Roman Catholicism

In the past the unchanging character of Rome made it comparatively straightforward to describe Catholicism. The shattering developments of the twentieth century have made that task much more complex. The constantly changing situation means a wide variety of opinions, making a comprehensive survey almost impossible, especially within the restricted confines of a short article. It is, however, possible to detect two major groupings within Rome, and while admitting that the dividing lines are not always clearly drawn, it seems legitimate to speak of “traditional” Catholicism and “the new Catholicism” and to survey the whole from these two aspects. Traditional Catholicism. The dogmatic formulation may be found in the decrees of the Council of Trent,* the Creed of Pope Pius IV,* the decrees of Vatican I* and II,* papal utterances claiming infallibility, and the body of Roman canon law.* Alongside these there is the liturgy, and behind them the hierarchically organized church.

It is in fact the doctrine of the church which is fundamental to an understanding of traditional Catholicism. Developed across the centuries, it bears the marks of the Middle Ages when the imperial background lent weight to the concept of the church as an imperium with a resultant stress on ecclesiastical structure, on the hierarchy, and on the claims of the pope as absolute monarch. These claims reached their zenith in the bull of Boniface VIII,* the Unam Sanctam issued in 1302 with its affirmation: “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (“outside the church there is no salvation”). Submission to the authority of the pope was written into the terms of salvation.

The stormy days of the Reformation* with the subsequent attempt by the Counter-Reformation movement to regain ground led to a continued rigidity and an emphasis on structure and organization. This trend was accelerated dramatically at the First Vatican Council in 1870 when the dogma of papal infallibility was promulgated-the concept of the imperium had reached its climax.

But there is another element in the traditional doctrine of the church which has its roots in the Pauline analogy of the church as the body of Christ. Paul, however, does not make the disastrous mistake which has vitiated so much Roman Catholic thinking on this issue-he does not so overstress the unity of the head and members that he ignores the distinction. Christ always remains the head with the strong overtones of authority implicit in that headship. Rome on the contrary has so emphasized the unity of head and members as virtually to identify them. Hence the emergence of the concept of the church as the extension of the Incarnation. Just as Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate, so, it is claimed, the church is Christ continuing incarnate in the world. The two streams of thought-the church as imperium outside which is no salvation, and as the continuing incarnation-flowed together in the encyclical of Pius XII,* the Mystici Corporis issued in 1943. The body of Christ is firmly equated with the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church in which Christ speaks and works as He did in Nazareth and at Calvary.

The traditional line continued at Vatican II. Pope Paul VI in a speech declared the church to be “Christ's continuation and extension.” His speech was echoed in the Vatican II decree on the church. While there is a new stress on the biblical idea of the people of God, the old conception still stands. “We must not think of the church as two substances but a single complex reality, the compound of a human and a divine element . . . the nature taken by the divine Word serves as the living organ of salvation in a union with Him which is indissoluble” (I:8). Hence it is stated that the church “is incapable of being at fault in belief” (II:12). The church, it must be stressed, is still assessed by Vatican II in traditional terms: “this church . . . has its existence in the Catholic Church under the government of Peter's successor and the Bishops in communion with him” (I:8).

This fundamental concept colors the interpretation of Christ's messianic office. As prophet He still speaks within His church with the same infallibility as in the days of His earthly ministry. As priest He still offers Himself on the altar in the Mass as really as He did on the cross. As king He exercises His royal authority through His appointed agency the hierarchy of the church. The consequence of all this is quite clear: the church deprives herself of the divinely given corrective to error, for she equates the Word of God in Scripture and the Word of God in the church. She becomes herself the standard of truth. Such a church, says a critical Catholic, Hans Küng, turns itself into a revelation.

Allied to this basic doctrine is Rome's sacramental interpretation of Christianity. The sacraments which are ministered by the church are channels by which the grace of God flows to the recipient. There are seven sacraments-baptism, confirmation, the Mass, holy orders, penance, matrimony, extreme unction. While baptism may be administered in extremis by a layman, the normal administration of this sacrament and the essential administration of the others are by a priest or a bishop. In a valid sacrament three conditions are required-there must be the correct matter (e.g., water in baptism), the right form (e.g., words of consecration), and the true intention (the one who ministers must intend what the church purposes). Granted that the recipient places no obstacle in the way, the sacraments work ex opere operato (“by virtue of the performance of the work”).

