Friday, 18 October 2013

Francis: An 'Evangelical' Pope?

 "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less. "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Is Pope Francis an evangelical Pope?

I suppose entertaining that possibility depends on your definition of evangelical, an English word derived from the New Testament Greek ευαγγελιον, meaning 'good news' or more traditionally 'gospel'. Thus 'evangelicals' are 'gospel people'. The term 'evangelical' was first applied to people,  churches and doctrine during the 1530s when it was a descriptor for those Englishmen who advocated on behalf of Martin Luther's rediscovery of the Gospel, such as William Tyndale and Robert Barnes. Luther himself used the German word evangelische to denominate his doctrine of the Gospel and the churches which confessed it and so to this day in German-speaking lands Lutheran churches are known as Evangelische kirchen (in English 'Evangelical churches'). 

In English usage since the mid-1700s, however, the term 'evangelical' has generally referred to Protestant Christians whose faith is based on a quadrilateral identified by English church historian David Bebbington as consisting of Conversionism (a.k.a. 'Born Again-ism"), Biblicism, Crucicentrism (cross-centredness) and Social Activism. In this sense the term 'evangelical' is today applied to 'low church',  evangelistically active Anglicans as found in Sydney and the UK and associated with the Alpha course, to theologically conservative Methodists like Thomas Oden, to confessional Presbyterians like R.C. Sproul and Tim Keller, to Baptists like John Piper and Al Mohler, to Holiness churches like the Nazarenes,  Pentecostals like the Hillsong church and numerous stranger sects and also a plethora of 'non-denominational' groups who eschew 'man-made' names for their churches altogether. Occasionally even confessional Lutherans like the Missouri Synod are regarded by casual observers as 'evangelical' church bodies. But despite their common identification as 'evangelical' these churches and sects have quite different confessional positions on a number of doctrines, e.g. infant baptism, free will, glossolalia, millennialism, predestination, etc. Confusing, yes? For that reason some 'evangelical' scholars and writers have come to question whether the term 'evangelical' has become too broad to be really useful.

But recently, adding to the confusion over the term 'evangelical', some Roman Catholics have adopted  the term 'Evangelical Catholic', apparently to denote themselves as a new type of Roman Catholic (or is it just a clever attempt at re-branding? btw, some Lutherans were calling themselves 'evangelical catholics' way before this more recent development was started by George Weigel who was in turn probably inspired by Avery Dulles who was certainly well informed about Lutheran 'evangelical catholics'). These Evangelical Catholics are not self-consciously "traditionalist Catholics" but decidedly post and pro Vatican II. Nevertheless they are essentially conservative on moral and theologically matters and inspired by the 'New Evangelization' espoused by John Paul II. When contemporary Roman Catholics describe themselves as  'evangelicals' then, I think that identity derives from their advocacy of the 'New Evangelization' rather than Bebbington's quadrilateral, although it must be said that some strains of Roman Catholic piety do touch at least three of those bases, with 'Biblicism' being replaced by a sort of "ecclesiastical positivism" (e.g. the proverbial German coal miner's faith: "Q. What do you believe. A. I believe what the church believes. Q. And what does the church believe? A. The church believes what I believe.").

One noted Roman Catholic who falls into the Evangelical Catholic category who thinks that Pope Francis is an 'Evangelical Pope' is the deacon, activist lawyer and on-line presence, Keith Fournier, who writes:

"The New Evangelization is meant to bring about an authentic renewal of the Catholic Church precisely so she can undertake a new missionary outreach to the whole world -  through you and me! Only a Church which is fully alive in the Lord and filled with His Holy Spirit can carry out such an evangelical mission in the world of this hour. Pope Francis is an evangelical Catholic Pope who is enlisting us in this vital work." (

Now, let me say at the outset that there are positive aspects to these developments and at times Francis has struck what appear to be authentically 'evangelical' notes in his public statements (although see previous posts). For example, there is this:

"The cross does not speak to us about defeat and failure; paradoxically, it speaks to us about a death which is life, a death which gives life, for it speaks to us of love, the love of God incarnate, a love which does not die, but triumphs over evil and death. When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us, we are re-created, we become “a new creation”. Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners. That is why Saint Francis could say with Saint Paul: “Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14)." Homily on 4th October at Assisi.

