by Andy Hamilton

Buonasera! This was the surprising greeting that the newly elected Pope Francis spoke to the large crowd gathered in Rome in March 2013. In an unprecedented manner, Pope Benedict XVI had been replaced by Pope Francis. Suddenly, the media attention was no longer on the scandals within the Catholic Church, but on the personality of the new pope. A pope who has a heart for the poor, rides the metro and is a football supporter. The coldness, theological rigidity and remoteness of Pope Benedict XVI had been replaced by the warmth, theological elasticity and friendliness of Pope Francis. Had a new season begun within the Roman Catholic Church? Or was it a matter of mere aesthetics? How were we to respond as evangelicals to these changes? What approaches were we to take to reach Catholic people for Christ?

Roman Catholics Need Christ

The starting point is recognising that Roman Catholic people need Christ. In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has intentionally highlighted the similarities and underplayed the theological differences between evangelicals and Catholics. It is not uncommon to hear Catholic people, including the current pope, use words like gospel, mission, evangelism, grace and faith. The use of common terminology, coupled with the new apparent friendliness of the Catholic Church, could erroneously lead us to think that there is no longer a need to reach those who follow the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church with the gospel. The insurgence of initiatives such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) seems to suggest that we have more in common with Catholics than what divides us. However, this naive conclusion fails to take into account key characteristics of Roman Catholic theology and practice. A defining word for evangelicals is the word ‘sola’ (alone). With the five solas we summarise the central tenets of biblical faith. A key word within Catholicism is the conjunction ‘et’ (and). This word enables Catholic theology to hold together many elements that appear incompatible.

Evangelical Theology Catholic Theology
Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) Scripture and tradition
Sola gratua (Grace alone) Grace and adherence to the sacraments
Solus Christus (Christ alone) Christ and the Church
Sola fide (Faith alone) Faith and good works
Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone) Glory to God and veneration to Mary and saints

Roman Catholic theology does not overtly deny the core tenets of evangelical theology, it ‘simply’ adds to them. However, it is exactly this addition that impoverishes and redefines them. The great Welsh preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, insightfully captured this dynamic: ‘[In Catholicism…] it is not so much a denial of the truth that comes to pass as the addition to the truth which becomes a departure from it.’1 The ‘gospel’ taught by the Roman Catholic Church is a departure and distortion of the biblical gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:7).

Walking in the streets of Rome, it is clear that there has been a change of atmosphere around the Catholic Church without a change of heart within it. No doctrine has been rescinded. Their doctrine of justification has remained unaltered since the Council of Trent. The weight given to tradition continues to cloud the truth of Scripture. Pope Francis continues to be as devoted to Mary as any of his predecessors. Years of jubilee are still celebrated and the payment of indulgences for the remission of sins continues to be encouraged. These messages remain at odds with the biblical gospel.

Therefore, the widespread tendency, for the sake of ‘togetherness’, of reducing everything to the lowest common denominator will not suffice. We cannot sacrifice truth on the altar of unity. We must look beyond the aesthetics and consider the substance. We must recognise that those who adhere to Roman Catholicism need to be reached with the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

Same Words, Different Meanings

It is crucial to ensure that we are speaking the same language. Using the same terminology does not necessarily mean that we are saying the same thing. Terms are being used in significantly different ways. This became apparent to me in the context of a debate with Don Luciano, a Roman Catholic priest. Luciano agreed with me that salvation is ‘by grace alone through faith in Christ alone’; however, the subsequent discussion revealed that although we were using the same language, our meanings were radically different. Grace alone for Don Luciano meant God’s grace administered and transmitted through the sacramental system of the Catholic Church. Similarly, our understanding of ‘Christ alone’ was radically different. Don Luciano had what Pope Benedict XVI calls a ‘Christological view of the Church’, where the Church is interwoven with Christ to the point of making them one.2 Therefore, for Luciano, the sentence meant that salvation is achieved through receiving God’s grace by participating in the sacraments that can only be legitimately administered by the Roman Catholic Church as the representative of Christ here on earth. This is not what I was trying to express. We were using the same words with different meanings.

…it all started with a simple invitation to read Scripture together

This illustrates the importance of paying attention to the language that we use when sharing the gospel with our Catholic friends. Misunderstandings lurk around every corner. If we fail to clearly define our terms, it is likely that our interlocutor will not fully grasp what we are saying. We need to take the time to explain the terminology, perhaps with carefully chosen illustrations, in order to ensure that the good news of the gospel is being heard.

Read Scripture with Catholics

The best way to avoid misunderstandings and to share the gospel with Catholic people is to read Scripture with them. Ever since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there has been an explicit exhortation to read Scripture. The purpose of Vatican II was to review and to bring up to date, the ‘aggiornamento’, its own theology. A significant aggiornamento, a major discontinuity with the past, is the strong invitation to all Catholics to read and know Scripture. The Catechism quotes Jerome, stating ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’3 Although these changes have been slow to trickle down to local parishes and practitioners, they do present an excellent opportunity for witness. As evangelicals we can welcome, endorse and use these strong exhortations by inviting our Catholic friends to read the Bible with us. The Word of God will then do the rest. The Truth will expose the desperate sinful condition of man and present Christ as the only Saviour and Lord.

This has been the experience of Anna, who was a fervent Catholic. She went to mass every week and participated in the many Catholic religious processions. One day she was invited to attend our home group. As Anna read the Gospel of John, she discovered that the Lord was calling her to surrender to Him. Anna testified at her baptism, in front of many Catholic friends, that ‘a true believer must read God’s Word and follow the Lord’s teaching. As I read Scripture, I discovered that the first step in following Jesus is to repent of your sin and trust in Him for your salvation.’ Anna shines brightly in our town (Phil. 2:15) and it all started with a simple invitation to read Scripture together. I do not, however, want to give false expectations. Our experience in Italy has been that it can take years of investing in a relationship before friends will accept this invitation. Nevertheless, when I consider what the Lord has done in and through Anna, I have no doubt that it is worthwhile.

Inevitably, reading Scripture together will expose some of the significant differences between how Catholics and evangelicals approach the Bible: the primacy of Scripture over tradition, the monopoly of the Magisterium of the Church in interpretation and even the very composition of the canon of Scripture itself. The best way to address these differences is precisely in the context of reading Scripture. It is essential to deal with these fundamental differences, as Scripture is the foundation on which all other doctrines rest.

Loving our Catholic Neighbours

What approaches should we take to reach Catholic people for Christ? Or, as I prefer to express it, what does loving my Catholic neighbours involve? It involves a willingness to look beyond the surface to see the deep spiritual need that they are in, loving them enough to take the time to present the good news of the gospel, using clearly defined words that are both faithful to Scripture and comprehensible. It involves doing my utmost to encourage and help them to read the Word of God so that they will embrace Christ as their Saviour and Lord.

1Cited in Leonardo De Chirico, ‘Roman Catholicism and the Evangelical Alternative’, Foundations (Spring 2007), p20
2According to Pope Benedict XVI
3Catechism of the Catholic Church, 133