Evangelicals today often find themselves divided over the issue of what sort of unity, if any, is desirable for evangelicals and Roman Catholics to pursue. Relations between the two groups have improved thanks largely in part to the presence, within Roman Catholicism, of more and more self-described “evangelical Catholics”. Peter Kreeft, philosophy professor at Boston College, is a good example. Kreeft, who is in many ways reminiscent of C.S. Lewis, was raised a Presbyterian, converted to Catholicism believing that he could retain all that was best in evangelicalism and still be a good Catholic, and has written numerous books articulating a faith that all Christians can affirm.
Continuing this tradition of “evangelical Catholicism”, earlier this year, Catholic scholar George Weigel published Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church (Basic Books). At the time of release, Catholic blogger Blantly Millegan reviewed the book for Christianity Today. With Reformation Sunday (October 27) right around the corner, Jackson Presbyterian Examiner will briefly explore Weigel’s book, using Millegan’s review as a guide.
1. What is on the table for reform?
When many evangelicals hear the word “reform”, they think of the Church recommitting itself to Biblical truth, even if that means, at times, abandoning long held theological views if they are shown to be out of line with Scripture. Millegan explains, though, that when Weigel talks about “reform”, he isn’t referring to the Catholic Church modifying any of its historic doctrines in any way. Millegan correctly points out that:
“The 16th-century Protestant Reformers diagnosed the problems of the medieval Catholic Church as theological, as opposed to being merely moral. But Catholic reformers across the centuries (St. Benedict of Nursia, St, Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ignatius of Loyola, etc) have always believed true Catholic reform comes from a rededication to the teachings of the Church and a reinvigoration of authentic Catholic practice.”
Many modern-day Catholics readily admit that Martin Luther’s call for moral reform in the Catholic Church was needed, but they reject his attempt at doctrinal reform. Within evangelical Catholicism, Church doctrine is not on the table, as far as reform goes.
2. Vatican II’s role in the Catholic Church’s reform
Millegan believes, along with Weigel, that the 2nd Vatican Council intended to bring about much good for the Catholic Church, but that the vision of the council has only been partly realized to date. He says:
“Much of the Second Vatican Council's vision has, at best, been unsuccessfully realized, or, at worst, ignored or even inverted. The Council explicitly called for a rejuvenation of the church's missionary work, specifically reaffirming that all Catholics, clergy and laity alike, are called to Christian holiness and the spread of the gospel. Yet, strangely, many Catholics in the West have made an appeal to ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ as an excuse for embracing secularism, relativism, and a practical universalism.”
Earlier this year, Jackson Presbyterian Examiner reviewed Andrew Greeley’s book, Making of the Pope: 2005. Greeley had not been a fan of John Paul II and he accepted the news that Benedict XVI had been elected pope with extreme reluctance, to say the least. At times, he seemed to have perceived Vatican II as a council that would quickly usher in the ordination of female clergy, soften the Church’s stance on sexual morality issues, and generally speaking, push Catholicism in a much more liberal direction. As Millegan points out, though, none of these things had been the council’s original intention.
Millegan points out that, whatever Vatican II did, it didn’t change the historic doctrines of the Catholic Church. This leaves evangelicals in a conflicted position. Evangelicals can appreciate that Vatican II didn’t change the Catholic Church into such a “progressive” communion that historic Christian truths would’ve been compromised. At the same time, evangelicals bemoan the fact that thoroughgoing doctrinal reform of the Catholic Church has yet to happen, and doesn’t appear to be happening in the near future.
Millegan sums up Weigel’s treatment of the “Progressive” vs. “Traditionalist” tension within modern Catholicism:
“‘Progressive’ Catholics are right that the church must reform herself, but wrong that reform means a break from her tradition. Evangelical Catholicism represents the third way, in that its purpose is to re-propose the essential, unchanging truths of the Catholic faith in the new modern context, with the goal of reinvigorating the church in her mission of bringing the gospel to the world.”
