Monday, February 16, 2015

What Is Roman Catholicism? Part 1

What is Roman Catholicism in our day? According to Leonard De Chirico, no evangelical theologian has had a good handle on answering this question in the post Vatican II years.

(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.


  1. I read some excerpts from Allison's book and I like the fact that he is not overly polemical. But the best part of the book is when he states where the agreements are. I was surprised to see how much evangelical thought is in agreement with Rome, based on my readings of the book. For example on the section of the Work of Christ, Allison says evangelical theology thought is in agreement with Rome on every part except the extent of the atonement (limited/unlimited).

    1. Vincent, I would rather look at it from the opposite direction -- yes, there are agreements, but the agreements are merely superficial. Rome is not interested in ecumenism. Rome is not interested in adjusting its own dogmas to make them more amenable to what evangelicals think. Rome is interested in swallowing up any evangelicals that would come in their direction. Did you not see this article?

      This is how rapproachment with Rome works:

      I cannot improve on [t]his summary:

      "What this means for the average small [Anglican] parish thinking of accepting the offer is that the entire parish will no longer have autonomy.

      *[you] will begin Roman catechism for 2 years, their clergy will step down and become laymen and will have to complete their education if lacking before being able to serve anyone; your buildings, if any, will need to be disposed of.

      *you will be directed to a local RC Diocese since ours are far flung and overlapping many RC dioceses in between.

      *you will likely be directed to a local RC parish (100 families is the minimum standard for a RC parish) for worship in the early am.

      * you will be somewhat segregated from the RC congregation.

      * your priest if he can past muster will be counted on to do Vatican II services as directed by the local Bishop (so don't count on the level of pastoral care you had before.)

      *your children will learn Roman Catholicism, you will die, the Roman Church will go on as before and that will be the end of that.

      [Roman] Evangelism ends with this offer.

  2. John, Allison certainly believes that the agreement is far more than just superficial. Having read large excerpts of the book (some of it is available as an ebook, which is where i read it) he believes that evangelicals agree with many of the fundamentals of the faith with Rome, he does however show that there are serious differences that must not be overlooked. How far into the book are you by the way? In the end its the tone in which Allison writes that gives me this impression. I remember that Father Hart from the continuum blog said that as an Anglican he can agree with 90% of what the Roman catechism says. Also Rome cannot amend its doctrines because of the doctrine of infallibility. The best it can do is redefine and reword certain doctrines to make them acceptable to ecumenical ears. The best example of this is the doctrine of purgatory and indulgences. Just read how John Paul 2 in his 2000 encyclical on indulgences and Ratzinger's Spe Salvi have to say about that topic and then compare it to Paul IV's 1967 document. They read very very differently. The former got rid of all the objectionable elements like punishment and temporal debt and then compare while the later retains them. Back to Hart, he is very critical of Rome but still regards them as part of the visible church despite it's errors. He told me that in email. He also says he has high respect for Ratzinger.

    1. Vincent, I have read most of the book.I agree that there are many areas of agreement -- and some of these are "fundamental" areas. Rome did start out being a part of the Christian church. However, if you look deeper at these "fundamental" areas -- you'll find that the differences are more fundamental, and the "areas of agreement" are primarily superficial.

      I agree with you too that language is changing, now -- but what does that mean for the old ways that things were characterized. It is not enough to "reword certain doctrines to make them acceptable to evangelical ears". You can put lipstick on a pig and it is still a pig. And Rome is still Rome.

      You fail to understand precisely how Rome communicated in the years between Trent and Vatican II -- precisely how "dogmatic" its dogmas were -- precisely how they were spelled out. So "getting rid of objectionable language" does not get rid of the objectionable doctrines. This is precisely the point. You seem to be falling for the "spin" without considering the true underlying objectionableness.

      And regarding Hart, I consider many Roman Catholics to be "part of the visible church", while noting that Rome has excluded itself from true Scriptural Christianity in many areas. Be careful to understand what is being said, and how it is being said, and by whom.

      At the end of the book, for all the "agreements" that Allison finds, he still finds a need to have a ministry to Roman Catholics, ostensibly to teach them biblical things, and even to move them out of Roman Catholicism. If their hierarchy provided a "ministry", why would Allison not refer Roman Catholics to their own hierarchy?

    2. Can you explain how the agreements are merely superficial and not real? Also you have to realize that Rome cannot get rid of the doctrines because of the doctrine of infallibility. The most it can do is reinterpret them. However with the reforming Bologna School now at the Vatican, maybe Rome will finally change. Also when do you think Rome ceased being part of the Christian Church? What do you think about the following review from amazon on this book:

      Unfortunately, Allison ends this book on a bit of a disappointing note. After spending the first 450 pages carefully analyzing Rome's errors he avoids drawing any overall conclusions. Does he believe Rome is at its foundation a Christian church that happens to teach many doctrines not found in the Bible (see Norman Geisler) or does he believe Catholicism is an apostate church that turned from the Gospel of Jesus Christ to legalism and ritualism and that no person can be saved by adhering to its standard theology? After reading the first 450 pages the reader will definitely assume Allison's position is the latter but, unfortunately, he's not willing to commit himself to a forthright summation and conclusion. Instead, the six-page final chapter offers Evangelicals advice on how to share the Gospel with Catholics.

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  4. Can you explain how the agreements are merely superficial and not real?

