Is the Roman Catholic Church Catholic Enough?

Is the Roman Catholic Church Catholic Enough? October 27, 2017

Is the Roman Catholic Church Catholic Enough?


I recently read an excellent book by two Arminian-Wesleyan friends. One is a theologian and the other is a philosopher but both are very knowledgeable about both philosophy and theology. Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls have written Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (BakerAcademic, 2017). The publisher asked me to write a promotional statement for the book before it was published, so I read it the edited page proofs some time ago. I have given it (paperback and published) another look now that the publisher has provided me with that.

First of all, let me remind my readers that I am not celebrating or commemorating the Reformation this year. I think 1517 is an arbitrary and artificial date for the “beginning of the Reformation.” I don’t have a better date, though, so I will go along with those who insist on this year for that commemoration or celebration. I’m just not doing it myself.

If I can express the main point of the book it is that the Roman Catholic Church is not truly “catholic” enough. The authors (and I) mean “universal” as in really spiritually one with the whole Body of Christ on earth. In other words, they (and I) want to see the RCC move toward being truly universal together with the whole of Christ’s true followers of whatever denomination. Neither they nor I expect the RCC to drop or deny its particularities although they (and I) have serious qualms about some of its doctrines (e.g., the two Marian dogmas and the popular tendency in many Catholic spaces in the world to treat Mary as a co-redeemer with Christ).

The authors, Collins and Walls, both Methodists, open the book very irenically with strong expressions of appreciation for the RCC and they explore the common ground between it and many Protestants. There is much common ground especially with regard to the Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ. But then they launch into a very calm but critical exposition of the reasons why they cannot accept the RCC—as an institution—as truly catholic.

To me, their arguments are persuasive.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

It will help, I think, to quote one paragraph that appears early in the book; it reveals the authors’

Intentions quite well: “This book aims to be ecumenical in the best sense of the word. We very much agree with Kevin Vanhoozer that the ‘only good Protestant is a catholic Protestant—one who learns from, and bears fruit for the whole church.’ Indeed, we believe that challenging the exclusive claims of Rome is essential to true Catholicism and for advancing deeper unity in the Body of Christ. While committed Roman Catholics no doubt believe that promoting their exclusive claims is necessary to their very identity, we aim to show a better way forward.” (xxii-xxiii)

The single main example of an RCC “exclusive claim” is, of course, that it alone is true “church” and all others (there is some internal debate about Eastern Orthodoxy) are not true “churches” but at best “ecclesial communities.” I once asked a Catholic friend who is a priest and holds an earned doctoral degree from a Catholic university in Rome what “ecclesial community” means. He said “You would call it ‘parachurch organization’.” Okay, got it.

Yes, there are Protestant churches/denominations that also claim to be the one, true “church,” the whole Body of Christ on earth. The authors do not deny that; their criticisms would apply just as much to them. (Although many of their criticisms of RCC theology in this book are about RCC particularities of doctrine and practice on which they think the RCC places too much emphasis.)

Why does this book interest me and why do I recommend it here? Well, first, it is not your usual Protestant anti-Catholic polemic. It is truly generous and appreciate toward the RCC. As I have, the authors have read deeply in Catholic theology, know Catholics, and have learned much from Catholic theologians and spiritual writers. There is not even a hint of hatred in the book. It is a call for the RCC to be itself but in a less exclusive way, admitting it is just one denomination of Christianity (even if the largest) and not the whole Body of Christ on earth to which every true Christian belongs even if by means of “mystical unity.”

Over the forty years of my life in Christian theology I have known of many Protestants who converted to the RCC. I have had students who did so—against my strong advice. I have interacted with leading converts to RCC including Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wilkens—just two of many Protestants who publicly converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism. I have attended Protestant-RCC dialogue events and participated in them. I have had many RCC colleagues over the years. At one mostly Protestant university where I began my teaching career the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, my “boss,” was RCC. I have read numerous books by RCC theologians including: Walter Kasper, Hans Küng, Karl Rahner, and many, many others.

I think Collins and Walls would agree with me (and I with them) that the RCC contributes great good to the world; our common concern is with the RCC’s continuing claims (intensified under Benedict XVI) that the RCC is the one and only true institutional church of Jesus Christ on earth to the exclusion of all others. And we agree that some RCC dogmas (e.g., the two Marian ones) are extra-biblical and therefore should not be dogmas at all but, at most, opinions (like “Limbo”).

I have attended and participated in several Protestant-RCC dialogue events and in every case I came away thinking this to myself: The Protestant participants (who read papers and some who responded to the read papers and some who simply sat in on the dialogue and voiced opinions during the Q&A time) never did actually say that the RCC has something to learn from Protestantism and needs to change to be more like Protestants. Every one of these dialogue events has been driven by RCC concerns and Protestant admissions of how much Protestants need the RCC to become more truly “catholic” (universal). At one such event, after listening for a day and a half I was invited to speak. I said that Catholics need to stop making exclusive claims and show more interest in Protestantism—as a tradition from which they can learn. I was then banned from the dialogue event. After the afternoon session, when I arrived for the dinner (to which I had been invited) I found that my name was no longer on the invitation list and I was not permitted to enter. The two organizers of the event were famous Lutheran theologians who I heard say (earlier in the day) that they would gladly join the RCC if the pope would just admit he is not infallible. My dissenting voice from that of the other Protestants was unwelcome, so I was literally thrown out of the dialogue event.

Only one Protestant participant approached me after I spoke (during a break) and expressed appreciation for and qualified agreement with what I said. It was clear to me that the whole event (which was the second one to which I was invited in this series that was held at different institutions around central Minnesota) was pro-RCC and intended to draw Protestants of many denominations closer to the RCC. (I always wondered why the two Lutheran theologians invited me, an evangelical Baptist, if they didn’t want to hear that perspective.)

I highly recommend Collins and Walls’s book. Every Protestant who is succumbing to the allure of the RCC—perhaps as a haven from the seeming chaos and confusion of Protestantism—must read it. They will find a great chapter in the book about how diverse Catholics are among themselves in spite of having an authoritative magisterium including an infallible bishop.

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