Contemporary Catholics have succeeded in hatching the egg that the Second Vatican Council laid. Five years ago the council committed the church to a theological reformatio. It was hoped that a new structure would arise within which Catholics would find a fresh awareness of the Christian reality. Since then, theological reconstruction has been undertaken with enthusiasm. Many of the old ideas have been discarded, and new ideas have been assimilated into the growing body of the New Catholicism. In the process, the stereotype of Catholic theology held by many evangelicals has been rendered obsolete and irrelevant. A reassessment of the relation between evangelical Protestantism and the New Catholicism is urgently needed.

The rapidity with which the new Catholic theology has evolved can be easily gauged at two particular points.

First, the New Catholicism is attempting to defy its traditional past by uniting a Catholic particularism to a universal religious vision, and the means it has chosen for doing this is religious experience.

In traditional Catholic thought, the church was said to contain and circumscribe God’s Truth. To be separated from the church meant being separated from the Truth; to be joined to the church resulted in being joined to Christ. Christ’s presence was to be found within the confines of the church and not outside it. This conception has now been consigned to the graveyard of heresy.

In place of the rejected conception, the New Catholicism has suggested an interpretation of human religion that in effect takes the form of concentric circles. At the hub of human life, around which the circles are arranged, is Christ. The first circle to be drawn around Christ, in which his existence is most intensely exemplified, is the Catholic Church. In this new conception, though, the Catholic Church does not wholly enclose the Christian reality. Circles further from the center are also pervaded by Christ’s presence, though the intensity of this presence shades off in direct proportion to the distance from the center. These other circles include firstly non-Catholic Christians, then non-Catholic religions, and finally those who have no explicit knowledge of God’s existence. However, even atheists, whom the church has traditionally regarded as being positively moronic if not desperately wicked, can find the same salvation that Catholics enjoy. Moreover, they do not need to rescind their atheism in favor of an explicit theism for this to take place; had this been the council’s teaching, “these texts on atheism would simply state the truism that an atheist can be saved when and in so far as he ceases to be an atheist” (Karl Rahner, “The Teaching of the Second Vatican Council on Atheism,” Concilium, [March, 1967], p. 7). The clear implication of this view is that there is a divine substratum beneath human life to which all religions, in varying degrees, are pointers. In all men, then, “Christ is (anonymously) at work, and … in them the church, extra quam nulla salus, is transcending her own visible limits” (Christopher Butler, The Theology of Vatican II, 1967, p. 126).

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It is interesting to observe that precisely this type of theology was proposed by the Catholic modernists at the turn of this century and was rudely rejected by the hierarchy. The leaders of the movement were excommunicated for their troubles. George Tyrrell, for example, in a paper entitled “Beati Excommunicate” (Petre Papers, British Museum, MSS 52369), put forward a proposal that anticipated the theology of the Second Vatican Council by half a century:

In these days the thoughtful Catholic no longer regards his church as a sharp-edged sphere of light walled around with abrupt and impenetrable darkness, but rather as a centre and focus from which the light of religion, spread over all ages and nations, shades away indefinitely and is mingled in varying degrees with that darkness that can never wholly conquer it. He cannot stand so far from the focus as not to share some measure of its influence, however qualified. In a word, he cannot suffer complete, inward, spiritual excommunication [from Christ].

The consequences of the new mentality are twofold. First, the old idea that the church machinery is necessary for salvation has been discarded. Since sincere religious experience is Christic in its orientation and, in itself, ecclesial in its tendency, the former importance of outward relation to the church has been replaced by the current concern with subjective good intention.

Secondly, the traditional power and authority of the Pope appear more and more dubious. As the emphasis has shifted away from the visible church structure to the content of internal religious experience, the People have supplanted the Pope in importance and are assuming many of his prerogatives.

The current tensions between the Pope and his People have their formal origin in the documents issued by Vatican II. In regard to the formation of Catholic doctrine, for example, the council put forth, alongside the traditional concept of papal infallibility, a parallel and independent infallibility said to be in the possession of the whole People (Con. LG, 25, 49). The second infallibility, if it does not work in tandem with the first, at least successfully neutralizes it. Consequently, the Pope has become unable to enforce any teaching in the church that the People are unwilling to accept. The debacle over birth control and the recent confrontation between the bishops and Pope Paul in Rome witness to this disastrous tension within the church.

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This dramatic and unexpected reformation of Catholic ecclesiology has cut right across the lines of the traditional polemic against Rome. Evangelicals have always insisted that the visible church structure is not the divinely interposed means of salvation. The only intermediary between God and man is Christ Jesus, and the church should not allow itself to usurp his role. Luther made this point in his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and, ironically enough, progressive Catholics are now only too anxious to concede this. What traditional Catholicism once denied, the New Catholicism is now endorsing.

