Thursday, December 06, 2012

The Roman Catholic “System”

I’ve wanted to get into the topic of “Roman Catholic ecclesiology” for some time now, but it is a massive topic, and there are always other things to be concerned with.

But just recently, a commenter at Green Baggins recommended a work by Dr. Leonardo De Chirico, who is now a commentator for Reformation21, entitled Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Religions and Discourse, V. 19).

Here are some selections from a review of that work:

Dr. de Chirico has recently completed his PhD studies at King's College, London. His thesis was published last year by Peter Lang and is entitled Evangelical Theological Perspectives on post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism.

In our present-day context of increased doctrinal confusion, the blurring of historic formulations of faith and an apparently inexorable advancement in the Protestant-Catholic project of ecumenism, Dr. de Chirico persuasively presents the need for evangelicals to engage with Roman Catholicism in a more theologically-integrative way. This is evermore pressing in the light of varied developments within Catholicism since Vatican II (1962-5), which have prompted something of an international change in the way many evangelicals perceive the Catholic Church….

The work explores the way six evangelical theologians (Gerrit Berkouwer, Cornelius Van Til, David Wells, Donald Bloesch, Herbert Carson and John Stott), have grappled with and responded to developments within Roman Catholicism post-Vatican II, as well as summarising the ongoing international dialogue and debate between evangelicals and Catholics since 1965.

The author suggests that evangelicalism's appraisal of Roman Catholicism has lacked systematic awareness, tending instead towards more episodic aphoristic criticism of Roman doctrine, which for all its truth lacks integrated analysis. With this in mind, Dr. de Chirico proposes a critique which (i) applies the category of 'system' or 'worldview' to Roman Catholicism, and (ii) perceives two foundational theological foci in Roman theology - the relationship between nature and grace, and the self-understanding of the Church….

I have tried to suggest something like this “integrated analysis” with blog posts here …

So you, my friend, according to Rome, are saved because “the Roman Catholic Church” is the “universal sacrament of salvation,” because “all grace of salvation is not only ordered toward [the Roman Catholic Church], but in some way comes fromand through the [Roman Catholic] Church. As a sign and instrument of all salvation, the church is not merely the goal toward which grace is directed, it is the channel or medium through which grace is given. You are in a “certain, though imperfect communion” already with the Roman Catholic Church.

… and here, for example.

In fact, in the Roman Catholic conception of “church”, all Protestants really are really just Roman Catholics who have become “separated” (as in “separated brethren”) – still under the visible headship of the pope and visible hierarchy [which is an integral, ontological part of the one body of Christ], yet “institutionally separate from the one Church”…

That’s why Rome can never give up. It’s own conception of itself is just too important in [its own] scheme of things. Rome has defined itself in as the most important element in the body of Christ. This is why I say, Rome is all about aggrandizing Rome.

And in comments over there, I said:

Vatican II ecclesiology has its roots in the writings of Johan Adam Mohler, who brought up the notion that the Roman Catholic Church is the “ongoing incarnation of Christ”. This is one source for the notions about panentheism. I’ve responded to Roman Catholics who tell me “the Church is Christ”. It is said to be a Christological rather than a pneumatological view of the Church.

This Vatican II ecclesiology has its roots in The Tübingen School, home of Ferdinand Christian Baur, in the works of Johann Adam Möhler (6 May 1796 – 12 April 1838), and particularly his 1825 work Unity in the church or the principle of Catholicism: presented in the spirit of the Church Fathers of the first three centuries (Die Einheit in der Kirche oder das Princip des Katholicismus, dargestellt im Geiste der Kirchenväter der drew ersten Jahrhunderte (Tübingen, 1825). English translation (1995): Unity in the Church or the Principle of Catholicism: Presented in the Spirit of the Church Fathers of the First Three Centuries, Peter C. Erb, trans., Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.).

