Roman Catholicism and the Need for Deep Reformation

Yesterday, Chris Castaldo and Gregg Allison posted an excellent article on the Gospel Coalition website entitled ‘The Pope Offers Mercy – Protestants Won’t Be Indulged‘. In the article, Castaldo and Allison helpfully describe what is involved in the special Jubilee Year declared by Pope Francis and initiated by his opening of the Holy Door to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on 8 December 2015. They write:

A central feature of the Jubilee Year is the dispensing of plenary indulgences. For many, the word “indulgence” conjures images of the 16th-century relics of Wittenberg, which boasted a sample of the Virgin Mary’s breast milk and a twig from the burning bush. We visualize woodcuts and frescoes depicting a family of languishing souls reaching out through purgatorial flames. We see indulgence tinklr-foto_2016-06-17preachers traversing the German countryside with wagons full of coins, coffers, and certificates endorsed by the pope. And we think of Martin Luther, who finally stood up and said, “Enough!”…

Catholic reform eventually abolished the sale of indulgences, but the custom of granting them continues to the present, as illustrated by Pope Francis’s Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, which is set to conclude on November 20, 2016. While there have been numerous developments in canon law concerning indulgences, the underlying logic remains the same.

How does the Church of Rome define an indulgence today? Castaldo and Allison refer us to its official catechism:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471)

Castaldo and Allison go on to explain that the way in which the Catholic faithful can, in a Jubilee Year such as this, receive a plenary indulgence – “the full remission of all temporal punishment due to sin” – is by walking through the Holy Door after fulfilling four prerequisites: prayer, penance, the Eucharist, and separation from sin. In good Protestant fashion, Castaldo and Allison remark that this essentially amounts to “[g]ood works. If this way of finding the mercy of God sounds complex, there is another, more excellent way.” This more excellent way is, of course, the gospel that proclaims we are saved by Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone.

The reason why I reproduce this here is not simply because I want to draw attention to this particular problem in Catholic theology and practice. I want to hone in on Castaldo’s and Allison’s statement that although certain developments and changes have indeed occurred, the “underlying logic” of indulgences remains basically unaltered. What they are articulating is something very important that I think is often lost on many people today, especially Protestants, when it comes to Roman Catholicism. Often we as Protestants tend to evaluate Catholicism rather atomistically, that is, by treating various points of theology and practice in isolation from one another. So, we say, we can agree on these points here (e.g. justification), but we still disagree on these other points over there (Mariology, transubstantiation). The problem, as Castaldo and Allison highlight, is that this fails to take into account the underlying logic that binds all Catholic theology and practice together into a cohesive conceptual whole. What this means is that for the Catholic Church to truly be reformed according to the Word of God, what is necessary is not simply pruning some dead leaves or branches here or there, but for the fundamental root structure to be entirely recultivated.

As an example of what I am talking about, Gregg Allison’s book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice, building on the incisive work of Leonardo De Chirico, pinpoints two fundamental principles that give rise to all of what Protestants would consider problematic in Catholic theology and practice. One of these (the one that I would like to focus on here) is the notion that the Catholic Church prolongs the incarnation of Jesus Christ in lieu of his presence on the earth. This is not a novel idea but has a long history in Catholic thinking and is corroborated not only by the official catechism (par.795) but also by a number of contemporary Catholic theologians. Consider, for instance, how Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – characterizes the church’s relation to Christ:

[T]here is ultimately no opposition between Christ and Church. It is through the Church that he remains alive despite the distance of history, that he speaks to us today, is with us today as master and Lord, as our brother who unites us all as brethren. And because the Church, and she alone, gives us Jesus Christ, causes him to be alive and present in the world, gives birth to him again in every age in the faith and prayer of the people, she gives mankind a light, a support, and a standard without which humanity would be unimaginable.[1]

It is on account of this conflation between Christ and the Church – indeed the dependency of Christ on the Church to accomplish his work in the world – that Richard John Neuhaus states: “the act of faith in Christ and the act of faith in the Church are not two acts of faith but one”.[2] When we grasp this fundamental aspect of Catholic thought (which is constitutive of Catholicism’s identity), then the whole spectrum of Catholic faith and practice comes into sharp focus. Gregg Allison elucidates:

Ecclesiology: The Catholic system always associates Christ and the Church; the bond between the two is so essential and unbreakable that to think of Christ in isolation from the Church is impossible. Moreover, because the incarnate Christ mediated grace to nature, the Church as the continuing incarnation of the ascended Christ mediates grace to nature and thus is necessary for salvation…

The only true church: Because the Catholic Church is the prolongation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his mystical body, and a sacrament of union with God and the unity of the whole human race, it understands itself as the only true church, meaning that evangelical gatherings are only ecclesial communities, not actual churches. Moreover, for the Catholic system, the universal church is identified with the visible Catholic Church on earth. The Church is both Mother and Teacher…

Sacramental theology: For Catholicism, when the sacraments are administered in the Church, Christ himself is the one who baptizes, Christ himself celebrates the Eucharist, Christ himself ordains, and so forth. Furthermore, these sacraments, as mediating divine grace, are necessary for salvation.

Priesthood: For Catholic theology, the bishop/priest, in virtue of his consecration received through the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in the person of Christ the head (in persona Christi Capitis) when he engages in the service of the Church; accordingly, it is Christ “who through the Church baptizes, teaches, rules, looses, binds, offers, sacrifices.”[Pope Pius XII, The Mystical Body of Christ (June 29, 1943)]

Offices of Christ: The Catholic theological system underscores that Christ delegates the exercise of his threefold office – kingly, prophetic, and priestly – to the Church. Because Christ is the king, the Church exercises his rulership through its authoritative leaders. Because Christ is the prophet, the Church exercises his teaching ministry through its Magisterium, or teaching office. Because Christ is the priest, the Church exercises his priestly ministry through its priesthood.

