Can We Now Join Hands?

There is much discussion these days about the changes taking place in the Roman Catholic church. One of the changes that is said to be most noticeable is the openness of that church toward non-Roman Catholics. This is evidenced by an increasing number of discussions of various types which are taking place between Protestants and Catholics, by intercommunion now being practised by student groups in Europe and by the W.C.C. appointment of nine Roman Catholic theologians to a study commission. Other similar evidences are cited.

Another noteworthy change is said to be in the reorganization of the higher echelons in the clergy ranks. An example cited is that the College of bishops has been given increased recognition as a deliberative and contributive institution in the teaching and ruling categories of the church. There is also an evident openness within that church to discuss certain practices and customs which were seldom questioned before, e.g., the celibate state of the clergy.

These factors are undoubtedly true. The questions before us as evangelical Protestants are: What do these factors mean to us? How arc we affected by these? Are we now obliged to become involved in some manner in thc Protestant-Catholic discussions and possible cooperative endeavours? Are we to become ecumenical partners with Roman Catholics?

Before these questions can be answered, evangelical Protestants should carefully study the actual situation as it is today. The various changes, schools of thought, opposing attitudes of lay members in the Roman Catholic church should be analyzed. What follows is an attempt to contribute to the analyzation of the situation.

The Second Vatican Council and the events leading up to it have been major factors in the Roman Catholic Church’s changing public appearances. The worship services are less formal, the Mass is celebrated in various ways and languages. Dietary regulations (only fish on Friday) have been eased. But at heart the church remains the same in some very significant ways. In its organization the Roman Catholic church’s structure remains unaltered with its teaching-ruling clergy in distinction from the receiving-ruled laity.

It remains a power structure in the sphere of teaching and morals and in some countries in politics and economics also. Officially the Roman Catholic church has not disavowed its “authoritative rights” in the various social spheres though it does not seek to exercise them everywhere.

The Roman Catholic church has not made any basic alterations in various major areas where Protestants eagerly look for a shift. In regard to the source of truth the big AND holds its place between the Scriptures and Tradition. If any change is taking place, then it is that the Scriptures are being included in the category of Tradition. This means that ultimately the Church of all ages, in Old Testament times as well as in New Testament times, is considered more than ever the final source of Truth.

In regard to the conception of proper morals and the control over these there is no basic change. The latest encyclical delivered by the Pope, Humanae Vitae, (forbidding the use of the Pill as Casti Connubii of some years ago forbade all forms of artificial contraception) though it was not spoken ex cathedra, must nevertheless be obeyed. To disobey could make one guilty of mortal sins is explicitly stated.

And what about the actual beliefs of the Roman Catholic church? Read “The Credo of the People of God” proclaimed by Pope Paul VI on June 30, 1968 by means of which he marked the close of “the year of faith.” It is a lengthy credo. In the introduction We (i.e., the pope) is said to be the successor of Peter to whom Christ gave the teaching mandate. The church, the body of Christ is enabled to study and present truth in a manner presentable to successive generations because the Holy Spirit is the soul of the church. Nineteen specific statements of faith are presented. These do not alter in any appreciable manner from the dictums of the Council of Trent.

The first three articles speak of the faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Practically all that is said in these articles an evangelical Protestant can subscribe to freely. But the fourth article deals with “Mary, Mother, Ever Virgin…redeemed in a more eminent manner, preserved from all stain of original sin…at the end of her earthly life raised body and soul to heavenly glory and likened to her risen Son in anticipation of the future lot of all the just; and we believe that the Blessed Mother of God, the New Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in heaven in her maternal role with regards to Christ’s members, cooperating with the birth and growth of divine life in the souls of the redeemed.”

The article on The Fall includes a few dubious statements but every born again Christian can repeat the article on Redemption, “We believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ, by the sacrifice of the Cross redeemed us from original sin and all personal sins committed by each one of us, so that, in accordance with the word of the Apostle, where sin abounded, grace did more abound.”

