Have the Basic Doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church Changed Today?-Part 1

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2002
One might be tempted to think Roman Catholic doctrines have changed, given the movement toward unity with other religious groups in recent years. But, as the authors document, such is not the case. There are several key issues that present a real barrier to any doctrinal accord.

Introduction

Have the basic doctrines of Roman Catholicism changed? One might be tempted to think so when one examines the different variety and categories of modern Roman Catholi­cism. (We will briefly discuss this in a future article.) One might also think the doctrines of Rome have changed because of the different kinds of scholarship employed in the Church—i.e., the manner in which various Roman Catholics do their theology and interpret the Bible. For example, there are scholars who are liberal, those who are conservative and traditional, and even those who are mystical. In other words, there is a diverse mixture of scholarship in the Church which can also impact official doctrine.

But what must be noted is this. Most of the different varieties of Catholicism and even its scholarship are still largely bound by the decrees of the Council of Trent and Vatican II. So have the basic doctrines changed? In most quarters, not really, because the official docu­ments of the Church haven’t changed and these were reaffirmed at Vatican II.

How can we then seek to best evaluate modern Roman Catholicism? Even though the Catholic Church is becoming increasingly subjective, it is impossible for us to evaluate what is in a person’s heart. We can only evaluate what’s on the books—Vatican II, the Council of Trent, papal decrees, authoritative texts, etc. This tells us, officially, what Roman Catholi­cism teaches.

So do Catholics and Protestants now agree? A number of recent affirmations by Evangelicals and Catholics have said that they do agree on key issues and that they have simply agreed to disagree on certain doctrines—but still to be united as brothers and sis­ters in Christ. For example, the Report we evaluate in Chapter 7 confessed disagreement on such things as Scripture, Bible interpretation, Tradition and even salvation, but then it concluded that there was still enough agreement to call Catholics and Protestants brothers and sisters in Christ.

The question is, can they logically do this? According to the documents of Vatican II, the Catholic Church continues to maintain that it is the only true Church and it alone offers the fullness of salvation:

Nevertheless, our separated brethren [the Protestants], whether considered as individuals or as Communities and Churches, are not blessed with that unity which Jesus Christ wished to bestow on all those whom He has regenerated and vivified into one body and newness of life—that unity which the holy Scriptures and the revealed tradition of the Church proclaim. For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who already belong in any way to God’s people.[1]

Thus, it is logical to conclude that in most key areas the doctrines of Rome itself have not appreciably changed since Vatican II (1962-1965). Different commentators have also pointed this out. Catholic lay apologist and theologian Karl Keating confesses, “The Catho­lic Church did not change any of its doctrines at Trent and it did not change any at Vatican II”.[2] and “…there has been no alteration at all in basic doctrines…. The Catholic Church is still the sole true Church….”[3] A recent Evangelical Council on Catholicism likewise con­cluded, “…there are many indications that Rome is fundamentally the same as it has al­ways been.”[4] A former Carmelite priest observed, “Vatican II made no doctrinal changes. … there was a change of image, but no change of substance.”[5] In 1964 no less an authority than Pope Paul VI himself affirmed that “nothing really changes in the traditional doctrine.”[6] Another commentator noted, “Roman Catholicism does not change. At heart, it is the same as it ever was.”[7]

Nevertheless, one cannot fully understand modern Roman Catholicism unless one realizes that Rome is not entirely what it used to be. In the coming months, we will seek to document this by evaluating the kinds of changes produced by Vatican II and other forces and their implications. In fact, in one way, the Church of Rome is even becoming a bit Protestant. Catholic apologists frequently point out that the supposed “Achilles heel” of Protestantism is its lack of central ecclesiastical teaching authority and resultant splintering into a hundred different denominations based on the “private” interpretation of Scripture.[8] But in many ways, Roman Catholicism has now become much like its so-called “separated brethren,” the Protestant churches. In the words of one editorial—”a vast Noah’s Ark of beasts, clean and unclean.”[9] Thus, even the power and authority of the Pope himself has failed to keep unity with Catholicism today:

This argument has boomeranged today as Rome is herself obviously divided. Possession of one who is claimed to be the infallible guide has not led to a condition in which unity in the faith is the hallmark, for the guide himself is assailed by dissident voices who, while claiming to accept his guidance, insist on interpreting his statements even if he himself rejects their interpretation! The debate over the papal encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, is a recent illustration of this.[10]

To begin, Vatican II did institute significant nondoctrinal (e.g., ecclesiastical) changes— and its conclusions implied significant hermeneutical alterations that could be applied to traditional doctrine. And despite claims to the contrary, even some changes in doctrine were made at Vatican II. For example, salvation is now possible outside the Catholic Church—a teaching Rome had formerly rejected for hundreds of years as heretical.

Commentators are convinced that such alterations are significant for the future of Ca­tholicism. But a key problem here is the factor of interpretation. Who infallibly interprets the documents of Vatican II and other official Church pronouncements? In the minds of many, sufficient elasticity now exists to have the practical effect of permitting fundamental doctri­nal change—at least for those who wish it. For example, some Catholic theologians have accommodated Vatican II to traditional orthodoxy while others have used Vatican II to forge new doctrinal perspectives.

The problem is illustrated in the following analysis which, written seven years after Vatican II, points out the continuing evolution of Rome and the difficulty it raises:

The task of interpreting the Roman Catholic mind is difficult. Cardinal Newman once remarked that “none but the Scola Theologorum is competent to determine the force of Papal and Synodal utterances, and the exact interpretation of them is a work of time.” But even with the passage of time, nuances and implications still elude the most diligent analysts, especially if they are Protestant. Despite this, at least the main lines of the new Catholic theology seem clear, and they are certainly quite different from those of traditional orthodoxy. Says Gregory Baum:
A conservative outlook on the majesterium and the conservative claim that church teaching never changes simply cannot explain what happened at Vatican II. After all, at that council, the Catholic Church, formerly, solemnly, and after a considerable conflict, changed her mind on a number of significant issues.[11]

(to be continued)

Notes

  1. Walter M. Abbott, general editor, The Documents of Vatican II (NY: Guild Press, 1966), 346.
  2. Rod Rosenbladt and Karl Keating, “The Salvation Debate,” conducted at Simon Greenleaf School of Law, Anaheim, CA, (March 11, 1989), cassette tape.
  3. Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 103.
  4. Paul G. Schrotenbocr, ed., Roman Catholicism: A Contemporary Evangelical Perspec­tive (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), 7.
  5. James G. McCarthy, Catholicism: Crisis of Faith, Video Documentary (Annotated Tran­script): Lumen Productions, P.O. Box 595, Cupertino, CA: 95015, 37.
  6. Osservatore Romano. 22, 1964 in his constitution De Ecclesia, from Schrotenboer, 21.
  7. John Phillips, “Can a Christian Remain a Roman Catholic?”, Moody Monthly, April 1982, 31.
  8. Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 82, 141.
  9. Editorial, “What Separates Evangelicals and Catholics?,” Christianity Today, October 23, 1981,13.
  10. H. M. Carson, Dawn or Twilight? A Study of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Leices­ter, England: InterVarsity Press, 1976), 36; cf., James Neher, A Christian’s Guide to Today’s Catholic Charismatic Movement (Hatfield, PA: James Neher, 1977).
  11. David F. Wells, Revolution in Rome (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1972), 117.

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