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”)

182. The Dogma of the Bodily Assumption of Mary, 70 Years After

The 70th anniversary of the day that the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary was promulgated passed almost unnoticed. It was November 1, 1950 that Pius XII, with the apostolic constitution Munificentissum Deus, solemnly pronounced the latest Marian dogma, which is also the last dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. In it, Roman Catholicism undertook to consider as a revealed doctrine, and therefore an unchangeable truth belonging to the heart of the Christian faith, that “the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (n. 44).

In support of this pronouncement, Pius XII cited the devotion of the faithful, the growing expectation of the Roman Catholic people around the world for such recognition, the liturgies of the Western and Eastern churches, some statements extracted from John of Damascus, some writings by medieval fathers such as Anthony of Padua, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, the works of modern Roman Catholic writers such as Robert Bellarmine, Alfonso de’ Liguori, Peter Canisius and Suarez. Cumulatively, all these voices have brewed throughout history, bringing about the fermentation of the dogma in its official twentieth-century definition.

It is interesting to notice that the only biblical text given in support of the dogma is Psalm 131:8: “Arise, O Lord, into your resting place: you and the ark, which you have sanctified”, where the Ark is associated with Mary through a series of extravagant and amazing connections that Roman Catholicism has allowed to develop. Without a biblical frame of reference for the development of doctrine and devotion, without a commitment to “Scripture Alone”, Roman Catholicism allowed this unwarranted and misleading belief to mount to a dogmatic peak. It is clear that the dogma has no biblical basis (Mary’s death is not described in the New Testament, nor does it have any particular theological significance in the economy of the gospel story) and that biblical quotations are absolutely specious. Yet Roman Catholicism has elevated Mary’s assumption, body and soul, into heavenly glory to the rank of a binding and unchangeable dogma, thus committing itself to a non-biblical doctrine.

If one thinks that in 1870 the previous dogma (that on papal infallibility) proclaimed the pope’s “ex cathedra” pronouncements as “infallible”, Pius XII’s one on Mary belongs to this category: we are therefore faced with a teaching that the Roman Catholic Church considers to be “infallible”, perhaps the only one that a Roman pope has ever promulgated since the 1870 dogma. When a religious institution is not anchored to Scripture alone, and therefore subject to the authority and the corrections of the Word of God, deviations can only go from bad to worse.

The bodily assumption of Mary was the last non-biblical dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in chronological order. Some sectors within Roman Catholicism are pushing for it not to be the last in the definitive sense. For several decades, the dogma of Mary being “co-redemptrix” has been on the horizon, a further development of the ancient Marian syllogism according to which everything that is ascribed to Jesus Christ must in some way also be ascribed to Mary.

This syllogism resulted in two Marian dogmas:

  • since Jesus is sinless, Mary ought to be believed as having been conceived without sin (i.e. the 1848 dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary);
  • since Jesus rose from the dead, Mary ought to be believed to have been assumed into heavenly glory (i.e. the 1950 dogma of her bodily assumption).

The “logic” of the uncontrolled syllogism would have it that, since Jesus Christ is the Redeemer of the world, Mary is “co-redemptrix”, having shared and still sharing her role in the salvation brought by the Son. It would be the apotheosis of a “crazy” theological mechanism that has already produced two non-biblical and deviant dogmas. The “co-redemptrix” dogma has been brewing for some time; it may take ages to come to the forefront, but it is definitely on the move.

How distant would the biblical Mary be from these pompous talks about her! As she did in her life, if anything she would say: “Do whatever he (Jesus Christ) tells you” (John 2:5). This is the “evangelical” Mary whose faith we want to imitate. The rest is disguised paganism.


A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Mary offers a biblical account of Mary’s character, contrasting this with the Roman Catholic traditions which have developed throughout history, distorting her nature from an obedient servant and worshipper of God to a worshipped saint herself. De Chirico writes with the authority of thorough research as well as personal experience of the traditions surrounding Mary which have become so integral to Roman Catholic worship.

181. “All Brothers”: The Unbearable Cost of Roman Catholic Universalism

 Image source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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 new encyclical “All Brothers”, a very long document (130 pages) that looks more like a book than a letter. 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, perhaps after reading, for example, Edgar Morin and Zygmunt Bauman.

Much Politics, Little Theology
These are the themes that Pope Francis has disseminated in many speeches and in his other encyclical, “Laudato si'” (2015), on the care for the environment. Not surprisingly, he himself is by far the most cited author in the work (about 180 times), which evidences the circular trend of his thinking (the need to be self-strengthening) and the “novelty” of his teaching with respect to the traditional themes of the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The vision proposed by “All Brothers” is the way in which Rome sees globalization with the eye of a Jesuit and South American pope.

It is only in the eighth (last) chapter of the encyclical that the pope deals with the theme of fraternity with religions, and here the document becomes more “theological”. This section can be considered to be an interpretation of the “Document on human fraternity for world peace and living together” that Francis himself signed in Abu Dhabi with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in 2019. More than just a reflection, this section is a jumble of quotations (better: self-quotations) which, by overlapping plans and juxtaposing issues, end up confusing rather than clarifying. Despite this, its basic message is sufficiently clear: we are all brothers as children of the same God. This is Pope Francis’ theological truth. The best comment on this aspect of the encyclical comes from Judge Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Salam, who spoke at the official presentation at the Vatican. Here is what he said: “As a young Muslim scholar of Shari’a (law), Islam, and its sciences, I find myself – with much love and enthusiasm – in agreement with the pope, and I share every word he has written in the encyclical. I follow, with satisfaction and hope, all his proposals put forward in a spirit of concern for the rebirth of human fraternity”. If a convinced and sincere Muslim shares “every word” of the pope, it means that the writing is deist, at best theistic, but not in line with biblical and Trinitarian Christianity.

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. Is this a service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

What Is at Stake Theologically?
Many people, the vast majority of people, will not read Pope Francis’ long encyclical “All Brothers”. They will only hear a few sentences or lines repeated here and there as slogans. However, what everyone will retain lies in the effective opening of the document: “All brothers” – we are all brothers (and sisters). It is a very powerful universalist and inclusive message that communicates the idea that the lines of demarcation between believers and nonbelievers, atheists and agnostics, Muslims and Christians, Evangelicals and Catholics, are all so fluid and relative that they do not undermine the bonds of fraternity that they all share. The French Revolution had already launched “fraternity” as a secular belonging to human citizenship (together with “freedom” and “equality”), but now the pope defines it in a theological sense. We are “brothers” not because we are citizens, but as children of the same God. According to Pope Francis, we are all children of God, therefore brothers and sisters among us.

