The New Riddle of Roman Catholicism Riddles, Mysteries, and Enigmas (I)

In 1959, Jaroslav Pelikan, then a Lutheran professor of church history at Yale Divinity School, published The Riddle of Roman Catholicism. Writing on the eve of the Second Vatican Council and in the early phase of the Cold War, Pelikan sought to address the vast ignorance about Roman Catholicism on the part of most American Protestants. At the time, American Protestants, both mainline and sideline, were nervously uncertain on the verge ofan election of a Roman Catholic President. How,. they wondered, could one swear allegiance to the Constitution ofthe United States while meeting Rome’s demand for loyalty? The Church of Rome, Pelikan noted, fit Winston Churchill’s quip about the Soviet Union: it was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

At the time, Pelikan’s book was a helpful primer for unlearned Protestants. Fifty years later, however, Roman Catholicism presents a very different riddle for American Protestants, Consider that in 1960, American Protestants helped to elect John F. Kennedy to the White House when they were persuaded that he would not let his religion influence his Presidency, In 2004, many American Protestants turned against John Kerry, because they feared Kerry’s Roman Catholic faith would not affect his Presidency.

Consider also the changing character of evangelicalism in America. When Pelikan penned his book, Harold J, Ockenga was a towering figure among American evangelicals, He was the leading champion of the resurgent evangelical movement in mid-century, when he held key posts in several strategic organizations: pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, Founder of the National Association of Evangelicals, founding President of Fuller Theological Seminary, and eventually President of Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. In his assessment, evangelicalism had to battle several major threats: liberalism, secularism, materialism, communism, and Catholicism. Fifty years later, another major voice in American evangelicalism, Timothy George, proclaimed that “for faithful evangelicals and believing Roman Catholics, this is the time to sew, not a time to rend.”



George’s assessment was confirmed by Mark Noll and Carol Nystrom in their recent book, Is the Reformation Over? The authors’ thesis was cleverly stated in the form of a question, but the answer that the reader gets upon completion ofthe book is yes: the issues that divided the church in the sixteenth century are in our past. If the church can progress beyond these obsolete divisions it can engage in a “new ecumenism of the trenches,” embodied in such documents as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.”

What has happened? This is a startling mega-shift in conservative Protestant attitudes toward the church that the heirs of the Reformation used to describe routinely as a false church, a synagogue of Satan led by a man whom Presbyterians once confessionally recognized as the “Antichrist” himself.

The remarkable tum-about in sentiment about the Roman Catholic Church is the basis for this series of articles in The Outlook. Our hope is to explore how the church of Rome has become a very different riddle from a half-century ago for conservative American Protestants. More important, our aim is to show that no matter how different Roman Catholicism may look at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has not changed the objections to Rome that informed and continue to shape what it means to protest, that is, to be a Protestant.

Vatican II

We can identify at least three causes for the thaw in Protestant attitudes toward Roman Catholicism. First was the convening of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This international gathering of Roman Catholic bishops sought to address the challenges before the church brought about by political, social, economic, and technological dynamics of modern times. The liturgical changes that ensued represented a “new springtime” for progressive thinking in the church that would open the church’s windows to the contemporary world.

From a Protestant perspective, these were dramatic reforms that lifted much of the mystery that shrouded the church with odd preactices such as Latin masses and meatless Fridays. This was no longer a gloomy church ruled with an iron fist by aging Italian priests. Indeed, throughout most of American history Rome was perceived to be one of the chief threats to liberty, democracy, and capitalism. But after Vatican II, no longer did Catholicism seem to be anti-American.

Yet the freedoms that Vatican II permitted could have gone in a number of different directions. For some traditionalists, the windows it opened threatened to replace the church’s historic Tridentine faith with contemporarary doubt and dissent, or with trendiness and relevancy. Such a disastrous turn in the direction of the church was averted when the insights of the council were channeled through the remarkable 27-year papacy of John Paul II (1978–2005).

John Paul II

A well-traveled and charismatic figure, John Paul did much to reverse the tyrannical image of Roman Catholicism, a second decisive shift in Rome’s recent past. The pope was arguably second to only Ronald Reagan in defying the Soviet Union and denouncing Communism’s totaltarian ways. He has also written forcefully in numerous encyclicals about human nature and the freedom and responsibilities that stem from being created in the image of God. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of John Paul’s teaching has been his forthright denunciations of sexual license outside of marriage. The cumulative effect further altered dramatically the image of Roman Catholicism. Once the alleged source of bigotry, superstition, and intolerance—in effect, the enemy of the progress in the West—the Roman Catholic Church has become a place of refuge for liberty-loving Americans who wish to withstand the secularism and immorality of the West. Rome now seems to offer evangelical Christians much wisdom and guidance on some of this age’s most difficult or distressing moral questions.

