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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1]E.g.:

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

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

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

– Liturgical texts: Missale romanum;

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

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

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

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.

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. 

174. Rosary, Indulgences and Humanism. How is Italian Roman Catholicism facing the Coronavirus Crisis?

A version of this article in Italian appeared on Ideaitalia (21st March 2020)

Under pressure, the true and deep commitments of the heart are exposed. When facing hardships, we reveal what is really important for us. In these weeks of the Coronavirus emergency, the message that Roman Catholicism is giving is a disarming detachment from the basic principles of the biblical faith. This should come as no surprise. What is happening belongs to the core of Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, as they are taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and as they are lived out in Roman Catholic parishes. However, given the favor with which even some Evangelicals view the self-styled “renewal” of Roman Catholicism and the action of Pope Francis, it is worth mentioning the spiritual regression we are witnessing in the midst of the pandemic crisis that is severely hitting Italy.

Who Really Cares for the Country?
After the outbreak of the Coronavirus, at the peak of it, there has been a flourishing of public dedications of Italy to Mary’s protection (Pope Francis) and of Rome to the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, i.e. the icon of Mary the Pope is deeply committed to. The Archbishop of Milan dedicated the city to the “Madonnina”, the statue of the Virgin on the top of Milan’s Duomo. In Venice, the local bishop, Patriarch Moraglia, dedicated his city to Our Lady of Health. In Naples, Archbishop of the city, Cardinal Sepe, dedicated the city to the care of San Gennaro, the protector and patron saint of the city. During the lockdown, in a deserted Rome, the Pope walked the empty streets to the church of Saint Marcello to pray for the end of the pandemic. He did so in front of the “miraculous crucifix” that is kept there in memory of past miracles that supposedly happened through it.

Examples can be easily multiplied. Throughout the country, with these actions of devotions to Mary and the saints, Roman Catholicism has shown what pillars remain stable and reliable when everything else trembles: the maternal care of Madonna and the intercession of the saints. The explicit message that was communicated is that Mary and the saints are always “near” to those who suffer, always at hand and ready to intervene. The climax of this explosion of Marian devotions culminated in a nationally broadcasted rosary (i.e. a Marian prayer) led by the Pope himself, where the deep unbiblical commitments of Roman Catholicism were again on display.

The question that needs to be asked is: if when in trouble we have to look for help through human mediators, where is Jesus Christ in all this? Is Jesus Christ not alive and powerful to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25)? Is the Holy Spirit not fully active and interested in being involved in our intercession (Romans 8:26)? Is the Father not attentive to our prayers (e.g. 1 Peter 3:12) and ready to act upon them? With the flurry of all these Roman Catholic devotions it is as if the Triune God is sleeping and in need, like the baal in Elijah’s time (1 Kings 18), to be awakened by human mediators.

Puzzling Interviews
The second area of perplexity has to do with two public statements by Pope Francis. He was interviewed by two Italian newspapers on two almost consecutive days. At Repubblica (18th March), he unveiled a concentration of humanism and universalism. Without ever speaking of Christ, of the sin and salvation that is received by repenting and believing in him, he gave voice to something that does not even resemble the biblical gospel. Here is an example:

How can those who do not have faith have hope in days like these?
Here is the Pope’s answer: “They are all God’s children and are looked upon by Him. Even those who have not yet met God, those who do not have the gift of faith, can find their way through this, in the good things they believe in: they can find strength in love for their children, for their family, for their brothers and sisters. One can say: ‘I cannot pray because I do not believe.’ But at the same time, however, he can believe in the love of the people around him, and thus find hope”.

“We are all children of God”, “one can believe in the good things he believes in”, these things being love for one’s own dear ones; “one can believe in the love of people around us and find hope in it”. These are not statements stemming from the biblical gospel but from a man-centered message. The Pope had millions of readers and he spread a message that reinforced them in whatever they believed, rather than presenting the gospel.

Then, in an interview with La Stampa (20th March), the Pope once again reiterated that “we are all children of God” and that, after the crisis will be gone, we have to re-start our life by re-appreciating our “roots, memory, brotherhood and hope”. Here too it is a humanist and universalist message devoid of any gospel meaning centered on Jesus Christ and the need for repentance and faith. The reader (millions of them) is left with the conviction that whether or not she believes in whatever she believes, she is all right before God. No one is challenged to face the Coronavirus crisis by repenting and trusting Christ’s alone who saves and heals.