In “All Brothers” there is the understandable anxiety aimed at dissolving conflicts, overcoming injustices, and stopping wars. This concern is commendable, even if the analyses and proposals are political, and therefore can be legitimately discussed. What is problematic is the theological key chosen to overcome divisions: the declaration of human fraternity in the name of the divine sonship of all humanity. The pope uses a theological category (“all brothers as all children of God”) to create the conditions for a better world.

What are the theological implications of such a statement?? Here are a few. Firstly, “All Brothers” raises a soteriological question. If we are all brothers as we are all children of God, does this mean that all will be saved? The whole encyclical is pervaded by a powerful universalist inspiration that also includes atheists (n. 281). Religions in the broad sense are always presented in a positive sense (nn. 277-279) and there is no mention of a biblical criticism of religions nor of the need for repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the key to receiving salvation. Everything in the encyclical suggests that everyone, as brothers and sisters, will be saved.

Then there is a Christological issue. Even though Jesus Christ is referred to here and there, his exclusive and “offensive” claims are kept silent. Francis wisely presents Jesus Christ not as the “cornerstone” on which the whole building of life stands or collapses, but as the stone only for those who recognize him. Above Jesus Christ, according to the encyclical, there is a “God” who is the father of all. We are children of this “God” even without recognizing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Jesus is thus reduced to the rank of the champion of Christians alone, while the other “brothers” are still children of the same “God” regardless of faith in Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, there is an ecclesiological issue. If we are all “brothers”, there is a sense in which we are all part of the same church that gathers brothers and sisters together. The boundaries between humanity and church are so nonexistent that the two communities become coincident. Humanity is the church and the church is humanity. This is in line with the sacramental vision of the Roman Catholic Church which, according to Vatican II, is understood as a “sign and instrument of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium, n. 1). According to the encyclical, the whole of the human race belongs to the church not on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, but on the basis of a shared divine sonship and human fraternity.

The theological cost of “All Brothers” is enormous. The message that it sends is biblically devastating. The public opinion inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church will see the consolidation of the idea that God ultimately saves everyone, that Jesus Christ is one among many, and that the Church is inclusive of all on the basis of a common and shared humanity, not on the basis of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Roman Catholic Ecumenism Embraces the Whole World
The tragic irony of this pope is that if, on the one hand, he presents himself as the herald of the relaunch of “mission” and the “church which goes forth” (“Evangelii Gaudium“, 2013), on the other hand, he is the pope who, with his Jesuit ambiguity and now with his Roman Catholic universalism, has made authentic Christian mission more complicated than it was. He uses the words “mission”, “announcement”, and “missionary church”, but he has emptied them of their Evangelical meaning, removing their biblical reference and filling them with empty and harmless content. “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.

After the Council of Trent (1545-63) and up to Vatican II (1962-1965), Roman Catholicism related to the “others” (be they Protestants, other religions, or different cultural and social movements) through its “Roman” claims and called them to return to the fold. The “brothers” were only Roman Catholics in communion with the Roman pope. The others were “pagans”, “heretics”, and “schismatics”: excluded from sacramental grace, which is accessible only through the hierarchical system of the Roman Catholic Church. With Vatican II, it was Rome’s “catholicity” that prevailed over its “Roman” centeredness. Protestants have become “separated brothers”, other religions have been viewed positively, people in general have been approached as “anonymous Christians”. Now, according to Francis’s encyclical, we are “all brothers”. The expansion of catholicity has been further stretched. From being excluded from the “Roman” side of Rome, we are now all included by the “catholic” side of Rome.

After “All Brothers”, will Evangelicals better understand that Roman Catholic ecumenism is within an even greater plan that embraces everyone and everything so that the whole world comes cum et sub Petro (with and under Peter, the Roman center)?

180. “Season of Creation”: The New Ecological-Ecumenical Agenda?

Season of Creation” is the latest ecumenical initiative sponsored by the mainline ecumenical bodies such as – amongst others – the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC). This initiative covers a period of one month (from 1st September to 4th October, St. Francis’ day in the liturgical calendar), has a focus on creation care issues, and includes a variety of activities. The Celebration Guide is full of suggestions for common prayers and common actions. The aim is to unite all Christians in prayer, strengthening their commitment in favor of the environment. The tone is especially indebted to Laudato si (Praise Be to You), Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on “care for our common home”. In that document, Pope Francis delineated his concerns for the deteriorating health of planet earth and called on humanity to take action in order to stop the degeneration process. The remedy to the downgrade trajectory was deemed to be the adoption of an “integral ecology”, i.e. the blending of green and missiological concerns in the context of Roman Catholic social doctrine. Integral ecology has become a buzzword in present-day ecumenical language and “Season of Creation” is a direct response to what Laudato Si’ called for.

What is particularly interesting is that “Season of Creation” includes among its sponsors a significant representation of the global evangelical movement, such as the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) and the Lausanne Movement through the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network. While evangelical networks have cultivated informal relationships with other bodies and have taken part in a number of dialogues for a long time, it is nonetheless significant that they are fully on board with this initiative where – as the official presentation states – “sisters and brothers in the ecumenical family join into common prayer and action for our common home”.

“In Caring for Creation, One Must Exercise Discernment”
The involvement of global evangelical networks at the forefront of “Season of Creation” did not go unobserved in the evangelical world. A statement from the Italian Evangelical Alliance (1st September 2020) is worth considering because it helpfully highlights some critical points that need to be dealt with. Here is the English translation of the text:

Having read the program of the initiative “Season of Creation”, the Federal Executive Council of the Italian Evangelical Alliance encourages the whole church to pray, meditate, and exercise spiritual discernment in these matters, based upon the revealed Word of God. The Italian Evangelical Alliance:

– supports every evangelical initiative aimed at understanding God’s plan for His creation, at the confession of our sin and our responsibilities in abusing it, at the development of educational, social, political and entrepreneurial initiatives in our relationship with creation according to the requirements of the Gospel, in view of the hope of Christ who said: “I will make everything new”!

– is grateful for the evangelical documents already firmly established as being part of contemporary evangelical thought on the theme of creation and creation care, such as: the WEA-related “Statement on the Care of Creation” (2008) and the Lausanne-related “Jamaica Call to Action” (2012).

– supports co-belligerent initiatives for a common and shared purpose (by religious and/or secular bodies) aimed at the care and development of creation, even where the faith and worldview of the subjects and participants involved are different.

– distances itself from the ecumenical initiative “Season of Creation” supported by the Lausanne/WEA Creation Care Network and does not consider itself represented as it believes that it is neither possible nor biblical to unite in prayer to God with men and women representing religious institutions and bodies who profess a flawed gospel that is different from the gospel proclaimed by the evangelical faith.

– encourages the evangelical bodies involved to exercise discernment so as not to gradually slip into an ecumenical project that goes well beyond the care of creation and invites them not to confuse the right attention for creation with an ecumenical initiative.

