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On the surface, the Pope’s comments on justification seem to be very biblical and indeed very Protestant.
“Here I stand”: these are the famous words spoken by Martin Luther in front of the Diet of Worms in 1521. Questioned about his convictions as they had been outlined a few years before in the 95 Theses, Luther stood firm on the truth of the Bible and its good news: sinners can be justified by Christ alone through faith alone. It was clear to all what he believed.
The Council of Trent (1545-1562) was the official response of the Roman Catholic Church to the issues raised by the Protestant Reformation. By rejecting the tenets of the Protestant understanding of the Gospel and declaring its proponents anathema, Trent endorsed the view that sinners could not be justified by faith alone; instead, Catholicism insisted on an ongoing journey of good works punctuated by the sacraments administered by the church. Where Trent stood was and is crystalclear.
In recent decades, though, the situation has become blurred. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ)– signed by mainstream Lutherans and the Church of Rome– introduced ambiguities in language, juxtaposition of terms, and theological nuances that make it difficult to understand where the signatories stand incomparison to Luther’s and Trent’s viewpoints. After the Declaration, Rome’s position on justification is harder to ascertain. This ambiguous context is Pope Francis’s framework when he speaks on the topic.
The essence of human existence?
In the ecumenical ceremony that commemorated the Reformation in Lund (Sweden) in 2016, Pope Francis made a perfunctory reference to the doctrine of justification. In a generally positive comment on Luther, the Pope argued that “the doctrine of justification expresses the essence of human existence before God”, thus seeming to be in accord with what Evangelicals might say on the doctrine.
Recognizing justification as something essential is surely a pointer toward its primary importance for the Christian life. But notice that the Pope speaks of the essential role of justification in “human existence” in general, not just in the Christian life. The context of this statement does not restrict it to Christians, nor to believers in Christ or disciples of Jesus. The Pope is not referring to the essence of the Christian life, but to human existence as a whole.
Here is the ambiguity. Does this mean that justification is essential for all human beings regardless of whether or not they are Christians? Does it mean that justification is a constitutive component of life in general, a defining mark of the existence of all men and women? Does it mean that all those living a “human existence” are essentially justified? Certainly this is not the meaning that either Luther or the Council of Trent gave to justification. For Luther, there was a sense in which justification could be defined as “the essence of human existence before God”, with the caveat that this would refer only to those who have received the grace of God by faith alone. In other words, justification is the essence of the Christian life, not of human life in general.
On the surface, then, the Pope’s comment on justification seems to be very biblical and indeed very Protestant. At a closer look, though, things are not as clear as they appear. While affirming the importance of justification, Pope Francis seems to confuse it with a universal property that all human beings share. If this is what the Pope meant, we are very far from what both Luther and Trent stood for. Indeed, we are very close to a universalist, all-embracing, humanistic “gospel” that betrays the biblical Gospel of salvation in Christ alone by faith alone for those who repent and believe.
Faithful to one’s own conscience?
Arguably, what Pope Francis said in Lund on justification is generic and can be interpreted in different ways. It is not possible to say for sure that this is what he had in mind. Therefore it is important to look for other references to justification in his thought elsewhere and give him another chance to explain what he means.
Here is another quotation that is worth pondering. In his widely acclaimed 2013 Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, the programmatic document of his pontificate, Francis writes that “Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live justified by the grace of God” (n. 254).This section of the Exhortation deals with ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue in the context of mission. According to Pope Francis, non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (n. 244), Jews don’t need to convert (n. 247), and with believing Muslims the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (n. 252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium, n. 16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are linked to“the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (n. 254).
Justification according to the Pope seems to be receivable by following one’s own conscience. It is still “by God’s gracious initiative” (although not necessarily by His grace alone), but it is no longer by faith – even by faith alone. It is through the conscience that men and women are linked to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, i.e. the work of Christ as it is re-enacted at the Eucharist, the chief sacrament of the church. Faith in Jesus Christ is gone. The Gospel appears to be not a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead a vehicle to access a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind through the conscience. What about faith in Jesus Christ? What about His justice being credited to the sinner? Are, therefore, all human beings justified ultimately by following their conscience? By grace but not by faith?
At this point, it becomes clear that the Lund reference to justification being “the essence of human existence” was purposefully and intentionally designed to mean that justification defines everyone’s life, not only that of the believing Christian. This reference in The Joy of the Gospel makes it abundantly clear that the Pope, while using the language of justification, has radically altered its meaning and made it synonymous with a universal existence embracing the whole of humanity. He is using the word in an ambiguous way, but a closer inspection reveals its non-biblical content.
Is Pope Francis’ justification what Luther stood for? And, more decidedly, is this what the Bible teaches about justification? As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, with its recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, we know where Luther stood and, in contrast, we know where Trent stood.
Where does Pope Francis stand? He is saying radically different things. Therefore, before listing Pope Francis as a friend of the Evangelical faith, we must understand what he is saying on his own terms. Beyond commonalities in the use of words, he belongs to a different world.
Leonardo de Chirico is an evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy), theologian and expert in Roman Catholicism.