Outpouring of Indulgences
The icing on the cake of Roman Catholicism in times of pandemic is the granting of plenary indulgences to “the faithful suffering from COVID-19 disease, commonly known as Coronavirus, as well as to health care workers, family members and all those who in any capacity, including through prayer, and care for them”. An indulgence is a remission of the temporal sin administered by the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of the merits of the saints. Practically it is a “work” that needs to be done in order to receive a benefit from the church. The whole of the indulgence system denies that we are forgiven of our sins by God himself through the sufficient and complete work of Christ. Martin Luther and the whole Protestant Reformation strongly opposed indulgences, rightly seeing in them as a denial of the gospel. The Pope is offering an outpouring of this medieval practice even to those who will listen to a special vigil of prayer (live from TV sets, the internet, etc.) scheduled for 27th March where he will impart a special blessing. What kind of gospel is this?

What future can Italy have with such a message coming out of Rome? For this reason, the need for a robust, biblical witness is as relevant as ever. The “renewal” that Roman Catholicism is going through will not make it change according to the Word of God. It will empower it to inoculate words that may appear as close to the good news but are, instead, nowhere near to the biblical gospel. In addition to the health emergency of the pandemic, we are living in times of a greater spiritual emergency.

172. Can the Roman Catholic Church survive two Popes? — one Catholic and one Roman

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 nobody could have imagined what has been happening since: the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope (Francis), but also a former yet living pope (Benedict) who still speaks, acts, and intervenes in ecclesiastical matters. There were hints that the prospect of having two living popes would cause some confusion, if not controversy. The fact that Benedict wanted to keep his title as Pope (only adding “Emeritus” to it), as well as his white papal robe (a symbol of the papal office) and his residence inside of the Vatican walls (the home of popes), indicated that, in spite of his pledge to remain silent for the rest of his days, the cohabitation between two popes would easily result in misunderstandings, even conflicts. The outcome has been an increasing polarization between Francis’ fans over against Benedict’s supporters and vice versa, certainly beyond the intentions of both.

One Pope, Two Popes?
In 2019 we had a preview of the present-day turmoil. The two popes spoke on the same subject, the sexual abuses committed in the Roman Church, but with clearly different positions: Francis blamed “clericalism”, an abuse of ecclesiastical power by the priests and religious people involved, whereas Benedict pointed to the collapse of Catholic doctrine and morality since the Sixties and after the Second Vatican Council, a theological decay that according to him was at the root of the scandals. The two popes interpreted the malaise of their church and the possible solutions in radically different ways.

More recently, a power struggle rallying around Pope Francis and Pope Benedict erupted, with the “Francis party” pushing for changes in areas such as the re-admission of the divorced to the Eucharist and the extension of the priesthood to married men, and the “Benedict party” resisting those changes, denouncing them as heresies, confusions and failures. It was indeed an Annus Horribilis (terrible year) for the Roman Church. Last but not least, we have now a popular movie entitled The Two Popes telling a made-up story (with some truth in it) and making fun of the two characters and their unusual cohabitation in the Vatican. All of this was unthinkable seven years ago.

Pope Emeritus, yet Outspokenly Concerned
The last episode in the tale of the two Popes only happened a few days ago. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a prominent member of the traditionalist front, announced the imminent publication of a book written with Pope Benedict. The title of the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, is indicative of the highly emotional tone of its authors. The book itself is a heartfelt cry seasoned with theological acumen to maintain the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the celibacy of the priests. It arises out of fears that after the 2019 Synod for the Pan-Amazon region, Pope Francis will allow some married men (viri probati, “proved men”) to access the priesthood, thereby breaking a millennial rule of the Roman Catholic Church which prescribes her priests to be celibate. Sarah and Benedict staunchly defend the permanent validity of the celibacy of the priests and denounce any attempts at breaking it, even those painted as “exceptions” in extraordinary circumstances. It is true that after the press release by Cardinal Sarah there has been a backlash against Benedict appearing as co-author of the book, even though it looks like the Pope Emeritus had given at least tacit prior approval for the full manuscript. You can read the full story here.

