One of the most conspicuous facts of modern history is the sharp rise of Roman Catholicism. “The last of the popes is dead”—this news spread through Europe when in 1799 Pius VI died at Valence as the prisoner of the French, far from Rome, which had been transformed into a republic. The idea that the aged pope could have a successor was inconceivable to the Europe of the Enlightenment. Even to the traditionally Catholic nations this office had lost all meaning because it was “contrary to freedom and philosophy.” Even some twenty years later, when the revival of Roman Catholicism was well advanced, the Prussian minister for ecclesiastical affairs advised his government that according to most reliable information just received, the end of the Roman church was imminent. Yet this church developed into one of the major powers—spiritual and political—of the nineteenth century, an enigma to all Protestants and a scandal to the prevailing liberalism and nationalism of the age.

The church did nothing to make itself welcome to modern mankind. On the contrary, the encyclical Quanta cura of 1864 with its Syllabus of errors passed a wholesale condemnation, not only on such dangerous things as “socialism, communism, Secret Societies and Bible Societies,” but even on the very foundations of the modern state (for example, the principle of tolerance) which today are taken for granted by practically all Catholics. The borderline was plainly drawn by the definition of papal infallibility that came out of the Vatican Council of 1870. It is hard to understand why just this doctrine has been and is still so offensive to modern man. Theologically, it makes no essential difference whether the infallibility of the church is vested in the pope or in the “ecumenical council,” in one man or in a few hundred. The real opposition to the dogma of 1870 begins at the point of the infallibility of the Word of God to which church, council, and pope have to submit. But the modern man who protested so passionately against papal infallibility did not accept the infallibility of Holy Scripture either, not even if he happened to be a Protestant professor of theology. He wanted to be his own pope. And when the burden of his own infallibility became too heavy for him, then this enlightened modern man readily transferred it to some philosophical or political messiah who relieved him of the privilege to think for himself. Hardly anything has more effectively helped the Roman church to overcome the damage she had to suffer from the blunders of the Syllabus and from the overstatements of the First Vatican Council than the uninformed, sentimental fight against the specter of “infallibility” that was haunting Europe.

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The first attempts at a reconciliation between Rome and the modern world were made by Leo XIII (1878–1903). They were frustrated by the modernistic controversy that began under Leo and lasted throughout the pontificate of Pius X, who died after the outbreak of the First World War. The present situation within the Roman Catholic Church cannot be understood by anyone who does not know the ordeal through which the whole church, pope and curia, bishops and professors, clergy and laity, had to go when modernism became the great heresy and when the mere suspicion that a man was guilty of or associated with this heresy was sufficient to end an ecclesiastical career, to silence a great scholar forever, to break the heart of a faithful son of the church. What the modernists wanted was to lead their church out of the ghetto, to make it again what it had been for centuries: the leading force in all spheres of the spiritual and intellectual life of the Western nations. They wanted to take over from the secular sciences and from Protestant theology the tools needed if Catholic research in philosophy and theology were to succeed. They did not want to take over errors and heresies.

But it was inevitable that differences of opinion arose concerning what can and cannot be adapted to Catholic thought. The tragedy of Loisy was that he took over from Harnack and other Protestant scholars not only their method of historical research but also their liberal thoughts. Language, on the other hand, remained strictly within the limits of Catholic dogma. Suspect in France, he transferred to Jerusalem and became the soul of the Dominican school of biblical studies. Today he is regarded as the greatest of the Catholic exegetes of his era, the man who paved the way for the historical study of the Bible in Roman Catholicism.

We limit ourselves here to these examples, leaving out what went on in dogmatics and philosophy. The full story of this tragic episode in the history of modern Catholicism has not yet been written. But this time of disappointments, broken lives, and quiet suffering for the church was to be a seed-time. The present renewal of the Roman church which began in Central and Western Europe is the harvest prepared in those years of bitter controversy and in the decades of hard work that followed.

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Rome’s Two Weapons

Rome has two secret weapons: patience and hard work. It is the patience of a church which knows that she will still be here in a hundred years’ time and even until the end of the world, and that what cannot be done by one generation may be done by the next. She knows that the dimension of the church reaches into another world where her own jurisdiction ceases and where God will rectify the wrongs done by the earthly hierarchy. What hard work means can be seen in the way in which Catholic condemnation of the modernist errors was followed by decades of positive, constructive work in Rome and throughout the world. Difficult problems cannot be solved at short conferences and by commissions consisting of well-meaning churchmen without specific qualifications. There must be experts, and if experts are not available they must be trained in many years of study and work. In this way Rome has been working in biblical studies, and in 1943 the encyclical Divino affiante Spiritu opened the gates to a truly scientific exegesis. Thus Roman Catholic theology was able to assimilate the results of generations of historical research without violating its dogmatic heritage.