    I would point you to this article:

    If you want to buy into Rome in the least little bit, you will be required to buy into it all the way. If you think you like their doctrine of God, you must also accept their doctrines of papal infallibility and the Assumption of Mary. Ultimately, they don't give you the option to pick and choose what part of them you like.

    Also you have to realize that Rome cannot get rid of the doctrines because of the doctrine of infallibility.

    Yes, you have to realize you cannot get rid of them, or modify them in any way.

    The most it can do is reinterpret them.

    What is your intention: to understand the truth of things, or to "reinterpret" the truth so that it fits into "your understanding of things"? Seriously? What is God doing? Does he seek to set up the Roman Catholic system, so that people can come to salvation within that system, only to say to 21st century disciples, "Ok, now, we're going to reinterpret what works"?

    However with the reforming Bologna School now at the Vatican, maybe Rome will finally change.

    There are lots of "schools of thought" within the Vatican -- however, the Italians still own the Vatican. If you're hoping for Rome to "change", you may as well put lipstick on your pig.

    Also when do you think Rome ceased being part of the Christian Church?

    Very much so at the time of the reformation. And keep in mind the distinction between the "visible" portion of Rome -- the hierarchical structure and its "dogmas" and the in-the-pews person who doesn't know any better, but who is still has within his or her heart "the name of Christ". That person is harmed, not helped, by what Allison calls "the burdensome nature" of the Roman religion (see below)

    What do you think about the following review from amazon on this book

    I've seen that review -- and I think Allison is correct -- Roman Catholics need to have the Gospel shared with them, because they do not get it in their "churches".

    Consider this line, from just before his "conclusion":

    With exasperation, evangelical theology objects to the burdensome nature of these additional laws that the Catholic Church prescribes for and obligates the faithful to obey... (pg 448 in the book).

    Does that sound like someone who's "not willing to commit himself"?

    In fact, all throughout the book, he draws conclusions like this one.

    Rome has, in fact, changed since the Reformation, but it has changed for the worse. It has adopted papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas and the Vatican II notions that "the Roman Catholic Church is the Universal Sacrament of Salvation". It has gone in the wrong direction.

  5. Would you consider Francis of Assisi and Aquinas members of the visible church? They believed in things like purgatory and indulgences and such. What additional laws is Allison referring too? I did not get to that part of the book. I think the reviewer had in mind that he is not willing to commit to whether Rome is apostate or still part of the visible church but one in error, which is the position of Father Hart and many Anglicans I have spoken to.

    1. Vincent, I consider individuals members of the visible church. What they believed is less important than that they believed in Christ. You and I both have wrong beliefs, but that does not disqualify us from being Christian -- primarily because of who Christ is and what He has done.

      As for "additional laws", Allison is talking about the "precepts of the church". Search this site for "sacramental treadmill", "list paradigm", "precepts of the church", "indispensable minimums". I've written extensively about these things.

      It is Roman dogma specifically that is not only not Christian, but anti-Christian. And those who teach Roman dogma are doing great harm to Christians.

      As for what the reviewer thought, he's entitled to think what he wants to think. And again (as we go round in circles), I'm not saying that Roman Catholics cannot be a part of the "visible church". The WCF explains "visible church" very succinctly:

      II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

      III. Unto this catholic and visible Church, Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world; and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

      IV. This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

      It is "the Roman System" (see my most recent blog post) that is harmful.

      If you want to consider "the visible church" as the assembly gathered before the mountain where God appears (which is the original meaning of "qahal", which was later translated "church"), think of "the Roman System as a kind of side-show that is operating in all of its pomp and circumstances outside the assembly, and enticing people to turn their attention away from the Living God and toward their own quite splashy, quite worldly, "internally consistent" side-show.

  6. Is an Episcopal church government an essential mark of the visible church? I have spoken to many EO's and Anglicans and they say it is the only church governance that is recognized and approved by God, and any church that lacks this structure cannot be a church in the proper sense. Hart says that the English Reformers where the most true to the catholic tradition because they retained the only valid form of eccheisology.

    1. Of course EOs and Anglicans will say that. Calvinists will say that the presbyterian model of governance is the only New Testament church governance, and therefore it is the one that is recognized and approved by God for that reason. I would rather go with the New Testament than the second century church, with respect to governance. What precisely does it mean to be "most true to the catholic tradition" -- even if that is so, does "the catholic tradition" (however that may be defined -- and which eventually includes a papacy) trump the New Testament?

  7. John - a while ago DA Carson grappled with the position of 'evangelical ecclesiology'. Here's what Carson wrote:

    "We do not agree with Roman Catholics about the locus of revelation, the definition of the church, the means of grace, the source of contemporary ecclesiastical authority, the significance of Mary, the finality of Christ's cross-work, and more. Though we recognize the immense diversity of contemporary Catholicism, we do not find that official pronouncements since Vatican II have bridged the chasm that remains"

    So Carson gives 7 points of evangelical ecclesiology. Could you point out which ones disagree with Roman Catholic ecclesiology?

    (1) The church is the community of the new covenant.
    (2) The church is the community empowered by the Holy Spirit.
    (3) The church is an eschatological community.
    (4) The church is the "gathered" people of God.
    (5) The church is a worshiping community.
    (6) The church is the product of God's gracious self-disclosure in revelation and redemption.
    (7) The church is characterized by mission.

    1. Ted, thanks for the link. I'll give it a look. While De Chirico does not include Carson among the evangelical writers he considers, it appears as if Carson is like the others in terms of not having considered the systemic nature of Roman Catholicism.