Misunderstanding Vatican II

from Oct 24, 2012 Category: Articles

I think Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) and similar efforts to make common cause with Roman Catholics are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of where the Roman Catholic Church is theologically and what it actually teaches. There is no question that the Roman Catholic Church has changed since the sixteenth century. But the changes have not closed the gap between Rome and Protestantism. Indeed, the differences are greater now. For instance, the formally defined proclamation of the infallibility of the pope and all of the Mariology statements have come since the Reformation. Neither has Rome backed down from any of the positions it took in the sixteenth-century debate. In the updated Catechism of the Catholic Church, released in the mid-1990s, the treasury of merit, purgatory, indulgences, justification through the sacraments, and other doctrines were reaffirmed.

I think this misunderstanding has been driven primarily by confusion over the significance of Vatican Council II (1962–65). It was only the second ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church since Trent, the other being Vatican Council I (1869–70). So, these councils are rare events, and the church and the world were surprised when Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II.

The statements produced by Vatican I referred to Protestants as schismatics and heretics. In marked contrast, the rhetoric of Vatican II was kind, warm, and appeasing. Protestants were called “separated brethren.” John’s passion, which he set forth in a pastoral letter, was that the Lord’s sheepfold would be one. There should be unity under one shepherd, he said, with all Christians returning to Holy Mother Church under the Roman pontiff. John was seen as kind, avuncular, and warm, so people jumped to the conclusion that Rome had changed its theology. However, many overlooked the fact that John ruled out any debate about justification at Vatican II.

The New Theology?

In the same era as Vatican II, there was a major split within the Roman Catholic Church between the Western and Latin wings of the church. Much of the Western wing adopted what was called the nouvelle théologie, “the new theology,” which was much more compatible with historical Protestantism than the classical orthodox Latin Roman theology.

Incidentally, this rupture shows that the contemporary Roman Catholic communion is not as monolithic as it traditionally has been. Some see this rupture as almost as serious as the Reformation. We can find priests and even bishops who sound Protestant in their views. But it is important to remember that when we analyze the Roman Catholic Church, we are not talking about the American church, the Dutch church, the German church, or the Swiss church. We are talking about the Roman Catholic Church. The supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is not the bishop of New York or Los Angeles. He is not the bishop of Berlin, Heidelberg, or Vienna. He is the bishop of Rome. He is the one who, along with church councils, defines the belief system of the Roman Catholic Church.

The new theology made great inroads, particularly in Germany, Holland, and the United States. As a result, Roman Catholic priests in these countries began to sound like Protestants in the things they taught. They said they believed in justification by faith alone. Nevertheless, their beliefs did not reflect the church’s official positions.

Protestants Heading to Rome

These changes have led many Protestants to join the Roman Catholic Church. I suspect there are vastly greater numbers leaving Rome for evangelicalism than the other way around, but a number of leading evangelicals have embraced Rome, the most high profile of whom was probably Francis Beckwith, who resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007 when he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism.

I think there are several reasons for these conversions. First, those who are going to Rome love the Roman liturgy, seeing it as more transcendent than the informal and contemporary worship practiced in a growing number of evangelical churches. They long for the beauty, the sense of gravity, and the transcendent majesty of classical worship. I think this is the biggest factor pulling evangelicals toward the Roman Catholic Church.

Second, Protestantism seems to be splintered into an infinite number of divisions and troubled by endless disputes and discussions of doctrine, while Rome seems unified and doctrinally settled. This appeals to many who long for unity, peace, and certainty.

In the midst of all this, a 2005 book actually asked, “Is the Reformation Over?” and asserted “Things are not the way they used to be.” My response to this idea that the Reformation is over is that the authors did not understand either the Reformation, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, or all three. The Reformation was simply a commitment to biblical truth, and as long as there are departures from biblical truth, we have to be involved in the task of reformation. So, when people say the Reformation is over, that we no longer need to fight the battles the Reformers fought and that we can make peace with Rome, they reveal a serious lack of understanding of the historical and current issues that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics.

The Indisputable Fact

The indisputable fact is that Rome made a number of strong, clear theological affirmations at the Council of Trent. Because Trent was an ecumenical council, it had all the weight of the infallibility of the church behind it. So, there is a sense in which Rome, in order to maintain her triumphant view of the authority of the church and of tradition, cannot repeal the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. As recently as the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the end of the twentieth century, it made clear, unambiguous reaffirmations of Trent’s teachings. So, those who argue that these teachings on justification are no longer relevant to the debate between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are simply ignoring what the church itself teaches. Yes, there are some Roman Catholic priests and scholars who dispute some of the teachings of their communion, but as far as the Roman hierarchy is concerned, the Council of Trent stands immutable on its teaching regarding justification. We cannot ignore what Trent said in evaluating where we stand in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and the ongoing relevance of the Reformation.


This excerpt is adapted from R.C. Sproul’s Are We Together? A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism.

We Recommend