We cannot speak here of the various aspects of the aggiornamento, the bringing up to date, as this great endeavor to renew the church was called by John XXIII. The process is by no means finished, and no man can predict its final results. What impresses Christians of other denominations is two great changes. The first is the sweeping reform of the liturgy, which would have been unthinkable thirty years ago when the question of the vernacular in the liturgy could be discussed only in private circles. The second is the new attitude towards non-Catholics, who are now elevated to the rank of “separated brethren,” a term St. Augustine had used of the Donatists, that is, schismatics. To apply it to those who according to the letter of the law are heretics would have been quite impossible under former popes. The polemics of four centuries were suddenly stopped and replaced by the “dialogue.”

To understand this dialogue one must know what it is not. It is not a missionary enterprise, a way of speaking to the non-Catholic with the intention of converting him to Rome, although every Catholic must desire that the “separated brethren” return to the mother church they have left. It has repeatedly been emphasized by leaders of Vatican Council II that the dialogue must be carried on without this intention, because to do otherwise would prevent the non-Catholic from listening and thus destroy the dialogue. Nor can the dialogue be what it is among many Protestants, a common search for a truth that is not yet known but that may be found in the future. The dialogue in the sense of present Roman thinking is rather a talk of Christian with Christian, of brother with brother, for the purpose of knowing each other. The Roman Catholic wants to know what the Baptist, the Methodist, the Lutheran is. And the Protestant should know what the Catholic is. A break through the walls of prejudice built up in centuries of polemics is envisaged. Mutual Christian love should make such a breakthrough possible.

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What this may mean for the future of Christendom is another question. The dialogue is not meant to create the future relation between Christians but rather to make it possible. Every partaker in the dialogue may have his own idea of the future. What relation between Christians and churches is possible and desirable, what the will of Christ is concerning this relation, will certainly be understood differently by participants in the dialogue. The Catholic will understand the Una Sancta as the great visible church under the pope. The Lutheran will understand it as the congregation of all believers that is hidden in, with, and under the earthly churches, wherever the Gospel of Christ is preached and his sacraments faithfully administered. Doctrinal differences of this sort will manifest themselves in the dialogue. It may become evident that some differences are based on misunderstandings only, while others are exclusive, irreconcilable interpretations of the Gospel. Thus the dialogue will always deal with interpretations of the Gospel. Thus the dialogue will always deal with the dogma of the churches. But it will not and cannot become a means of or a substitute for negotiations toward union.

The Disappearing Churches

The offer of this dialogue is the great challenge to the non-Roman churches. We cannot and must not refuse it. It is at the same time a challenge to our ecumenical organizations. Complaints have been made that Rome, while recognizing baptized non-Catholics as separated brethren, does not recognize our churches as separated sisters. In reply to this, Roman theologians have asked: Which churches should we recognize? Where are they? Your historic Protestant churches are going out of existence, one after another. The Methodist Church no longer exists in Canada, South India, and on many former mission fields, and it is disappearing in Australia and New Zealand. The Congregationalists are being swallowed up by the great union churches of our age. The same seems to be true of the Presbyterians. Only small bodies will continue as Presbyterian and Reformed churches. The Anglican communion will allow whole church provinces and dioceses to join other churches, as has been done in South India. The same development has been going on in the Lutheran churches for more than a century. No one knows where the Lutheran church is now to be found in the land of the Reformation. The strongest resistance to this movement seems to be among Baptists.

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This is what Rome clearly sees. Protestantism is going through a process of disintegration. The modern ecumenical movement as represented by the World Council of Churches is accelerating this process in which the multitude of the older confessional churches is being replaced by a chaos of “united churches.” Each of them has a different doctrinal basis, determined according to local needs at the time of its establishment; it is a formula of compromise rather than a confession of faith. Some of them follow the pattern of the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, an artificial, lifeless formula, theologically untenable because it ignores completely the questions raised by the Reformation and the Council of Trent. Others are based on the tradition of the Reformed confessions, whose content is watered down so that no modern man can be offended by them. The churches no longer confess the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Instead they confess the faith “witnessed to and safeguarded by” the creeds, leaving it to the individual to understand that faith as he likes and expressly granting him a “reasonable freedom of interpretation” (Church of South India).

This development was possible because the great churches of the Reformation have lost their confessions and with them the ability to think dogmatically. What is the faith of the Anglican churches? Nobody knows. What is the faith of the Presbyterian churches? Even the Lutherans are no longer able to confess magno consensu “the article with which the church stands and falls.” This became obvious at the Helsinki Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation and is now confirmed by the final text of the statement on justification.

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In this situation we hear the call to dialogue with Rome. We are fully aware that this call comes from a church just as sinful as ours, just as poor and weak against the Satanic powers that the church on earth has to fight and that human power cannot overcome—a church perplexed, as we are, by the situation of the world at the end of this second Christian millennium, embarrassed by its inability to solve the problem of the divided Catholicism in East and West. But behind this call we hear the voice of Him who calls all churches to repentance and to the fearless confession of the unchangeable faith once delivered to the saints.

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