Presbyterians who are aware of theological issues must look at the Roman church today, not only in the light of the decrees of the Council of Trent and the subsequent strengthening of the power of the papacy over the spiritual life of the church, but also in consideration of what has taken place within that communion over the past four centuries. For although that council brought a hardening of the theological arteries for the purpose of making the Tridentine settlement permanent, complete immunity to the intellectual changes that were taking place in European society, the rising tides of liberalism and secularism that marked the history of the nineteenth century, was not possible. These forces made a deep imprint on the Roman church in both France and Germany. The promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council nearly a hundred years ago was an official acknowledgment that the church needed a papacy girded with sufficient power to prevent a further penetration of liberalism into the church’s life. No sooner was this doctrine made official dogma than the papacy hastened to exercise it for its intended purpose. The bulls and encyclicals of Leo XIII were obviously framed to recall the Roman church to its Thomistic foundations in an effort to rebuild the walls of the ancient theological fortress that had been erected in the latter Middle Ages.

Evangelical Presbyterians can only have a certain sympathy with these efforts to stem the tide of a militant liberalism that was threatening not only the Roman Catholic position but evangelical Protestant Christianity as well. And even though Neo-Thomism was not and is not the answer to the threat to historic orthodoxy posed by humanistic liberalism and socialism, one must admit that it had more biblical substance than the social gospel American theologians offered as their answer to this same threat.

To say this is not to admit that Presbyterians could come to terms with a Rome that looked back to Trent any more easily than they could come to terms with theological liberalism as it developed in this country under Washington Gladden, Walter Rauschenbusch, and their followers. The biblical elements remaining in the Roman Catholic system were and are so concealed under layers of sacramentalism and sacerdotalism that this theology can no more win the favor of evangelical Presbyterians today than it could during the Reformation. Presbyterians must always be aware that officially Rome is committed to that same system of doctrine which the Council of Trent consciously defined in such a way as to bring about the widest gulf between Rome and the Reformers. Any contemporary evaluation of the Roman church must be made in the light of this fact. It must also be observed that Rome has shown no disposition to soften this position in any way, and that in the conversations that the hierarchy has seen fit to have with Protestant leaders there has been no offer to modify the Tridentine position. Rather, the papacy in 1963, on the four-hundredth anniversary of the closing of the Council of Trent, reaffirmed that the council’s decisions were still the doctrinal position of the church.

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The Currents Of Change

But it is also true that far-reaching changes have been taking place within the Roman Catholic Church. It has not remained immune to the intellectual currents that have been sweeping through Western culture during the present century. By recalling the church to its Thomistic heritage during the latter part of the nineteenth century, Leo XIII attempted to erect a barrier against the pervading secularism and socialism. But even as the heroic efforts of Innocent III to keep the New Aristotle, the modernism of that day, out of the curriculum of the University of Paris were unavailing, so too were the efforts of Leo XIII. And as 150 years later Urban VI yielded to the pressures of the day to require the teaching of the New Aristotle, so have the last two popes, John XXIII and Paul VI, surrendered to contemporary pressures. But this recent reversal of papal policy is fraught with an even greater danger to the Roman church than was the action of Urban VI. For if the position assumed by John XXIII in his Mater et Magister should prevail, it is possible that the Roman church would soon cease to be a church and become some kind of international body with humanistic and even communistic leanings. Thus far, this change of direction initiated by John XXIII has not brought any profound modifications in the doctrinal outlook of the church. Nor has it by any means been able to engage the loyalty of the hierarchy as a whole. Indeed, it has met vigorous opposition, and this opposition apparently scored some victories in the second session of Vatican II.

Although this shift of outlook became more apparent in Mater et Magister and Pacem in Terris, the very fact that John XXIII called Vatican II is further evidence of the changes taking place in the church. The invitation to Protestant leaders to take part as observers affords new insight into the situation that has been developing in Roman circles; such an invitation would have been virtually impossible two decades ago. But the conversations between Roman Catholics and Protestants are not limited to councils and papal audiences; there is to an amazing degree a growing dialogue among theologians and ecclesiastical leaders. All these developments testify that a new era has arrived. We who hold the historic Presbyterian position are, to a degree at least, affected by these developments and must take them into account.