The Evolution of the Ecumenical Challenge
These comments by the Italian Evangelical Alliance contain several points worth considering. They reaffirm the evangelical commitment to creation care as part of the evangelical calling to live faithfully and responsibly in God’s world. They also show the awareness of important evangelical documents predating Pope Francis’ encyclical and provide a solid platform for evangelicals to promote creation care without unnecessarily “borrowing capital” from papal documents. Evangelicals do have a pool of helpful resources that are biblically framed and practically oriented. The Italian Evangelical Alliance’s comments also witness to the evangelical openness towards co-belligerence on specific issues, such as creation care, with initiatives and networks bringing together people of different religious and ideological backgrounds. Evangelical ethics and mission do allow and – indeed – demand believers in Jesus Christ to work together and alongside non-evangelicals in areas of common concerns on the basis of gospel convictions related to the biblical doctrine of common grace. Co-belligerence is a well-established practice in the evangelical ethos that does not confuse collaboration on specific issues with unity in the gospel and/or sharing a common gospel mission.  

The point of the statement is therefore not to deny the importance of creation care nor to discourage evangelical participation in collaborative initiatives with people of different backgrounds. The main concern has to do with the “ecumenical” framework in which “Season of Creation” was planned and is presented.

When one is told that “sisters and brothers in the ecumenical family join into common prayer and action for our common home”, there are several implicit/explicit points that are signaled. There is a significant ecumenical meta-narrative that is smuggled in.

1. The language of sisterhood and brotherhood indicates the existence of spiritual ties between those who take part. Question: are we sure that all those participating at “Season of Creation”, be they coming from Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or liberal backgrounds, are born-again believers in Jesus Christ according to the biblical gospel and therefore “sisters and brothers” in the Lord? The impression that is given is that all those who are interested in this environmental initiative are intrinsically “sisters and brothers” despite their spiritual standing before God and in spite of their different and differing views of the gospel.

2. The reference to the “ecumenical family” further strengthens the impression that an ecumenical agenda is being pushed here beyond the shared concerns on creation care. The “ecumenical family” includes all the institutions sponsoring “Season of Creation”, i.e. the Roman Catholic Church and WCC. Because we are part of the “ecumenical family”, not only do we need to recognize other individuals participating as “sisters and brothers”, but we are also implicitly pressured to recognize the institutions involved as “sister” churches. Once you accept belonging to the “ecumenical family”, all family members – e.g. the Roman Church as institution, Orthodox churches, liberal churches, etc. – are legitimate Christian expressions of the “one” family. Is this an evangelical belief?

3. The insistence on “common prayer” in the form of “ecumenical prayers” communicates the idea that all who pray them are brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing the same Christian faith, belonging to the same “ecumenical family”, and are therefore different only on secondary, non-divisive issues. It smuggles in the idea of “spiritual ecumenism”, i.e. praying together, experiencing unity at the grassroot level, accepting the idea that we are all “one” despite our differences. Apparently the initiative is on creation care, but there is much of the ecumenical project that is embedded in it. The ecumenical agenda is subtly advanced within evangelical circles even if the issue is not formal ecumenism.

Present-day ecumenism is evolving. It is integrating environmental concerns and joint prayer initiatives on creation care into its activities as a means of advancing the cause of the “ecumenical family”. Evangelicals need to discern what is happening and to understand what is at stake. On the one hand, they need to be good stewards of God’s creation who are willing to work together with all those who are similarly concerned for its care. On the other, creation care does not require “spiritual ecumenism” with non-evangelicals in order to be pursued faithfully and responsibly. Co-belligerence is sufficient for it.

179. After 150 Years of Papal Infallibility, What?

On 18 July 1870, one hundred and fifty years ago, the First Vatican Council (Vatican I) approved the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, issued by Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) in the solemn yet nervous atmosphere of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The political situation around the Pontifical State was extremely tense and the prospect of the end of an era was felt as imminent. In fact, at the battle of Sedan (1-2 September 1870) the Prussian army defeated Napoleon III, the principal defender of the pope, thus leaving the pope without the French military protection from which he had benefited in the past. Napoleon III’s capture meant the end of French support and paved the way to the “breach of Rome”, i.e. the entry of the Italian army in the city of Rome (20 September 1870) and the proclamation of Rome as the capital city of the Italian kingdom. The Council was therefore abruptly interrupted and suspended. It is striking – if not tragically ironic – that as the Pontifical State was about to collapse, the pope and the Roman Catholic Church felt it necessary to proclaim a new dogma, i.e. the infallibility of the pope. The initiative was largely driven by political concerns. That doctrine was elevated to a dogmatic status (i.e. being part of core, revealed, unchangeable and binding teaching) and used as an identity marker and a symbolic weapon to fight against a political and cultural enemy.

A Window on the Council
A recent book by John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2018), focuses on the historical context of the Council and the theological significance of the discussion that took place around the infallibility of the pope. The Jesuit historian O’Malley is not new to writing re-assessments of pivotal events of modern Roman Catholic history. One can think of his important volumes on What Happened at Vatican II (2010) and Trent: What Happened at the Council (2013), which have proven to be trend-setting in their interpretation of present-day Roman Catholicism. In this new book on Vatican I it is as if he has completed the trilogy on the three modern councils.

More negative readings of Vatican I than O’Malley’s have been provided by A.B. Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible: Pius IX and the Politics of Persuasion (1981), and H. Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry (1983). O’Malley’s strength lies in the comprehensiveness of his historical reconstruction, whereas his reading of the doctrinal significance of the Council is only mildly critical and within the “progressive” side of Roman Catholic studies. He signals that the basic problem of Pastor Aeternus is its “historical naïveté” (p. 197), i.e. that it ignored historical differentiations and froze every possible development in the institutional outlook of the Roman Catholic Church. It is true that a century later Vatican II (1962-1965) softened the mode of papal authority but did not (could not) change its basic theological framework.

What Happened at Vatican I
There were external and internal pressures that drove the Roman Catholic Church to issue the dogma of papal infallibility. As for the former, in the 19thcentury the Papacy had to face two staunch adversaries that were able to challenge its survival. On the political level, there was the absolutism of the princes and European states that claimed authority over the Church, thus bringing into question the difficult balance between powers that had been struck in previous centuries. The popes were perceived as being part of the Ancien Régime (Old regime) which the modern world would soon overcome on many fronts.

On the philosophical front, the spread of the French Enlightenment clashed with the traditional worldview of the Papacy. The insistence on the prominence of “reason” over the “superstition” of religion, the growing importance of evolutionary theory over more static accounts of reality, and the diffusion of socialist ideas against mere protection of the status quo caused popes to react strongly in order to safeguard their share in the established system of power. This negative attitude reached a climax in 1864 when Pius IX issued the Symbol of Errors, a list of statements that were condemned as incompatible with Christianity. Apart from banning modern philosophical ideas, religious freedom, and the activities of Bible societies, the Symbol included the following statement that the pope rejected: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization” (80).

