Tag Archives: Roman Catholicism

Proper Passion: A Lesson from Trent

Christian passion—the fervency to pursue the purposes of Christ over our own—is an enviable quality. In fact, looking back over two millennia of church history, we recognize it to be a common trait among those who have been used by God to advance his kingdom: we can hear it in their voices, observe it in their actions, and see it in their eyes. Passion is unmistakable.

It is possible, however, for passion to become a liability. Indeed, unbridled passion may spin out of control and inadvertently frustrate the purpose for which it was intended. When this happens, we allow our temperaments to usurp the gentle leading of God's Spirit, which in turns spawns sins such as impatience, harshness, and even anger.

To shed light on the dynamics of Christian passion, I tell the story of Sanfelice, a 16th-century Catholic bishop who presided at the Council of Trent. Sanfelice, a zealous advocate of justification by sola fide (faith alone), allowed his passion for the doctrine to overtake his pastoral discretion. Sharing this unusual episode of the council from its historical location in northern Italy, I encourage fellow believers to embed our passion in the ethics of Christian humility and love.

Christian Passion: A Lesson from Trent from Chris Castaldo on Vimeo.

'Sola Scriptura' Radicalized and Abandoned

Reformation Day reminds us of Luther's monumental decision to post his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Luther's theses would strike into motion an irreversible set of confrontations with Rome, eventually leading to the genesis of Protestantism.

6a00e554ba603388340162fbf4760e970dWhile these 95 theses are important, Luther's stance on the authority of Scripture over against Rome was not expressed in all of its maturity in 1517. The formal principle of the Reformation would become more and more conspicuous with every passing debate between these two nemeses.

Sola Scriptura

In 1519 at the Leipzig debate with the Catholic debater Johann Eck, whom Luther called "that little glory-hungry beast," Eck brought the real issue to the table: who had final authority, God's Word or the pope? For Eck, Scripture received its authority from the pope. Luther strongly disagreed, arguing instead that Scripture has authority over popes, church fathers, and church councils, all of which have erred.

Luther was quickly classified with the forerunning heretics, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. At first Luther denied such an association, but during a break in his debate Luther realized that Hus had taught exactly what he believed. Eck returned to Rome and reported his findings to the pope, and Luther left the debate only to become further convinced that Scripture, not the pope, is the sole and final infallible authority.

Luther's sola scriptura principle would be most famously articulated in 1521 at Worms. On April 17, 1521, Luther was told he must recant. After thinking it through for a day, Luther returned and declared:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.

Luther's speech is firm and straightforward: Scripture is the norma normans (determining norm), rather than the norma normata (determined norm). As he would explain in future writings, Scripture has priority over the church, for the church is the baby born out of the womb of Scripture, not vice versa. "For who begets his own parent? Who first brings forth his own maker" (LW 36:107; WA 6:561)? Luther rejected the two-source theory that viewed oral tradition as a second, extrabiblical, and infallible source of divine revelation passed down from the apostles to the magisterium. Instead, he argued that Scripture alone is our infallible source of divine revelation.

Radicalization of Sola Scriptura

For many Protestants today, the story ends here. But the story is far from over. Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin did not pose a strict either/or dilemma: Scripture or tradition. The reformers may have rejected Rome's understanding of tradition and upheld the supremacy and final authority of Scripture over tradition. But we would be mistaken to think the reformers did not value tradition or see it as a subordinate authority in some sense. Indeed, the reformers believed tradition was on their side!

Therefore, the reformers became frustrated when certain radicals sought to discard tradition altogether. These radicals did not defend and practice sola scriptura, but instead turned to nuda scriptura or solo scriptura. Perhaps this disregard for tradition is best captured in the bombast of Sebastian Franck: "Foolish Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory—of whom not one even knew the Lord, so help me God, nor was sent by God to teach. Rather, they were all apostles of Antichrist." No wonder Alister McGrath concludes, "In the hands of such radical thinkers, the sola scriptura principle became radicalized."

Toward a Healthy Use of Tradition

I wish I could say that all evangelicals today have a crisp, accurate grasp of sola scriptura. I am hopeful that many understand how a Protestant view of Scripture and tradition differs from Rome's position. However, I am less confident that evangelicals understand the difference between sola and solo scriptura, for in some cases the latter is assumed to be the identity of the former.

Consequently, some evangelicals, intentionally or unintentionally, have followed in the footsteps of Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) who said, "I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever."

Ironically, such a view cannot preserve sola scriptura. Sure, tradition is not being elevated to the level of Scripture. But the individual is! As Keith Mathison laments, in this view everything is "evaluated according to the final standard of the individual's opinion of what is and is not scriptural." To be sure, such a view lends itself more in the direction of individual autonomy than scriptural accountability.

So how do we correct such a mistake? First, we must guard ourselves from an individualistic mindset that prides itself on what "I think" rather than listening to the past. In order to do so, we must acknowledge, as Mathison points out, that "Scripture alone" doesn't mean "me alone."

Second, tradition is not a second infallible source of divine revelation alongside Scripture; nevertheless, where it is consistent with Scripture it can and does act as a ministerial authority. The historic creeds and confessions are a case in point. While the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed are not to be considered infallible sources divine revelation, nevertheless, their consistency with Scripture means that the church spoke authoritatively against heresy. Therefore, it should trouble us, to say the least, should we find ourselves disagreeing with orthodox creeds that have stood the test of time. Remember, innovation is often the first indication of heresy. Hence, as Timothy George explains, the reformers sought to tie their "Reformation exegesis to patristic tradition" in order to provide a "counterweight to the charge that the reformers were purveyors of novelty in religion," though at the end of the day the fathers' "writings should always be judged by the touchstone of Scripture, a standard the fathers themselves heartily approved."