The articles on Baptism and the Church include the traditional Roman Catholic teachings. The article on Revelation is one of the shortest and mast indefinite, except that the concepts of “what is handed down,” i.e., tradition; and the church’s authority to decide what is to be taught is clearly intimated. Article eleven states, “We believe in the infallibility enjoyed by the successor of Peter when he teaches ex cathedra.” Article thirteen states that the church “is necessary for salvation…because Christ renders Himself present for us in His Body which is the Church.” The Mass and Transubstantiation are proclaimed as unalterable truths which the Roman Catholic Church professes.

We can sum up by saying that on the whole, the doctrines adhered to by that church and proclaimed as unalterable truths arc the same as those set forth by the Council of Trent over four hundred years ago. There are some cardinal truths we as evangelical Protestants hold in common with them. On the other hand, the same basic deep differences are as authoritatively fixed as at any other time. Thus, an evangelical Protestant finds that though he may be sympathetic to some of the church’s emphases on morals and though he can accept some of the teachings, materially as to faith and morals the differences between him and a faithful Roman Catholic believer has not changed much in recent years.

It should however be stressed that there is a shift in Roman Catholic thinking and teaching in regard to the origin of the Scriptures and the origin of the cosmos and life. In regard to the origin of the Scriptures there is much sympathy with, and on the part of some, a cordial acceptance of the Form Critical approach to the Scriptures. Since Form Critical emphases are on the whole very congruous with the idea of a teaching-believing community giving rise to and determining religious truth, we should not be surprised that the Form Critical approach to the Scriptures is found acceptable by many Roman Catholic theologians. The papal encyclical on Scripture, released some years ago, allows for much latitude in the Biblical students’ approach to the Scriptures; in fact, it calls for a determined search for the truth regarding Scriptures in keeping with modern discoveries, theories and conclusions.

In regard to the problems of the origin of the cosmos and of various forms of life, much freedom is now granted to scientists and theologians to explain “creation” ideas in such a way that they arc presented in terms of evolutionary concepts and processes. The New Catechism is a specific and definite example of the presentation of modern conclusions regarding the origin of the cosmos and the various forms of life in it.

This shift in Roman Catholic study and thought on the origin of Scripture and life presents additional barriers for Evangelical Christians who may have been asking themselves whether or not conditions were more favourable for discussions and for cooperative action. Surely, we must appreciate the fact that on some levels there is an openness. There is a possibility for discussion. However the issues which are to be discussed and the basic foundations for cooperative action remain as strongly, or increasingly divergent as ever before.

There is still another problem for evangelical Protestants. It is the problem of the diverse streams of thought in the Roman Catholic church. Whenever an evangelical Protestant discusses some truth or opinion pertaining to the Christian faith and life he must constantly be aware of the fact that if the man is a cleric he should be considered as adhering, be it a matter of degrees, to one of six streams. If the person is not a cleric he could be included in one of four general categories.

A European professor, H. Berkhof, has pointed out that there are basically six streams of thought among the Roman Catholic leaders. Some have said there are really only two streams, the conservative and the liberal elements. However the six discernible streams are as follows:

1. There are those theologians, particularly found in southern Europe and in various numbers in other countries, who deeply regret that the second Vatican Council was even held. They rigidly insist on maintaining the status quo as set out by the Council of Trent. These men represent the die-hard conservatives who are fiercely loyal to the past in every respect.

2. There are those theologians who wish to be loyal to the second Vatican Council, interpret it as precisely (narrowly?) and literally as possible and refuse to consider going one step further than their precise interpretation of the Council’s decrees will permit.

3. There are those theologians who stress that the official teachings of the Church must be maintained but that on the basis of these, new insights and developments should be produced.

4. There are those theologians who wish to reinterpret the official faith of the church. They wish to do it in such a way that the differences and oppositions between them and those adhering to the Reformation may be overcome. Prof. Hans Kung is a notable example of this stream. It should not be forgotten that presently this brilliant young theologian has already been called to the Vatican to explain his position, clarify his teachings and possibly to defend himself against certain charges.