The theological arguments of the book deserve attention on their own merits because they show that traditional Roman Catholic theology is against progressive and liberal trends, not out of biblical concerns or standing under the authority of the Bible, but in order to preserve traditional Roman Catholic teaching on the basis of the weight of church tradition and extra-biblical arguments (i.e. the “ontological” and “sacramental” nature of the priestly office). Because of its importance for gaining an insight into the traditional Roman Catholic way of theologizing, the book by Sarah and Benedict will be reviewed in a future Vatican File. What is of interest now are the standing questions that it brings.

An Unsettled Tension
One of the roles of the pope has always been the maintenance of the balance between the Roman and the Catholic dimensions. Roman Catholicism is the ongoing tension between two fundamental aspects of the whole: the Roman side, with its emphasis on centralized authority, pyramidal structure, binding teaching and the rigidity of canon law; and the Catholic side, with its emphasis on the universal outlook, the absorption of ideas and cultures and the inclusive embrace of practices into the Catholic whole. The resulting system is Roman Catholicism, at the same time Roman and Catholic. The human genius of Roman Catholicism and one of the reasons for its survival across the centuries has been its ability to be both, though not without tensions and risks of disruption.

Popes embody the Roman Catholic synthesis by holding together the Roman apparatus and the Catholic vision. Of course, they each do it differently, especially after the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II, for example, was a very Roman pope but at the same time a very Catholic one. For example, he strongly defended traditional Roman Catholic teaching (e.g. by launching the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church), but was second to none in promoting the universality of this Church around the world (e.g. inter-religious dialogue, traveling globally). Unlike John Paul II, who was both Roman and Catholic, Benedict XVI made the pendulum swing over the Roman pole. With his staunch conservativism in areas such as liturgy, morality and the critical relationship with the secular world, Benedict appeared to be more Roman than Catholic. He seemed to be a rigid, centripetal, doctrinaire pope. A Roman pope. Many felt that his papacy, while strong in its Roman centredness and boundaries, was weak in its Catholic breadth and warmth.

This criticism helps explain why a pope like Francis was chosen to succeed him. With the election of Pope Francis, Rome seemed to be wanting the pendulum to move in the opposite direction in order to re-address the balance. Distancing himself from many Roman features of the office (e.g. his refusal of the pomp of the Vatican Curia, his blurred teaching that leans away from official teachings), Francis has embodied the role of a very Catholic pope. His stress on “Who are we to judge?”, universal brotherhood with Muslims and other religions, ecological concerns, etc. made his papacy significantly shaped by the Catholic elements. The open-endedness of his teaching, coupled with the ambiguity of his language, has created some interest in the secular West, which resonates with much of what he says on social issues. This is to say that he is a very Catholic pope. Perhaps too Catholic and too little Roman for a growing number of Roman Catholics!

A Struggle to Re-Fix the Balance
Admitting the divorced to the Eucharist, fudging the traditional opposition to homosexuality and extending the priesthood to married men have been perceived as the latest, dangerous “Catholic” moves of the pope which run contrary to the Roman tradition, risking its whole collapse! This is the highly emotional background behind the From the Depths of Our Hearts book, part of which was written by Benedict himself in order to reinforce the “Roman” teaching on the celibacy of priests over against possible “Catholic” openings towards married men, which Francis seems to be in favor of.

The tension between the “Roman” Benedict and the “Catholic” Francis helps explain the present-day crisis. Past popes reigned without a Pope Emeritus around and therefore embodied in their own way the Roman Catholic synthesis. The next pope would have fixed the synthesis differently. But now, with two very different popes living next to each other (with only one reigning, but the other still lucid and active), the situation is very different. The overly Catholic attitude of Francis is compared and contrasted with the Roman outlook of Benedict to the point of creating an unprecedented struggle between opposite parties. For some, Francis has become too Catholic to maintain a proper Roman Catholic synthesis. He is incapable of being the Roman Catholic (at the same time) Pontifex. Therefore, he needs the correction of a Roman pope.

And yet, if this situation goes on unresolved it will undermine the institution of the papacy as it was cleverly crafted throughout the ages. The “progressive” pope will be counter-balanced by the “traditional” pope and the disruption of the system will be achieved. The papacy will be transformed into a two-party political system, as if it were an ordinary parliamentary monarchy. It will be the end of Roman Catholicism as it stands now.