Abandoning solo scriptura does not require us to go to the other extreme, namely, elevating tradition to the level of Scripture. But it does require the humility to realize that we are always standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. For the reformers, the early church fathers were valuable (though not infallible) guides in biblical interpretation. In that light, we would be wise to listen to Luther this Reformation Day: "Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him" (LW 30:166; WA 14:31).

From Peter to Francis: A Biblically Misguided Route

The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to replace him brings up, once again, the Roman Catholic claim that the pope is the successor of the apostle Peter as the head of the church of Jesus Christ here on earth. To the Catholic, Francis now sits on Peter's throne.

The first question to be determined, of course, is: Did Peter have a throne? If he really was the early church's proto-pope, then it's reasonable to assume he had a throne—or at least something like it. And if he left a successor, who in turn left a successor and so on, then I suppose it's reasonable to say Francis is now the throne's rightful owner. This is the first question to consider since the mere fact of the office's existence deserves to be examined in light of the Word of God. After all, Catholics and Protestants take Scripture to be authoritative and infallible. A concept with such incredible import, then, must have some kind of biblical foundation. But does it?

To be fair, it's true the Lord Jesus distinguished Peter from the other disciples on several occasions. He was among the first to be called (Matt. 4:18) and his name always appears first on lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:2, Mark 3:16). Jesus includes him among his closest disciples (Matt. 17:1). It was to Peter that Jesus said, "Feed my sheep" (John 21:17), and it was to Peter that he spoke the famous words: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt 16:18-19).

However, it's not apparent in Scripture or church history that Peter had preeminence over his colleagues or other Christians. It's also not apparent that his fellow apostles, other local churches, or even Peter himself recognized his role in the church as exclusive in its representation of Jesus Christ. Certainly he was respected and revered as a leader, but these readily admitted realities do nothing to bolster Rome's contention that the pope functions as an infallible mouthpiece of God.

The Bible is clear on this point. The apostle Paul felt perfectly comfortable confronting and scolding Peter publicly when he acted improperly toward Gentile believers in Antioch (Gal. 2:11-14). Moreover, it was the apostle James—not Peter—who served as the leader at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and when a decision was made it was sent on behalf of the "apostles and elders." Clearly, first-century Christians didn't esteem Peter in a separate category.

Matthew's Gospel corroborates this point, such that Jesus' promises to Peter were never understood as an exclusive delegation to Peter alone. In fact, just a few chapters later Matthew applies the same responsibility to the entire congregation:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matt. 18:15-18)

It's instructive to note how Paul viewed Peter. Along with Apollos and himself, Paul views Peter as a mere instrument through which God accomplishes his work (1 Cor. 3:22). He certainly recognizes Peter as a leader in the Jerusalem church—but among other apostles (Gal. 1:18-19). He mentions they were pillars of the church, but then proceeds to narrate the episode in which he openly confronted Peter (Gal. 2:11). Quite revealing is what Paul writes about his own calling: "For he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles" (Gal. 2:8). According to Paul, then, the same Spirit enables these two apostles; no apostolic hierarchy exists.

Indeed, not even Peter saw himself as a primus inter pares. When he entered Cornelius's house to preach the gospel, the Roman centurion knelt before him in devotion. Peter, however, eschews the response: "Arise, I also am a man" (Acts 10:26). It seems no one in the first century—not even Peter himself—assumed Jesus intended him to be the unique intermediary on which the Christian church through all time would be built.

How Did God Preserve the Gospel?

This introduces a second question: Is there such a thing as legitimate Petrine succession? Here, it's apt to quote Peter's own words. In 2 Peter 1, aware of his impending death, he exhorts Christians to guard the memory of the gospel that the apostles had preached to them. And how does he do this? Not by pointing to a supreme successor, but by recording truth in the sacred pages of Scripture.

And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Pet. 1:19-21)

So how did God design the preservation of his gospel? The answer isn't through a pope or person, but through a book written over centuries by persons "carried along by the Holy Spirit." God's trustworthy revelation in the gospel is preserved via the infallible, authoritative Word. It's clear Peter desires to leave a legacy, which these letters are sufficient to do as they keep Christians aware of all God desired them—and us—to know. There's no notion here of an eventual replacement, of someone taking his place to pass on to other successors the treasure of the Christian faith.

Put simply, I don't question Francis as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Nor do I question him as the legitimate papal successor to Benedict XVI. What I do question is any understanding of Christianity that puts forward Francis, Peter, or any other man as the exclusive, infallible head of the church—Christ's vicar with unique status before God.

9 Things You Should Know About Holy Week

Holy Week is the week before Easter, a period which includes the religious holidays of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Here's what you should know about the days that commemorate the Passion of Christ:

1. Holy Week observances likely began in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the church, though the term first appears in the writings of fourth century bishops, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, and Epiphanius, bishop of Constantia. Holy week does not include Easter Sunday.

2. The first recording of a Holy Week observance was made by Egeria, a Gallic woman who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land about 381-384. In an account of her travels she wrote for a group of women back in Spain, Egeria describes the Palm Sunday she observed in Jerusalem:

. . . all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents' shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led.

3. Because of the difficulty in some parts of the world of procuring palms for Palm Sunday, leaves from yew, willow, olive, or other native trees are frequently used. The Sunday was often designated by the names of these trees, as Yew Sunday, or by the general term Branch Sunday.

4. An archaic and infrequently used name for the Wednesday before Easter is "Spy Wednesday", named for Judas' becoming a spy for the Sanhedrin.

5. Maundy Thursday is the day before Good Friday. The term "Maundy" is derived from the Latin word mandatum (commandment). The term refers to the commandment given by Jesus at the Last Supper: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." (John 13:34)

6. The historical origins of the "Good" in Good Friday remain unclear, though some entomologists believe the term "good" is an archaic form of "holy."

7. In Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, Holy Saturday commemorates the "harrowing of hell," the time between his Crucifixion and his Resurrection when Christ is believed to have descended into hell. Some Protestants, however, don't believe that Scripture warrants believing the claim, found in the Apostle's creed, that "[Christ] descended into hell." As John Piper says, "there is no textual basis for believing that Christ descended into hell."

8. In Medieval Europe, Christians would abstain from eating eggs and meat during Lent. Eggs laid during that time were often boiled to preserve them and were given as Easter gifts to children and servants. Some traditions claim the Easter egg is symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus, with the shell of the egg representing the sealed Tomb and cracking the shell representing the Resurrection. Christians in the Middle East and in Greece painted eggs bright red to symbolize the blood of Christ.

9. The Christian scholar Bede (673-735 AD, aka, the Venerable Bede) claimed in his book De Ratione Temporum that Easter was named after Eostre, a pagan goddess of the Saxon people in Northern Europe. Later scholars, however, claim that the term derives from the Anglo-Saxon word "oster", meaning "to rise" or for their term for the Spring equinox, "Eostre."

Reaching Catholics in Your Community

Determining whether your community is predominantly Catholic was once fairly simple. You'd see multiple parishes with names like "Saint Petronille" and "Holy Family." Your local hardware would sell Saint Joseph statues (burying St. Joe upside-down in the yard is thought to help the process of selling a house). You'd notice ashen foreheads during Lent and couldn't find a can of tuna fish at the supermarket during the same month. Today, however, the signs are not so obvious.

We see this change on display in Kerry Kennedy's bestseller from a few years ago, Being Catholic Now, in which 37 contributors, most of them public figures, speak about the form and substance of their Catholic faith. As I then stated in my review, "Identity Theft," these accounts showcase the widespread redefinition of contemporary Catholicism in America. Or take note of this summary statement by the Catholic author Peter Feuerherd in his book Holyland USA: A Catholic Ride Through America's Evangelical Landscape:

In reality, Catholicism includes those with disparate authority and opinions about almost everything under the sun. There are liberal bishops and conservative bishops. The pope sometimes differs with his own Curia. American Catholic voters are regularly viewed by experts as a crucial swing group in every national election, too diffuse to truly categorize. In fact, some scholars of religion refer to Catholicism as the Hinduism of Christianity, because it is infused with so many different schools of prayer, ritual, and perspective, much like the native and diverse religions of India now referred to under the single rubric of Hinduism.

It is easy for us on the outside to conclude that Catholic faith and practice must be unified. We see the outward forms of the tradition: the clerical attire of priests, the common liturgy, and the ecclesial symbols that compose parish life. But this analysis will not suffice. Profound variety lurks inside, whether through particular religious orders (consider the differences between Jesuits and Franciscans) or between liberal and conservative priests. As a former Catholic, I observe three general types of Catholics in America today. Such insight can aid our ministry among Catholic friends and family.

Traditional Catholics

One expression of contemporary Catholicism tends toward fundamentalism. These "Traditional" Catholics operate with a pre-Vatican II (1962-1965) mindset, eschewing personal and subjective dimensions of faith. They often have an adversarial posture toward Protestantism and an aversion to personal Bible study. "My priest tells me what the Bible means," you'll often hear them say. Because Traditional Catholics do not recognize Protestants as legitimately Christian, they decline invitations to visit your church and avoid religious conversation directed at them or their family.

Before we are too hard on Traditional Catholics, we must realize that from their perspective they are simply being faithful. Think of it this way: How do you feel when Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses visit your little sister, son, or granddaughter with an invitation to visit their kingdom hall? Because evangelicals view such groups as cults outside the pale of Christian orthodoxy, we feel defensive and even less than congenial toward those who attempt to undermine the faith. This is the sort of obstacle we're dealing with when we talk with a Traditional Catholic.

Charismatic Catholics

This category is sometimes called "Evangelical Catholic" (see George Weigel's new book, Evangelical Catholicism) and describes the Bible- and Spirit-centered impulse of Catholics who identify with the New Evangelization movement. Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) often gets credit for shaping the Charismatic Catholic identity, particularly in his exhortation titled Evangelii nuntiandiThe pontiff's statement emphasizes the lay-empowered impulse of Vatican II in terms of the evangelistic calling of every Catholic. Paul VI stressed a number of themes familiar to evangelical Protestants, including personal relationship with the living Christ, the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the need to serve the larger community. Thus, Charismatic Catholics demonstrate a vibrant and charismatic experience of faith, concern for biblical teaching, and personal, Jesus-centered devotion. These men and women listen to Protestant radio, visit The Gospel Coalition website, and regularly enjoy participating in our church's Bible study and prayer groups.

Cultural Catholics

When these people enter the hospital or complete a census, they register themselves as "Roman Catholic," despite the fact that they've missed Mass for nine straight years. Or maybe they attend Mass twice a year, on Christmas and Easter (hence the designation "Chreaster"). They are the "cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose elements of religion to suit their taste, like a vegetarian picking lettuce and onions from the buffet line at Bubba's Rib Fest. Perhaps they go to church when they need something from God. Just like the nominal Protestant, these Catholics use the religious label even though Christianity has little or no influence upon their lives.

Implications for Gospel Ministry

It is not enough to understand Catholic doctrine; we must also pause to consider assumptions, priorities, attitudes, fears, and common commitments. Like good missionaries who carefully "read" their context, we can (and should) do the same. Specifically, we look for common ground that can support meaningful conversation.

It's easy to find common ground with the Charismatic. Since we share a common commitment to the Bible, we might invite this friend to study Scripture or read a devotional book together.

Among Traditional Catholics, I take the posture of a student (genuinely) interested in learning about the religious customs that matter to my friend. Holidays such as Christmas and Easter, Feast Days, and Rites of Passage (e.g., Communion and Confirmation) are classic examples.

For all intents and purposes, the Cultural Catholic is like an agnostic—offering lip service to God's existence, while resisting his divine authority. With the resources of Christian love and grace, I invest in this relationship, hopefully earning trust and credibility in the process. And when a crisis hits my Cultural Catholic friend (as it does for everyone) I hope to have the privilege of explaining the meaning of the cruciform ornament that hangs around his neck—that on a real cross a certain Savior truly hung, and then rose from the dead, so that men and women, trusting in him, would enjoy a living hope.

In pursuit of our evangelistic calling, Paul exhorts the Colossians to speak with clarity, intentionality, and grace (Col. 4:2-6). He envisions a church full of men and women who dedicate attention to verbal witness "so that you may know how you ought to answer each person." In addition to considering how Scripture conveys this message, we have the opportunity to reflect on the particular beliefs and values of those to whom we communicate it—even among our Catholic friends and loved ones.

Calvin on Lent and Ministry to Roman Catholics

The life and ministry of John Calvin provides insight into a range of ministry related issues—from biblical exegesis to training pastors to the effect of preaching upon civil government. But what, if anything, does Calvin teach us about ministry among Roman Catholics? It turns out that he teaches us a valuable lesson.

Contrary to those who would portray Calvin as a clerical despot, bent on micro-managing religious practice in his Genevan fiefdom, there is instead much evidence demonstrating his concern for the outward thrust of evangelism. Through each successive edition of his Institutes, for example, he retained his dedication to the French king. Some believe that this signified Calvin's commitment to nurturing the Protestant church in France, a movement for which he equipped pastors and missionaries. Whether it was in forming the Geneva Academy in 1559 (to train church leaders), his tireless routine of writing letters of encouragement to oppressed Huguenots, or in caring for refugees who had escaped the fires of persecution, the centrifugal impulse of Calvin's Christianity moved beyond the borders of Geneva and into the world.

It is interesting to notice how Calvin's missional outlook informed his approach to ministry among Roman Catholics, something with which he had much experience (given his time period when virtually everyone was from a "Romanist" background). Michael A. Mullett, in the recent update of his book John Calvin, stresses this point with regard to the standards and protocols that Calvin implemented for the church in Geneva: "we should try to understand the importance [Calvin] placed on the educational function of the liturgy," he writes, "deliberately using it to instruct a population of ex-Catholics in Protestant ways" (101). Through such instruction, Calvin sought to guide newcomers from patterns of superstition into a biblically chaste religion.

We observe Calvin's intentionality in his comments about Lent, for example. In the Institutes 4.12.19-21, the French reformer enumerates reasons for taking "precaution lest any superstition creep in, as has previously happened to the great harm of the church." He first quotes Joel 2:13 in opposition to religious hypocrisy. Second, citing Augustine, he cautions readers to avoid Lenten fasts as a work of merit. He then goes on to tackle the problems of legalism and spiritual pride. In all of this exhortation, Calvin is helping ex-Catholics evaluate familiar traditions in the light of Scripture. While recognizing a proper observance of Lent--one that flows from a heart of gratitude—he opposes superstitious distortions. By way of conclusion, Calvin writes:

Wicked laws were passed which bind consciences with deadly chains. The eating of meat was forbidden, as if it would defile a man. Sacrilegious opinions were piled upon one another, until the depth of all errors was reached. And not to overlook any depravity, they began, with a completely absurd pretense of abstinence, to mock God.

Reason for the Rhetoric

It is easy to make direct application from Calvin's polemic, especially when it involves a similar liturgical phenomenon such as Lent. The case of Lent is particularly interesting because, as in Calvin's period, some today may display penitent works for reasons of superstition or merit-seeking. Is such an error any less grievous now than it was then, and, if not, shouldn't we address it with the same degree of candor? I would say yes to the first question and probably not to the second. Let me explain.

With regard to our rhetorical engagement with Catholics, we must recognize that we live in a different time period from Calvin's. In the 21st century we don't link Christian faith to physical violence. However, it was far different for the 16th and 17th centuries when religious solidarity and national destiny went hand-in-hand. In such a society, the idea of religious pluralism was new and frightening. With what church does one identify? Even saying it this way is misleading. There was hardly a pluralistic choice. When Luther published his Appeal to the German Nobility, for instance, he was not proposing an alternative option. It was, for him, a necessary replacement of an apostate church institution. In addition to generating profound existential angst among rank and file Christians, such transition created a social and political revolution, which the wars of religion vividly remind us.    

In this setting, words were employed to heighten concern, awaken emotions, and motivate action. In this clash of competing worldviews, where the stakes were life and death, rhetorical conventions permitted and even promoted an aggressive confrontation aimed at demeaning opponents. In this polemical universe, you could not punch below the belt, because there was no belt marking off acceptable and unacceptable blows. My friend Jason illustrated this point during seminary. The consummate Calvinist, Jason once mentioned nonchalantly to our classmate Linford, a beloved Mennonite friend: "If we were living 500 years ago, I'd be drowning you about now." The strength of their friendship allowed for such a bizarre statement. Perhaps the most bizarre part, however, was its truth.

Outreach in Our Day

With regard to polemics, we live in a new day. The influence of Christian virtue on verbal etiquette has delivered us from the violent vituperations of yesteryear. In other words, we can disagree with charity. This is not to say that the Reformation is therefore over. Far from it. The same fundamental issues of difference that separated Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century largely exist today. But instead of drowning or impaling our Catholic conversation partners, we may now enjoy a cup of coffee with them at Starbucks, pray for their families, and cherish them as friends.

This sort of humility doesn't mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth any more than being meek suggests that we lack strength. Jesus was all powerful, and yet he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11). Only after reaching informed convictions, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, do we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7).

So what is the lesson that Calvin teaches us about ministry to Catholics? It starts with understanding the religious assumptions of those Catholics whom we serve. With such a perspective, Calvin initiated a process that called superstition into question in favor of biblical faith and practice. Whether in evangelism or in catechizing members at Saint-Pierre Cathedral, Calvin's "Reformed" vision consisted of just that: reforming religion in the light of Scripture. The same opportunity is before us. By asking informed questions of our Catholic friends, questions that reveal the limitations (or outright error) of sacred tradition, we can serve a process of reflection in which biblical truth comes into sharper focus and eventually dominates life.

9 Things You Should Know About Pope Benedict XVI

As head of the Catholic Church Pope Benedict is the spiritual leader to more than one billion people around the globe. But today the 85 year old announced he will resign on February 28 because of his advanced age. Here are nine things you should know about the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

1. Benedict is the 265th pope and the first to resign in over 600 years.

2. Benedict XVI was elected pope at the age of 78. He is the fifth oldest person to have been elected pope (the other four were 79 at the time of their election).

3. Born Joseph Ratzinger, he was six years old when the Nazis came to power in his native land of Germany. Although his family was staunchly anti-Nazi, he briefly was forced—like all German teens—to join the Hitler Youth. In 1943, while still in seminary, he was drafted into the German anti-aircraft corps as Luftwaffenhelfer (air force child soldier) though he deserted two years later without having fired a shot. In 1945, after his desertion, he was recognized as a German soldier by the Americans and sent to a prisoner of war camp near his hometown. He was released a few months later and returned to seminary.

4. After being ordained as a Catholic priest in 1951, Ratzinger became an academic theologian. He had a long career as an academic, serving as a professor of theology at several German universities, before being appointed a cardinal in 1977. Prior to the promotion Ratzinger had relatively little pastoral experience.

5. In 1976, he suggested that the Augsburg Confession, the primary confession of faith of the Lutheran Church and one of the most important documents of the Lutheran reformation, might possibly be recognized as a Catholic statement of faith. He later backed off this position because of differences between Catholics and Lutherans on the understanding of justification.

6. In 2001, Ratzinger convinced John Paul II to put Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the Vatican office that Ratzinger oversaw—in charge of all investigations and policies surrounding sexual abuse in order to combat such abuse more efficiently. According to John L. Allen, Jr.,

By all accounts, Ratzinger was punctilious about studying the files, making him one of the few churchmen anywhere in the world to have read the documentation on virtually every Catholic priest ever credibly accused of sexual abuse. As a result, he acquired a familiarity with the contours of the problem that virtually no other figure in the Catholic church can claim.

Driven by that encounter with what he would later refer to as "filth" in the church, Ratzinger seems to have undergone something of a "conversion experience" throughout 2003-04. From that point forward, he and his staff seemed driven by a convert's zeal to clean up the mess.

Of the 500-plus cases that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dealt with prior to Benedict's election to the papacy, the substantial majority were returned to the local bishop authorizing immediate action against the accused priest -- no canonical trial, no lengthy process, just swift removal from ministry and, often, expulsion from the priesthood. In a more limited number of cases, the congregation asked for a canonical trial, and in a few cases the congregation ordered the priest reinstated.

7. During his time as a cardinal, Ratzinger's liberal Catholic critics dubbed him "God's Rottweiler" because of conservatives positions and actions such as his denunciation of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, his disciplining of Latin American liberation theologians, and his censure of Asian priests who viewed non-Christian religions as part of God's plan for humanity.