The clash could not have been more strident. In O’Malley’s words, papal infallibility was seen “as the only viable answer to the cultural, political and religious crisis ignited by the French Revolution and its pan-European Napoleonic aftermath” (p. 3).

As far as the internal pressures are concerned, O’Malley surveys the confrontation between two tendencies that were especially strong in France (but had ramifications all over Europe) and polarized the debate: “Gallicanism”, stressing the freedom of particular churches over against Rome, and “Ultramontanism”, exalting the central authority of the pope over national churches. Fearing that “Gallican” positions – marked by the questioning of centralized power structures – would make inroads in the Roman Church, Pius IX pushed the consolidation of the pope’s absolute authority as the source from which everything else flowed. His conviction is well captured by Joseph de Maistre’s words: “The pope governs and is not governed, judges and is not judged, teaches and is not taught” (p. 65).

The Meaning of Papal Infallibility
The cultural siege mindset was the background of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). O’Malley speaks of “an anxiety-ridden defensiveness” (p. 227). The felt danger of being assaulted by the modern world pushed Pius IX to insist that the Council clearly specify the juridical primacy of the pope as far as the leadership of the Church is concerned and proclaim the infallibility of his teaching under certain conditions. After issuing Dei Filius, the dogmatic constitution against atheism, pantheism, and materialism (and making them originate from Protestantism!), the Council was ready to address the ecclesiastical issue of papal infallibility. Here is what Vatican I declared:

“If anyone, then, shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the Universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the Pastors and the faithful; let him be anathema” (III).

Notice:

  • The pope’s authority is “full and supreme over the Universal Church”, no mere oversight or moral leadership: it is a political role.
  • Its comprehensive scope, i.e. not only faith and morals, but also discipline and government: it entails the whole of life instead of accepting limitations and checks and balances.
  • Its “fullness”: you either accept it in total or you deny it.

As to papal infallibility, Pastor Aeternus defines it this way:

“We teach and define that it is a divinely-revealed dogma: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex Cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of Pastor and Teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals: and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. But if anyone — God forbid — should presume to contradict this Our definition; let him be anathema” (IV).

Notice:

  • The emphatic subject “we”, i.e. the pope as head of the Church; no higher authority is invoked because on earth there is none;
  • The theological framework, i.e. “supreme Apostolic authority”: the papal office is mainly characterized in terms of “power”;
  • The dogmatic content, i.e. “infallibility”; a divine prerogatory is attributed to a man;
  • Its scope, i.e. when the pope speaks “from the chair”, i.e. exercising his ultimate prerogatives;
  • Its unchangeable nature, i.e. “irreformable”: it is a permanent mark of the Roman Church;
  • and the issuing curse on those (e.g. Protestants) who do not accept this doctrine: they are still under that curse issued by the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level with an irrevocable dogma.

These are strong terms that committed the Church of Rome to an extremely awkward doctrine that no “ecumenical” reading can soften. The only Biblical argument given to support this dogma is the citation of Luke 22:32 (Jesus says to Peter: “I prayed for you, so that your faith will not falter”). Yet, this citation does not support any of Pastor Aeternus’s definition in that Jesus in no way warrants Peter’s future infallibility and absolute power, and even less so the infallibility and powers of future popes, admitting and not granting that there is a relationship between Peter and subsequent leaders of the Church in the city of Rome. As it is the case with much of the doctrine of the papacy, this last doctrinal formulation is also founded on extra-Biblical arguments.

The First Vatican Council provided the most comprehensive and authoritative doctrinal statement on the papacy in the modern era. Instead of taking into account the Biblical remarks legitimately offered by the Protestant Reformation, and instead of listening to certain trends of modern thought that advocate freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, Vatican I further solidified the nature of the papal office as a quasi-omnipotent and infallible figure. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest doctrinal authority, i.e. the promulgation of a dogma, a binding, irreversible, unchangeable truth, to cement the institution of the papacy by furthering its absolute nature.

When Was Papal Infallibility Implemented?
Only a month after the solemn pronouncement, Rome was no longer under papal control and the Council left an unfinished work. However, what it did decide upon proved to be of great significance, the greatest result of which is that the “Ultramontane Church” (i.e. pope-centered, Rome-led) became the present-day Roman Catholic Church (p. 242). After documenting the different phases leading to the promulgation of Pastor Aeternus, O’Malley deals with the aftermath of Vatican I. There were of course political consequences that needed decades to be settled in different national contexts. Another lasting consequence was that “The popes achieved a strikingly new prominence in Catholic consciousness for the ordinary believer” (p. 240). After being declared “infallible” and at the center of an absolutist power system, “an almost personal devotion to the pope became a new Catholic virtue”. It was the beginning of the celebrity culture attached to the papal office and to the person of the pope that spilled over into the 20th century.

There is yet another important observation that O’Malley omits but that is necessary to make. Vatican I restricts the pope’s infallibility to when he speaks “ex cathedra”, i.e. from the chair. The question is: When did he speak in such a way? What are the papal pronouncements – among the dozens of 19th and 20th century papal encyclicals and documents – that are endowed with the “infallibility” that Pastor Aeternus grants to the pope? Even in Catholic theological circles the issue of the extension of infallibility is debated.

Logically speaking, Pastor Aeternus must be one of them. The papal document defining papal infallibility must be considered infallible, otherwise the whole argument undergirding it collapses.

While there might be different opinions about the exercise of infallibility, there is at least one clear example of a subsequent papal teaching that Roman Catholics must take as infallible.

It was in 1950 that Pius XII issued the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary as a binding belief for the Roman Catholic faith. With the dogmatic constitution Munificentissimus Deus, Rome committed to it:

“We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (44).

This is clearly the formula of a papal infallible, “ex cathedra” statement. No Roman Catholic theologian can question it. In passing, the Bible is not interested in the final days of Mary nor in the way she died. She must have died like anyone else, and yet here we are confronted not with an opinion but with a dogma. The Roman Catholic Church invested its highest magisterial authority to formulate a belief that the Scriptures are silent on, to say the least.

On the basis of a non-biblical dogma, i.e. the pope’s infallibility, another non-biblical dogma, i.e. Mary’s assumption, was built, thus becoming part of the binding and irreformable teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Biblically speaking, one could say: from bad to worse; but this is what Rome is committed to and will continue to be committed to, in spite of all “ecumenical” developments and friendlier attitudes. The flawed Roman Catholic theological system operates in this way: not reforming what is contrary to Scripture, but rather consolidating it with other non-biblical doctrines and practices. After the 150 years since Vatican I, the only hope for change is a reformation according to the biblical gospel that will question and ultimately dismantle and reject papal infallibility.

