(Although to be fair to evangelicals, Roman Catholics don’t seem to have a handle on it either. As the AP recently quoted “Pope Francis”, “What are we waiting for? For the theologians to reach agreement? That day will never come, I assure you”).
One should note that even (maybe especially) among the core group among the Roman Catholic laity, “large chunks of Mass-going traditional Catholics don’t believe in basic doctrines of the Church” – that’s not “lapsed” Roman Catholics – it’s a group of people who attend Mass regularly and at least feign some kind of devotion to “the Church”. Maybe it has always been that way, since “Christianity” was made the “official” religion the Roman empire. Rome was careful to figure out “Rome is first”, but it kind of left the rest of “ecclesiology” an open question.
(Evidence: I’ve recently had the book “Figuring Out the Church” recommended to me. This is a work by a major Roman Catholic theologian, examining the writings of other Vatican II theologians. Whereas the Vatican II doctrine is “infallibly correct”, no one as yet can definitively figure out what it means).
Nevertheless, De Chirico tries, and Allison very much affirms what De Chirico concludes: that Roman Catholicism does have a “core” and it is identifiable.
Catholic Theology as a Coherent, All-Encompassing System
It will be on the basis of Scripture and evangelical theology as outlined immediately above that this assessment of Catholic theology and practice will be carried out. Such an assessment will not be the first time evangelical theology has evaluated Catholicism, but this approach will be unique, for two reasons.
First, the structure it will follow is a walk through Catholic systematic theology as articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As far as I know, evangelical theology has never undertaken an assessment of Catholic theology and practice in this manner.
Second, most evangelical assessments of Catholic theology and practice have focused nearly exclusively on comparing agreements and differences between the two positions in an isolated, disconnected way— an atomistic approach resulting in Catholic doctrines such as transubstantiation, purgatory, the immaculate conception of Mary, and apostolic succession being described and critiqued as separate, unrelated beliefs.
While such an approach has warrant and indeed is necessary, it is incomplete because it fails to understand the systemic nature of Catholic belief. Accordingly, this assessment will be different in that it will treat Catholic theology as a coherent, all-encompassing system and will evaluate it with this starting point (emphasis added).
Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 830-840). Crossway. Kindle Edition, pg 42 in the printed edition.
So Allison takes it upon himself to describe this “coherent, all-encompassing” system. The claim is that this look at, or search for “the heart” or “the core” of the Roman Catholic system ends up yielding insights that previous investigations of Roman Catholicism have not yielded.
For example, we understand the Reformation was about Justification by faith alone – and that Rome rejected the Protestant understanding of the Gospel. But Allison’s treatment (drawing upon De Chirico’s treatment) says why this occurred. A similar thing happened with respect to “transubstantiation” and “the Mass” at the Reformation – and Allison’s treatment (drawing upon De Chirico’s treatment) says why this occurred. Similarly, Rome has, since the Reformation, has made pronouncements regarding the Papacy and Mary – Allison’s treatment (drawing upon De Chirico’s treatment) says why these things occurred.
If Protestants in their various necks of the woods are to be persuaded to care about providing a workable and consistent “evangelical ministry” (as Alison puts it) to their Roman Catholic families and friends, then they can’t simply start picking at justification and try to say Roman Catholicism is bad from that point alone.
Just as a doctor needs to understand the root cause of a disease – whether it’s a cold or flu or cancer – treating it means getting at the causes of those diseases.
Yes, we can “preach the Gospel” to individuals – and I’m persuaded that God’s word will accomplish His purposes – and yet, Roman Catholics who are leaving Rome will have one question after another. And we must be prepared to respond to them. We must let these individuals who are exiting Rome know that such questions have been asked before, and have been answered. And in the case of Rome, they have been answered in unsatisfactory ways. May we be prepared with satisfactory answers!
Allison takes this approach: He begins by identifying “the heart” or “the core”, and within this “core”, there are two major thought processes that underlie the rest of the system.
More strikingly, these thought “core” thought processes have roots that go far back, the characterizations of them are unique to post Vatican II theology. So if you were to look at one of them, “nature/grace”, you’d have to start in New Testament times and prior – whereas, if you were to look at “the Church’s self-understanding” – its current ecclesiology – you’d have to start mining 19th century Tübingen writers.
In either event, it’s long, complex, and unfamiliar territory. And as I’ve said, even Roman Catholics, who are focused (if they are focused) on a day to day basis trying to explain the things that Pope Francis has said (i.e., giving cover to the infallible interpreter), Roman Catholics, dependent upon “implicit faith”, don’t generally know these things in detail.
That’s one reason why I think these twin works by De Chirico and Allison are of such a great service to the church today (the real church).
My life over the last 20 years has been full of “aha” moments – having questioned, “why is this so?” or “why is that so?” – and investigated the individual topics – I’ve answered questions that were extremely important to the question of “leaving” (which is the one act that Rome still considers merits the curse that “they could not be saved ....”)
I realize that many people can just exit Rome and not look back. It did not work out that way for me. I questioned my every step. I wanted to know the “reasons why”. And it is works like De Chirico’s and Allison’s that help provide thorough and satisfying answers.