My hope is to begin to look at this work, and its setting in Tübingen, heavily influenced by names like Baur, Hegel, and Schleiermacher. Being primarily liberal, this work of Möhler’s was not widely accepted at first, although after Pius X’s dealings with modernism, he became very influential for other Roman Catholic theologians in the first part of the 20th century: Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and perhaps even Herr Ratzinger.

David Wells, in his 1972 work “Revolution in Rome”, had noted this association between Vatican II and the liberal Protestants:

Present-day Catholicism, on its progressive side, is teaching many of the ideas which the liberal Protestants espoused in the last [19th] century. Though progressive Catholics are largely unaware of their liberal Protestant stepbrothers, the family resemblance is nevertheless there. Since these ideas have only come into vogue in Catholicism in the last two decades, they appear brilliantly fresh and innovative. To a Protestant, whether he approves or disapproves of them, they are old hat (pg. 8).

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll hope, Lord willing, to provide more background and details on this.


  1. 19th century religious discourse is rather exciting. It was a time when people on both sides felt that religion could be defended scientifically and sociologically. Liberal Christianity was born and thrived in that environment. Origin of Species was a huge blow to classical Christianity's self identity. But the Victorian Moral Reformers took Origin and made into a religious myth about God driving man towards infinite progress, a ecclesiology of hope with Jesus / Heaven arriving and the mission of the church to help it arrive. The Tübingen School was the theological component of this program to build a new Christianity compatible with modern science. There had been deconstruction of Christian tradition within Protestantism but because Protestants effectively worshipped the bible they weren't willing to deconstruct the bible itself. That changed at Tübingen.

    I have to tell you I find the 19th century far preferable to the 21st century . In my darker moments I see the 21st century as a place where we have evangelicals who have retreated into this maze of denial and postmodernism; and liberals who don't take Christianity seriously enough to even care anymore.

    Catholics today face the problem of a religion that their membership simply does not accept. They have a leadership which is ultra conservative and simply unwilling to effectively minister to their membership. It makes sense that Catholics would end up tracing over the same steps in dealing with history.

  2. Yes, Mohler is very important. I read his book, Symbolism (on the confessional differences between Prots and Catholics), and it was a rather impressive work, despite all my differences. Even more important than Mohler is J. H. Newman. Both his development hypothesis and his epistemology (Grammar of Assent), and the wide influence of his Apologia, are why he is claimed as the father of Vatican II.

    1. Newman got all the publicity, but I think Möhler’s work was more foundational to the "essence" of the ecclesiology.

    2. John,

      "As a sign and instrument of all salvation, the church is not merely the goal toward which grace is directed, it is the channel or medium through which grace is given."

      It is interesting that historically, Lutherans - who believe in the power of the sacraments - believed something similar (many of us still do), while we would not call the church a sacrament.

      A couple of recent quotes from my blog to illustrate this:

      Ideally, the Church should not only be a vehicle for faith but an object of faith, as Richard John Neuhaus once put it (from here). This is easy for children of course. In other words, we should be able to have confidence in the Church and what it teaches at all times. History, however, has shown us that what ought to be is not always what is. The Lutheran Reformation is all at once an event to be celebrated and a tragic necessity. (from here: ).

      Also, in a conversation with a Reformed baptist, I recently said this to him:

      "we believe that whoever speaks should speak the oracles of God, period. Not the Delphic one, but the real one. Be His mouthpiece. My words should be as God’s words and should be God’s very words as well. My hands and feet should be as His feet. And more: in some very real sense that is mysterious to us we really and truly are His body. The flesh of Christ is life-giving in and of itself (it is not just some pipe through which divine operations flow) because it united to the divine nature in the personal union. And Jesus says “I am the vine, ye are the branches” and this does not mean that we are just some pipe through which divine operations flow, but are truly united with God (therefore all of our thoughts, words and deeds take on much greater significance, and we do not, for example, unite Christ with a prostitute not just mentally but really)."

      That sounds Roman Catholic to some of you I am sure. But note that we don't focus on the Church as being the key to salvation, but the message the Church preaches - in the Word and sacraments rightly administered.

