Does Protestant Truth Still Matter? (6) Understanding Contemporary Roman Catholicism

On Reformation Day 2023 we returned to a series of posts we started in 2021 but never finished – the text of ‘Why Protestant Truth Still Matters: A Biblical Perspective’ by Garry Williams. This is the fourth post in the series. (The first post is here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth here.)

The printed version of the full publication can be obtained from the Protestant Truth Society.

The piece is structured like this:

1. Introducing the Five Solas

2. The Solas Stated:
            Sola Scriptura
            Solus Christus 
            Sola Gratia and Sola Fide
            Soli Deo Gloria

3. Roman Catholicism before Vatican II:

4. Contemporary Roman Catholicism:
            In with the New
            Out with the Old?
            More of Mary
            Understanding Contemporary Roman Catholicism 

Rome thus still maintains and teaches its traditional convictions on revelation, justification, and worship, and she has taken further her exaltation of Mary. And yet alongside all this she has adopted an open and embracing stance. Does this mean that Roman Catholic theology is now an incoherent cluster of contradictions? Is the traditional set alongside the contemporary in a competition that only one side can win?1 Or is there a theological rationale that can identify some kind of coherence to the developments?

In his most persuasive account of the changes in Roman Catholic theology, Leonardo De Chirico, an Italian evangelical pastor and scholar, argues that the new stance is explained by developments in Roman Catholic treatments of the relationship between nature and grace.2 A brief detour into this debate will reveal how significant the seemingly obscure topic is. The traditional position, derived from the mediaeval scholastic theologians, was that the realms of nature and grace are strongly to be distinguished. The distinction was traced back even to the created state of unfallen Adam. Thomas Aquinas believed that man was created with a natural human goodness as part of the image of God, to which was added another kind of goodness, a supernatural gift of grace (which came to be known as the donum superadditum). Though it was given at the time of creation, the donum was not part of created nature.3 Had Adam obeyed God, it would have been by means of this added gift enabling his reason to control his lower appetites. Thus Thomas separated sharply Adam as a natural man from Adam as a man graced by God.

For Thomas, fallen man therefore retains many natural created capacities still intact. The natural inclination to virtue was ‘diminished by sin’ but not destroyed.4 Only the donum was entirely destroyed. This is why reason can play such a significant role for Thomistic Catholicism: fallen man retains a considerable natural capacity for reasoning correctly. God, Aquinas believes, can be known by natural men and even loved by them. Indeed, in one sense, he is loved by all: ‘God, in so far as He is the universal good, from Whom every natural good depends, is loved by everything with a natural love.’5 Natural law can be a viable guide for fallen creatures since they retain a desire for the good and have ‘a natural inclination to know the truth about God, and to live in society’.6 In short, there is a whole realm of natural virtue that is possible in man apart from grace. Man thus has a twofold happiness, natural and supernatural, one ‘proportionate to human nature’ attained through natural virtue, and one ‘surpassing man’s nature’ attained only by God’s grace through the theological virtues faith, hope, and love.7

Later Thomists took this position even further. Some of them, especially Thomas Cajetan, argued that there is a realm of pure nature (natura pura) that does not need the supernatural to find its goal, but has its own proper end in the natural realm itself. This development of Thomas’s position (which goes beyond his own view that nature could never find its proper end in itself), produced a very strong nature-grace contrast. Grace was firmly contained within the supernatural realm alone, and nature was sufficient to itself. On either Thomas’s or Cajetan’s view, we can see why Tridentine Catholicism was so insistent on the utterly unique place of the Church as the exclusive repository of supernatural grace. Rome’s aggressive anti-Protestant and anti-Enlightenment stance stemmed from the conviction that only the Church in communion with Rome is the realm of grace, not anything beyond her. 

Even though Thomas’s Summa was enjoined as the basis of theological training by Leo XIII in 1879, twentieth-century Roman Catholicism increasingly challenged the later Thomistic views of the nature-grace antithesis. G. C. Berkouwer and others have drawn attention to the impact of the nouvelle théologie of leading 1940s and 50s French Catholic theologians. On the one hand their teaching explains the improved use of the Bible compared to Trent because they emphasized ressourcement, a return to the Bible and the church fathers. But at the same time they also stand behind the changed stance of Vatican II toward the non-Catholic and non-Christian world. 

It was theologians like Henri de Lubac who led the transformation of Rome’s attitude to the world and other churches, and his most controversial work focused on the nature-grace issue. De Lubac argued against the later Thomists that nature itself always seeks its fulfilment in grace. He made the case most notably in his 1946 work Surnaturel, and with more circumspection in The Mystery of the Supernatural (1965). While he is clear that fallen nature itself is not penetrated by supernatural grace, he has a much more spiritual account of created nature than the later Thomists on whom he focuses his criticism, and in some respects than Thomas himself. Where some Thomists denied that in pure nature there is a natural desire for God, de Lubac argues for a strong desiderium naturale in man. 

The influence of this new theology of God-inclined nature explains many of the changes of stance that we have seen in Rome. In particular, it yields a whole new picture of the church and its relationship to nature. Nature, even fallen nature, is defined as being inherently open to God, always looking for him. If nature is like that, then the Church may take an embracive view of human religious phenomena, drawing men from other religions gently and gradually into her own expansive body. The whole world has an inalienable inclination toward God, and Rome can warmly invite it to herself since she is the centre of God’s presence in the world. As David Wells describes it, for the new Catholicism ‘the reality of God has become identified with the reality of the earthly city, the sacred is found in the secular, Christ is in the world’.8

Initially this tendency was strongly resisted. De Lubac was removed from his teaching role and his books were taken out of circulation in 1950. In the same year Pius XII issued Humani generis, essentially an attack on his position. But de Lubac’s fortunes changed dramatically when Pope John XXIII appointed him as a consultant to the Theological Commission preparing for Vatican II. He was later made one the Council’s theological experts (known as a peritus), and Paul VI made him a member of the Theological Commission. In 1983 John Paul II made him a cardinal. 

Other elements of the new theology are also important if we are to understand the changes at Vatican II. Yves Congar, another French theologian, is notable for his influence on the Council’s stance toward other Christian churches. In Chrétiens Désunis (1937) he argued for real elements of grace among non-Catholic churches. His theology of tradition was also crucial for enabling the Church to embrace contradictory elements. Rather than viewing tradition as a fixed code of sharp-edged dogmatic statements provided by the Magisterium, Congar redefined it as a living, organic reality embracing the spiritual life itself. Writing in 1964, he explains how the tradition has been passed down:

It was not by discursive means, with all the accurate and precise formulation that this allows; it was by means of the concrete experience of life and of the familiar everyday realities of existence. It could well be compared to all that is implied by the idea of upbringing as opposed to instruction.9

Such a concept of tradition obviously weakens interest in propositional definitions of doctrine from the past. They cannot be overtly abandoned, but there is more room for adapting the interpretation of them while claiming to remain faithful to the tradition that now finds its locus elsewhere. A fascinating example of this is Congar’s own reading of Trent on Scripture and tradition. He distinguishes the belief of the authors of Trent and their immediate successors from the later theological interpretation of their text. They believed that certain truths were contained in tradition and not in Scripture, but this is not enough to invalidate a different reading which grants the full presence of the truth in both Scripture and tradition.10 In short, the text meant one thing then but can be taken differently now: ‘the historical analysis of the question with its array of quotations must not be allowed to dominate and conceal its real significance’.11 Adaptive interpretations like this make ecumenism much easier because they allow a more flexible approach to the Church’s own teaching.

Like de Lubac, Congar was suspended from his teaching role in the 1950s. But in 1959 the Pope appointed him as a theological consultant on the Commission preparing for Vatican II. Avery Dulles comments that his influence at the Council ‘was equal to, and perhaps greater than, that of any other Catholic theologian’.12 Pope John Paul II made Congar a cardinal in 1994.

Developments such as Congar’s concept of tradition fostered a new eschatological emphasis in the Church’s self-understanding at Vatican II. The Council sets out a more historical, developmental, and provisional conception of the Church than any previous utterance of the Magisterium. For example, the pilgrim state of the church on earth is a major theme throughout the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: ‘While she slowly grows, the Church strains toward the completed kingdom and, with all her strength, hopes and desires to be united in glory with her King.’13 The church has not arrived at her final state. As such she must change in order to mature toward glory. A progressive model of the church is one that expects its theology to change as it matures. Rather than existing from the beginning in a finished state it will grow organically and will draw in elements that can enrich its life. Vatican II teaches that even the word of God is not complete yet in the Church: ‘as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfilment in her’.14 The Church is thus inclined to blend together elements in her tradition that others regard as incompatible, waiting patiently for them to synthesize into a new whole. As one leading twentieth-century Roman Catholic states, ‘Catholic thinking remains open, indeed its special characteristic is that it tends to keep opening up even more’.15 De Chirico contrasts the either-or way in which evangelicals view Rome’s innovations and the both-and way in which Rome herself sees them. Rome, he maintains, has ‘sufficient cognitive equipment’ to hold together contradictory theological positions.16

It is vital to note that while her theology of nature and grace, her view of tradition, and her eschatological self-understanding mean that Rome adopts a more open stance, her openness is a prelude to drawing all elements of grace in toward herself. In other words, Rome views the realms of nature and the ‘separated brethren’ more positively, but they are expected to move toward communion with the true Church and the successor of Peter. In that sense, for all the gentler tone, Rome has not weakened her self-identification as the proper locus of divine grace. As De Chirico argues, she emphasises catholicity, reaching out to all, and yet also Romanitas, drawing them in to the centre, to communion with Peter where the divine life is fully to be found.17

In particular, the Church is now understood to be the place where humanity and divinity properly meet. As the two natures met in the person of Christ, so now they meet in the Church. Men seeking God can find his fulness only in Rome. God and man meet first in Christ, the God-man, and now in the Church. Vatican II compares the Church’s existence, ‘by no weak analogy’, to the incarnation. The Church is viewed as a single reality composed of the visible human society and the mystical body of Christ: both elements ‘form one complex reality that coalesces from a divine and a human element.’18 The visible structure serves the Spirit who vivifies the Church in the way that the humanity of Christ serves his divine nature. The Church is so like Christ that the 1943 encyclical Mystici corporis states that the Church ‘is, as it were, another Christ [quasi altera Christi persona]’.19 This teaching leads De Chirico to speak of ‘the theandric constitution of the Church’.20 The Church as the continuation of the incarnation is thus the presence of Christ in the world. The bishops, for example, ‘in an eminent and visible way sustain the roles of Christ Himself as Teacher, Shepherd, and High Priest’. They ‘act in his person’, as do the priests in the Mass.21 The democratic spirit of Vatican II extends this sharing of Christ’s roles even to the laity, who ‘are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ’.22 Even the attribute of infallibility is conferred on the collective laity as part of the prophetic office: ‘The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief.’23 As the continuation of the incarnation, the church thus remains the sole vehicle for the proper and full mediation of grace to nature, as De Chirico explains:

Between the orders of nature and grace, a mediating subject is needed to represent nature to grace and grace to nature, so that nature will progressively and more fully be graced and grace will eventually achieve its final goal of elevating nature. That mediation is the theological raison d’être of the Roman Catholic Church per se and the chief role of the Church within the wider Roman Catholic system.24

The Roman Catholic Church of Vatican II therefore sees herself as a centripetal reality in the world, the goal toward which all who realize their inclination toward God are drawn. Any truth outside her leans toward her. The ‘many elements of sanctification and of truth’ found outside the church are ‘gifts belonging to the Church of Christ’ and ‘forces impelling toward catholic unity’.25 The work of the Church in the world is to take up and refine the good found outside her:

Through her work, whatever good is in the minds and hearts of men, whatever good lies latent in the religious practices and cultures of diverse peoples, is not only saved from destruction but is also cleansed, raised up, and perfected unto the glory of God, the confusion of the devil, and the happiness of man.26

[1] This is the reading favoured by David Wells in Revolution in Rome (London: Tyndale Press, 1973).

[2] See Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, Religions and Discourse, 19 (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003), passim. I am greatly indebted to this work for my understanding of the theology of Vatican II.

[3] Summa Theologica, trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1948; repr. 1981), Ia IIae 112. 1.

[4] ST, Ia IIae 85. 1, 2:966.

[5] ST, Ia 60. 5, 1:301.

[6] ST, Ia IIae 94. 2, 2:1009.

[7] ST, Ia IIae 62. 1, 2:851.

[8] Revolution, p. 54.

[9] The Meaning of Tradition, trans. by A. N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 22.

[10] Tradition, pp. 40-43.

[11] Tradition, p. 43.

[12] Tradition, p. vii.

[13] Lumen gentium, 5, in Compendium, §4106.

[14] Dei verbum, 8, in Compendium, §4210.

[15] Hans Urs von Balthasar, cited in De Chirico, Perspectives, p. 200.

[16] Perspectives, p. 82.

[17] Perspectives, p. 193.

[18] Lumen gentium, 8, in Compendium, §4118.

[19] Compendium, §3806.

[20] Perspectives, p. 257.

[21] Lumen gentium, 21, 28, in Compendium, §§4145, 4153.

[22] Lumen gentium, 31, in Compendium, §4157.

[23] Lumen gentium, 12, in Compendium, §4130.

[24] Perspectives, p. 247.

[25] Lumen gentium, 8, in Compendium, §4119.

[26] Lumen gentium, 17, in Compendium, §4141.