Message 22, Optional Session: Roman Catholicism Today:

Roman Catholicism has changed much since the Reformation. This session considers what Roman Catholic doctrine teaches today, and it considers how we can love and share the gospel with Roman Catholics.

Message Transcript

Good afternoon, everybody. I wish I could give my talk in Italian, but after the attempt made by Dr. Nichols, I think that I should stick to my Italian — my English text, and my attempt in talking English to you. I hope you will bear with my Italian accent, and it’s a great privilege for me to be here at this conference. I have 1,500 years to review. And on top of that, 500 years to foresee. Totally, 2,000 years to speak on in 28 minutes.

It is a slightly overwhelming task. But there are three words that I want you to ponder on in trying to understand what is the reality of present day Roman Catholicism.

The Reformation happened 500 years ago, and it received a response by the Roman Catholic Church of that time. But what about today? What about Roman Catholicism today? And if we want to look at the next 500 years we have to be sure that we understand what is Catholicism today. And I have three words to mention, which are descriptors of the present day Roman Catholic reality, globally, theologically, and institutionally.

So I’m not talking about individual Catholics. I’m speaking about the Roman Catholic Church as the biggest religious organization in the world. Wherever you go, you will find the Catholic Church. North, south, east, and west, by large, the biggest religious organization on earth.

If you want to understand Catholicism, the first word you have to grasp is ‘Vatican II.’ The second word is ‘Embracement.’ And the third word is ‘Francis,’ Pope Francis. And after briefly presenting these three words, I will focus on two significant challenges that Roman Catholicism brings to Evangelical Protestants in our generation.

Vatican II, that stands for the Second Vatican Council. Many of you were children when the Council was celebrated 1962-1965. I was not even born then. In its modern times, Rome has celebrated three councils: the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, the First Vatican Council at the end of the nineteenth century, and the Second Vatican Council right in the middle of the twentieth century, after Second World War. The first two of these councils were marked by an antagonist approach.

The Council of Trent reacted against the Protestant Reformation. It was against the Protestant Reformation, hardening the role of the church as mediator of God’s grace. And the Council of Trent had an enemy: the Protestant Reformation.

The First Vatican Council at the end of the nineteenth century fought against modernity, against scientific trends, against ideological movements, against social innovations. It reacted against it, and elevated papal infallibility to a dogmatic status. Ending the First Council — First Vatican Council, the Catholic Church issued the dogma of papal infallibility.

Vatican II, in the twentieth century, marked the transition towards a friendly and appeased relationship of Rome, with the Reformation, and with the modern world. For the first time in history, a council did not pronounce any anathema, any curse, but had only words of affirmation of non-Catholic Christians, world religions, trends in modern society. Vatican II welcomed evolutionism in natural sciences.

It made room for the critical reading of Scripture, and also to liberal trends in theology. It embraced the ecumenical movement. It invested in inter-faith dialogue. It gave freedom to read the Bible to the laity, but also encouraged the development of Marian traditions and belief, and the reliance on anti-Biblical teachings.

The tone of the Council chose not to be doctrinal. Rome doesn’t change its doctrine. But it was rather pastoral, that is, caring for the attitude, not for doctrine. The language was no longer harsh and juridical, but mild and affirmative. Vatican II inaugurated a new style of Rome, no longer against anyone, but for everyone.

No longer against perceived errors, but always looking for the truth in all things. No longer excluding anyone, but always looking at ways of embracing all. Rome is now friendly to everyone. And if you want to understand the reality of Catholicism today, you have to understand what happened at Vatican II, otherwise you’re still thinking in the terms of the Council of Trent, the attitude then. Now, Vatican II changed that attitude.

This Council is the prism through which the Catholic Church reinterprets its doctrine and history. Everything we can say about Catholicism today, needs to be seen through the lenses of Vatican II. That’s the first word.

The second word is ‘Embracement,’ or technically ‘Catholicity,’ — embracement, absorption. The Catholicism that emerged from Vatican II disrobed itself of the theocratic vestments inherited from the long centuries of its history, and invested massively in the implementation of an embracing attitude. No longer excluding, no longer fighting, but trying to absorb new trends, new movements, new ideas, new practices. Of course, the tenets of Rome remain still the same. Nature, the realm of nature, is coupled to grace. Scriptures are coupled to traditions.