Evangelicals will welcome a renewed emphasis within Catholicism on bringing the gospel to the world, but, unfortunately, what exactly the gospel is remains a point of dispute between Catholics and evangelicals. For Catholics, the gospel is the historical facts of the Apostles’ Creed: the incarnation of the Son of God, his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. For evangelicals, while these are the agreed upon facts of the gospel, faith alone is the means by which the benefits of Christ’s work come to us today. For evangelicals, the declaration that we are saved by Christ alone through faith alone is an essential tenet of the gospel. If the “faith alone” part is obscured, the gospel itself is obscured.
3. Why has the Catholic Church changed?
Though Roman Catholicism is, for the most part, the same today as it was during the 16th century, doctrinally speaking, hardly anyone denies that the Catholic Church’s tone has changed greatly in recent decades. The Church’s approach to the culture is more dialogue-oriented, rather than simply issuing authoritative encyclicals, expecting that to forever settle the issue for all laypeople. Millegan believes that the growth of Catholicism in the “Global South” is largely responsible for the “new” Catholic Church seen today:
“Most of the places in which the church has been growing and thriving of late don't have the historical baggage of European Catholicism: The churches in Africa and Asia weren't around for the papal crowning of Charlemagne, the Protestant Reformation, or the French Revolution. Instead, they have been on the front lines of bringing the gospel to cultures that were not a part of Christendom…”
Millegan’s assessment is right on the mark. In many newly Christianized regions of Africa, the tension is between Muslims and Christians (of any kind), not between Christians of differing denominations. Tragic as it is, persecution of Christians often serves to bring together Christians who otherwise might not be willing to unite.
In America, as “secularism” has pushed religious people more into the fringe of the marketplace of ideas, Catholics and Protestants find themselves allied more and more, if not in doctrine, at least in matters of the so-called “culture war”. For instance, popular evangelical radio commentator Janet Parshall has spent several weeks discussing the Catholic Church’s opposition to the healthcare legislation mandate which would require employers to provide insurance to employees that would pay for abortive contraceptives. In this healthcare debate, evangelicals have by and large been very supportive of the Catholic Church’s right to live according to its conscience. As Millegan sums up:
“Evangelicals should be encouraged that the very same commitment Evangelical Catholics have to the teachings of the Church makes them reliable allies in cultural and legal battles over things like abortion, marriage, and sexual morality…”
4. Ongoing conflict over what is truth and how to determine truth
A fundamental divide between Catholics and evangelicals is not only disagreement about the truth of specific, isolated truth claims, but a deeper disagreement about how to determine the truth or falsehood of any given doctrine. Millegan explains:
“To determine [truth], Catholics will look to the two sources by which they believe the deposit of faith has been passed down—namely, written Scripture and oral Tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15)—and study them in line with how they have been authoritatively interpreted by the bishops, whom Catholics believe to be the successors of the Apostles."
All of the specific doctrinal controversies of the Reformation sprung out of the disagreement about where truth comes from. Is the church’s only infallible source of truth Scripture alone, or is the Church a God-appointed infallible interpreter of infallible Scripture? In the eyes of many evangelicals, so long as Rome affirms Church Tradition as an infallible source of truth, in practice equal to Scripture, real reform in the Church will be very limited.
In concluding his review, Millegan says that evangelicals will be encouraged by Weigel’s description of the current Catholic Church:
“Ecumenically-minded evangelicals should… be encouraged by the fact that the Second Vatican Council permanently committed the Catholic Church to the work of re-establishing full unity among all Christians, and all signs point to ecumenism remaining a major priority for Evangelical Catholics.”
As many Protestant churches prepare to observe Reformation Sunday this week, commemorating the 496th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, may God encourage Christians everywhere, from all denominations, to recommit themselves to Christian unity. God desires this for his church—unity not only on moral issues, but doctrinal issues as well. Relations between Rome and evangelicals are, thankfully, nowhere near as icy as they were five centuries ago. We still have far to go though. May God help us.