Ministering in the Vatican’s Front Yard: An Interview with Leonardo De Chirico
TT: What led you to plant a church in Rome?
LD: A combination of factors: a growing sense of calling that my wife and I were experiencing, the encouragement of the association of Reformed Baptist churches we belong to, the growing global concern for major cities to be reached with the gospel, and the fact that Rome is hardly evangelized, with much “religion” and little gospel.
TT: What are the greatest obstacles to church planting in Italy and, specifically, in Rome?
LD: Italy has been shaped by the Counter-Reformation. The gospel that the country has been exposed to is a blurred and confused gospel. The reading of the Bible was forbidden, the control of the church on society was obsessive, the way people lived out their faith was and still is full of pagan elements. On top of this, the modern wave of secularism has added another layer of skepticism, thus making resistance even greater. Rome is even more unique because here the Roman Catholic Church is also a political state, thus mixing religion and power. Rome looks like the city of Ephesus described in Acts 19 where the temple and businesses were intertwined in a shrewd alliance.
TT: Do you find that Roman Catholics are hostile to hearing the gospel? Why or why not?
LD: The main problem is that most Roman Catholics presume they know what the gospel is because they assume that the Roman Church has somehow taught it to them. When they reject the church (as many do), they think that they are rejecting the gospel. We have to show them that this is not the case. It is one thing to distance oneself from the Roman Church, but we try to show them that the gospel is something different that needs to be heard outside of the Roman Catholic box and in its biblical presentation.
TT: Is the Reformation over? Why or why not?
LD: The Reformation, according to God’s Word, is an ongoing task for the church: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming). Until Christ returns, it will never be over. As far as the sixteenth-century Reformation is concerned, the issues that were highlighted then are as relevant as ever: the “formal” principle of the Reformation, the supreme authority of Scripture, is far from being accepted by Rome. According to its teaching, Tradition (capital T) precedes and exceeds the written Word. It is the church that ultimately decides what is true. The last three dogmas promulgated by Rome—the 1854 dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception, the 1870 dogma of papal infallibility, and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s assumption into heaven—are binding beliefs for Roman Catholics, and yet they totally lack biblical support. The Bible, though important, is inconclusive. As for the “material” principle, justification by faith alone, Rome rejected the forensic dimension of justification and reconstructed its meaning in a synergistic and sacramental framework that runs contrary to it. The Roman Catholic Church responded to the Reformation first by condemning its teachings and then by committing itself to a long journey of aggiornamento—an update of its doctrine and practice without altering the theological core, which remains utterly unreformed.
TT: You have identified two axioms as definitional of the Roman Catholic system. One of these is the relationship between Christ and the church. How is this relationship understood in Roman Catholicism and what is the Protestant response?
LD: In Roman Catholicism, there is a tendency to believe that the church continues in significant ways the incarnation of Jesus Christ; this results in an ecclesiology that is conflated with Christology. The distinction between Creator and creature is blurred by way of conferring to the church what ultimately belongs to the triune God alone. Because of this confused relationship between Christology and ecclesiology, the church developed a self-understanding that made it possible for the institution to claim absolute power (the kingly office), exclusive mediation (the priestly office), and supreme authority in teaching (the prophetic office), all in the name of Christ. These deviations from biblical teaching derive from this flawed Christ-church interconnection. The great bullet points of the Protestant Reformation—Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, the glory of God alone—are biblical remedies against the idolatrous tendency of any church.
TT: What is the biggest misunderstanding that evangelicals have about Roman Catholicism?
LD: In my view, it has to do with the attention given to bits and pieces of the Roman Catholic system while failing to grasp the big picture that makes it what it is. This selective and atomistic approach prevents one from appreciating the institutional outlook, the theological stratification, the historical developments and the overall vision of the Roman Church. This system is designed to combine the Roman element (the imperial claims centered on the hierarchical structure of Rome) and the catholic one (its all-embracing strategy absorbing all trends and movements). Many evangelicals see in Roman Catholicism what they like to see or are able to see (for example, a Roman Catholic friend or relative, a movement with which they have sympathies, a particular practice they support or dislike, a popular pope, etc.), not what it is. In this case, the few particulars become the whole. Roman Catholicism is not a bunch of disconnected elements but a well-crafted worldview embodied by a global institution. It is time that we shift from an atomistic approach to a systemic evaluation of it.
TT: What does faith and practice look like for the average Roman Catholic?
LD: In contexts where the majority of people are Roman Catholics, many people are only nominal in their religion. They think they “belong” to the church because they were baptized there, but they pick and choose when it comes to their beliefs. In Latin contexts, both European and American ones, the standard Roman Catholicism is deeply characterized by Marian devotions and other devotions more than anything else. Moreover, this Roman Catholicism is so culturally embedded (through family ties or nationality, for example) that it becomes indistinguishable from deeply felt personal and social identities. It’s a great challenge to bring the gospel to such contexts. In areas where Roman Catholicism is not the majority faith, it tends to resemble the mainstream religious form that is prevalent there. So in the United States, for example, there are so-called “evangelical” Catholics—people who use a kind of evangelical language when speaking of their faith and do things that look evangelical, such as personal prayer and Bible reading. I disagree with using the phrase evangelical Catholic because Roman Catholicism is not committed to Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone. Ultimately, you cannot be evangelical and Roman Catholic at the same time. It is only when you have a blurred and confused idea
of what evangelical means that you can combine it with Roman Catholicism.
TT: What is the need for more gospel-preaching churches in Italy and other heavily Roman Catholic regions? How can we help meet this need?
LD: Evangelicals are less than 1 percent of the Italian population. So the need is great and help is needed. However, the help that will make a difference must first take the form of coming alongside churches in partnership rather than randomly parachuting one-off initiatives. Then, it needs to encourage ministries that will soon become self-supporting instead of creating a culture of dependence. Third, it needs to have a long-term perspective given the difficult spiritual conditions we move in.
TT: At least in the West, a majority of Roman Catholics seem to reject the church’s teaching on birth control, marriage and divorce, and a host of other topics, and yet we see very little discipline of dissenters. Why is that?
LD: At the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church reaffirmed its vision of being the church of the “people” and not a church of the “faithful.” Since then, there has been little if no application of any discipline to those who eclectically don’t follow the rules. This tendency is particularly evident under Pope Francis’ pontificate. His basic message is that mercy covers it all and that all people need to be affirmed where they are rather than being challenged to repent of sin and believe in the gospel.
TT: How should Reformed Christians engage with their Roman Catholic friends and neighbors?
LD: My rule of thumb is to expose them to Scripture as much as possible. They may know some Christian vocabulary, but it is generally marred in distorted traditions and by deviant cultural baggage. It is also important to show the personal and the communal aspects of the faith in order to embody viable alternatives for their daily lives. The gospel is not only a message for individuals on how to go to heaven, but a fully orbed message centered on the lordship of Christ encompassing the whole of life.