After his death, John Paul II was succeeded by his close collegue, Joseph Ratzinger. Benedict XVI is even more appealing to many conservative Roman Catholics. He seems less willing to accommodate the teaching of the church to the spirit of the modern world. Bearing the reputation of the “enforcer,” Benedict has tightened up much of the teaching of church in order to insure greater conformity to Rome. Progressive bishops were reproached by Rome for tolerance of homosexuals and involvement in progressive political causes. Furthermore, he expanded claim of papal infallibility, extended it to disparate points such as the ban on women’s ordination and the invalidity of ordinations in the Anglican church. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church is not only maintaining John Paul II’s legacy; under Benedict it is becoming more conservative.

The Culture Wars

The final important circumstance responsible for prompting American Protestants to reconsider Roman Catholicism is the so-called culture wars. The chief social and moral contests over the past half-century in the United States’ political and legal order have weakened the differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics by allowing them to recognize a basis for co-belligerency if not alliance. Abortion, gay marriage, and the establishment of a “naked public square” have prompted evangelical Protestants to find that they have more in common with traditional Catholics and orthodox Jews than with liberal Protestants.

The fight to preserve so-called “Judaeo-Christian values” has put former antagonisms, such as purgatory, the veneration ofMary, or even justification by faith to the back burner. Many Protestants regularly receive counsel about American government and public life from Roman Catholics (such as Bill Bennett and Laura Ingraham) or orthodox Jews (Michael Medved and Dennis Praeger) instead of Protestants on talk radio.

This is what Mark Noll has lauded as the “ecumenism of the trenches.” Fifty years ago, Protestants and Roman Catholics would not have regarded each other as fellow Christian believers. But now evangelicals and Roman Catholics realize that they need each other. The popular Roman Catholic writer Peter Kreeft has put the matter even more sharply. The culture war in contemporary America is a “jihad” that constrains both Roman Catholics and Protestants to rethink Christian identity. “Nothing unites like a common enemy and a common emergency,” he writes. The new moral allegiances that are forming will yield different theological boundaries as people of faith unite to fight against the decay of our culture.

Reformation Fatigue – Weary in Well Doing?

By itself, American Protestantism seems to be losing steam. Some Protestants, including members of the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, have made well-publicized migrations to Rome or to Constantinople. Especially in the academy Roman Catholic scholars offer a thoughtful and consistent conservative approach that bears more intellectual ammunition, it seems, than evangelical social thought. Roman Catholics are an increasingly growing presence on Christian college faculty. (The exception is Wheaton College, which recently dismissed a philosopher who converted to Rome. The College and its President, A. Duane Litfin, however, have taken considerable heat for the firing).

One sign of declining Protestant resolve resolve is the aforementioned “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” This statement was the result of a gathering of what many deemed to be the two largest and most conservative wings of North American Christianity, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. Convened by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus in 1994, the group’s statement urged a new cooperative attitude as “essential for continued ministry expansion into the third millennium.” The signers claimed that past animosities had crippled the progress of the gospel, and they sought to bury the hatchet and work collaboratively instead of as antagonists. Notable evangelical signatures came from Bill Bright, Os Guinness, and J. I. Packer. Peter Kreeft called the document a “major new step, a great air-cleanser and fog-dispeller and proper-perspective-restorer” even while “solving no theological problems.”

Critics such as Michael Horton and R.C. Sproul countered that evangelical concerns about the fate of American culture had blinded signers to the truths of the gospel. In future installments this series will examine in greater detail questions of salvation which bear very much on “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” For now it is sufficient to acknowledge that Horton and Sproul were absolutely right to oppose this document. “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” was less a water shed in ecumenical relations than a misconstrual of the nature and purpose of the church and the message she has been commissioned to proclaim.

At the same time, opposition to collaboration or cooperation between Protestants and Roman Catholics needs to abstain from the kind of polemics that once regarded Roman Catholics as unAmerican or that played off cultural and ethnic stereotypes. As will become clear in other numbers in this series, anti-Catholicism among American Protestants was ugly, laced with bigotry and class-warfare, and often pursued more out ofpolitical than religious motives. Even so, ignoring doctrinal differences that go to the heart of the gospel is another kind of bigotry, one that rejects the sufficiency of the work of Christ and Protestantism’s efforts to restore the significance of that redemptive work.

Those efforts involved two key insights: the formal principle, sola Scriptura, or the Bible as the final authority for faith and practice; and the material principle, or justification by faith alone. Both of these issues were ignored or side-stepped in the clever wording of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Moreover, current developments in Roman Catholic scholarship, contrary to the positive assessments of many evangelicals, are arguably moving the church even further away from historic Protestantism.

Dr. D.G. Hart and Mr. John R. Muether are coauthors of several books, most recently Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism (P&R 2007). Both are ruling elders in the Orthordox Presbyterian Church: Dr. Hart at Calvary OPC, Glenside, Pennsylvania, and Mr. Muether at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida. Dr. Hart is the Director of Fellowship Programs and Scholar-in-Residence at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Mr. Muether is the historian of the OPC and Librarian at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL.