Roman Catholic Theology: Thirty Years after Vatican II

Last month we looked at the challenges facing Christ’s Church in the emerging millennium. This month we examine the “journey” which the Roman Catholic church has taken since the time of the Reformation, to Vatican II (October ‘62) to the present day. Has it grown closer to Biblical orthodoxy? Are its post-Reformation errors (Council of Trent) showing up in new garb in Protestant evangelism?

October 11, 1992, was the 30th anniversary of the first official session of the Second Vatican Council—the council that put the Roman Catholic Church on a more modern course. This article is a brief attempt to assess the state of Roman Catholic theology three decades after the council. as it strives to lead the church into a new millennium.



Note well that we are concerned here with professional Roman Catholic theology. No attempt has been made to take the religious “pulse” of the typical “Roman Catholic in the pew,” so to speak., or to ask. what he or she is thinking theologically—although that will certainly be strongly influenced by what his or her parish priest has learned from his seminary professors and from the theological books he reads.


Nor are we speaking here of the official teaching or dogma of the contemporary catholic Church. Protestants do not always sufficiently appreciate the significant distinction which Rome makes between the theologians on the one hand and the magisterium on the other.

The magisterium is the teaching authority committed to the church, but committed in a special sense to the bishops of the church, and in a most special sense to the Roman bishop, the pope. The teaching of the magisterium is that teaching which is official and binding upon all members of the church (although how far it is binding at specific points is a matter of ongoing debate )—and as exercised by a pope or an ecumenical council. it may even be infallible.

On the other hand, the teaching of Roman Catholic theologians, while instructive to the magisterium (it is hoped), is nevertheless only the teaching of individuals—and therefore private, fallible and not binding. (To stress this distinction is not to overlook the fact that one may, of course, be both a bishop and a theologian.)


Since what the theologians are saying today is not as authoritative as the documents of Vatican II, one might well conclude that it is not as important. In a sense that is true, but certainly their writings are no less interesting. In fact, most people, both Catholic and Protestant, find Rahner, Schillebeeckx or Gutierrez much more interesting to read.

This is because, as George Lindbeck, a Lutheran observer at Vatican [I. has written:

Vatican II represents a transitional phase in a movement which began long before it was convoked and will continue to develop far into the future… Its documents are often compromises between stale and tired ways of thinking and fresh and vital ones.1

Indeed, Lindbeck insists that some of Vatican II’s statements are “even deliberately ambiguous.” Certainly, as Raymond Brown has emphasized, they are often rather bland statements which need to be fleshed out before their significance becomes clear.2

The theologian, on the other hand, does not need to please anyone but himself. He is free to make flat-out, bald, bold, creative, innovative statements. (That is not altogether true, of course. If the catholic theologian gets too far out of line—particularly, it seems, with regard to papal infallibility—he can face discipline. But within exceedingly broad and amazingly generous parameters today, it is true.)

Vatican II is history. And authoritative though it is recognized to be, it does not represent. in the opinion of Roman Catholic theologians, the church’s future. Edward Schillebeeckx for example. wrote already in 1970,

The Second Vatican Council…is regarded not as an end, but as a way of making room for truly Catholic theological speculation in which legitimate pluralism is freely accepted. Another new period of theological thought, then, has commenced since Vatican II and it is. at the moment, not yet possible to predict its future.3


Today, pluralism is perhaps the most significant fact of theological life in the Roman Catholic Church. For that reason it is impossible to survey in one brief article the whole range of theological positions represented in Catholicism. In May, Robert Kress, Professor of Theology at the University of San Diego (a Catholic school), gave a guest lecture in one of my elective courses at Westminster seminary in California on “Roman Catholic Theology: Where It Is and Where It Is Going.” In it he suggested that the correct answer to every Question along the lines of “Is such-and-such a theology found in Roman Catholicism today” is probably “Yes!”

Reformed Christians no doubt find it difficult to comprehend the immense size and tremendous diversity of the Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Kress (in a manner typical of professional Roman theologians) noted in response to a student’s question, that he knew little and cared little about the charismatic movement in the Roman Catholic Church today. I was therefore especially struck a few weeks after his lecture, by the fact that on the same evening on which the General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church convened at Beaver Falls. Pennsylvania, a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal convened in the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh with some 17,000 in attendance—a number almost equal to the total membership of the OPC!

Contemporary Roman Catholic theology has become as diverse as contemporary Protestant theology. ln the years since World War II. the monolithic character of Roman Catholic theology (although always somewhat exaggerated by Protestants) has been progressively breaking up. The door was opened in 1943 by Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Affante Spiritu which sanctioned. though rather cautiously. the use of critical methods by Roman Catholic Biblical scholars. We have now reached the point at which the Catholic theological picture presents just as much variety as the Protestant one.


The theological situation in the Roman church closely parallels the Protestant situation. because Catholic theologians seem in large measure to have rapidly recapitulated the meanderings of modern Protestant theology, condensing the developments of the last two centuries into a few decades. Roman Catholicism in the past half century has had its neo-orthodox (Barthian) theologians (for example, Hans Kung and Hans Urs von Balthasar), its Heideggerian existentialists (for example, Karl Rahner and Yves Congar). its Theology of Secularization in the sixties (for  example, Leslie Dewart and Gregory Baum at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto), its Theologies of Hope (for example, the Political Theologies of Johannes Metz and Edward Schillebeeckx in Europe and the Liberation Theologies o f Gustavo Gutierrez and Juan Luis Segundo in Latin America), its evolutionary theologies (for example, those of Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Rahner), its Process Theologians (for example, Eulalia Baltazar), its theologians significantly influenced by linguistic analysis (for example, the American, David Tracy) , its theologians emphasizing mysticism and increasingly interested in Eastern religions (the monk, Thomas Merton, for example. as well as such a respected academic theologian as Edward Schillebeeckx, whose theme in his 1986 Abraham Kuyper Lectures [!] at the Free University of Amsterdam was the need ror Christian faith to express itself in both mysticism and politiCS. the otherworldly interest combined with the this~worldly). as well as its staunchly traditionalist theologians (such as. at the popular level, the former PCA pastor. Scott Hahn , and Karl Keating, director of the anti-Protestant apologetics organization. Catholic Answers).

Thus, the differences between the most academically respectable, “mainline” Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians have ceased to matter very much. Current symposia4 include theologians from both ecclesiastical traditions, and the reader must search out the biographical information to discover who is Protestant and who is Catholic.

All this is not to suggest, however, that Roman Catholic theologians have been merely imitating Protestants in recent years. In fact, you will find many Protestants insisting that the most original theological work is now being done by Roman catholics. Already at the time of Vatican II, in acknowledging his indebtedness to Karl Rahner in particular, John Macquarrie, of Union Seminary (N.Y.), noted that “the leadership in theology, which even ten years ago lay with such Protestant giants as Barth, Brunner and Tillich, has now passed to Roman Catholic thinkers.” In the year of his death (1984). Rahner was hailed as “arguably the most important theologian of the last half of the twentieth century.”6 And Raymond E. Brown, the Catholic New Testament scholar, has been designated (by Time magazine at least!) as the premier Biblical scholar in the U.S. today.

A good introduction to the primary influences on Roman catholic theology today would be provided by a study of the Transcendental Thomism of Karl Rahner (a most prolific writer indeed!) and the Biblical studies of Raymond E. Brown. But even to present brief summaries of each would require separate articles.


Simply to whet the reader’s theological appetite, I will note one characteristic emphasis of Raymond Brown. He considers the distinction between “what the Biblical word meant and what it means” to be especially important. What a particular text of Scripture meant is what the Biblical author intended it to mean. But that. Brown insists. is not what is normative (the rule for our faith and life) for the church today. Critical study of the Bible “points to religious limitations and even errors” (not simply historical or scientific errors). Brown writes:

I would contend that the way in which the Church in its life, liturgy and theology comes to understand the Bible is constitutive of “Biblical meaning” because it is chiefly in such a context that this collection is serving as the Bible for believers…It is crucial that we be aware that the church interpretation of a passage and the literal sense of that passage may be quite different.

But if what the Bible normatively means for the Christian today is not what it originally meant (as determined by careful historico-grammatical exegesis), how can the presently normative (authoritative) Biblical meaning be known? Brown gives this distinctively Roman catholic answer:

For me the principle that the teaching office of the Church can authentically interpret the Bible is more important now than ever before, granted the diversity and contrariety among Biblical authors uncovered by historical criticism.