In baptism, original sin is cleansed and original righteousness restored by the infusion of grace. Behind this teaching lies the Roman view of man. Man's original righteousness is viewed as a donum superadditum (“an additional gift”). The Fall meant the loss of that gift, but not the impairment of his essential integrity. So original sin is dealt with by the replacement of the gift. This infusion of sanctifying grace is deepened in confirmation and is sustained by the Mass and by the regular ministry of the sacrament of penance in the confessional.

The focal point of traditional Roman Catholic worship is the Mass. The dogma which lies behind the Mass is that of transubstantiation.* Promulgated at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and reaffirmed with great vigor by Pope Paul in the Mysterium Fidei issued during Vatican II, this dogma asserts that after the words of consecration, the substance of the bread and wine become actually and really the body and blood, the soul and divinity of Christ. With transubstantiation accepted, and with the conception of the priest as himself another Christ (see the encyclical of Pius XI* Ad Catholici Sacerdotii), the Mass is viewed as the sacrifice of Christ. Although now offered in an unbloody manner, yet the sacrifice is the same as that at Calvary. It is a “propitiatory” sacrifice to meet the judgment of God, and an “impetratory” one to invoke and to ask for specific blessings. The comment on this whole position is the strong emphasis of the epistle to the Hebrews on the finished work of the once-for-all sacrifice and on Christ as the one, only, and all-sufficient high priest.

Vatican II in its decree on the priestly life continues the traditional teaching. Priests are “given the power of sacred Order, to offer sacrifice, forgive sin, and in the name of Christ publicly to exercise the office of priesthood in the community of the faithful” (chap. 1, para. 2). This fails to face the fact that in the NT the term for a sacrificing priest (hiereus) is never applied to a Christian minister; he is an elder, a pastor, a bishop, but never a priest.

The confessional has always played a key role in traditional Catholicism with the sacrament of penance* as its basis. Sins are classified as mortal, which deprive the soul of sanctifying grace, and venial, which are not so serious. Repentance* is either contrition (i.e., true sorrow for sin) or attrition (i.e., sorrow for sin for a lesser motive, such as fear of punishment). Venial sin may be dealt with by attrition, moral sin either by contrition or by attrition plus recourse to confession-though it should be noted that contrition implies an intention to go to confession. Guilt requires not only absolution but reparation to be offered to divine justice, hence the imposition of penance and hence also the practice of indulgences,* in which the benefits of the alleged heavenly treasury of merit* may be set to the sinner's account either at his own request or at his friends' request after his death and during his detention in purgatory.* Comment on this must be sought in the NT stress on the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice and the complete satisfaction of God's justice. Mary. A prominent feature in Roman Catholic worship is the cult of Mary.* Consideration of this provides an appropriate transition to a description of the new Catholicism, for “Mary” provides a common ground on which very varied viewpoints come together so that Vatican II theologians as radical as Schillebeeckx of Holland can be as conservative as any traditionalist in dealing with Mary-witness his book, Mary the Mother of the Redemption. Development of the cult stems from the period when the Constantinian settlement brought an influx of pagan ideas into the churches-the mother goddess of the Mediterranean world, the female goddess with such titles as “Star of the sea” and with such roles as “Our lady” of this or that city, the mother and child motif of the Horus and Isis cult in Egypt. All these were to be reflected in Marian developments. The centuries-old debate between Dominicans and Franciscans was finally settled by Pius IX* in 1854 with the promulgation in the bull Ineffabilis Deus of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception* of Mary-that Mary was conceived without sin. It marked the triumph of the Franciscan theory of Duns Scotus* that in Mary we see “redemption by exemption,” i.e., her preservation from the stain of original sin. The cult was carried further in 1950 by the dogmatic pronouncement of Pius XII* in the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus of the bodily Assumption* of Mary. Vatican II in spite of the reservations of some liberals went further still in pronouncing Mary the mother of the church and in giving a tacit recognition to Marian devotions.