8. Ratzinger is the author of 66 books. His first book was published in 1966 and his most recent in 2012.

9. Ratzinger didn't really want to be pope. In 1997, at the age of 70, he asked Pope John Paul II for permission to become an archivist in the Vatican Secret Archives and a librarian in the Vatican Library, but the pope refused. At the time of his election to pope, Ratzinger had hoped to retire peacefully and said that "At a certain point, I prayed to God 'please don't do this to me' . . . Evidently, this time He didn't listen to me."

Small Groups That Attract Catholics

If I had a dime for every email message I receive from former Catholics in a month, I might be able to afford a Grande Americano at Starbucks. Very often they disclose their reason for leaving the Catholic Church in favor of evangelical Protestantism. Among these factors, a friendly Bible study group is at the top of the list.

The movement is probably bigger than you realize. More than 10 million men and women in the United States were raised Catholic and now worship in an evangelical Protestant church. A great deal can be said about the dynamics surrounding the movement, but our concern here is to understand their point of entry. Here is what it often looks like.

Lauren Murphy grew up Catholic. Devout as a child, her family stopped attending Mass when she was in high school. By the time college orientation rolled around, Lauren's Catholicism was in the rearview mirror. Life in her sorority was anything but Christian. Later she married Tom, whose Catholic commitment was analogous. But when she and Tom had their first child, the topic of "religion" suddenly entered the conversation.

Lauren first met Karen at a fitness club. Lauren mentioned that she and Tom had talked about possibly visiting church and were unsure about their local Catholic parish. Since they had both found the Mass boring, they were reluctant to return and force the experience upon their little one. Furthermore, having moved 800 miles from their Catholic family in Boston to Lansing, Michigan, they now enjoyed new freedom to explore other Christian traditions. Recognizing the evangelistic opportunity, Karen extended an invitation for Lauren to visit her women's Bible study. On the strength of their relationship, Lauren accepted.

Pushing through some apprehension, Lauren showed up. Karen provided a Bible, and the other ladies extended warmth and kindness. Lauren went home dumbfounded. Never before had she experienced such community. The genuineness and vulnerability reflected in their prayers and seriousness toward studying Scripture seized her interest. That night, Lauren and Tom talked at length, and on Sunday morning they visited Karen's church, where they have been worshiping for the last nine years.

Why Catholic Small Groups Are Uncommon

When I have the privilege of speaking at a church, I often enjoy chatting with folks after the session. In virtually every instance, someone (usually a lady) tells me about her Bible Study Fellowship (BSF) or Neighborhood Bible Study (NBS), which is now brimming with Catholics. After dozens of these conversations, I started to wonder why Catholics frequently join Protestant groups and not vice versa. In my humble opinion, the fundamental reason is the Catholic legacy of clericalism. Here is how Catholic journalist David Gibson accounts for it:

In a 1906 encyclical, Pius X said that the "one duty" of the laity "is to allow themselves to be led, and like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors." In 1907 the American hierarchy followed suit with a similar directive: "The Church is not a republic or a democracy, but a monarchy . . . all her authority is from above and rests in her Hierarchy. . . [While] the faithful of the laity have divinely given rights to receive all the blessed ministrations of the Church, they have absolutely no right whatever to rule and govern."

It is not difficult to imagine how such a hierarchical model of church life would inadvertently undercut lay-led ministry. To be sure, Vatican II (1962-1965) initiated a trajectory of equipping Catholic laity for service, as evidenced in current movements such as the "New Evangelization" of Pope John Paul II, but old patterns die hard, especially when they have been reinforced through centuries. Interestingly, the most significant small group ministry among Catholics in America is the Alpha Course (an evangelical Anglican ministry).

Ingredients of a Vibrant Small Group

Galatians 5 showcases the contours of the kingdom. These values must also define our small groups. A leading edge of this vision, according to the apostle Paul, is a radically other-centered approach to service. Instead of using freedom as an opportunity for selfishness ("the flesh"), Paul exhorts the Galatians to serve one another through love. This sets up a vivid comparison between behaviors in keeping with the kingdom, also called "fruit of the Spirit," versus conduct that is natural to this world. Kingdom behavior is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. By contrast, the works of the flesh include sexual immorality, impurity, idolatry (including materialism), jealousy, rivalry, dissension, envy, conceit, and provocation.

How does this taxonomy apply to our Catholic friends, specifically to their evangelical point of entry? In conclusion, I would like to highlight three primary ways that a kingdom-focused small group is an ideal venue for Catholics who are searching for spiritual life.

1. Kingdom Purpose

When our groups showcase and strive toward realizing life's purpose by joining God's mission---proclaiming the good news and embodying the Spirit-filled life---we offer our Catholic friends a precious gift. Even though the Catholic Church has a doctrine of the priesthood of believers (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§1591-92), for many, the sharp Catholic clergy/laity distinction has tragically undermined personal Christian calling. By serving together, our groups experience the joy of kingdom purpose.

2. Relationship

Just as Tom and Lauren were geographically displaced in Michigan, our communities are full of Catholic men and women largely disconnected from their families. Strange as this might sound, such separation increases the viablility of Protestantism in ways that would have been much more difficult back home. Jesus' words, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself," are applicable here. As Karen demonstrated in her winsome invitation, we can be good neighbors who express genuine friendship.

