No Common Gospel: Why Catholic Mariology Is Still an Insurmountable Obstacle to Full Christian Unity

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In the latest ecumenical news, Vatican Radio reports that the World Communion of Reformed Churches has signed on to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification first drafted by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. The report states:

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has released a note regarding the association of the Reformed Churches to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), calling the occasion an “important milestone”. The Joint Declaration was signed between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999, with the World Methodist Council adopting the document in 2006. On Wednesday, 5 July 2017 the World Communion of Reformed Churches becomes the fourth party to associate itself to the doctrine on Justification as accepted by Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists…. Though a milestone in ecumenical relations and “the full, visible unity of Christians”, the note says the event is “not yet the end of the road but a significant stage on the way.”

The Vatican statement goes on to say:

The doctrine of justification by grace through faith is at the heart of the Gospel. Agreement in understanding how the salvation brought by Christ actually becomes effective in sinful humans is of high importance for ecumenical progress. The Reformed Churches will now affirm the consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification as corresponding to Reformed doctrine. One of the crucial issues of dissent between the Reformers and the authorities of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century is thus being diffused and overcome, making further growth in spiritual and ecclesial communion between the Protestant and Catholic Churches possible….

In this way, ecumenical progress in dialogue is not merely an academic pursuit of interested experts, but has a positive and practical influence on the way Christians of different confessions live and work together in solidarity and bear common witness to the Gospel in society. [full text]

Now regardless of whatever we may think of either the Joint Declaration or the WCRC’s adherence to it, the general feeling seems to be substantially the same as the Vatican’s statement: yes, differences and difficulties still remain, but we are all able to agree on “the heart of the gospel” and so we can affirm a certain measure of unity and even engage together in evangelization.

Now my goal is not to be, as the Italians would say, a guastafeste (i.e. killjoy, wet blanket, party pooper), but there are a number of glaring problems with this interpretation of recent events. Underlying the 16th-century disagreement over justification (sola gratia, sola fide) is the question of the sole mediatorship of Christ (solus Christus), something which, at least in terms of Protestant relations with the Catholic Church, is conveniently left to the side. To be more precise, the whole question of Catholic Mariology seems to be ignored. Contrary to certain opinions, the issue of Mary’s role vis-à-vis Christ’s mediatorship and human salvation is not a peripheral issue. Protestants must remember that ever since the ex cathedra (i.e. binding and irreformable) declaration of Munificentissimus Deus by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the doctrine of the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven is, in official Catholic teaching, necessary to believe for salvation. T.F. Torrance observes:

Now that the Munificentissimus Deus has been proclaimed, and the dogma of the physical assumption of the Virgin Mary has become for Roman Catholics necessaryfor saving faith, … Evangelical theology delivers its soul and in the most brotherly spirit warns the Roman Church of the dire consequences of its action, not only for the Ecumenical Church but even for the Church of Rome itself….

The Church that has the promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it is the Apostolic Church. To be the One, Holy, Catholic Church means that through all the changes of history until the Second Advent of Christ the Church remains identical with itself in its apostolic foundation in Christ, and that it maintains faithfully the teaching of the apostles as delivered in the Holy Scriptures, and does not alter its nature by changing its foundation in the faith, by subtracting from it or by adding to Munificentissimus titleit other than that which has been laid in Christ. The Church which refuses to be conformed to the apostolic Scriptures, which declines to be reformed and cleansed and purged by the Word of Truth mediated through the apostles, thereby declares that it is no longer identical with its foundation in Christ, and that it is not the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. By calling in question its Apostolicity it denies its Catholicity.

The grave charge which we in the Evangelical Church lay against the Roman Church is that it has increasingly subtracted from the sole Mediatorship of Christ and has increasingly corrupted itself through improvisations in doctrines, sacraments and ministries…. [T]he dogma of the physical Assumption of Mary is the most blatant deliberate attempt by the Roman Church to invent a doctrine (out of its own popular piety) knowing that it has no apostolic foundation, and knowing that it was contrary to centuries and centuries even of the Roman Church’s tradition. The fact that so-called relics of Mary’s body lie scattered about in older centres of Roman piety is standing witness that the Roman Church is no longer semper eadem, no longer identical with the Church that taught the death of Mary.

It has thus finally and decisively shattered its own continuity, and, apart altogether from the Tridentine anathemas, has made unity with the Evangelical Churches who remain faithful to the apostolic foundation in Christ quite impossible…, and therefore we cannot but pray for our erring friends in the Roman Church that they may be delivered from heresy and may return to the integrity of the Catholic and Apostolic faith in Jesus Christ. [Conflict and Agreement in the Church, Vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 156, 166-167]

There would be much on which to comment here, but let me just highlight the absolutely critical point that Torrance makes regarding the impossibility of full and visible unity between Catholic and Evangelical churches. Even if we were to reach full agreement over the doctrines anathematized by Trent — or even if those anathemas were fully retracted (wishful thinking, I know) — it still would not bring Catholics and Protestants any closer to true unity. Why not? Because ever since 1950, the Catholic Church’s official and irreformable dogmatic position is that anyone who denies, or even casts doubt on, the bodily assumption of Mary, “has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith” and “will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul” (Munificentissimus Deus, 45, 47). As long as this doctrine stands, there can be no true unity between Catholics and Protestants, irrespective of whatever other areas of agreement, such as the Joint Declaration on Justification, may be found.

This issue, however, represents a far graver problem than merely the ecumenical one. As Torrance avers, it signals the definitive departure from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of all ecclesial bodies that submit themselves to the bishop of Rome, whose line of succession presumed to declare with divine authority a doctrine that is wholly absent from its apostolic foundation. Regardless of whatever other issues there may be, Munificentissimus Deus removes all doubt as to the deviation of the Catholic Church from that which constitutes the universal consent of the early catholic church bequeathed to us in the ecumenical creeds. Even if the bodily assumption of Mary could be proven to be biblical teaching, Rome’s standing declaration that it is an irreformable article of saving faith constitutes a serious breach of faith with all those who simply confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To think that somehow an agreement like the Joint Declaration could mark a “significant stage” on the way to full and visible unity between Catholic and Protestant churches is naive at best, deceptive at worst. According to Munificentissimus Deus, Protestants are damned, and thus the insurmountable obstacle to full Christian unity.

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