Christ is coupled to the Church. Grace to the sacraments. Faith to works. Christian life to folk religion. Ecclesiastical centralism to a universal scope. In short, both end in Latin “Et et.” Both end, both Trent and Vatican II, both the traditional and the new forms, both what is — what was part of the traditional outlook of the church, and this new posture of the church, friendly and embracing.

And to give you a picture of what it means for the Catholic Church to be Catholic, embracing, absorbing, you only have to look at the way in which the architects shaped St. Peter’s Square. You know, at times, architects are better theologians than theologians. St. Peter’s Square is shaped by two stretched arms, the columns that are there. And those who have visited Rome, you remember it.

And overlooking the two stretched arms is the monumental cupula designed by Michelangelo, remembering you that there is a powerful church between you and God, mediating God’s presence and God’s grace to you. This church is powerful, is big, is monumental, is imperial, and you’re safe if you’re close to the church.

And the arms of the church are open in order to embrace the whole world and to bring it into fellowship, communion, relationship with Rome, with the institution, with the cupula. So that these two stretched arms are a wonderful manifestation of what it means for the church to be absorbing, embracing, Catholic.

After Vatican II, non-Catholic Christians are no longer considered as heretics, as it used to be for centuries, but rather separated brethren. Non-Christians are no longer condemned as pagans, but are thought of as being somehow related to Christ. Roman Catholicism is seen as the completion, the achievement of the aspirations existing in non-Christian religions. And the areas where the Catholic Church is investing its ability to embrace, cover the whole world. Religions, culture, society, these are the borders of the Catholicity of Rome today.

Just to give you another example, very important in the present day religious world, the charismatic movement. After Vatican II, the church worked hard to provide room for the charismatic experience to fit in the sacramental structure of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

So that now, there is a provision for charismatic Catholics to be totally within the system without as retaining their — the way in which their spirituality manifests itself. And now, the Roman Catholic method of absorption is now focused on Evangelicalism, as the next movement to be absorbed within the wider synthesis of modern church.

Liberal trends have been absorbed. Critical readings of the Bible have been absorbed. Liberation theology has been absorbed. Charismatic movement has been absorbed. Traditional practices have been absorbed. Cultural trends in society have been absorbed in order to enlarge this ability to bring the whole world under the Church of Rome.

Third word, very important for us to understand present day Catholicism — Vatican II, Catholicity, absorption, Pope Francis. Pope Francis is embodying what Vatican II was meant to be, and what the Catholicity of the Church is trying to achieve. He is the first pope from Latin America, the first Jesuit pope. And remember, the Jesuit order was founded in the sixteenth century to fight against the spreading of the Protestant Reformation. Then, the methods of the battle were theological and ideological.

Now, with Pope Francis, the Jesuit order comes to us with a smiling face, but always carrying with him, not only the tradition, but also the goal of the Jesuit order to dismantle, to deconstruct the Protestant Reformation. And to offer a Roman Catholic alternative to the depth of what the Reformation wanted to point out.

He is the first pope that understands and uses a kind of Evangelical language. Francis has little time for non-negotiable truths, and gives more attention to the variety of people’s consciences. He is more interested in warmth than light, in empathy than judgment. He focuses on attitude rather than identity, and on embracing rather than teaching. He underlines the relational over the doctrinal.

For him, human proximity is more important than theological integrity. Belonging, for him, has priority over believing. It is a dismantling of the priorities of the Protestant Reformation. It is an attempt to renegotiate, to re-engineer what the Protestant Reformation was all about.

Francis may use similar language. He may be a nice person, and be passionate about unity, but he is still the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, which has never recant or renounced any of its official teachings from the Council of Trent, to Vatican I, to the dogmas of papal infallibility, and the dogmas of Mary’s immaculate conception, and the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption.

The Roman Church, while not being static, nor a monolithic reality, does not really change in its fundamental commitments. It adds new layers, it adds new colors, it reshapes them in terms of attitude and tone, but the core, the heart of what Rome stands for is never — has never changed. It expands itself, but does not purify itself. It embraces new trends and practices, but does not expel unbiblical ones. It grows, but it does not reform itself according to gospel standards.

In 2013, Pope Francis wrote his apostolic exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel.’ It is the manifesto of his papacy. If you want to understand who Pope Francis is, and what he believes, that’s the text you have to read, ‘The Joy of the Gospel.’ And there you find all this vocabulary that is familiar to Evangelical Christians: Mission, conversion, grace, gospel, going out, outward-looking church.