3. Seriousness about the Bible and Theology

If you want human interest stories with warm and fuzzies, join an Oprah book club. If you want life change, study Scripture. Granted, this is obvious to most Christians, so let me take it a step further. If your conversation immediately goes from reading a text to personal application without first exploring what the passage meant to the original audience (what was meat sacrificed to idols in Corinth or imperial citizenship in Philippi?) you are not really studying Scripture. You're skating over the surface. Roll up your sleeves and dig in! Bring tools like commentaries and a concordance. After all, this is what makes us Protestant: we do business with the text. Catholics will be drawn to your group by serious theological engagement.

One final word: be clear about doctrine, especially justification by grace through faith alone, but don't be an irritable Protestant who maligns Catholicism at every turn, at least if you want Catholics to remain in your group. Let patience, gentleness, and self-control rule, concentrating on the message of grace with a humble attitude of grace.

Lifting Jesus High

What do pignoli nut cookies have to do with Christian worship? More than you may realize. Because human life is embedded in historical context---in distinct ethnicities, geographies, and socio-economic neighborhoods---we encounter and express Christian faith differently, a fact that asserted itself with renewed vigor this summer when I visited the Procession of our Lady of Mount Carmel in Melrose Park (near Chicago), an Italian feast dating back to 1894.

If you grew up Protestant and weren't surrounded by Catholic neighbors with names like Giuseppe and Vincenzo, you may not be familiar with religious processions. The event typically begins with a Mass, after which the patron saint (in this case, an eight-foot shrine of Mary under the banner "Our Lady of Mount Carmel") is paraded through the streets. Moms and dads lift infants to be touched by the shrine, photographs of deceased family members are displayed in honor of their memory, elderly women recite the rosary in Italian and beat their breasts exclaiming Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa (Latin for "my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault"). After two hours of meandering behind the Knights of Columbus brass instrument band, the shrine is returned to the church. Parishioners then proceed to enjoy an annual feast amid fireworks, rides, and all manner of Italian delicacy.

Catholics trace the origins of processions to ceremonies in the Old Testament such as the carrying of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 6; 1 Kings 8), and, in the New Testament, the triumphal entry of the Lord Jesus into Jerusalem. There are also examples from early church history when funeral processions of Christians were carried out with solemnity, such as what we see in Tertullian's De Praescriptione Haereticorum xliii (On the Prescription of the Heretics). But such history is the furthest thing from the mind of Mamma Leone and her family. If you were to inquire into their motivation for joining the procession, they would probably reply, "It is who we are."

Candid Observations

I must confess, it was fascinating to watch this event as an evangelical Protestant. Having grown up as a good (Italian) Catholic boy attending New York's equivalent, Feast of San Gennaro, I found myself dual-processing. Here are some observations.

Given my work at the Catholic/Protestant intersection, it is my goal to be exceedingly charitable toward Catholics. It's a courtesy we ourselves appreciate (to not be associated with the ludicrous examples of evangelicalism on late night religious television) so it is reasonable---to say nothing of the requirement of Christian virtue---to extend the same sort of kindness to others. Still, I must admit, I have zero tolerance for the veneration of Mary common to these events. I understand the proper Catholic distinction between veneration of Mary (hyperdulia) and worship of God (latria), but this distinction gets lost on most laypeople. Such devotion strikes me as idolatrous, and, equally problematic, it eclipses the role of Christ as the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5).

That said, I allowed myself to drift back in time for a moment and see the event through the eyes of an adolescent guido from Long Island. There I was, figuratively, in my Sergio Tacchini sweat suit, gold chain dangling from my neck, pompadour hair, and pinky ring (actually, I still wear the pinky ring) viewing the culture from the inside. I saw affection between parents and children, family identity that transcended the self, congregational singing, public prayers of repentance, and a community animated by personal warmth.  None of this is the gospel; nor does it compensate for doctrinal deficiency. It is, however, the fruit of the gospel, insofar as Christian values have shined into human cultures to give them shape and definition.

Driving home from the Melrose Park, I wondered what it would look like for evangelicals to affirm and celebrate gospel fruit in instances such as this, while simultaneously helping our Catholic friends to capture the Christ-centered biblical vision.

Fructification of Faith

An illustration may help us in this task. Occasionally a generous friend will give me tickets to the symphony. Such performances are impressive when you think that an orchestra consisting of so many individuals playing vastly different instruments can produce such a rhythmically coherent sound. It works because these musicians rely upon two crucial ingredients: a score, which explains the notes to play, and a conductor, who provides personal direction. It would be catastrophic if the orchestra lost the score or if they attempted to eliminate the conductor.

An even more amazing fact is that two orchestras playing from identical scores can sound so different. When Arturo Toscanini performed Haydn's Oratorio, The Creation at La Scala, he did so with the punctilious style for which he was famous. Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand, conducted Haydn in Vienna as only someone with his eccentric personality could. They presented the same score in a different style that resulted in a different orchestral sound. The same principle applies to worship.

It is appropriate to expect variety and creativity in the Christian tradition, just as in conducting. God who exists in three persons, relating to millions of different people in diverse cultures and time periods will naturally generate a rich collection of religious experience. Such divine activity should be recognized and celebrated, for it bears witness to the wonder of a God who relates personally to his creation. I like how Thomas Howard put it in his book On Being Catholic:

Surely this riotous fructifying of fashions in public worship suggests something deeply significant about the gospel, namely, that it is a seed of such glorious vitality that, when it is planted anywhere among us mortals, it will sprout, burgeon, and bear good fruit. And more: in the colorful heaps displayed in this harvest we find the rich and particular genius of each tribe and people, redeemed, purified, raised, and touched with eternity itself. What you find in Spain and Latin America differs greatly from what you find in the Netherlands or Norway. Sicilians do not order their worship as do the Watutsi; nor does Irish Catholicism yield just the look given things by the Filipinos.