It would be theologically naive, however. to think that all our problems have been resolved once the Church (the magisterium) has proclaimed the meaning of the Bible for the Church today. While Brown insists that there can be no differences among Roman Catholics as to what the official Catholic doctrines are (all catholics must submit to the judgment of the magisterium on this point). he must acknowledge that “there are sharp differences in the way doctrines are understood.”7 But isn’t that the important thing after all? And how can we determine which understanding is correct if the original, intended meaning of the Bible is not our criterion?


In an article on “American Catholic Theology at Century’s End,” J.A. DiNoia, O.P., states that “American Catholic theology increasingly displays a typically modern profile.” In such a theology, “faith tailors its claims with an eye to prevailing canons of reasonability and applicability.” The “characteristic concerns” of such a theology DiNoia lists as:

the primacy of the category of experience–whether religious or common human experience…the centrality of theological anthropology; universalism in the doctrine of revelation; pluralism in the attitude to other religions; insistence on the historically conditioned nature of formulations of the faith; the ascendancy of historical-critical approaches to the study of Scripture: antipathy to doctrinal norms; the centrality of critique and dissent with reference to the tradition and magisterium….8


In what direction is Roman Catholic theology likely to go in the remaining years of this century? I would offer two predictions (not prophecies!), one negative and one positive. The negative prediction is made more tentatively, but it would appear that Liberation Theology has already peaked and will wane in popularity and influence. It has made much of a Marxist socioeconomic analysis of the human condition, and sometimes it has even suggested what appear to be Marxist solutions.

Gustavo Gutierrez, the author of the book that gave Liberation Theology its name 21 years ago, was one of the featured speakers at the 1992 meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America. As I waited for the session to begin, I mentioned to the man next to me that I was especially interested to hear what Gutierrez would say in light of the recent collapse of Marxist regimes in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Nicaragua. His response as to paraphrase Chesterton’s familiar statement regarding the Christian faith. He said: “Marxism has not failed. It has never been tried.” I was thus reminded that the true (Marxist) believers may not yet be ready to abandon the fundamental tenets of Liberation Theology, but I do believe that their number will decrease.

I make my positive prediction with more confidence because the indicators are already dearly present.9 I expect to see Roman Catholic theology (and Protestant theology) moving increasingly beyond so-called Liberal Inclusivism (which teaches that Christianity only exemplifies at its highest what is true in all religions) to a true religious pluralism which recognizes the independent and equal validity of alt religions as well as all humanistic philosophies.


Often I am asked to explain the continuing attraction some Protestants feel for a return to the Roman church. My response is that I can well understand the attraction for Protestants who hold to some form of theological relativism. Why not return to the fold of that ancient and universal Mother Church whose embrace is broad enough to take in all who will submit to her authority, whatever their personal theology might be? But for those who are committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. Who is revealed to us in the Scriptures “which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life” (Westminster Confession), any such attraction remains difficult to comprehend.


  1. George A. Lindbeck, The Future of Roman Catholic Theology (London: SPCK, 1970), p. 3.

2. In “The Impact of Vatican II: 25 Years Later,” a lecture given at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles on September 22, 1990.

3. Introduction to T. Mark Schoof, A Survey of Catholic Theology: 1800–1970 (New York: Paulist Newman, 1970), pp. 4–5.

4. For example, The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1987), which is co-edited by a Presbyterian (U.S.A.), John Hick, and a Roman Catholic, Paul Knitter.

5. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (N.Y.: Scriber’s, 1966), p. ix.

6. J.J. Mueller, What Are They Saying about Theological Method? (N.Y.: Paulist, 1984).

7. Raymond E. Brown, The Critical Meaning of the Bible (New York: Paulist, 1981), pp. 16, 23, 34, 35, 37, 84. The emphasis is Brown’s.

8. In The Thomist 54 (1990), p. 504.

9. Especially important are the first two volumes in the Faith Meets Faith series published by Orbis Press: The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, edited by John Hick and Paul Knitter, and Toward a Universal Theology of Religion, edited by Leonard Swidler.

Dr. Strimple is Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in California and one of the few Protestant members of the Catholic Theological Society of America.

This article first appeared in the October 1992 issue of New Horizons, a publication of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.