Roman Catholicism

Roman Catholicism Continuity and Change


A human being and an institution have been proclaimed by the Roman Catholic Church as the embodiment of divine truth.

Hans Heinz

In terms of numbers, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian church in today’s world. For a long time, it had a say in the political history of Europe, and even today, it is still an extraordinarily significant factor in many cultures. In this current age, characterized by ecumenism, it endeavors to be the voice for all Christians—even for all religions. In the contest with the modern spirit of the age, it sides with the traditional values of Jewish-Christian ethics.

The center of the Roman Catholic world church, the Papal State, though geographically only a tiny entity today, is still considered to be a world power as measured by its influence. Ostensibly small, the Vatican constitutes a significant “empire of this world.”


Biblical or Historical Heritage?

Although the Catholic Church can look back on a long and varied history, it is not quite as old as Christianity, having only developed into a papal church in late antiquity. In many ways, it no longer resembles the ancient Catholic Church of the second to fourth century and resembles even less the early Christian communities in the apostolic time. According to the judgment of one of its prominent pre-conciliar theologians, Roman Catholicism represents an attempt to adopt elements from many religions and cultures and to Christianize them. In this sense, “Catholicism is not simply identical with early Christianity,”1 but it is open for a synthesis of elements from Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism. For this reason, the religious-studies scholar Friedrich Heiler, who converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism, describes the nature of Catholicism as “complexion oppositorum,”2 a union of extremes, in which basic biblical elements seem to be joined with ecclesiastical traditions (hierarchical structures, sacramental thinking, Mariology) developed later.

Today’s Roman Catholicism is also different from the late medieval church, whose life and teaching Martin Luther wanted to reform. Through the rejection of the Reformation at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, and the introduction of doctrines such as Mary’s immaculate conception (1854) and bodily assumption into heaven (1950), and the doctrine of the infallibility of the pope in the proclamation of a dogma when he speaks ex cathedra (1870), the Roman Catholic Church has developed into a church unlike that known by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.

Christian belief founded exclusively on the Bible will always compare historical developments with the biblical norm and evaluate everything by that norm, in accordance with the principle ecclesia semper reformanda (“the church needs continual reform”). The Roman Catholic faith, however, simply equates all historical doctrinal developments with the will of God. The Catholic Church teaches that however the teaching and the cult of the church developed, God desired it to be so.


The Post-Tridentine Church (16th to 20th Century)

Following its rejection of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church undertook various internal church reforms, such as the prohibition of preachers of indulgences, the reform of mendicant orders, and the residency obligation of bishops. With its militant character, as seen in the establishment of the Jesuit order and the renewal of the Inquisition, it succeeded in halting the expansion of the Reformation in Europe. The Catholic world rallied around the renewed papacy and submitted itself to the rigid control of Rome, which was newly evident in the standardization of doctrine (Catechismus Romanus), the introduction of the index of forbidden books, and the refusal of the imperial wishes of the lay chalice and clerical marriage.

Those measures lent the post-Tridentine church that often quoted “monolithic character” with which it could prevail against the pluralistic nature of Protestantism and the free spirit of the Enlightenment. Only with the church’s modernization, and with the opening to the world at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), did this period come to an end.

Though reinvigorated at the Council of Trent (1545–1563), Catholicism has paid a high price for its continued self-assertion and doctrinal coherence. It is post-Tridentine Catholicism that Ellen G. White had in mind and which she placed in the center of her critique in the writing of The Great Controversy in the 19th century.

In its defense against Protestantism, post-Tridentine Catholicism was not able to escape its medieval character of intolerance. The Counter-Reformation tried to enforce its views by means of war, such as the French Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years’ War, as well as through expulsions, including the forced emigration of the Waldenses to Switzerland in the 17th century and the displacement of the Evangelicals of Salzburg in the 18th century and the Evangelicals of the Zillertal in the 19th century. The post-Tridentine church acted totally in accordance with the views of Thomas Aquinas, the great scholastic of the 13th century, who believed firmly that “heretics could not only be excommunicated but could also justly be killed.”3

Admittedly, voices raised in defense of freedom of conscience and religion during that time were also rare in Protestantism, but they did include those of Roger Williams in North America in the 17th century and John Locke in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Such defenses of religious freedoms were, however, rejected with great indignation by the Roman Church. Even into the 19th century, Pope Gregory XVI referred to freedom of conscience as “madness” and “pestilential fallacy.” The “freedom to err” was aggressively and severely condemned as “perdition of state and church.”4 The pope appealed to the church father Augustine to show that such a condemnatory attitude was in harmony with good Catholic tradition.

Intellectual ideas of the modern era, including the notions of democracy, popular government, and socialism, were rebuffed with similar asperity as a “pestilential sickness” and a “deadly scourge of the human society” by Pope Leo XIII.5 The modern demand for separation of church and state was unequivocally condemned by such popes as Pius IX and Pius X. The latter viewed this claim as a “highly corruptible principle.”6 Some liberal ideas, including the historical-critical approach toward the Bible and the views of modern scientific scholarship, had entered Catholic thinking at the turn of the 20th century through the influence of neo-Protestant theologians. However, they came under scrutiny in the so-called “Modernist Dispute” and were decisively rejected. In 1910, Pius X required every Roman Catholic clergyman to take the so-called “Oath Against Modernism,” which was in force until 1967, two years after the Second Vatican Council.