The inversion of values and transformation of position also pertains to the incipient universalism manifest in New Catholic thought. The former insistence that salvation could be found only in Rome, always repugnant to evangelical Protestantism, now appears to be repugnant to the New Catholicism. On the other hand, the tenets of universalism implicit in the stance of the New Catholicism are profoundly antithetical to biblical theology. Traditional Catholics and evangelical Protestants are equally disturbed by the drift of the new teaching, though for very different reasons. Whatever gains there have been in terms of recovering the apostolic theology appear to have been matched by important losses. While it is charitable to applaud the former, it is wise to point up the latter.

The second major area where the thrust of the New Catholicism is transcending the categories of the evangelical polemic is revelation. The new concern with internal experience at the expense of the external structure, with the experiential at the cost of the historical, has been duplicated at this point.

Progressive theologians are intent on discrediting and lampooning the Scholastic doctrine of revelation, which, it should be noted, has been endorsed by two ecumenical councils and innumerable papal utterances. According to the debunkers of traditional theology, God has usually been depicted as an erudite Greek philosopher whose purpose, in giving man revelation, was to enlighten his mind with a string of choice but abstract propositions. But can God’s truth be contained in verbal propositions? Following some of the hints dropped in the conciliar documents, a majority of Catholic theologians now think not. The traditional notion is therefore being counterbalanced and neutralized by the more radical conception of revelation as experience.

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According to the former notion, revelation in its external form has been given and is complete. According to the latter idea, revelation for each man is neither a fixed nor a completed reality (cf. Con. DV, 2, 8). God’s revelation is inextricably intertwined with his saving life, and until one has God’s life one cannot know his revelation. The divine disclosure is not “given” until it is received in the counter-awareness of man’s response. The disclosure is made, not in Scripture or tradition, but in man’s experience of God. Consequently, Scripture and tradition are really outward codifications, the explanations after the fact. Since the primary datum of revelation is experience, and Scripture and tradition are the derivative descriptions of the phenomena, they suffer from all relativity and deficiency to which human thought is prone.

This drift in Catholic thought explains the alacrity with which biblical scholars are abandoning biblical inerrancy. Hans Küng, for example, in his book The Church, has followed Käsemann in seeing in the New Testament a multitude of conflicting traditions that make a mockery of its supposed unity. Karl Rahner, in his Questiones Disputates: Inspiration in the Bible, has sought to show how unnecessary it is to define biblical infallibility in terms of the verbal form. The reference point of infallibility is not the text but rather the moment of personal encounter between God and man. In other words, the Bible is not infallible, but religious experience is. John McKenzie’s Myths and Realities is simply one of many examples in which the destructive consequences of this view have been worked out.

It is important to observe that this view of revelation is different from what was formerly held. Whereas the Bible used to be more shackled to and obscured by tradition, now it is shackled to and obscured by religious experience. The internum verbum provides the content of revelation rather than the externum verbum. Scripture is only free to speak in so far as its message coincides with that brought by the inner light. The inner light rather than Scripture is ultimately authoritative.

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The New Catholicism, therefore, has opened up a chasm between itself and evangelicalism as wide as that which formerly yawned between Rome and Protestantism. Authority, evangelicals and Catholics used to agree, must be couched in absolute terms. Evangelicals still believe this; New Catholics do not. Evangelicals and Catholics used to believe that religious experience takes place within a rational structure. Evangelicals still believe this; New Catholics do not. In the New Catholicism, the Bible and the Pope have both been subjugated to the vagaries of a blurred and shifting experience. The former landmarks in Catholic thought, which were at least certain, external, and objective, have been replaced by flimsy signposts that are at best uncertain, usually errant, and always internal and subjective.

The thrust, then, of the New Catholicism is in three main directions. First, religious experience is dissolving the church structure. Secondly, religious experience is undermining the authenticity of the biblical records. Thirdly, religious experience is providing the means whereby the human race is (unknowingly) being incorporated into the church of Rome. This thrust represents a dramatic triumph of the subjective over the objective, of the inward over the outward, of the experiential over the historical. The inversion of values implicit in these changes has rendered the old evangelical polemic anachronistic; continued reassertion of that polemic shows ignorance of the current situation.

Evangelicals must develop a new relationship to Catholicism, one that will take account of these changes. These changes in the Catholic Church have been accomplished so rapidly that they may well be harbingers of an imminent destruction. The five years through which the church has just lived may one day appear as the Indian summer that preceded a winter of wreckage. When the storms finally break and the old moorings snap, evangelicals will want to show Christ’s compassion to those who have been abandoned and battered. To do this they must have a new apologetic.

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