I need some help from my Roman Catholic friends. It is difficult to figure out exactly what is going on in Rome today.
An Italian evangelical leader, Leonardo De Chirico, gave a very thoughtful 30-minute message at a recent Ligonier Conference, in this year of remembering the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the video below, Chirico argues that in order to understand Roman Catholicism today, we need to have in mind three concepts/names:
- Vatican II: The 16th century Council of Trent codified for hundreds of years what has been traditionally understood to be Roman Catholicism, the high water mark for the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a formulation of doctrine that sought to refute many of the reforms of Martin Luther and other Protestants. The next major council, Vatican I, set much of Roman Catholicism against the changing modern world of the 19th century, affirming the work of the Council of Trent, and reinforcing traditional boundaries. But the early 1960s, Vatican II council changed all of that. However, Vatican II did so, not by altering the doctrine of the church, but rather, by changing the tone and attitudes towards those outside of the Roman communion.
- Embracement: Vatican II set the wheels in motion, whereby this change of tone and attitude has characterized the trajectory of the Roman church for the past fifty-plus years. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict put the brakes on much of this Vatican II trajectory, embodying the doctrinal commitments that have traditionally defined Rome. Still, incremental changes in smaller ways, in terms of a warmer spirit of embracement and inclusiveness of others, made their way into the church. But the doctrine remained effectively the same.
- Pope Francis: Now however, unlike his recent predecessors, Francis has downplayed the doctrine and turned up the warmth of this new spirit of embracement. Arguably, Francis is the first truly “Vatican II”-like Pope. In the past four years since his ascendancy, Francis has hinted at or suggested various reforms in the church, some that point towards reconciliation with other parties in the universal Christian community (like Protestants and Eastern Orthodox), some that thrill liberals and others outside of the church, and some that horrify Catholic conservatives.
What are we to make of all of this?
Briefly stated, on the one hand, Roman Catholicism has never been a monolithic movement, even during the era of the Council of Trent. On the other hand, Protestants can easily misrepresent what Roman Catholics believe and think, and that does harm to efforts to try to heal the divisions of the last 500 years. That being said, here are two things that come to mind as examples of what puzzles me, as to what is coming out of Rome in the Pope Francis era:
- The Vatican recently announced plans to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, with a stamp showing the face of Martin Luther on it. This strikes me as hopeful, in a sense, but really, really strange, in another way. As I understand it, anyone who reads the documents of the Council of Trent, which is still considered to be authoritative, infallible doctrine, would readily conclude that the Roman church still considers Martin Luther to be a “heretic.” Canon law (751) states that “Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.” Now, the Vatican is remembering Luther in a positive way, as “a witness to the Gospel?” How does this all fit together?
- A generation ago, those Catholics who experienced the tragedy of divorce, were conscience-bound to go through the process of securing an annulment for improper Catholic marriages. Nowadays, fewer divorced Catholics even bother with the annulment proceedings. Also, according to authoritative Catholic tradition, regular confession is a required sacrament of the Catholic Church, and yet, I know many Catholic friends who rarely, if ever, go to confession. What are we to make of all of this?
Leonardo De Chirico offers some insights from a Reformed Protestant perspective. I can imagine that many traditional Catholics might be terribly dismayed by all of the changes. Can any of my Roman Catholic friends help me out here? Are Chirico’s observations correct?
Ligonier Ministries, associated with Bible teacher R. C. Sproul, has some great resources, particularly for those with interest in the theology of the Protestant Reformation. In this year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Ligonier sponsored their annual conference, with the theme of the Reformation, and you can even view all of the videos of the conference on YouTube.