In such a spiritual climate, any form of ecumenical dialogue was obviously impossible. The Counter-Reformation’s ban against the followers of Huss, Wycliffe, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Anabaptists, who were lumped together in the same category as pirates and robbers, was upheld and did not change until the 20th century. As late as 1910, Pius X denounced Protestantism as the “first step to Atheism and to the destruction of religion.” The Reformers were castigated as “arrogant and rebellious people,” and were even called “enemies of the cross of Christ,” “whose God is their belly.”7

The ecumenical movement, which began within Protestantism at the beginning of the 20th century, invited the participation of the Catholic Church, but Rome’s reply was an exhortation to “return into the bosom of the Roman Church” (Pope Benedict XV),8 and an assertion that the “unification of Christianity cannot be fostered in any other way than by encouraging the return of dissenting believers to the one true church of Christ, from which formerly they have unfortunately apostatized.”Rome’s basic condition remained the acknowledgment of the Marian dogmas and the acceptance of papal infallibility. Hence, both Pius XI and Pius XII explicitly prohibited Catholics from taking part in extra-Catholic ecumenical conferences.

At the same time that Rome steadfastly refused all ecumenical overtures, it strove to surround itself with an increasing aura of infallibility. Though the papacy could no longer rule the political world as in medieval times, at least the religious world was supposed to submit to its infallibility. Views such as the Immaculate Conception (sinlessness) of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven had been disputed for centuries, but in the 19th and 20th centuries they were autocratically elevated to the status of dogmas apart from any decision of a council. Although no biblical evidences or clear testimony from tradition could be invoked in support of either doctrine, Rome’s decision to promulgate these dogmas anyway were consistent with its claim to personify in itself both the Word of God and tradition.

Then, in 1870, a high point of this arrogance was reached in the proclamation of the dogma of the pope’s infallibility in questions of faith and morals. According to Vatican I, the pope has primacy of jurisdiction over both the entire church and the world. That this could refer just to an honorary primacy is explicitly repudiated. As the “representative of Christ,” the pope not only claims to be the bishop of Rome but also claims to be lifted above all others as the “head of the church” and the “father and teacher of all Christians.”10 Thus, he is also above the councils, whose decisions are valid only through his approbation. This dogma is considered to be a “teaching of the Catholic truth,” and its acceptance is necessary for salvation, for “no one can deviate from it without harm to his faith and salvation.”11 If anyone does so, that person is to be condemned with an “anathema.”12

The notion of papal infallibility, which until 1870 had been dismissed by the Catholic Church as a despicable Protestant insinuation, and which had been hotly debated in Catholic theology itself for centuries, now had to be accepted as definitive truth, as if it had been proclaimed by Christ and the apostles themselves. The new dogmas concerning Mary and papal infallibility were now regarded as having been “transmitted unscathed” from Scripture and tradition as well as “inviolably preserved”13 and hence also “unchangeable”14—and all this despite the fact that they developed almost two thousand years after the biblical period.

From then on, to be Catholic meant more than ever not only to accept one or the other point of belief as ecclesiastically justified, but above all to be subject to the magisterium, whether or not it was speaking ex cathedra.

With Pius XII (1939–1958), this period of the post-Tridentine church came to an end, but not so its way of thinking, as even Vatican II and the time afterward have proved. The reign of this pope can be described as the climax of Roman centralism, a centralism that still is alive and continues to be active. Currently Pius XII appears to be the last pope who attempted to rigidly instruct the world, to have authority over it, and to set close boundaries to the sprouting ecumenical movement as well as to the modernizing of Catholic theology.


The “New Pentecost”—Second Vatican Council

The effort toward the opening of the Catholic Church to the modern world and to the rest of Christianity came as a surprise in the middle of the 20th century. It happened with John XXIII, the “pope of mercy” and successor of Pius XII. Although he reigned only little more than four years (1958–1963) and was rated by many as merely a transitional pope, his pontificate was one of the most important ones in modern times.

In his personal attitudes, this pope still was very conservative. He elevated the counter-reformer Lawrence of Brindisi to be a Doctor of the Church, warned against the writings of the Jesuit evolutionist Teilhard de Chardin, and refused to dispense with the requirement of celibacy. His leadership, however, was nevertheless geared toward renewal, toward bringing the church up to date. The world and other Christians, the “separated brethren,” should no longer be approached in a spirit of rejection but be won in a spirit of love.

In this sense, the Second Vatican Council he summoned in 1959 (which lasted from 1962 to 1965 and was welcomed by many as a “new Pentecost”) was first regarded as a union council, an assembly focused on “the search for unity.”15 A “mirabile spectaculum,” a magnificent spectacle of “truth, unity, and love,” should attract the “separated brethren” to return to the “one fold.”16

John XXIII’s intention in the council was not to speak ex cathedra or to develop new doctrines and condemnations, but rather to explain Roman Catholic teaching in a contemporary manner. Soon, however, it became apparent that the goal of a union council was set too high; and hence, Vatican II was transformed into a reform and pastoral council, a “council of the church about the church.”17 It came to include doctrinal decisions on liturgy such as the introduction of the comprehensive use of vernacular languages in church services and the celebration of the mass with church members, and it also included decisions on the Bible movement and ecumenism, all of which were seen as “signs of the times.”18 These decisions revealed a somewhat different face of the church from that which had been known hitherto. In its support of reading the Bible and in speaking vernacular languages during the liturgy, Catholicism became more “Evangelical/Protestant.” At the same time, however, the council magnified the church by declaring that the church is necessary for salvation and by comparing the church with Christ. Thus, it also became more “Roman” in this respect.