This tension at the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church is not tenable in the long run. This is why it is highly probable that the status of Pope Emeritus (the one which Benedict enjoys now) will be revisited and regulated in order to end the temptation to think of the papacy as a “dual” responsibility, resulting in the on-going confrontation of a Roman and a Catholic party. Roman Catholicism accommodates different positions and tendencies, but the pope is thought of as being the one, living synthesizer of the tension, until the next one takes over and perhaps re-fixes the balance. The tale of two popes will not last long because Roman Catholicism is built on the conviction that its system is capable of keeping together its unchangeable Roman identity and its ever-increasing Catholicity. No biblical reformation is in view; it is only an internal struggle that is causing Rome to go through a stress-test and some chaos until the Roman and the Catholic dimensions find a new, sustainable equilibrium.

170. Totus Christus (The Whole Christ) or Solus Christus (Christ Alone)? On The Damages of Augustine’s Formula and the Correction of the Protestant Reformation

Solus Christus (Christ Alone) versus Totus Christus (the Whole Christ). If one wants to capture the difference between the evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism, here it is. On the one hand, the evangelical stress on the uniqueness of Jesus’s person (the God-man) and His atoning work;[1] on the other, the Roman Catholic insistence on the organic relationship between Christ and the Church.

Essential to Roman Catholicism is what Gregg Allison has helpfully termed the “Christ-Church interconnection.[2]” The Church is considered a prolongation of the Incarnation, mirroring Christ as a Divine-human reality, acting as an altera persona Christi, a second “Christ.” It is therefore impossible for Roman Catholicism to cry with the Reformers “solus Christus, for this would be seen as breaching the organic bond between Christ and the Church. The threefold ministry of Christ as King, Priest, and Prophet is thus transposed to the Roman Church—in its hierarchical rule, its magisterial interpretation of the Word, and its administration of the sacraments. There is never solus Christus (Christ alone), only Christus in ecclesia (Christ in the Church) and ecclesia in Christo (the Church in Christ).

A Misleading View of Totus Christus
The origin of the “Christ-Church interconnection” goes back to a faulty interpretation by the Church father Augustine (354-430 AD) as he understood the relationship between Christ and the Church. One of the most controversial points of Augustine’s theology is his conception of the totus Christus, the “total Christ”: the idea that the unity of Christ with the Church is so deep as to form a single mystery.[3] The Head of the body is so united with the body of the Head as to become a single Christ.

On this doctrine, Roman Catholicism built its own theology of the prolongation of the incarnation in the Church. It is as if there was such an intrinsic and profound union between Christ and the Church as to make it possible, indeed necessary, to see the Church as the sacramental extension of the incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, there are texts in which Augustine throws himself into one-sided statements in which, speaking of the Church united to Christ, he affirms “we are Christ” or “we have become Christ”. The whole Christ “is head and body”. At best, these would be ambiguous expressions if they had not been accompanied and supplemented by an orthodox Christology like that of Augustine. Besides the blurred statements about the totus Christus, speaking of Christ, Augustine writes that “even without us, He is complete”. Christ does not need the ecclesial body to be Christ. Elsewhere Augustine writes: “He is the Creator, we are the creatures; he is the craftsman, we are the work made by him, he the molder, we the molded ones”. His doctrine of the total Christ, however ambiguous and confused it is, does not break the distinction between Creator and creature and does not elevate the Church (the body) to a status of divinity.

Having said that, his interpretation of Colossians 1:24, Acts 9:4, and Ephesians 5 on the relationship between Christ and the Church in a spousal perspective led him to affirm the organic nature of that relationship and to go so far as affirming the “totality” of their being combined. The comments on the same texts also indicate the problematic direction of Augustine’s theology on the “deification” of the Christian, that is, his incorporation into the person of Christ becoming part of the mystical body.[4] Indeed, one can understand how Roman Catholicism was dazzled by the metaphor of the total Christ, going far beyond Augustine and developing it in the theology of the Eucharist (the “real presence” of Christ) and the priesthood (the priest acting in altera Christi persona, in the person of Christ), and in the development of dogma (the Roman Church being endowed with the authority of Christ in promulgating dogmas). The Augustinian interpretation on this point is therefore subject to different uses, depending on what one wants to see in his texts as the primary element: the blurred totus Christus or the preserved distinction between Creator and creature.