As Howard describes, we should expect to see differences of style in public worship. If you doubt this point, talk to a missionary in your church home on furlough. Contextually informed variety is a good thing.

However, we also must remember that while Toscanini and Bernstein differed in their presentations of Haydn's score, the broad outline remained fundamentally the same. In "The Heavens Are Telling" woodwinds carry the melody. Occasionally, the melody is accented and punctuated by the horns; but the two instruments are never confused. If either conductor failed to differentiate between the horns and woodwinds, the integrity of Haydn's famous chorus would have been compromised. Likewise, the Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, and the Lord Jesus Christ may be expressed with different cultural accents, but they must not be confused or removed from their proper role.

This, my friends, is our opportunity. While affirming and celebrating the fruit of the gospel wherever it is found, we also serve the world by clarifying ways in which the horn of tradition usurps the woodwinds of Scripture. The most effective way to do this is to faithfully lift up Jesus, the One who draws all people to himself and before whom every knee shall bow and tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Freedom-Fighting Catholics

"It all comes down to catechesis." Monsignor Irvine was known for memorable quips. A little leprechaun of a man, he was full of good-natured humor and wit (it was he who also told me, "Chris, if you go into the ministry, be sure to take God seriously and not yourself"). You can imagine, therefore, how my ears perked up when I recently spoke with Francis Cardinal George and heard him say nearly the same thing. "It's all about catechesis."

I don't usually have dinner with the Cardinal (just for the record), but on this occasion I happened to be sitting beside him for an hour discussing the interface of Catholic theology and current affairs. The context of his comment was the Department of Health and Human Services mandate. With an admirable measure of candor, the Cardinal not only articulated his concern for the threat to our nation's religious freedom, he also lamented the paucity of Christian thinking on the issue. However, far from a negative bemoaning of the problem, he was strikingly enthusiastic about the current "discipleship opportunity."

Fortnight for Freedom 

Starting June 21, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) launched a Fortnight for Freedom, intended to expose the government's violations of religious liberty. In an interview with CNN, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, explained that leading up to July 4, there will be prayer vigils, religious rallies, and homilies at Mass to build awareness among the faithful. In his words, it is about "prayer, education, and action."

It is interesting to observe this movement through the lens of "catechesis." Once again, quoting Cardinal Wuerl who spoke on Sunday before a rally at George Washington University, "We're here to educate about freedom. We started this campaign to say religious liberty is eroding." To understand precisely what part of liberty the Cardinal understands to be eroding, you'll want to read the recent USCCB statement titled "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty." Here is one of several places in the document where the theme of catechesis emerges:

Catechesis on religious liberty is not the work of priests alone. The Catholic Church in America is blessed with an immense number of writers, producers, artists, publishers, filmmakers, and bloggers employing all the means of communications---both old and new media---to expound and teach the faith. They too have a critical role in this great struggle for religious liberty. We call upon them to use their skills and talents in defense of our first freedom.

One such writer is Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, whose new ebook, True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty (Image Books), was released June 19. Over and against the government's secular creed, which supports abortion providers with tax dollars, imposes the HHS mandates, and threatens to redefine marriage, the Cardinal envisions a "culture of life" in which men and women, made in God's image, are free to live out their faith. Quoting Pope Leo XIII, Cardinal Dolan begins: "True freedom . . . is that freedom which most truly safeguards the dignity of the human person. It is stronger than any violence or injustice. Such is the freedom which has always been desired by the Church, and which she holds most dear." The Bishops' message might be unpopular, but it is eminently clear.

The Challenge of Communication

As every pastor knows, catechesis involves two distinct challenges: content and delivery. You labor to craft a message from God, and when your exegesis is done, you're only half-finished. Along this line, the Catholic Bishops are now facing a communication challenge. According to sociologist William D'Antonio and his team at Catholic University, whose recent study Catholics in America: Persistence and Change in the Catholic Landscape was featured in USA Today, these challenges include the following:

  • 86 percent of Catholics say "you can disagree with aspects of church teachings and still remain loyal to the church." Only about 30 percent support the "teaching authority claimed by the Vatican."
  • 40 percent say you can be a good Catholic without believing that in Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ---a core doctrine of Catholicism.
  • When asked why they don't go to Mass more often, 40 percent say they are simply not very religious.
  • 88 percent say "how a person lives is more important than whether he or she is Catholic."

While the antichristian bias of government and media is a formidable challenge to U.S. Catholic Bishops, the more immediate predicament may actually be the lukewarm theology of men and women who identify themselves as Catholic. To be sure, there is no room for triumphalism here. We Protestants see enough nominal faith in our own ranks. But it may raise a point worth considering.

The enterprise of catechesis can only succeed when one's public identity is manifestly defined and critiqued by the objective truth of divine revelation. Any bifurcation between public and private life pulls the carpet out from beneath the whole project. Evangelism, discipleship, and the fulfillment of Christian vocation are all predicated on this conviction; otherwise, there is a smattering of religious opinions and nothing more.

Men and women will only listen to their pastors and take action when they believe that they are hearing the voice of God. How do churches arrive at this place? This, too, underscores the point of my favorite Irish Monsignor: "It all comes down to catechesis."