The majority of the council fathers recognized the necessity of a church that was more down-to-earth, more tolerant, and more open to dialogue. Centuries after religious liberty had been granted in the American colonies of Rhode Island (1636) and Maryland (1649), and after the battle of the European Enlightenment (17th to 18th century) against religious intolerance, even the Roman Catholic Church made a decision in favor of the principle of religious liberty, which it had opposed for such a long time.

In the declaration Dignitatis Humanae (“Religious Liberty”) the council conceded the right of religious liberty to the human individual. Admittedly, the “only true religion is fulfilled in the catholic, apostolic Church,”19 but human beings have the duty to search individually and to decide according to their conscience. In this process, no force should be exercised. The state has the responsibility to protect this human right and to promote it. All religious denominations need to benefit from it. Furthermore, religious liberty is not only a basic human right but also belongs to the content of the revealed faith.

The council thereby incorporated a concern of John XXIII who had already declared religious liberty to be a human right in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. His successors—especially John Paul II (1978–2005), coming from the former Communist realm—missed no opportunity to present themselves as the defenders of freedom of conscience and religion. Since the Catholic Church had suffered from Marxist intolerance in many countries of the former Eastern bloc, the pope did not shy away from calling on this right in the battle of worldviews as a rejection of modern dictatorial regimes.

In the 19th century, Gregory XVI still had viewed religious tolerance as “madness” and “perdition.”20 After all, only the truth had privileges, while error did not. This led the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner to the conclusion that he was the personification of “Catholic intolerance.”21 But now religious freedom was defined by the council as an “inviolable right.”22

In a similar manner, pre-conciliar Catholicism dealt with the issue of the separation of church and state. The post-Tridentine church had persistently refused to accommodate the ideas of the modern Western world. Until the 20th century, the popes rejected the separation of church and state because the Vatican firmly insisted that the “state needs to care about religion,”23 which simply meant that the state should give a privileged position to the Roman Church and should actively favor and support it.

The council broke with this point of view. Now, the state should no longer support only one single religion, but should defend the common “liberty of all citizens and religious denominations.”24 State and church “are, each in their area, independent from each other and autonomous.”25 Although the papal state itself was still governed in an authoritarian manner, the council campaigned against despotism and totalitarianism.

Totally new tones were adopted by the fathers of the council in respect to the recommended form of government. In the past the Roman Catholic Church had not committed itself to any specific political structure, but it usually followed the “normal theologian” Thomas Aquinas (13th century), who advocated the monarchy as a constitution that had been given by God and was derived from natural law. In like manner, Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century had rejected the idea of popular government, which had allegedly arisen from the unrest of the reformation. By contrast, the church now praised those political circumstances “in which as many citizens as possible participate in true liberty in the common weal.”26 In order to reach this goal, the citizens should “exercise the right and the duty of free choice.”27 With this attitude, the church was obviously following the trend of the time, which, with the victory of democracies over 20th-century dictatorships, had moved clearly in the direction of the once fiercely rejected popular government.

Similar tendencies were manifested also in the realm of social policies. Here Leo XIII (1878–1903), the “worker’s pope,” had, of course, already favored a new path with his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) long before Vatican II. At that point, when the social question had long been neglected, Rome began to advocate a Christian social policy (Sunday rest, reduced work days, minimum wage standards) that contrasted with Marxist Socialism. Other popes such as Pius XI (1931, Quadragesimo Anno), John XXIII (1961, Mater et Magistra), and Paul VI (1967, Populorum Progression) have followed his lead. John XXIII, of course, uttered totally new ideas that followed the trends of the time, such as partial nationalization of the means of production, unionized co-determination, and the furnishing of developmental aid to the third world.

The council also brought into focus other so-called social ideas of the time, such as a new socio-political order, a just distribution of goods, and the equality of women and men. In response to the world’s lamentable social inequalities, the council recommended the “principles of righteousness,” which, according to the council fathers, had been advocated by the church for centuries. A “cooperation in the social field” was presented as the proper mission of all humans, but especially of all Christians. Here, the council felt that room was given for the possibility of an ecumenical fellowship that might inspire an awakening to the “unity of all Christians.”28

With the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, where most of the ideas just mentioned are found, the council hoped to have arrived in the modern age. Gaudium et Spes was therefore deemed the “climax of the council” by evangelical observers, while Catholic traditionalists viewed it as appalling.

Rome began to understand that its century-long infantilizing of humanity was no longer possible. The impossibility was especially obvious with respect to printed media, where the output had reached such a density that a thorough control had become impossible.

Since late antiquity (sixth century, Decretum Gelasianum), works that were critical of or hostile to the church had been prohibited. These prohibitions had reached their peak with the Tridentine Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“Index of Prohibited Books”) in 1563. The last edition from 1948 (supplemented until 1962) contained, for example, prohibitions of Protestant Bibles as well as condemnations of prominent works of philosophy (Spinoza, Descartes, Kant) and history (von Ranke). However, the index was now abrogated, and in the new 1983 Codex of Canon Law, it was no longer mentioned.

With Gaudium et Spes, the council opened itself to the world, changing both societal circumstances and scientific progress. That corresponded seemingly well with John XXIII’s desire that the church be brought up to date, and since then it has found fervent proponents among reform-minded people, though also fierce opponents among the traditionalists.

The new spirit also manifested itself in the area of interdenominational relationships (ecumenism). The fathers of the Council of Trent had viewed the Reformers of the 16th century as pernicious “heretics,” who “boasted about the forgiveness of sins.”29 Even modern popes like Pius X had called the Protestant Reformers “pace-makers of atheism.”30 But now Vatican II praised the “separated brethren”31 as having been incorporated in Christ, justified through baptism, and led by the Holy Spirit to unity. They are now “rightly” recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as “brethren in the Lord,” and they “stand in communion with the Catholic Church, albeit not in perfect communion.”32 The ecumenical movement—a feature of modern church history—is also acknowledged as a “sign of the times.”33 Catholics were encouraged to recognize this sign and to engage ecumenism zealously. Even before the council began, the “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity” was established in 1960, and non-Catholic observers were invited to the council.

While pre-conciliar Catholic studies on Luther stigmatized the Reformer as a “philosopher of the flesh”34 and as an “abnormal character,”35 modern scholarship prior to and following the council opened the way for a positive evaluation of Luther. Now the Reformer was seen as “a religious person”36—even as “a prophetic person”37—and his teaching of justification by faith alone was recognized as constituting a “return to the gospel.”38 Hence it was argued that he should receive “citizenship” in the Catholic Church.39

True, the Second Vatican Council itself did not comment on the characters of the Reformation, but a new attitude toward the Reformation was evident among representatives of the Vatican in 1970, when Cardinal Willebrands, former chairman of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, called Luther a “deeply religious personality” who could be spoken of as a “mutual teacher” on the question of justification.40 In 1996, during his visit to Germany, John Paul II acknowledged Luther’s desire for the “spiritual renewal of the Church.”41

This break with old arguments opened the way to a new relationship with the Orthodox churches and Protestantism. Two post-conciliar events especially had far-reaching consequences: (1) the reversal of the reciprocal excommunication that had taken place in 1054 between Rome and Constantinople by Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras at the end of the council (1965), and (2) the 1999 “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the “Lutheran World Federation” and the “Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity,” in which both parties claimed a “consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification.”

With the desire for ecumenism and the resulting new interdenominational climate, the new orientation of the church appears to be irreversible, since ecumenism is considered by many people on various fronts as an essential task of the churches for the present time and for the future.


The New Restoration

When Vatican II came to an end, it was viewed as the Catholic moment of the 20th century. But people soon realized the ambiguity of the event, given that the council had both “evangelical” and “Roman” traits.

On one hand, Catholic reform-oriented voices welcomed the council as a “new Pentecost.” They were joined by some Protestants, such as the catholicizing Protestant Roger Schütz from Taizé, who regarded the council as the fulfillment of Luther’s demands for reform.

Since the council “by way of pilgrimage” supported a mindset of “continuing reform,”42 such reform-minded theologians as Hans Küng even regarded the council as an impulse for further prospective reforms. In this context, Küng even referred to the slogan of the famous Protestant theologian Schleiermacher in the 19th century: “The Reformation continues.”43

Yet for the traditionalist voices within the church, the council constituted a great lapse. With the statement on “Religious Liberty” and the decree on “Ecumenism,” for them the council became the “greatest disaster of the past century” in the eyes of the anti-Protestant and anti-modernistic bishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers in the so-called “Society of St. Pius X.”

Even within the Vatican itself, indications of a conservative reaction became visible. “Pentecost” made way for a “wintery period.”44 Reform forces soon talked about the “betrayal of the council,”45 and ultra-conservative forces within the Jesuit Order had already alleged that John XXIII's politics would “lead to the downfall of the Church.”46 His successor, Paul VI, a procrastinating “Hamlet,” as John had denounced him even during his lifetime, felt censure from both the progressives and the conservatives, and thus he carefully prepared a reversal from “Johannism” and a “return home” to traditionalism and Romanism. The pope was afraid that the “smoke of Satan had entered the church through one crack.”47

Among Paul VI’s successors, there was an intensification of his restorationist program. Experts at the Vatican even talked about a new counterreformation. The lengthy pontificate of John Paul II, the Polish “traveling pope,” was characterized by Küng as a “pontificate of contradictions.”48 On one hand, he was deeply committed to fighting against oppression and war—and in this sense he did, many say, give a conscience to the world—but on the other hand, he worked like a modern inquisitor, spreading repressive propaganda in favor of celibacy and antagonizing the movement for timely family planning; he was no John XXIV but rather a Pius XIII.

Many points of this restorationist strategy in the theological realm, such as the rejection of the liberation theology and deprecation of the Reformation churches, stem from the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the former “Holy Inquisitor”—Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Benedict XVI.

Some had hoped that the celibacy of the priests—which is only an ecclesiastical law and not a dogma—would be eliminated. Yet, because of its delicate status in the life of the priests, it did not constitute a matter of debate at the council. The council merely maintained the status quo. Paul VI reserved for himself the privilege of addressing celibacy, providing his response to the issue in the encyclical Sacerdotalibus Caelibatus in 1967. The encyclical affirmed celibacy and was meant to bring an end to the debate about elimination of the practice. In 1988, John Paul II again championed celibacy for both men and women in his apostolic epistle Mulieris Dignitatem.