178. Why J.I. Packer Signed “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) (and Why He Was Inconsistent)

The global church owes a debt of gratitude to James I. Packer (1926-2020). Together with giants of the caliber of Carl Henry (1913-2003) and John Stott (1921-2011), during the second half of the 20th century he has embodied Evangelical theology at its best, especially on issues like the authority of Scripture, penal substitutionary atonement, the interplay between theology and spirituality, the connections between the historical church (especially the Puritans) and our time, and the call to holiness. His lucid and profound writings have nurtured at least two, if not three generations of Evangelicals and challenged them to stay faithful to the historic biblical faith. Together with millions of Christians, the reading of Knowing God as a young believer was a milestone in my life. I consider Jim Packer to be a “father” of present-day Evangelical theology, along whose trajectory I also wish and hope to be identified.

This is to say that if I dare critique one minor – albeit significant – instance of his theological involvement, I do so out of immense respect and hopefully with a similar courtesy that characterized Packer in his own way of handling controversy.

It is no secret that in Packer’s theological biography his involvement with the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative has puzzled many of his admirers. How such a solid theologian could be prone to sign theologically blurred documents and encourage confusing ecumenical activities has been a standing question in many people’s minds. The purpose of this article is to discuss the reasons why Packer signed ECT and to offer some critical remarks in considering them.

Part of ECT Since Its Beginnings
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) is the title of a document released in 1994, but it is also the name of an on-going informal dialogue that has been taking place in the US context ever since. Initiated by Chuck Colson and Richard Neuhaus, it gathered Christians who are confessionally divided but who share similar concerns for the falling apart of the Christian ethos of American society under the attack of relativistic trends of thought. In this violent “culture war”, Evangelicals and Catholics found themselves fighting on the same conservative side and discovered a new kind of possible rapprochement, “an ecumenism of the trenches”. The convergence, however, is not simply a common view on social issues, but is said to be “a theologically rooted alliance”. Thus, the ECT section “We Contend Together”, which is centered on “culture war” issues, is preceded by the section “We Affirm Together”, where a basic confession of faith is reported. This is followed by the programmatic section “We Witness Together”, where a common commitment to Christian mission is envisaged, entailing the goal of non-proselytization between professing Christians (thinking especially of Latin America in areas of tense relationships between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals). The “We-Together” pattern is pervasive in ECT and contains the indication of a significant shift in the Evangelical perception of Roman Catholicism.

I have explored elsewhere the historical context and the theological flaws of the ECT initiative, i.e. “Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: A Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Dialogue”, Evangelical Review of Theology, 27:4 (2003) 337-352. There is no need to repeat such an assessment. On the whole, ECT sentimentalizes the sense of “togetherness” at the expense of theological clarity and confuses the necessity of co-belligerence on moral and social issues with a call to unity and common mission between Evangelicals and Catholics. These two faults are serious matters. For the purpose of this article, what is striking to observe is the active participation of Jim Packer in the whole of the ECT initiative thus far. His signature appears at the end of all ECT documents up to 2012: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994), “The Gift of Salvation” (1997), “Your Word is Truth” (2002), “The Communion of Saints” (2003), “The Call to Holiness” (2004), “That They May Have Life” (2006), “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life” (2009), and “In Defense of Religious Freedom” (2012). While other Evangelical signatories have come and gone, appearing and disappearing (some perhaps feeling perplexed about ECT over time), Packer has been a faithful and convinced supporter of ECT. Why is it so?

“Why I Signed It”
Of course, the participation of Jim Packer in the ECT initiative has stirred much controversy among Evangelicals from the very first day, especially as far as his endorsement of the first two statements are concerned: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) and “The Gift of Salvation” (1997). The criticism after the first statement led him to write an article entitled “Why I Signed It” (Christianity Today, 12 Dec 1994, pp. 34-37) to respond to it. His reasons are worth considering because they unfold Packer’s approach to issues broadly related to unity and cooperation.

After expressing surprise “at the violence of initial Protestant reaction”, Packer states what he considers possible and feasible: “I have long thought that informal grassroots collaboration with Roman Catholics in ministry is the most fruitful sort of ecumenism that one can practice nowadays”. Notice three points:

  1. The level of collaboration he envisaged, i.e. grassroots, informal, and personal, rather than institutional and ecclesiastical.
  2. The partners involved, i.e. individual Roman Catholics rather than the Roman Catholic Church as such.
  3. The type of relationship with Roman Catholics, i.e. collaboration understood as a form of “ministry” and “a sort of ecumenism”.

Then Packer goes on by arguing why “the Roman system” is “unacceptable”. He is aware that Roman Catholicism is an integrated whole that is “theologically flawed”, especially because it misconceives the nature of the Church, blurs justification by faith, and attaches infallibility to church pronouncements. As a matter of fact, “Protestant and Catholic church systems stand opposed”. Packer shows awareness of the systemic nature of Roman Catholicism, its unbiblical tenets, and its opposed stance with regards to the Evangelical Protestant faith. In an interview a few years later, Packer argues: “Roman Catholicism as a system has defined itself in a way which is out of step with the Bible on a whole series of key issues relating to the Christian life and faith and it defined itself irreformably” (“Discipline of Debate”, Evangelicals Now, Nov 2000, p. 13).

Having said that, in the “Why I Signed It” article Packer thinks that “good Protestants and Catholics are united in the one body of Christ”. As already seen, Packer distinguishes between individual Catholics and the Catholic Church. If the Roman Church as system is “unacceptable”, who are these “good Catholics”? They are “Bible-believing, Christ-honoring, Spirit-empowered Christians who will together resist the many forms of disintegrative theology – relativist, monist, pluralist, liberationist, feminist, or whatever – that plague both Protestantism and Catholicism at the present time”. In other words, they are “spiritually alive” and theologically conservative Catholics.

In the second part of the article, Packer recalls three recent examples of collaboration between Evangelicals and Catholics preceding ECT and therefore paving its way forward:

  1. Francis Schaeffer’s “co-belligerence” on the abortion front, which saw Evangelicals and Catholics working side by side;
  2. Billy Graham’s cooperative evangelism, which included churches of whatever stripe; and
  3. The Charismatic get-togethers where the distinction between Protestants and Catholics vanished.

In light of these precedents, in Packer’s view ECT should be considered a legitimate and timely development that tries to formulate “at the level of principle a commitment which many have already entered at the level of practice”. Packer is aware of the need to further reflect on the issue. This is the reason why, at the end of the article, he makes reference to a study document, i.e. “Resolutions for Roman Catholic & Evangelical Dialogue” (Modern Reformation, 1994), drafted together with Michael Horton to provide some “agenda suggestions” for the future. With the help of this seven-point document – which Packer takes credit for (“drafted by Michael S. Horton, revised by J.I. Packer”) – we shall now evaluate his own reasons for signing ECT and for being involved in the whole ECT initiative. The assessment will try to be fair to Packer’s theological criteria as they are presented in these “Resolutions”.