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What are these forces that are making themselves felt in Roman ecclesiastical and theological circles? What do they mean to the heirs of the Reformation in general and to Presbyterians in particular? Is this recent change in the attitude of the Roman hierarchy only an accommodation to the demands of the day, or does it spring from a basic change of heart that marks the beginning of a new era in Protestant-Catholic relations? There can be no simple answers to these complex questions, and an essay of this length can only offer an outline for a possible solution.

It has already been suggested that the Roman Catholic Church has not been immune to the contemporary theological and intellectual movements that have profoundly altered historic Protestant thought. The modernism that invaded American Protestantism in the early years of the present century also left its mark on Roman Catholic biblical scholarship. However, the existentialism and neo-orthodoxy of our own day have made a much greater impression on Roman Catholic thinking. And herein lies the issue as it is seen by evangelical Presbyterians.

At first glance, a Roman Catholic accommodation to these two currents would seem to be almost impossible. For if left to themselves, these strains of thought would threaten not only the hierarchy but the very existence of the Roman church and its entire system. The so-called Christian existentialism has gained a hearing from very important thinkers in the church, such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain. I do not mean to imply that these movements have gained the same audience in Roman circles as in Protestant ones. But they have penetrated more deeply than is often suspected, and this penetration has made itself felt in the calling of Vatican II and in the many dialogues being carried on by Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians. Roman Catholic priests have been allowed to take part in Protestant services, an activity previously unheard of. Likewise, the decisions already made by Vatican II indicate that the papacy itself, in the person of John XXIII and to a lesser extent, perhaps, in Paul VI, has been influenced by the ecumenical movement.

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Trent Or Ecumenism?

There is an obvious ambiguity in Paul VI’s position, one that looks back to Trent and at the same time embraces the ecumenical movement. This ambiguity must ultimately be faced by the Roman church, for the Tridentine theology cannot long survive in a church that engages in the ecumenical movement and entrusts its future to an ecumenical theology. The Roman church must realize that in an ecumenical atmosphere St. Thomas cannot long maintain his role as the champion of orthodoxy.

It is this infiltration of ecumenical theology into the Roman Catholic Church that evangelical Presbyterians must view with alarm, because this theology, wherever found, must be regarded as an enemy of the pure Gospel and the Reformed theology. Evangelical Presbyterians are fully aware that it is this same ecumenical theology that enables Rome and liberal Protestantism to find a common ground; they are also aware that it is the liberals within Protestantism who fervently champion the continuing dialogue with Rome and seek an ultimate union with that church.

The current quest for some sort of union with Rome assumes that in this ecumenical encounter a new theological synthesis can be achieved that will offend neither party. The rapprochement is to be achieved on the basis of an agreement between an ecumenical Protestant theology and an ecumenical Roman theology.

Just how much influence existential neo-orthodoxy will gain in Roman circles remains to be seen. Perhaps a determined papacy under Paul VI or his successors will be able to restrain its influence, but this seems highly doubtful in view of the progress it has already made. The penetration that has already taken place poses a serious threat to evangelical Christianity. It is not too much to say that an ecumenically minded Roman Catholic hierarchy, acting in concert with a liberal ecumenical Protestantism, could well be the greatest threat historic Presbyterianism has faced since the Reformation. The ecumenical movement has on more than one occasion shown itself to be quite ecumenical in its attitude toward Marxian Communism and Soviet Russia. This tendency was also rather evident in Mater et Magister, in which John XXIII made great concessions to the Communist position even while he looked back to St. Thomas Aquinas. For this reason Presbyterians today can find no more room for agreement with Rome than their forebears could 400 years ago. They would prefer a Rome true to Trent over a Rome paying honor to Trent in one breath and promoting an ecumenical theology in the next. They would prefer a Pius XII to a John XXIII or a Paul VI, even if they agree with none of them.

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