5. There are those theologians who, in a sense, are the ethical theologians. They wish to put much more emphasis on existential and humanitarian problems as experienced by contemporary man. This should be done they say without breaking with the official teachings of the church.

6. There are those theologians who can best be compared with the naturalistically oriented and liberally minded Protestant theologians who are known for their leftist emphases in various spheres of life.

A quick review of the six streams reveals quite clearly that there is really only one stream with which the evangelical Protestants could hope to have some points of contact for fruitful discussions and cooperative religious work; namely stream four. However, there are two major difficulties here. Prof. Kung is already under a cloud with the official church. Secondly, he represents that group which has been quite enamoured by the modern views on the origin of the Scriptures and on the origin of the cosmos and life in it. Thus it would seem that there is very little if any area where the evangelical Protestant theologian anu any of the Roman Catholic theologians, regardless of the stream he represents, have common meeting or working ground.

Among the lay members there are four streams which are discernible, at least so it seems to this writer.

1. There are those who heartily applaud and follow the theologians of the first stream mentioned above. Letters from these people, published in Catholic newspapers and magazines, reflect a strong emotionally oriented polemic against any and all who represent the “new.”

2. There are those who accept the second Vatican Council with varying degrees of enthusiasm. A large number of these, vaguely and without the ability to formulate their thoughts, agree with theologians representing stream two and to an extent stream three.

3. There are those who tend to hold the opinion that streams four and five are somehow closely related (and they may be very correct) and that there is something quite laudable about the opinion and endeavours of these theologians. However, they leave it to the theologians to work out the ways and means to achieve the desired goals. Until that is done, many are content to leave matters as they are.

4. There are those who are definitely in agreement with the. theologians of stream six. Many of these lay members are not practising religionists and therefore they are probably more consistent than some of the more radical theologians who remain active in the church.

From this review of the various groups of lay members, the evangelical Protestant can readily conclude that there is not much hope for common action in education, evangelism and worship by Roman Catholic believers and himself.

Finally, it should be stressed that in spite of the fact that the apparent changes within and on the periphery of the Roman Catholic church would seem to suggest that a rapproachment between Protestant and Catholic Christians is now possible, and in spite of the fact that in W.C.C. circles certain joint actions are being initiated, and in spite of the readiness of some R.c. leaders to take a leading and dominant role in ecumenical activities, evangelical Protestants can find little ground or hope for new and fruitful contact with the Roman Catholic church. However, as individual witnessing Christians it will always be our privilege and responsibility to speak concerning our Lord, his proffered salvation and his revealed will for life with our Roman Catholic fellowmen. In fact, in these days of change and confusion for them, we may be of real Christian help to them. Evangelical Protestants should do all they can to bring a true Biblical unity in faith and morals among all believing Christians. On the personal level much, so much can be done in this respect.

Permit me to make reference to two personal experiences which will illustrate my point. When I was involved in an extensive research project I found that librarians in Roman Catholic seminaries were very willing to lend books and to discuss certain aspects of the historical and exegetical problems with which I was dealing. On this personal level contact was not only made, a setting was provided for a wider range of discussions. And, when in 1967 I was hospitalized for three months in a Roman Catholic hospital, I found the staff to be almost entirely Catholic. There was a refreshing readiness on the part of many staff members to discuss various points of the Christian faith. These discussions revealed to me that though we have a common faith in the Triune God, our conceptions of worship, sacraments, human life and responsibilities were often very far apart if not strongly antithetical.

Yes, we can and should speak to and discuss truths of Scripture with our Roman Catholic fellow men. We can do this on a personal level. There may also be certain instances, such as discussion forums or public assemblies which are not in any way church related or controlled, in which an evangelical Protestant may find an opportunity to witness. The implications of such participation must be carefully sought out and evaluated.

I would sum up as follows: Sad to say, there seems to be little that can be done on the official church level at the present time in regard to common worship, intercommunion, cooperative evangelism and teaching ministries. Some common activity in humanitarian projects is possible. But that is a different matter.

Rev. Gerard Van Groningen is Professor of Theology at the Geelong Theological Seminary, Victoria, Australia.