Why Was He Inconsistent?
As I wrote in the introduction, I consider Packer a giant of present-day Evangelical theology, from whose scholarship and spirituality we all have a great deal to learn. Still, I think that his “ecumenical” involvements have shown a significant weakness in his overall premier theological stature. His own “Resolutions” show a degree of inconsistency between what he affirms there and what he did in and through ECT.

Point N. 1 of the “Resolutions” clearly argues that “while both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics affirm the ecumenical Creeds, we do not see this catholic consensus as a sufficient basis for declaring that agreement exists on all the essential elements of the Gospel”. While much of the ECT initiative makes a great deal of the alleged “common creedal basis” between Evangelicals and Catholics, Packer here readily acknowledges that whatever we can make of that supposed commonality, it does not show that the two constituencies adhere to the same Gospel. Point N. 6 clearly denies that “in its present confession (the Roman Catholic Church) is an acceptable Christian communion”. The alleged “consensus” between Evangelicals and Catholics is not on the “essential elements of the Gospel”, but ECT argues the contrary. The Packer of the “Resolutions” is in conflict with the Packer of ECT.

Point N. 2 stresses the crucial importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. “While gladly noting in modern Roman Catholic exposition a growing emphasis on Christ and the biblical promises as objects of faith and trust, we see justification by faith alone as an essential of the Gospel on which radical disagreement continues, and we deny the adequacy of any version of the Gospel that falls short at this point”. This is the historic Evangelical position. Unfortunately, Packer signed in 1997 the ECT “The Gift of Salvation” document which, without recanting Trent and the traditional Roman Catholic teaching on justification, says that the controversy on it is over. There is a clear contradiction between what he wrote in the “Resolutions” and his signature under the ECT text.

Point N. 3 points out that “we radically disagree with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that unbelievers may be saved by their good works, apart from faith in Christ”. Fair enough, but this teaching was endorsed by John Paul II and especially Pope Francis, under whom the whole ECT initiative has taken place. This non-biblical teaching of Rome is another blow to the ECT claim that Evangelicals and Catholics can affirm together enough of the Gospel to be united in common mission.

Point N. 4 argues that while common causes on moral and cultural issues in society are warranted, “it is incorrect to regard such cooperation among Christians as common ecclesial action in fulfilling a common ecclesial mission”. The “Resolutions” argue that cooperation is one thing, mission is another. As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, while “co-belligerence” is possible among people of various persuasions, Gospel “mission” is only possible among believers in Jesus Christ on the basis of the Gospel. The two must be theologically and missiologically distinguished. However, the ECT documents commonly confuse and blur them. Even Packer conflates the two in his “Why I Signed It” article when he speaks of “collaboration”, “ministry”, and “ecumenism” interchangeably, as if they are the same (which they are not). This is perhaps one of the most negative long-term effects of the whole ECT initiative, i.e. blurring the language of Christian unity and Gospel mission by confusing co-operation in social and cultural battles with unity in Gospel mission. In this respect, Packer has not properly helped Evangelicals to discern the issues at stake. His widely acknowledged precision in theological language was not consistently practiced in ECT.

Point N. 5 underlines the Evangelical passion for Christian unity according to the Gospel. In this respect, it stresses the fact that “we deny that the defined doctrines of the church’s infallibility, Papal primacy, justification according to Trent, transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, and the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary, can be proved from Scripture, and we cannot accept any form of action that appears to imply agreement with them”. Therefore, visible unity is not possible not only with the institutional Roman Catholic Church, but also with people who are convinced of these non-biblical doctrines. This message is very different from the ECT type of ecumenism that Packer has been involved in, with staunch and devout Catholics who are 100% traditional Catholics in all of these non-biblical doctrines.

Point N. 6 expands what Packer does mean when he refers to “spiritually alive” individual Catholics. “We affirm that individual Roman Catholics who for whatever reason do not self-consciously assent to the precise definitions of the Roman Catholic Magisterium regarding justification, the sole mediation of Christ, the relation between faith and the sacraments, the divine monergism of the new birth, and similar matters of Evangelical conviction, but who think and speak Evangelically about these things, are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ, despite Rome’s official position”. It is striking to notice that all Roman Catholic signatories of ECT (e.g. Avery Dulles, Richard Neuhaus, Thomas Guarino) do not fit this category! They are all 100% convinced of every bit of Roman Catholic teaching (including the non-biblical parts) as it is officially defined. They are fully orbed Roman Catholics: papal, Marian, Tridentine, Vatican I and Vatican II Roman Catholics. They are not Roman Catholics “despite Rome’s official position”, but wholehearted defenders of it. They may “sound” Evangelical in certain respects, but they are fully Roman Catholic in all respects. ECT was not signed with “creative” Catholics, nor with Catholics critical of certain aspects of their church. When ECT speaks about unity and common mission it does so together with people who identify as 100% Roman Catholics, without any uncertainty about their Roman Catholic identity. Here Packer’s inconsistency with his own criteria is again evident.

Wrapping up the evaluation, it is fair to hear Packer again. In defending his involvement in ECT he wrote: “We do not seek Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth” (T. George, T.C. Oden, J.I. Packer, “The Biblical Gospel”, First Things, June/July 1998, p. 9). Elsewhere, he again wrote that his efforts were of the sort of “an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation” (“An Open Letter About the Gift of Salvation”, Christianity Today, 27 April 1998). This is all true. However, there were unrealistic evaluations and wrongheaded applications in his own dealings with Roman Catholicism. In the whole area of how to relate the Evangelical faith with conservatives of other Christian traditions (i.e. Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics, traditional Eastern Orthodox), he has not been a reliable guide for Evangelicals.

The Packer who helped Evangelicals to see and appreciate “the logic of penal substitution” did not help them to see “the logic of Christian unity” in the same helpful way. On the latter he was inconsistent to say the least. The Packer who so helpfully unpacked the riches of an Evangelical “systematic spirituality” did not help to appreciate its implications in the area of ecumenism. He was rather eclectic on the latter. While we celebrate the bountiful Evangelical legacy of Jim Packer in the desire to follow his steps, we should also be aware of his weaknesses, especially when he tried to work out what the Lord Jesus meant when he prayed “that they may be one” (John 17:21).