As refreshing as language like this coming from the mouth of a Pope may initially sound to Lutherans and other heirs of the Reformation, is this a truly 'evangelical' message according to the original, Biblical meaning of the word as 'good news' of salvation through Jesus Christ? We won't attempt to parse in depth what Francis may mean by "When we let the crucified Jesus gaze upon us...", except to note that while Roman Catholicism speaks of a prevenient grace which precedes all human effort in conversion, it does allow room for human co-operation in conversion and justification. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read that

"God's free initiative demands man's free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love" [CCC para 2002; italics mine].

"Justification establishes cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom. On man's part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent: When God touches man's heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God's grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God's sight [CCC para 1993; italics mine]  

"Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life [CCC para1996; italics mine].


"The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity [CCC para 2001; italics mine].

In this aspect of attributing freedom (presumably freedom of the will) to man in his response to grace and therefore an objective role in the act of conversion to the point of regarding grace as an enabling power that helps us to respond to God's invitation with faith, which is not viewed here primarily as a gift but as man's act of "collaboration" (lit. working together with God), Roman Catholicism has more in affinity with Baptist "decision theology" than with Lutheranism or classic Augustinianism. In that case, perhaps the Pope really is an evangelical!

The truth of the matter is that the Roman doctrines of grace and justification, forged at the Council of Trent as a response to the Reformation and repeated verbatim in the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church, are intentionally ambiguous positions, reflecting unresolved differences and tensions among the body of the Tridentine bishops themselves on these questions, differences which can in turn can be traced to conflicting understandings of theological anthropology and original sin. As a result, rather than speaking with a "great consensus" formed through attentive listening and submission to the Scriptures, Trent's decree on justification is a church political compromise between the Augustinians and those with semi-Pelagian tendencies.

Having noted that ambiguity, let's consider what the Pope means by "the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners". To Lutheran ears, that does sound authentically evangelical, such that we might even wonder: has the Pope been reading Luther? But I put it to you, readers, that the Pope's words need to be read in light of the Roman doctrine because, after all, is the Pope not a Catholic? As we might expect, a theology based on the above mentioned church political compromise cannot speak unambiguously about merit, either. While it acknowledges that with regard to God no man has a strict right to merit [CCC para 2008], and in particular

"Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion [CCC para 2010; italics mine]

"Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life [CCC para2010, italics mine]. 

Just at this point the jig is up and the cat is out of the bag! For Rome salvation is not a gift but a process begun with conversion and justification but only completed through sanctification and the attainment of eternal life (there is a sense in which the via salutis (way of salvation) can be conceived as a process or better yet a journey can be understood in an orthodox manner, but it is not the Roman sense and just for the moment we will refrain from exploring it). The specific "graces" required for this process or journey are things we can merit not only for ourselves but even for others!

Therefore, I submit to you my readers (few though you are!), that when Pope Francis says "Everything else starts with this: the experience of transforming grace, the experience of being loved for no merits of our own, in spite of our being sinners" he should be understood in the Roman Catholic, not the evangelical sense; words like 'evangelical' just cannot be made to mean such different things. 

To be continued...



Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Pope Errs Again?

In my last post I wrote that the Pope, in an interview with the Italian journal la Repubblica appeared to place conscience over Divine Revelation as a religious authority. Now, in a second interview with the same (atheist) journalist, the Pope certainly seems to repeat the same error:

 "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good."
"Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good."
 "And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place."

To say this is not only to place individual conscience over Divine Revelation, it is to espouse moral relativism. Either that or the Pope is a poor communicator.

These must be "interesting" times in which to be a conservative Roman Catholic.