goes beyond the universality of the church.

Following the conclusion of Vatican II, the Italian Protestant theologian Vittorio Subilia published a book in which the approved documents were examined and in which he provided an overall interpretation of Roman Catholicism that emerged from the Council. The title of that book, The New Catholicity of Catholicism (1967), sums up well what catholicity means.

The kind of Roman Catholicism that emerged from Vatican II has given up the theocratic claims inherited from the long centuries of its history and has invested heavily in increasing its catholicity. It can no longer think of dominating the world in an absolutist way and so it tries to infiltrate the world to modify it from the inside. It no longer hurls anathemas against modernity but strives to penetrate and elevate it. It can no longer impose its power coercively, but tries to exercise it in a more graceful way. The Church of Rome no longer has much popular following when it speaks of doctrine and morals, but tries to maintain its ability to influence, to condition, to direct society. It can no longer afford a wall-to-wall contrast with the world in order not to be relegated to a nook, and so it accepts modern society in order to permeate it from within.

In a military metaphor, it can be said that the tactics of Roman Catholicism are no longer those of a head-on collision but of the wrapping of the wings. The goal is no longer the annihilation of the opponent, but its incorporation. The aim is no longer conquest, but absorption through the expansion of the boundaries of catholicity. Everything falls within the jurisdiction of Roman Catholicity.

The catholicity of Roman Catholicism is the ability to incorporate divergent ideas, different values, heterogeneous movements, and to integrate them within the Roman system. If the evangelical faith chooses (Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone), Roman Catholicism adds (Scripture and tradition, Christ and church, grace and sacraments, faith and works). In fact, Roman Catholicism has such a broad framework that it can accommodate everything, a thesis and its antithesis, one instance and another, one element and another.

In the Roman Catholic worldview, nature is conjugated to grace, Scripture to tradition, Christ to the church, grace to the sacraments, faith to works, Christian life to popular religion, evangelical piety to pagan folklore, speculative philosophy to superstitious beliefs, ecclesiastical centralism to Catholic universalism. The biblical gospel is not its parameter, and therefore Roman Catholicism is a system always open to new integrations in view of its progressive expansion.

The basic criterion of Roman Catholicism is not evangelical purity nor Christian authenticity, but the integration of the particular into a universal horizon at the service of a Roman institution that holds the reins of the whole plan.

7. A Confused and Distorted Religion
After briefly discussing the various elements of the definition, it is time to close the circle by trying to reach a conclusion, however provisional it is. So what can be said about the doctrinal outlook, the devotional patterns, and the institutional structure of Roman Catholicism as a whole? Roman Catholicism can be said to be a confused and twisted religion.

Its “formal principle” is not submission to Scripture alone, but to an acceptance of the Word of God in which Scripture sits alongside the Church’s Tradition and ends up being under the teaching office of the Roman Church. Not having Scripture as the ultimate authority to submit to, Roman Catholicism can only be biblically confused, twisted, ambiguous and, ultimately, erroneous. Each of its uses of Scripture, however linguistically adherent to the Bible from which it borrows its words, is crossed by a principle contrary to the Word of God.

Its “material principle” is not the grace of God received by faith alone which saves the sinner, but a sophisticated system that merges divine grace with the performance of the person through the reception of the sacraments of the church. Roman Catholicism speaks of “sin”, “grace”, “salvation”, “faith”. Using these words, it employs them not according to their biblical meaning, but by bending them according to its own sacramental system. The words are the same but, not being defined by Scripture, their meaning is fraught with internal deviations that make them phonetically equal and theologically different from the Christian faith.

Some distortions of Roman Catholicism are obvious, as in the case of Marian dogmas without biblical support, or the case of the institution of the papacy which is the child of the Roman Empire, or the case of devotions that are drawn from pagan practices. Others are subtler and more sophisticated, as in the case of doctrinal “developments” which have accrued over the centuries, or the Roman Catholic ecclesiology or view of salvation.

In light of these pervasive distortions, even what appears to be in common must be carefully questioned. As the document “Evangelical Approach Towards Understanding Roman Catholicism” (1999) of the Italian Evangelical Alliance says:

The doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals, which is expressed in a common adherence to the Creeds and Councils of the first five centuries, is not an adequate basis on which to say that there is an agreement concerning the essentials of the Gospel. Moreover, developments within the Catholic Church during the following centuries give rise to the suspicion that this adherence may be more formal than substantial. This type of observation might also be true of the agreements between Evangelicals and Catholics when it comes to ethical and social issues. There is a similarity of perspective which has its roots in Common Grace and the influence which Christianity has generally exercised in the course of history. Since theology and ethics cannot be separated, however, it is not possible to say that there is a common ethical understanding – the underlying theologies are essentially different. As there is no basic agreement concerning the foundations of the Gospel, even when it comes to ethical questions where there may be similarities, these affinities are more formal than substantial. (n. 9)

How are we to relate to Roman Catholics as individuals and groups? Again the same document helpfully argues:

What is true of the Catholic Church as a doctrinal and institutional reality is not necessarily true of individual Catholics. God’s grace is at work in men and women who, although they may consider themselves Catholics, trust in God alone, and seek to develop a personal relationship with him, read the Scriptures and lead a Christian life. These people, however, must be encouraged to think through the issue of whether their faith is compatible with membership of the Catholic Church. They must be helped to examine critically residual Catholic elements in their thinking in the light of God’s Word. (n. 12)

All women and men are called to return to God the Father, who manifested himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, to be saved and to re-learn how to live under the authority of the Bible for the glory of God alone.

(An Italian version of this article can be found on “Loci Communes”)