The cult of Mary is significant theologically in that, as Sebastian Bullock pointed out (Roman Catholicism), it embodies the Roman Catholic view of human merit and of human cooperation in the work of salvation which are exemplified supremely in Mary. It is significant emotionally in that it shows how such a cult can exercise so firm a hold. It is significant in the contemporary situation as it indicates the difficulty of a liberal Catholic in breaking from his traditional past. In reply to the cult, one must point to the total silence of the NT on the roles and honors accorded by Rome to Mary and to such telling evidence against them as Mark 3:33-35; Luke 1:47; 2:49; 11:27, 28. He offered Himself (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 9:14; John 10:18)-it was not Mary who offered Him. The New Catholicism. The prelude to the present developments in Rome may be traced to the modernist movement at the turn of the century. Pius X* acted firmly and condemned the movement in the decree Lamentabili and in the encyclical Pascendi of 1907, and in 1910 the antimodernist oath was imposed on the clergy. The reaction against modernism continued as far as the pontificate of Pius XII,* whose encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 firmly asserted the teaching authority of the papal office.

It was Pope John XXIII* who opened the door to the progressives both by convening the Vatican Council, which was to give them an invaluable forum, and also by introducing a distinction, vitally significant to them, when in his speech at the opening of the council he declared that “the substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.” Pope Paul VI* tried to stem the flood. His assertion of traditional eucharistic dogmas and devotions in the Mysterium Fidei was a counterblast to the reforms proposed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. His Credo delivered at the time of the Uppsala* meeting of the World Council of Churches was a further call for a return to traditional dogma. But the tide was running too swiftly and continues to surge forward, so that Hans Küng, for example, in his Infallible can tear papal infallibility to shreds with the vigor of an old-style Protestant controversialist and substitute for the dogma of infallibility his own emphasis on the indefectibility of the church. At the same time transubstantiation is being replaced by trans-signification; clerical celibacy* is in the arena of debate; cherished positions and devotions are questioned, and in many cases abandoned.

It is difficult to generalize about a movement which is itself in state of flux-today's description can be quickly dated. Then again, the variety of men involved means a variety of opinions. However, one can detect certain governing aims in the movement. There is an attempt to be biblical. There is a strong ecumenical emphasis. There is a firm desire to remain within Rome and to work for reform.

Undoubtedly there is a new biblical emphasis, not only in the realm of theological studies, but also at the popular level of encouraging Bible reading. There is an attempt to get away from the Council of Trent's* insistence on two sources of revelation, “Scripture and Tradition,” and to make tradition the living voice of the church commenting on Scripture, although Vatican II retained the traditional position. The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation firmly welds together in a unity “sacred tradition, holy Scripture and the Church's magisterium” (II:10). The biblical emphasis of the progressives is also affected by their acceptance of the theories of contemporary radical biblical criticism with its “demythologizing” approach. There is also in some quarters a measure of agreement with the radical Protestant's rejection of the whole conception of propositional truth-existential experience rather than divine revelation becomes the criterion.

The ecumenical interest has moved the “new” Catholics away from the old view of Protestants as heretics. The latter have become “separated brethren,” unity with whom being the aim. But it is not the ultimate aim, for the progressives look beyond the churches of the Reformation and Greek Orthodoxy to Judaism, to the great non-Christian religions, and even to atheism as they increasingly emphasize the ultimate synthesis which is Catholicism's goal. Behind this far-reaching vision is the widespread acceptance of some form of universalism. Behind that again is the incarnational theology which sees Christ sanctifying everything by His coming and redeeming all men by His death. The old idea of a latent faith is introduced, allied to the acceptance of “baptism by desire.” The way is open, not only to acknowledge Protestants as “brothers by baptism,” but to see in Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists those who by exercising “implicit” faith are in the “hidden” church in contrast with those whose explicit faith and sacramental initiation make them members of the explicit church.