177. Inter-Faith Prayers for the Pandemic to Cease? What Is at Stake is Bigger Than What You Think

Can you imagine an Apostle Paul who, at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17), invites his listeners (followers of various philosophical schools and ancient cults) to unite in prayer, each to his own god/ideal as a sign of fraternity? Can you imagine an Apostle Peter who, in writing to Christians at the four corners of the Roman Empire (1 Peter 1:1), recommends that they raise petitions together with the faithful of the Eastern, Greek and Roman religions, to invoke the end of a pandemic? For those who have a basic grasp of the biblical faith, this is pretty absurd. Not for Rome, though. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church organized a “Day of Prayer and Fasting addressed to believers of all religions” (14 May) under the auspices of the Higher Committee for Human Fraternity to pray together. Catholics, Muslims and people of other religions or of no religion were all encouraged to pray to her/his own god or personal ideal for the pandemic to cease. 
 
Biblical Proximity Is Not Universal Fraternity
Before examining the theological problems behind the inter-faith prayer promoted by the Roman Catholic Church, it is important to be aware of the context of this initiative. The aforementioned Higher Committee for Human Fraternity was established in 2019, a few months after the meeting in Abu Dhabi between Pope Francis and Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Muslim University in Cairo (Egypt). That meeting was centered on the signing of the controversial “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together“. In spite of the praise gathered in inter-faith circles, it is a controversial document for a simple reason: it joins the commendable attempt to build a peaceful society (especially in areas where the relationship between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority is tense) with the idea that Muslims and Christians are “brothers and sisters” praying to the same God. In so doing, it wrongly exchanges proximity with fraternity, i.e. our being neighbors with all men and women, with our being brothers and sisters with those who belong to the family of God in Jesus Christ. While proximity connects people of different faiths and backgrounds and calls them to live in peace, fraternity is a spiritual bond that unites believers in Jesus Christ as brothers and sisters in Him.
 
The “Document on Human Fraternity” blurs the distinction and changes the meaning of fraternity, extending it to the relationships between peoples of different religions, as if Muslims and Christians are “brothers and sisters” praying to the same God.
 
An Ever Expanding “Catholic” Trajectory
This day of prayer witnessed the participation of believers of all religions, but also of those who do not believe, united “spiritually” to pray to their divinity or ideal, all pleading for the end of the pandemic. Each participant was called to address his god/ideal in a spirit of fraternity that embraced everyone. What is at stake theologically is enormous. Moving beyond the perimeter of the biblical faith, Roman Catholicism legitimizes prayers to other deities or religious ideals, silencing the prophetic message of Scripture that we either serve the biblical God or idols. It fails to bear witness to the claims of Jesus Christ as the God-man who came to save those who believe in him, and instead changes the meaning of fraternity by stretching it indiscriminately to all humanity, rather than believers in Jesus only. In so doing, the tenets of the biblical faith are trampled on.
 
This is a further move away from biblical Christianity. Not being anchored in Scripture alone, not being committed to Christ alone, Roman Catholicism is anxious to extend its ever-expanding catholicity (i.e. all-encompassing embracement) in all directions, even those clearly contrary to the basics of the Christian faith. This is not even something new that was introduced by the current Jesuit Pope with his “uncertain” magisterium. It is rather a confirmation of the slippery slope of the “development” of what is already contained in Vatican II (Lumen Gentium n. 16), with its universalistic bent, which was visually represented at the inter-religious prayer of Assisi (1986, convened by John Paul II) and then confirmed by Francis’ apostolic exhortation of 2013 (Evangelii Gaudium nn. 244-254), eventually culminating in the “Document on Human Fraternity” in 2019.
 
Present-day Roman Catholicism, while open to ecumenism with liberal Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals, does the same with Muslims, Buddhists, men of goodwill, etc. For Rome, unity is not only among Christians, but among all women and men as human beings. This “unity” is based on the “gospel” of our common humanity, to which everyone belongs regardless of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The question remains, though: Is this the biblical gospel?
 
Back to Paul and Peter
Biblical proximity does not require common prayer and does not entail fraternity. At the Areopagus, while respectfully engaging various people in various contexts, Paul preached the gospel by calling all to repent and believe in the Man appointed by the Father who was raised from the dead, i.e. Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). He was a good neighbor, but he did not call the Athenians “brothers and sisters”, nor did he ask them to pray with him. To the Christians scattered all over the world, Peter did not give the advice of uniting in prayer with the peoples around them, but he did teach them to always be prepared to make a defense of the gospel (1 Peter 4:15). Peter wanted them to be good neighbors (e.g. 1 Peter 2:12), but always ready to proclaim the excellencies of him who had called them out of darkness into his marvelous light. If Paul and Peter were informed of the “Day of Prayer and Fasting addressed to believers of all religions“, they would ask themselves: is this biblical Christianity?
 
-Leonardo De Chirico

176. “Totus tuus” (to Mary). The Unsettled Legacy of John Paul II One Hundred Years since His Birth

Karol Wojtyła (1920-2005), since1978 better known as Pope John Paul II, has been one of the most influential men of the 20th century. The centenary of his birth is a useful opportunity to reflect on his legacy. A quick look at the titles of biographies about him shows the magnitude of the man: The Man of the End of the Millennium (L. Accattoli), Witness to Hope (G. Weigel), The Man of the Century (J. Kwitny), Pilgrim of the Absolute (G. Reale), The Defeater of Communism (A. Santini). As is always the case with human analyses of human biographies, celebrative voices abound as well as critical readings, especially coming from progressive sectors of the Roman Catholic Church and from left-wing analysts. Other titles point to the controversial aspects of his life: Victory and Decline (C. Cardia), The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy (J. Cornwell), The Wojtyła Enigma (J. Arias), The Last Pope King (L. Sandri).     

His life was at the centre of the major affairs of the 20th century: the tragedy of Nazism and the trauma of the Second World War, the apex and fall of Communism, the Second Vatican Council and its debated implementation, the apparent triumph of Western democracy and the oppressive costs of globalization for the Majority world, the fracture of ideologies and the rise of secular hedonism. Wojtyła played a significant role in all these major events. Supporters have acclaimed his achievements in terms of navigating, surviving and overcoming the dangerous streams of our post-something world. Critics have pointed out the double-faced, contradictory trajectory of his life and his very backward-looking Catholic outlook.

How do we assess John Paul II’s legacy? Because of the stature of the man, the question is overwhelming in every respect. Amongst the vast amount of books available, one guide worth noting in particular is Tim Perry’s edited book The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (2007). The chief point of interest is that it is one of the few attempts to provide an evaluation from an Evangelical point of view. The book bears witness to the fact that it was under John Paul II that Evangelical attitudes toward Roman Catholicism began to change and become friendly, if not even cooperative. This Pope was the one who called his Church to be engaged in mission, encouraged the pro-life front, welcomed some of the Evangelical concerns related to Bible literacy and liturgical variety, and seemed to be closer to the Majority world than his predecessors. It also witnesses to the fact that some Evangelicals today speak of the Pope as “Holy Father” (e.g. Timothy George, pp. 309-312) – something that is not biblically natural. Moreover, in evaluating the overall theology of his 14 encyclicals, some Evangelicals can say that it is “Bible-based, humanity-focused, Christ-centered and mission-attuned” (e.g. J.I. Packer, p. 8) – something that sounds like a full endorsement.