Likewise, the modern demand for the opening of the priesthood to women was strictly rejected. Both Paul VI (1976, Inter Insigniores) and John Paul II (1988, Mulieris Dignitatem) justified their position based on the thesis of the “similarity between Christ and the male priest.”49

A spirit of repression was now manifested by the church hierarchy against theologians who were energetically questioning the dogma and who considered post-conciliar restoration efforts to be a betrayal of the council. To many, the outward battle of the Vatican in favor of liberty of conscience and tolerance seemed to be like a foreign torso, for inside the Roman-Catholic Church a similar disciplining occurred as during the time of Pius XII. Some lost their offices; some were reprimanded, or even excommunicated. On the other hand, the 1988 excommunication of the so-called “Society of St. Pius X,” a group of followers of Bishop Marcel Lefebvre who reject Vatican II and were committed to the post-Tridentine church, was revoked by Benedict XVI in 2009. Not only single individuals but entire movements fell victim to the new repression. Indeed, a special excommunication hit the radical liberation theologians (1979, Puebla Document) with their thesis of class conflict and the necessity of Marxist analysis of society (1984, Libertatis Nuntius).

One of the biggest disappointments in both the religious and secular worlds was caused by Paul VI in the area of family planning and sexual ethics with his controversial encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968)—called the “pill encyclical” by common people—which prohibited the use of hormonal contraception and “harshly and imperiously cut off” all discussion of this question.50 Paul’s successor again urged this perspective in Familiaris Consortio (1981) as a “living tradition of the church.”51 According to Benedict XVI, condoms may be used only in “exceptional cases” such as in the case of homosexuals who are infected with AIDS. For contraception, they are still prohibited.

The awakening in Catholic theology during the period of the council had already appeared suspicious in the eyes of the traditionalist forces in the Vatican. Now they believed the clock should be turned back in this area as well. By reasserting the indispensability of the dogmas and the commitment to the beliefs contained therein, Rome tried to intervene correctively to stabilize against both Protestant and liberal tendencies in the theology. For example, in 1968, Paul VI issued the “Credo of the People of God,” a statement of faith that pressed very strong traditionalist positions, emphasizing Mary’s participation in the work of salvation, papal infallibility, the necessity of the church for salvation, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the comparison of the priests with Christ.

The situation is similar with the new Codex of Canon Law issued in 1983 by John Paul II. In comparison with the Codex from 1917, the 1983 version constituted a modernization but still basically clung to the “old system,” offering a pre-conciliar spirit in post-conciliar phrasing. According to Hans Küng, it was a “distinct signal of the restoration.”52 Though the council spoke with delight of “service” in crucial places, the new canon law talks again of “power” or “authority.”

Ten years later, in 1993, the new worldwide Catechism of the Catholic Church,appeared, published by a commission chaired by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. This catechism was intended to be a “reference point” for the regional catechisms and was meant to provide correct doctrine in the context of modern life. Often it follows Vatican II, such as in the sections concerning the doctrine of the church, but in significant other questions (such as the indulgences) it emphasizes the post-conciliar traditionalist, restorationist tendencies. This has led to discrepant situations in the area of ecumenical relations. Thus, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), in which a “basic consent” was agreed upon with the “Lutheran World Federation,” was followed by the announcement of a full indulgence in the year 2000, as if the Reformation which had arisen about the issue of indulgence had never taken place.

Also in this line was the relativization of a “central reform of Vatican II,”53 namely the celebration of the Mass by priests and believers in the vernacular, which was severely opposed by the traditionalists. In order to prevent a schism, Benedict XVI again allowed the celebration of the old Tridentine Mass in the Latin language with the priest's back being turned toward the church members. The pope consciously made this concession because of his desire for a reunion with the traditionalists.

Similar retrogressive tendencies can be seen in the area of ecumenism. Here the dreams of the conciliar time have vanished and made way for a new “ice age.” The post-conciliar period has shown that Rome is willing to dialogue with other Christians only on its own terms. The primacy of the pope and the necessity of the Roman Church for salvation are not negotiable. There is no doubt that Rome is and must remain the deciding center in matters of faith. In the encyclical Ecclesiam Suam (1964), the Vatican developed its plan for the whole world. Starting from Rome, the globe spans as it were in concentric circles from ecumenically oriented Christianity to the non-Christian religions and beyond to all humans of goodwill. From the Catholic point of view, everything is oriented toward Rome, which constitutes the universal mental-spiritual center.

This is why the Catholic Church always demands that non-Roman Christians who are seeking full fellowship with the church must “acknowledge the continuity of the primacy of Peter in his successors, the bishops of Rome.”54 It is explicitly pointed out that the progress of the ecumenical process is subject to the control of Rome. In this ecumenical process, other Christians have to be led in such a way “that they attain all the fullness of the Catholic truth.”55 The foundation of the desired unity remains the papacy, which is the “visible principle” of unity, and which—as was already defined by the council—one can enter only through “integration.” This had already been defined by the council. Thus, although Catholic ecumenism certainly should strive for the “attainment of full fellowship,”56 it can be achieved only through participation in the “fullness of salvific means,” which are owned by the papal church, according to its own claim. Fellowship and communion can be realized only through Rome, for this is a “foundational requirement”57 of the process of unity.

Looking at it from this standpoint, many of Rome’s rebuffs of other churches are understandable. While the schismatic Orthodox churches are still accepted as “sister churches”58 and thus are true “particular churches,”59 the churches of the Reformation are stripped of the attribute “church.” In the eyes of Rome, they are only “ecclesiastical communities,”60 since, according to Catholic understanding, they manifest “deficits” and are still in “search of God,” whom they obviously have not entirely found yet.