Rome’s Appropriation of the Totus Christus
Rome interprets the Augustinian reference to totus Christus as a union, which confuses the distinction between the Head and the body. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “Christ and his Church thus together make up the ‘whole Christ’ (Christus totus). The Church is one with Christ” (§ 795). According to Subilia, in this mistake lies the “problem of Catholicism”.[5] In his unsurpassed study, Subilia deals with the reason why the Church of Rome has such a high and excessive view of herself and is inclined to claim divine prerogatives. According to the Roman Catholic appropriation of Augustine’s formula, the relationship between Christ and the Church is so organic and profound that the Church becomes part of the whole Christ. Subilia notes that Augustine, who had been a Manichean, and therefore a dualist, suffered the opposite temptation of “monism” (i.e. the reduction to one) in his thought. While emphasizing the distinction between the Head and the members, and therefore between Christ and the Church, in Augustine “the sovereignty of the Head on the body is disastrously lost sight of” (p. 146). Defending Augustine and the Roman Catholic interpretation of the Church father, Catholic theologian Gherardini summarizes the ecclesiology of the totus Christus as “Christ continued and identified in the Church”.[6]

Starting from Augustine, Roman Catholic ecclesiology became radicalized in emphasizing the theme of the unity between Christ and the Church in terms of a hierarchical-sacramental church representing Christ on earth. For Subilia, this is a “radical devastation that has changed the vital centers of the Christian organism and transformed it into a different organism” (p. 150). If this reading is plausible, the “problem of Catholicism” is not merely in one doctrine or in some superficial differences on secondary issues. Its problem lies at the very heart of its system and is pervasively present in all its expressions: from the Trinity to Mariology, from the sacraments to soteriology, from ecclesiology to the manifold devotions. All is infected by the totus Christus.

Back to Solus Christus
The Protestant Reformation was an attempt to face the damages of this inflated and distorted Christianity by putting the totus Christus back within its biblical boundaries. By arguing that the faith and life of the Church needed to be grounded on Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), the Reformers wanted to reaffirm that the authority of God is exercised by Scripture over the Church. The totus Christus allowed the Roman Church to claim to have authority to promulgate new dogmas without Scriptural support and to endorse teachings and practices that went against the Bible. Sola Scriptura was a reminder that the Church is subject to the authority of God in the Bible.

By confessing that salvation comes to us by faith alone (Sola Fide), the Reformers wanted to recognize that we are saved by an external gift achieved by Christ alone and given to us by grace. There is nothing in us that deserves it. The Roman Catholic totus Christus had built a sophisticated system whereby the Church contributes to salvation through its sacramental system and the faithful merits it through his good works. Sola Fide was a reminder that the gospel is indeed Good News because Jesus Christ alone has accomplished what is needed for our salvation. Salvation needs to be received by faith alone.

Ultimately, the Protestant Reformation wanted to re-focus the whole of the Christian faith and life on Christ Alone (Solus Christus): the Son of God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world. The misinterpretation of Augustine’s totus Christus led the Roman Catholic Church to deviate from the biblical faith by endorsing an inflated view of Mary and the saints as mediators, an exaggerated view of the Church as the hierarchical and sacramental institution prolonging the incarnation, and an optimistic view of man’s ability to contribute to salvation. Solus Christus is the best corrective to a blurred understanding of totus Christus and the best safeguard against the intrusion of alien elements into the Christian faith. Whether or not this was Augustine’s intention (and this is disputed), this is nonetheless the biblical medicine to recover the evangelical, Trinitarian, orthodox faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people (Jude 3).


[1] S. Wellum, Christ Alone, The Uniqueness of Jesus as Saviour. What the Reformers Taught and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

[2] G.R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice. An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014) pp. 42-67.

[3] Here I rely on this collection of Augustine’s texts on the topic: Sant’Agostino, Il Cristo totale, ed. G. Carrabetta (Roma: Città Nuova, 2012).

[4] On this point see D.V. Meconi, The One Christ. St. Augustine’s Theology of Deification (Lanham, MD: The Catholic University of America Press, 2013).

[5] V. Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1964).

[6] B. Gherardini, La Cattolica. Lineamenti d’ecclesiologia agostiniana (Torino: Lindau, 2011) p. 29.