Their attempt to remain loyal to Rome meets the countercharges of the conservatives that they are the old modernists in a new guise. The liberal reply has been developed at length by Hans Küng. It is that the earlier dogmatic statements are accepted, but words must be interpreted and a sixteenth-century creed must be understood in its own setting. The resultant interpretation of a “new Catholic” differs markedly from that of a traditionalist-hence the tension and at times the acrimonious debate. Catholic Pentecostalism. This movement emerged in the autumn of 1966 among faculty members at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Influenced by Protestant Pentecostalism, they yet remained firm in their attachment to Rome; and within six years they were claiming 50,000 adherents. The early leaders of the movement in the USA were mainly laymen. They viewed the movement as heaven's answer to Pope John's prayer for a renewal of the wonders of Pentecost, hence their avoidance of what they considered some of the excessive emotionalism of Protestant Pentecostalism, hence too their encouragement of their followers to remain within Rome.

There is a warm stress in the movement on personal faith in Christ. Prayer, both personal and corporate, is a prominent feature. Bible study is encourged-as of course it is in the wider field of the new Catholicism. Witness to the outsider is emphasized. All these are elements linking the movement with Protestant evangelicals, but there are other features which root the movement firmly in Roman Catholicism, and still others which point in a radical direction.

The sacramentalism of traditional Catholicism is strongly taught. Leaders in the American movement (like Kevin and Dorothy Ranaghan) or in the English wing (like Simon Tugwell) expound the idea of “Baptism in the Spirit” as an explicit realization and manifestation of the divine life received in a hidden way, and ex opere operato, in baptism in water. Speaking in tongues is seen as one step in the process by which one is permeated by the divine life imparted in baptism-it involves handing over “one little bit of our body to God.” The result, it is claimed, is a deeper appreciation of the Mass (with the traditional background of transubstantiation) and of the confessional.

The cult of Mary is particularly prominent. The Ranaghans quote testimonies of a new devotion to Mary and of the use of the Rosary. They found special significance in a tongue-speaking session where the initial “Hail Mary”-spoken in Greek, recognized as such by a participant and interpreted-led to a Marian emphasis which to their added delight proved to be a prelude to the next day-one of the major Marian festivals of the year.

One is forced to ask how it can be claimed that the Spirit of truth can lead into such doctrines as transubstantiation and the eucharistic sacrifice, and how the Spirit whose ministry is to glorify Christ could lead men to derogate from that glory by devotion to Mary. But the question comes even more insistently when it is discovered that the universalism already noticed in the new Catholicism appears, and the Pentecostal experience is linked with Zen, Transcendental Meditation, and even Marxism as steps toward the ultimate Catholic synthesis of human experience.

The ultimate criterion in the movement turns out to be experience. Scripture and tradition may be invoked, but ultimately it is the intensity of experience which authenticates the doctrine. The old position was that “doctrine precedes exegesis”; now, however, we read Scripture through the eyes of experience. This approach is more akin to existentialism than to the biblical stress on the mind—“faith comes by hearing,” not by a blind leap in the dark.

By Roman Catholics: R.A. Knox, The Belief of Catholics (1927); T. Corbishley, Roman Catholicism (1950); L. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (1962); H. Küng, Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection (1964), Structures of the Church (1965), The Church (1967), and Infallible? An Inquiry (1971); K. Rahner, The Teaching of the Catholic Church (1966); W.M. Abbott (ed.), The Documents of Vatican II (1966); K. and D. Ranaghan, Catholic Pentecostals (1969); S. Tugwell, Did you receive the Spirit? (1971).

By others: G. Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church (abridged, 1953); G. Miegge, The Virgin Mary (1955); G.C. Berkouwer, The Conflict with Rome (1958) and The Second Vatican Council and the New Catholicism (1965); A.F. Carillo de Albornoz, Roman Catholicism and Religious Liberty (1959); V. Subilia, The Problem of Catholicism (1964); D.F. Wells, Revolution in Rome (1972); H.M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight-A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (1976).