A Eucharistic communion with Protestant churches and free churches is therefore ruled out. Intercommunionand  intercelebration as well as concelebration are not possible. In this manner, the Eucharistic problem stands alongside the issue of the pope as “theproblem of the ecumenical movement.”61

No less disconcerting to the Protestant world must be the transfer of the entire ecumenical process to Mary. After all, John Paul II claimed in the encyclical Redemptoris Mater (1987) that only “Mary knows the way to unity.” She, who remains the continual virgin and mother of the church, is and remains the model for all Christians.62 In order to “achieve a true agreement in faith,”63 such topics as the function of the ecclesiastical tradition in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper, the teaching office of the pope, and Mary as “Icon of the Church,” who pleads for all of humanity, are items entrusted to the dialogue partners.

Furthermore, the inconsistency with which the Vatican evaluates its own missionary efforts versus those of other churches is amazing. While Rome endeavors to gain ground in Eastern Europe—representatives of Orthodoxy speak of an “expansion of Catholicism”—and is interested in a “progressive departure from the line drawn by Vatican II,”64 it rebukes the missionary successes of Protestant free churches in South America and brands the followers of these churches as “rabid wolves.”65

Several confessions of guilt made by Paul VI and John Paul II are often mentioned as a rebuttal to the above-mentioned points. It is claimed that Rome rehabilitated the dissenters and those who were persecuted by the Inquisition, and that thereby it has cleansed itself of its guilt. On closer inspection, however, those statements of confession appear rather halfhearted. Either they are restricted by clauses such as: “if we have to be ascribed a guilt,”66 or the question of guilt is shifted from the church hierarchy to its “sinful children.”67 Critics such as Hans Küng have pleaded in vain for the inclusion of popes and the church hierarchy in those confessions of guilt.


Semper Eadem—Unchanged in Substance

If someone in the 21st century looks back on the Catholic awakening in the middle of the 20th century and the time that subsequently has elapsed, he has certainly gained enough historical distance to assess this period with fair accuracy. The result is disillusioning. Though the Second Vatican Council, which was the Catholic event of the 20th century, brought about some obvious changes—an opening to the world (freedom of conscience and religion) and an opening to other religions (ecumenism)—it also strengthened the position of the Roman Church. The council was unable to remove the typical Roman presumption, and in a certain sense even increased it. Though one could say that Vatican I was the council of papal hubris, Vatican II became the council of ecclesiastical self-aggrandizement.

The pastoral and conciliatory language of Vatican II, its ecumenical spirit, and its reversal of any kind of condemnation cannot belie that fact. At its core, the Second Vatican Council (with its reaffirmation of all that the First Vatican Council had conferred on the papal teaching office, and with its equation of the church with Christ) has continued and sealed what Karl Barth has called the “Vatican sacrilege.”68 Therefore, the restorationist tendencies of the post-conciliar time were and are only a logical result of this unchanged fundamental position.

Paul VI aptly said, “What has been, remains valid,”69 and thereby affirmed that Rome never did refine or change its dogmatic edifice or even call it into question—and does not intend to do so in the future. With the formula of the “hierarchy of truths,”70 Rome conceded that there can at most be different accentuations, but there can be no essential changes. Ecumenical optimists on both sides did not and still do not fully realize that the dogmatic substance of the Roman Church—what has been fixed ex cathedra—is considered to be irreversible.

The euphoria of the Johannine turn with its seeming awakening to more gospel and less tradition has not touched the internal core of Catholicism. Only someone who nourished the unjustified hope that the decisions of past councils could and should be corrected would be disappointed by the restorationist tendencies of the popes after John XXIII and would perceive these restrictions as a betrayal of the council. In fact, the council was never intended to do anything else than to formulate the old dogmas in new language.

This had already been explained by John XXIII. In his opening speech for the council, he emphasized the immutability of the inheritance that was now merely being presented in a new wording. It was not the depositum fidei, “the deposit of faith,” that was subject to change, but rather its modus enuntiandi, the “form of the statement,” that could be changed but had to maintain the “same sense and the same meaning” as the original. This distinction has been called to mind repeatedly since then. There could and can be no talk of a modification of the actual dogma. This is why, although the council spoke of a “continual reform” of the church, this reform was only applied to the human and earthly realm and excluded the “treasure of faith.”71

When Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, the famous pulpit orator of the 17th century and bishop of Meaux, contrasted the Protestant pluralism of his time with the Catholic unity of the post-Tridentine church, he emphasized the contrast with the proud words semper eadem (“always the same”) and intended to prove by this that the Roman Church (in contrast to Protestantism) has always remained the same.

Bossuet and all who have referred to him since then obviously did not realize how often popes and councils have contradicted one another in the past. There can be no claim of a continuing homogeneity. However, semper eadem applies fully with respect to one essential element: the continuing effort to surround the pope and the church with an aura of infallibility, to somehow make them as representatives of Christ and thereby to position the Roman Church as an institution of salvation that is set above all and concerns all. The divine privilege of infallibility is adjudicated either to a human being as the bishop of Rome or to a majority of humans such as the church, and thus the earthly human is surrounded with the nimbus of the supernatural. The upgrade of the Roman teaching office and the church at Vatican II and afterward has proven that this way of thinking has not subsided but has rather been strengthened.