Hierarchy: The Catholic Church as the mediatorial institution is characterized by hierarchy, which can been [sic] seen in the higher realm of its clergy – among which there is also a hierarchical order, from its highest officers, the bishops, and their assistants, the priests, to the lowest offices, the deacons – and the lower realm of the laity. At the head of his hierarchically structured Church stands the pope, who is the Vicar – the concrete, tangible, visible  representative – of Christ himself.

Doctrine of Mary: In relation to the Catholic Church’s vision of its general mediatorial role in salvation, it elevates Mary to a particular mediatorial role in the distribution of grace, naming her as Mediatrix alongside her son, the Mediator…

Transubstantiation: Though presented and supported in a different way, Catholicism’s understanding of the sacrament of the Eucharist (that during the mass, the bread is transubstantiated, or changed, into the body of Christ, and the wine is changed into the blood of Christ) is at home in the Catholic theological system grounded on the Church’s understanding of itself as the prolongation of the incarnation of the ascended Jesus Christ. For a similar reason, the Church encourages the faithful to engage in ongoing worship of Christ, who is present in the unconsumed consecrated wafers stored in the tabernacle.[3]

From these examples (and more could be adduced), it should be evident that the Roman Catholic Church, both in its medieval and contemporary forms, is not simply a conglomeration of independent parts but rather a cohesive system whose individual components, like branches on a tree, are ultimately rooted in an underlying structure. The current Jubilee Year and the Catholic Church’s claim to be able to mediate to the faithful who fulfill certain requirements a full remission of temporal punishment are only symptomatic of the underlying disease that has been plaguing Catholicism for centuries. As Karl Barth contended at the summit of his theological reflection, the notion that essentially makes the Catholic Church what it is – that it prolongs Christ’s incarnation – is not so much inappropriate as it is “blasphemous”:

The invisible being of the community which presses from within outwards for visibility, and in which for all the likeness it is different, individual and unique in relation to the world and its elements, magnitudes and factors, is something which, together with its confronting of world-occurrence, it cannot realise of itself, but which it owes wholly and utterly to its election and calling, to the divine decision, act and revelation enacted in Jesus Christ. What it is invisibly is its being by grace and not by nature. It is promised and allotted to it as a free gift. It is only with the greatest surprise and gratitude that it can understand it as a being which is truly its own. Between its invisible being and that of Jesus Christ, between its distinction from the world and His, its confrontation of world-occurrence and His, there is indeed correspondence but no parity, let alone identity. Even in its invisible essence it is not Christ, nor a second Christ, nor a kind of extension of the one Christ. The supreme and final thing to be said of it—and this brings us back in another context to a familiar theme—is quite simply that it is His body, His earthly-historical form of existence. It is indeed in the flesh, but it is not, as He is, the Word of God in the flesh, the incarnate Son of God.

Thus to speak of a continuation or extension of the incarnation in the Church is not only out of place but even blasphemous. Its distinction from the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Creator from His creature. Its superiority to the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Lord seated at the right hand of the Father. Hence it must guard as if from the plague against any posturing or acting as if in relation to world-occurrence it were an alter Chrisus, or a vicarius Christi, or a corredemptrix, or a mediatrix omnium gratiarum, not only out of fear of God, but also because in any such behaviour, far from really exalting itself or discharging such functions, it can only betray, surrender, hazard and lose its true invisible being, and therefore its true distinction from the world and superiority to world-occurrence.[4]

When understood in terms of Mark 2:5-7, what seems to be an overly harsh accusation from Barth – that of blasphemy – does not appear so far-fetched after all. Indeed, when Jesus asserted the right to forgive the sins of the paralytic, the scribes had at least one thing correct in their condemnation of him: were Jesus not God himself, then he would have been blaspheming in making such a claim, for no one can forgive sins except for God alone (Mark 2:7). Insofar as the Catholic Church asserts this right for itself today on the basis of its governing logic and self-identity, can any doubt remain as to its true condition?

As I stated early, what is needed, therefore, is not a simple pruning of a few dead leaves or branches from the Catholic tree but rather a complete replanting and recultivation of its underlying root system. Until this kind of deep reformation occurs, then it is difficult to see how the Catholic Church can really be said to be conformed to the Word of God. I know that given the current ecumenical climate this kind of statement may not be well received and could be branded as narrow or unloving. Yet I do not think it is unloving for a doctor to diagnose a deadly disease for the sake of prescribing an effective cure. Quite the opposite. My purpose in writing this post is not to be combative or provocative or to launch a self-righteous crusade against Catholics. Rather, I write with profound love for the Catholic Church. I long for it to become the true church that it believes itself to be. My prayer and hope is that deep reformation can indeed occur within Catholicism, that the gospel can be rightly proclaimed in its communities throughout the world, and that the historic divide between Catholics and Protestants can in some way be overcome – not by downplaying or dismissing the serious ills that still exist but by bringing true healing and restoration through the gospel of Jesus Christ who is the church’s one and only foundation.


[1] Ratzinger, J., 2009. Credo for Today: What Christians Believe. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp.193-194.

[2] Neuhaus, R.J., 2007. Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth. New York: Basic Books, p.36.

[3] Allison, G.R., 2014. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. Wheaton: Crossway, pp.61-63.

[4] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics IV/3.2: The doctrine of reconciliation, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.729.


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