      Now, for something really interesting. CD-Host said:

      "The Tübingen School was the theological component of this program to build a new Christianity compatible with modern science."

      Most people do not realize (even many highly intelligent Lutherans, as best I can tell), that the conservative alternative to Tubingen in Germany was the Erlangen school. But what is the Erlangen school?:

      Here is a quote from my pastor:

      #1), the theologian in academia has two challenges: 1) To teach that which he should; 2) To be taken as intellectually viable. Since the enlightenment, the latter has trumped the former. The Erlangen school is appealing, for while rejecting divine inspiration, it accepts Scripture as a type of God’s Word; while rejecting the knowability of history, it accepts the events described within Scripture as a witness of the church to normative events; while rejecting a quia subscription to the confessions, it accepts the confessional nature of the church; while rejecting a standard hermeneutic of biblical interpretation, it accepts the idea that the church should be the one to interpret Scripture…In short, what [the] theologians of the Erlangen school attempt to do is to maintain some sort of Lutheran theology, based on what the modern intellectual community takes to be fact, or reality.”

      It is this theology that is finally gaining traction in conservative American Lutheranism. I am concerned about that.


    3. Hi Nathan, thanks for the info. There is certainly a lot to be concerned about. I'm at work right now, and don't have a lot of time to spend on this, but it seems like an important thing to take on at the moment.

  3. Nathan --

    You are certainly right that is an interesting topic! I'd love to go down this road of the Erlangen School. All I know about the Erlangen School is the 20 paragraph version.

    Just throwing out a hypothesis of why it died based on the year..., My guess is looking at the timeline that Spiritualism killed it off. Spiritualists had much stronger much more vivid personal experiences, so that if faith is based on personal experience it becomes impossible to argue that Conservative Lutheranism / orthodox Christianity was intrinsically true. But that's just a guess since I don't know much.

  4. CD-Host,

    Well, there is a remnant of conservative Lutherans in Germany - even some who are uncomfortable with the Erlangen implications. Unfortunately, most of those books examining the school have been written in German.

    "Spiritualists had much stronger much more vivid personal experiences, so that if faith is based on personal experience it becomes impossible to argue that Conservative Lutheranism / orthodox Christianity was intrinsically true."

    Here's our current champion (populizer):


  5. In terms of organic historicizing, both Möhler and Newman were doing similar things. Both drank heavily from the Romanticism of the period and its rejection of de-historicized scholasticism. On that score, they were both indeed "modern," but their modernism was more mystical and less rationalist -- which is why their true heirs at Vatican II were not the "liberals" but, rather, the ressourcement folks (like, as you note, Henri de Lubac and later, Hans Urs von Balthasar, JP-II, and, yes, Ratzinger).

    You may be right about the "essence" of Vatican II ecclesiology being best captured by Möhler, but the impetus (the boldness) to effect the sort of "development" at Vatican II has more to do with Newman and the spread of his ideas outside of traditional Thomist circles. It was inconceivable in the late 19th century that Rome would recognize the possibility of salvation among "heretics" and other religions (or no religion), but this was made possible a half-century later, once the "contextualization" of dogma was accepted as a way to relativize past dogmatic definitions. That was Newman's influence or, at least, the influence of those who had received his vision of doctrinal development.

    As for parallels with Protestant schools of thought in the last two centuries, the ressourcement movement (or "Nouvelle Théologie") of de Lubac, Congar, Balthasar, and Ratzinger is strikingly similar to the neo-orthodoxy of Barth, Berkouwer, Cullmann, Thielicke, and so forth -- neither liberal nor scholastic-orthodox. Both movements were revolting against a perceived rationalism in both liberalism and the inherited orthodoxy of the scholastic schools. Yet, I think they were clearly more sympathetic with the latter (orthodoxy) than with the former (liberalism) -- which is why a resurgence in patristics, Trinitarian theology, scholastic research, etc. has resulted in the wake of these movements.