Everything that the First Vatican Council pronounced regarding the pope, his authority, and his infallibility was adopted in its entirety by the Second Vatican Council. According to the latter council, the pope is characterized by infallibility when he pronounces a doctrine of belief or morals in a “final act.”72 Such doctrines are unalterable then. But even when he does not speak with the highest teaching authority, one owes obedience to him. Considered in this light, the collegiality of the bishops is reduced consequently to an approving panel, for there is no way around the bishop of Rome, the “head” of the bishops. The pope is also placed above the general council, whose decisions attain legal force only through him. He is not only the “highest shepherd”73 and the “infallible teacher,”74 but also the “highest judge.”75 Vatican II has forcefully reasserted all the claims made during Vatican I and has in no way revoked or even restricted the christification of the bishops of Rome.

The biblical evidence, however, shows that God alone manifests infallibility, and the sole foundation and head of the church is Christ, who leads Christendom through the Holy Spirit, His representative (John 14:16, 17). To Christ alone belongs the position of the “Chief Shepherd” (1 Peter 5:4, NKJV) and “judge” (2 Tim. 4:8). He appointed the apostles (1 Cor. 12:28), who were basically equal (Eph. 2:20). Thus, the New Testament speaks only of one ministry as an apostle; a separate ministry of Peter was unknown to the first Christians. Peter described himself therefore only as a “fellow elder” (1 Peter 5:1), who exhorted his colleagues against imperiousness and greed (vss. 2, 3). Rome’s continual reference to Peter as the first pope (cf. Vatican II, Church III.22; DH 4146) is neither theologically nor historically justified. Everything that was promised to Peter (Matt. 16:18, 19) pertained also to the other apostles (Eph. 2:20)—and even to the whole church (Matt. 18:17, 18). According to the most ancient sources, Peter was in Rome as an apostle rather than as a bishop. Hence, 2 Timothy 4:21 mentions Linus as the first bishop of Rome.76 Today’s papacy does not trace back to early Christianity but is a creation of later antiquity.

Infallibility is not one of the spiritual gifts imparted to the Christian Church but is reserved to God alone and His Word, which is considered to be “right” and “done in truth” (Ps. 33:4, NKJV). Christian preaching receives binding authority not by appealing to itself but only through appealing to God’s word, for “no one is responsible to believe more than that which is found in Scripture.”77

Although Vatican I had already lifted the church above everything and moved it into the arena of divine infallibility, now this excess found its climax with Vatican II. The long-held conception that the “visible church” is the “Son of God appearing among humanity”78 and therewith the “second Christ” (Pius XII),79 which is needed for the “fullness and completion of the Savior,”80 reached its culmination in the Second Vatican Council. Since the church is infallible, it resembles the “incarnated word,”81 possesses the “fullness of grace and truth,”82 and is “necessary for salvation.”83 This “church” according to Catholic understanding is, of course, the church with the “successor of Peter as its head.”84 It is manifested among the people as the “sacrament of salvation.”85 Anyone who is able to recognize the church as such but does not enter it and instead perseveres in rejecting the church “cannot be saved.”86

Yet, this identification of the church with Christ cannot be justified from the biblical point of view. It is true that according to 1 Corinthians 12:27 the Christian Church is addressed symbolically as the “body of Christ” or abridged as “Christ” (vs. 12) but a more complete picture comes from Colossians 1:18, where Christ is described as the “head” and the church as the “body.” Herewith it is stated that the body is ruled by the head and that the body must follow the head. Only when the church obeys Christ’s word can it be identified with Christ. Thus, the church is not intrinsically and unconditionally identical with Christ.

The resulting conclusion is rather simple: The papal and ecclesiastical christification at the councils Vatican I and II constitute the culmination of a process begun long ago. That process remains unaffected by the church’s adaptation to certain necessities of modernity, in which the Second Vatican Council played a part. What post-Tridentine Catholicism had hoped for (the Jesuit Order had sought the declaration of the pope’s infallibility as early as the 16th century) became a reality in the 19th and 20th centuries: A human being and an institution were proclaimed as the embodiment of divine truth!

The critique of this Roman Catholic presumption from the viewpoint of an exclusively Bible-based Christian faith is therefore justified and has not become obsolete. It gives The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White a lasting actuality and justification.


Hans Heinz is a veteran theology teacher who taught for 40 years at Adventist schools in Austria and Germany.