These are all familiar language — words in our own language. But what does he mean by these words? According to Francis in this document, non-Catholic Christians are already united with the Catholic Church in baptism. Jews don’t need to convert, they are already grafted in.

And as far as believing Muslims are concerned, the way forward is dialogue, because, quote, “Together with us, they adore the one and merciful God.” End of quote. And as far as other non-Christians are concerned, quote, “They are justified by the grace of God.” They are justified by the grace of God, and are associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, whatever that means.

But, you see, they are — he is using Reformation language in order to describe the reality of non-Christian believers. They are justified by grace. He is using the language of the Reformation, re-engineering it and applying it to describe a reality that is totally against basic Biblical truths.

So mission for him is not about a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead a vehicle to access a fuller measure of salvation that is already given to all mankind in different degrees, in different forms, but ultimately resulting in the universal hope of salvation for every human being. Is this what mission is all about in terms of its Biblical meaning? Is this what the Bible means by talking about our task being going to the ends of the world to preach the Good News, so that those who believe may not perish, but find eternal life?

So that we have two main challenges coming from present-day Catholicism. One is the battle over words. Catholicism, in its post-Vatican II time, has tried to capture basic Evangelical Protestant language, trying to redefine it. Still using the same words, still using the same sounds, but significantly redefining its meaning.

In a very important book published in 2005, ‘Is The Reformation Over?’ by Mark Noll and Nystrom, there is a recognition that if one reads the catechism of the Catholic Church, there is a sense in which two thirds of the catechism can be accepted by a Protestant. Two thirds. If you read these words, ‘prima facie’ for what they mean in terms of the reader’s perspective. But then the author say, but if you look closely, and if you try to understand what these words mean, you find that wherever the catechism speaks of Christ, it speaks of the church.

Wherever it speaks of grace, it speaks also of the sacraments. Wherever it speaks of faith, it speaks of works. Wherever it speaks of the glory of God, it speaks also of the veneration of the saints and Mary. You see, the words are the same, but the meaning is blurred, so that you have a sense that they are saying almost the same things, but then the end result is that they are actually saying very different things.

In 2012, another important book written by George Weigel, entitled ‘Evangelical Catholicism,’ tries not only to redefine the basic words of the gospel, but also to redefine what does ‘Evangelical’ mean. And he says, basically, that Catholicism is the noun carrying the doctrinal sacramental weight. Evangelical Catholicism is a way of describing a kind of spirituality — the good Catholics that — they pray and read their Bibles.

And that is the way in which they are redefining the word ‘Evangelicalism,’ by severing its Biblical, theological, and historical roots, and re-infusing, infusing of a different meaning what historically Evangelicalism has always meant.

Take for instance another example, the example of the word ‘conversion.’ They are using it not to speak about a once and for all experience of the turning around from our own idols to the living God. For them, conversion is an ongoing process. It’s the same word, but it means different things.

Take for instance the word ‘justification.’ After the 1999 ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” the word has been redefined, blurring the meaning of its traditional understanding. But, again, in present day Catholicism, when they speak about justification, there is no imputation. And the whole system based on the indulgences and purgatory still remains intact, using the same word, but meaning a very different thing.

So for us, the challenge is to be aware of what is happening in present-day Roman Catholicism. In our fragmented and violent world, where everybody wants to be united, the Catholic version of unity is very appealing, even to Evangelical ears. And Francis is very strong advocating for Christian unity and ultimately the unity of mankind.

Before being — before accepting his invitation, we have to do our homework to say, what do you mean with the word unity? What do you mean with the word gospel? What do you mean with the word grace? What do you mean with the word sin? And you will find they are meaning very different things.

I end with a positive note of hope. On July the 1st, 3,000 Italian Evangelicals will gather together in a central square of Rome to celebrate the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation. It will be an Evangelistic event in one of the main squares of the city. The city that rejected the Reformation and executed some of the Italian Reformers could not stop it.

This event will be a joyful and Evangelistic event. We will be there preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ as our forefathers did. And we will be calling all people to trust in Christ alone, receive His grace by faith alone, submit to the Bible alone in order to live for God’s glory alone. Please pray for us.

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