Certainly there has been a significant shift of attitude, and John Paul II has made quite an impression on many Evangelicals. The book edited by Perry contains positive comments on each encyclical signed by Wojtyła, and the tone is close to admiration, with some minor criticism. Of course much of it is a fair summary of what the Pope wrote, if selective in many ways. For instance, there is no mention that each encyclical ends with an invocation to Mary, which does not represent a Christocentric and biblical pattern. Moreover, there is little recognition of the fact that, besides the Bible, papal encyclicals quote sources of the tradition of the Church even more extensively. The Bible is only one source amongst many, and apparently not the decisive one. On specific contents, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason, 1998) combines Aristotelian reason and Thomistic faith, a choice that leaves out many Biblical strands. Ecclesia de Eucharistia (The Church from the Eucharist, 2003) reinforces the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, its re-enactment of Jesus’ death and the practice of adoration of the host. Ut Unum Sint (That They Be One, 1995) claims that the Pope is willing to change the forms of his universal ministry, but not the substance of his petrine office that supplements the headship of Christ over the church. Redemptoris Mater (The Mother of the Redeemer, 1987) is a Marian-centered re-telling of salvation history, which is something that the Bible does not encourage, as the Bible wants people to see Christ (not Mary) in all the Scriptures. The list could go on and on. On the whole it seems that the Evangelical writers of these chapters only want to look at the alleged “common ground” that they find in the writings by John Paul II, and are unable or unwilling to see what is contrary to basic gospel truths, let alone to denounce it. The book is therefore informative but of limited use for an evangelical evaluation of the legacy of Karol Wojtyła.

One final point must be further elaborated. Marian devotion was a characterizing feature of John Paul II’s life. He believed the so-called secrets of Fatima, in which Mary played a decisive role, deviating the bullet when the Pope was shot in 1981 by the terrorist Ali Ağca. Apparently, the Pope believed in Marian providence, considering Mary a major player in world affairs, both earthly and cosmic, both material and spiritual. For this reason he was able to dedicate planet earth to her at the beginning of the new millennium, along with the human family and new century, pleading for protection and guidance all the while. Moreover, his personal motto was totus tuus, totally yours, with “yours” referring to Mary.

His legacy is therefore difficult to square with the “Christ-centered” focus that some would want to see in it. John Paul II embodied a full Roman Catholic mindset, apparently strong on every aspect of the Roman Catholic identity. He has been very “Roman” and very “Catholic” at the same time.

175. Why Evangelicals Must Engage Roman Catholicism

As I speak to different audiences and at various conferences, the question comes back over and over again: why should Evangelicals bother engaging Roman Catholicism? Let me suggest four reasons.

It’s a Global Issue
Wherever you go in the world – North and South, East and West – you will find people who call themselves Roman Catholics and with whom all of us will interact in one way or another on matters of faith. You will also encounter the Roman Catholic Church through its institutions and agencies: parishes, schools, hospitals, charities, movements, etc. According to the 2020 edition of the Pontifical Yearbook, Catholics around the world amount to 1.329 billion people, by far the largest religious family within Christendom and the biggest religious organization on the planet. The Pope, though living in Rome, is a global figure who attracts a lot of attention from the media. The Roman Church, through its documents and initiatives, is a world-level player in major debates related to inter-faith relationships, mission, the environment, ecumenism, etc. Whether you live in a majority Roman Catholic region or in an area where Catholics are few, the presence of the Roman Catholic Church is pervasive. Unless you crouch in your little corner, not wanting to engage the world around you (wherever you are), you must deal with Roman Catholicism.

It’s a Theological Issue
In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation was a movement of God that recovered and reaffirmed the biblical gospel centered on the authority of the Triune God in biblical revelation (Scripture Alone); the sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ (Christ Alone); the free gift of salvation for those who believe (Faith Alone); and the call to live for God and worship Him in whatever we do (To God Alone be the Glory). Roman Catholicism stood against these truths and condemned those who embraced them. After Vatican II, Rome has somewhat changed its posture; the tones are friendlier and the lines are blurred. However, Roman Catholicism is still NOT committed to Scripture alone, Christ alone, or faith alone, and its devotions are not dedicated to God alone. The Roman Catholic gospel is different from the biblical one. None of the non-biblical dogmas, practices, and structures have been obliterated, although they may have been reframed or developed. The Reformation is not over, the gospel is still at stake, and all those who want to stand firm in the truth should grasp at least something of what Roman Catholicism stands for.

It’s an Evangelistic Issue
Because of the massive number of Roman Catholics around the world, there is a high probability that all of us have neighbours, friends, family members, and colleagues who are such. In majority Roman Catholic contexts, this often means that people identify themselves as Catholics because they were born into a religious family or because the cultural milieu they live in was shaped by Roman Catholicism, but there is no basic gospel awareness. Many Catholics believe and behave like most Western secular people do: without any sense of God being real and true in their lives. In other words, they are not born again, regenerated Christians. Devout Catholics may be religious, yet entangled in traditions and practices that are far from the biblical faith. This brings wide-open evangelistic opportunities. The gospel can and must be taken to them too. We must try to enter the Roman Catholic mindset and gently challenge it with the gospel. In order to do so in a spiritually intelligent way, we must come to terms with what Roman Catholicism is all about.

It’s a Trying Issue
Roman Catholicism brings a further challenge to evangelicals today. In the past, Rome considered other forms of Christianity (e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Protestants) as heretical or schismatic; it was Rome that distanced outsiders from itself. After Vatican II (1962-1965) they are thought of as being still defective but “imperfectly united” with Rome. Rome has become very ecumenical, wanting to come alongside other Christians in order to bring them cum Petro (“with Peter”, i.e. in peace with the Catholic Church) and sub Petro (“under Peter”, i.e. somehow embraced by its structures). The same is true with other religions. Prior to Vatican II they were condemned as pagan and heathen; now they are viewed as legitimate ways to God and their followers are called “brothers and sisters”. Rome is working hard to bring all religions together around its leader, the Pope. This is no conspiracy theory: it is the universalist agenda of present-day Roman Catholicism which has been in operation since Vatican II. Evangelicals should be aware of where Rome is going. We don’t want to become part of a “catholic” project that curtails gospel mission aimed at the conversion to Jesus Christ of people who do not believe in Him. The unity we aspire to is the unity of God’s people under the Lord Jesus, not the generic unity of the whole of mankind under Rome.

For missiological, theological, evangelistic, and strategic reasons, Evangelicals must engage Roman Catholicism in today’s world.