1. Karl Adam, Das Wesen des Katholizismus (Düsseldorf: L. Schwann, 1957), 12.
2. Friedrich Heiler, Der Katholizismus: Seine Idee und Seine Erscheinung (Munich: E. Reinhardt, 1970), 12.
3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II–II, q. 11, a. 3.
4. 1832, Encyclical Mirari vos Arbitramu.
5. 1881, Encyclical Diuturnum Illud.
6. 1906, Encyclical Vehementer Nos.
7. Encyclical Editae Saepe.
8. George Tavard, Geschichte der ökumenischen Bewegung (Mainz: Matthias-Gründewald, 1964), 120.
9. 1928, Encyclical Mortalium Animos.
10. Constitution, Pastor Aeternus, 3.
11. Ibid., 3.
12. Ibid., 4.
13. Second Vatican Council, Church III.25.
14. Ibid.
15. Gottfried Maron, Die römisch-katholische Kirche von 1870–1970 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1972), 230.
16. Krister Ejner Skydsgaard, “Das Kommende Konzil—Absicht und Problematik.” In Krister Ejner Skydsgaard, ed., Konzil und Evangelium: Lutherische Stimmen zum Kommenden römisch-katholischen Konzil (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1962), 118, 121
17. Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, Kleines Konzilskompendium: Sämtliche Texte des Zweiten Vatikanums(Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag, 1966), 32.
18. Ecumenism I.4; Rahner and Vorgrimler, ibid., 234.
19. Religious Freedom, I.1.
20. 1832, Encyclical Mirari vos Arbitramur.
21. Rahner and Vorgrimler, Kleines Konzilskompendium, 655.
22. Ibid., 662.
23. 1906, Pius X, Encyclical Vehementer Nos.
24. Rahner and Vorgrimler, Kleines Konzilskompendium, 667.
25. The Church in the Modern World, IV.76.
26. Ibid., II.31.
27. Ibid., IV.75.
28. Ecumenism, II.12.
29. Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, Kompendiuim der Glaubensbekenntnisse und Kirchlichen Lehrenscheidungen, Peter Hünermann, ed. (Freiburg im Preisgau: Herder, 1991), 1533.
30. Encyclical Editae Saepe.
31. Ecumenism, Preface.
32. Ibid., I.3.
33. Ibid., I.4.
34. Heinrich Denifle, Luther und Luthertum in der Erste Entwicklung (Mainz: Kirchheim, 1904), 7:787.
35. Hartmann Grisar, M. Luthers Leben und Werk (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag, 1927), 79.
36. Joseph Lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag, 1962), 1:191.
37. Johannes Hessen, Luther in Katholischer Sicht: Grundlegung eines Ökumenischen Gesprächs (Bonn: Ludwig Röhrscheid, 1949), 16.
38. Hans Küng, “Katholische Besinnung auf Luthers Rechtfertigungslehre Heute.” In Theologie im Wandel: Festschrift zum 150 Jährigen Bestehen der Katholisch-Theologischen Fakultät an der Universität Tübingen (Munich: E. Wewel, 1967), 464.
39. Otto Hermann Pesch, Ketzerfürst und Kirchenlehrer (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1971), 42.
40. Daniel Olivier, Le procès Luther 1517–21 (Paris: Fayard, 1971), 217.
41. Salzburger Nachrichten (March 8, 2000): 10.
42. Ecumenism, II.6.
43. Hans Küng, Kirche im Konzil (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag, 1963), 31.
44. Paul Imhof and Hubert Biallowons, eds., Glaube in winterlicher Zeit: Gespräche mit K. Rahner in den Letzten Lebensjahren (Düsseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1986), 18.
45. Norbert Greinacher and H. Küng, eds., Katholische Kirch—Wohin? Wider den Verrat am Konzil (Munich: Piper, 1986).
46. Michael Serafian, Der Pilger oder Konzil und Kirche vor der Entscheidung (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1964), 164.
47. Helmut Krätzl, Im Sprung Gehemmt: Was Mir Nach dem Konzil Noch Alles Fehlt, 4th ed. (Mödling: Verlag St. Gabriel, 1999), 183.
48. Der Spiegel (March 26, 2005): 107.
49. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, Kompendiuim der Glaubensbekenntnisse und Kirchlichen Lehrenscheidungen,,4600, 4840.
50. Maron, Die römisch-katholische Kirche von 1870–1970, 236.
51. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, Kompendiuim der Glaubensbekenntnisse und Kirchlichen Lehrenscheidungen, 4708.
52. Greinacher and Küng, Katholische Kirch—Wohin? 32.
53. Salzburger Nachrichten (February 3, 2009): 1.
54. Josef Ratzinger and A. Bovone, Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion (Vatican: Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, 1992), 19.
55. Ibid., 29.
56. 195, 3.
57. Encyclical Ut Unum Sint, 97.
58. Ibid., 56.
59. 2000, Declaration Dominus Iesus, 17.
60. Ibid.
61. Ernst Lange, Die Ökumenische Utopie Oder Was Bewegt die Ökumenische Bewegung? (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1986), 73. Italics supplied.
62. Lutherische Monatshefte 26 (1987), 193–195.
63. Ut Unum Sint, 79.
64. Die Zeit (December 13, 1991): 16.
65. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (April 8, 1991): 6; Die Welt (October 16, 1992): 6.
66. Hans Küng, Erkämpfte Freiheit (Munich: Piper, 2002), 503.
67. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (March 31, 2000): 1.
68. In Heinrich Fries and Karl Rahner, Einigung der Kirche–reale Möglichkeit, 2nd ed. (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder Verlag, 1983), 73.
69. In G. C. Berkouwer, Gehorsam und Aufbruch: Zur Situation der Katholischen Kirche und Theologie (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1969), page 73.
70. Ecumenism, II.11.
71. Ibid., II.6
72. The Church in the Modern World, III.25.
73. Codex Juris Canonici, Codex des kanonischen Rechtes (Kevelaer: Butzon and Bercker, 1994), 333.
74. Ibid., 749.
75. Ibid., 1404.
76. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses III.3.3; Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica III.2.
77. Martin Luther, Werke Kritische Gesamtausgabe (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1897), 7:453.
78. Johann Adam Möhler, Symbolik, oder Darstellung der Dogmatischen Gegensätze der Katholiken und Protestanten Nach Ihren Öffentlichen Bekenntnisschriften, 6th ed. (Mainz, 1843), 332.
79. Encyclical Mystici Corporis.
80. Ibid.
81. The Church in the Modern World, I.8.
82. Ecumenism, I.3.
83. The Church in the Modern World, II.14.
84. Ecumenism, I.2.
85. The Church in the Modern World, VII.48.
86. Ibid.