As theological debates on sexuality and marriage become more and more central, many Christian denominations are being asked to clarify their views.
The majority of Italian evangelicals are in favour of co-belligerence, but clearly dismiss ecumenism. A first report of the Italian Evangelical Alliance assembly, in Rome (8-9 April).
It was the most announced session in the weeks before the annual meeting of the 2016 Italian Evangelical Alliance assembly (AEI), in Rome (8-9 April).
In front of about 200 people, the Pentecostal pastor and personal friend of Pope Francis, Giovanni Traettino, explained why he has made clear steps to approach Roman Catholicism. Later, vice-president of the AEI and Vatican expert Leonardo de Chirico spoke about the “risks” of the new “polyhedral” and “polyglot” Catholic ecumenical language, which aims to reach everyone.
The theme of the annual meeting of the Italian evangelicals was “Evangelical faith and Roman Catholicism: Where are we? Where are we going?”.
This report summarises the points of view of Italian evangelical leaders expressed during the 2016 AEI meeting; Evangelical Focus published a second report informing about the sessions led by Bishop Efraim Tendero, World Evangelical Alliance Secretary General, and Jaume Llenas, Spanish Evangelical Alliance Secretary General.
DID POPE FRANCIS OPEN A NEW ERA OF RELATIONSHIPS?
In an exclusive interview Evangelical Focus and Protestante Digital will publish in full in the coming days, the pastor of the Pentecostal church Chiesa Evangelica della Riconiliazione (Caserta, in Campania) defended his emphasis on the unity above differences.
Traettino told this media about his personal relationship with Francis and defined the Pope as a “brother in the faith”, although the Roman Catholic Church, - he admitted - has doctrines which should be reformed, as the veneration of Mary.
THE PASTOR WHO INVITED THE POPE TO HIS CHURCH
Pastor Giovanni Traettino has met the Pope several times in what have been always described as “private meetings.” The most relevant event happened in 2014, when the Pope visited the church led by the evangelical pastor.
One year, the congregation even published a book summarising the Pope’s visit, entitled: “Francis and the Pentecostals. The ecumenism of the Polyhedron” (R.Nogaro, S. Tanzanella).
TRAETTINO: EXPERIENCE IS KEY; NOT ONLY DOCTRINE
In the first afternoon of the assembly (April, 8) and faced with a very expectant public, Traettino gave details of his personal testimony. He mentioned how in the past he felt God called him to start a “ministry of reconciliation.”
Facing the criticism he has received from many other evangelical Christians who believe he has gone too far in his approach to Roman Catholicism, Traettino mentioned his “personal evangelical identity, based on the ‘Solas’ of the Reformation.” But this does not mean, he said, not being “grateful” to what he learnt from the Roman Catholic Church, including the “fear of God and the importance of holiness, before I discovered Grace”, some years later.
The Caserta pastor talked about the importance of the ‘koinonia’ among those who have experienced a conversion to Jesus”, an encounter with God that is “not only about doctrine, but also about experience.”
“All those who have had an experience of conversion with Christ are my brothers”, he said.
TRAETTINO: “HOPE” TO SEE CATHOLICISM “REVITALISED”
“I will continue to defend that it is possible that there is a change even inside the systems”, Traettino said referring to the Roman Catholic institutions. “There is a deposit in every Christian church, even in the Catholic Church, and the Holy Spirit can revitalise it. If there is a deposit of the Word and if there is Spirit, it is possible to see a movement”, he insisted.
“We can condemn the Roman Catholic Church to hell or trust that the Holy Spirit does something. Let’s have faith that the Lord, through people who have received Christ, can change things.”
Asked by an attendant of the public about his meetings with Bergoglio and the dialogue with Catholics, the pastor quoted Saint Augustine to say that “one does not enter into truth if it is not through charity (…) It is very important that our attitude brings together the doctrinal positions with charity.”
Finally, Traettino advocated for an intermediate position between “fundamentalism” and “liberalism.” He put the history of Israel as an example: “the action of God also seemed to have stopped for 400 years.” This is why evangelicals should have patience with the Roman Catholic Church: “We have to feed the hope.”
“Maximalism risks that by saying that if everything is not changed, nothing has changed. We have to have an approach of understanding the gradual evolution of Catholicism”, Giovanni Traettino concluded.
CHIRICO: HISTORY VS. PROTESTANT “MYSTICAL” ENTHUSIASM
After listening to Traettino, the vice-president of the AEI, Leonardo de Chirico, responded presenting the position most supported by the Italian evangelicals.
Seeing the enthusiasm the new Pope has raised among many Protestants across the world, it is necessary to take a historical perspective, Chirico said. “Everything we think at this particular time is only the last breath of a long life of relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
“Not looking to the past can lead us to a mystical understanding of reality. Looking back helps us to have discernment”, the theologian, seminary teacher, pastor and author said. He then spent most of his time talking about the evolution of Catholicism.
3 ROMAN CATHOLIC ERAS
The Roman church has gone through “three eras”, Chirico defended. The first one was one of an “imperial church”. It was “the longest” and “the Church did not take the Bible as a model, but the Roman Empire.” The religious system “assumed the institutional exclusivity and interiorised the imperial structure.”
After the Council of Trent and until Vatican I, the “oppositive church era” era came into place, the theologian continued. “Facing the renovation movements (among which the Reformation was one, but not the first and not the last)”, the official Church tried to “combat, eliminate, destroy, and even assimilate and internalise these movements to reinforce itself”, a kind of “vaccine, a little bit of renovation makes the system stronger.”
Finally, the third era appears after “95%” of the history of Roman Catholicism has passed: the Council of Vatican II. The Church understands that it heads towards to become “marginal and to be seen with indifference by society.” At this point, all efforts will go to “get the vitality and centrality back, searching for a new ‘catholicity’, trying to ‘embrace the other’.”
From this historical moment, Catholicism “not only opened itself to an evangelical language, something we all can see now, but the Church also has acclimated to the great variety of the world of today.”
THE “BIG TABLE” CATHOLICISM OFFERS IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Chirico said the aim of Roman Catholicism now is to “offer a 360 degrees table in which all of humanity can sit down. The Catholic Church dos not only spreads out towards evangelicals, it also does so towards Marianism, towards politics, towards other popular movements.”
Therefore, Pope Francis “perfectly incarnates this new catholicity of Vatican II”, the theologian analysed. The Vatican offers now a “polyglot” church which speaks the languages of many movements, and does not “renounce to any direction.”
“But when a Church wants to attract the attention of everyone it really shows it has not moved his position one millimetre. It has not moved its baricenter.”
IS THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH ‘REFORMABLE’?
So, what can we expect of the new Catholic era? Not much, Chirico evaluated. “The fundamental problem of the Catholic Church is that it takes its authority directly from the divine Trinity. This is only ‘reformable’ if the church decides to auto-limit itself, in other words, if there is repentance.”
“But the Church does not accept that it could have been wrong in this point. It has been a story of addition, of certain renewal, but there has never been a work of purification, of conversion of the structures.”
This reality does not justify the evangelical churches “having an arrogant discourse, a discourse of open confrontation”, because the priority is to “respond to the gospel, to the mission”, not attacking Roman Catholicism.
“Of course we have hope”, Chirico responded to Traettino, “but it is a hope of faith, based on the Word of God.”
The dialogue should not be based on an “ecumenical language which says that ‘we have a lot in common and there are only a few points to solve’”. “It is childish to separate the Christology from the Ecclesiology, and then saying we can identify with the first area although we are different in the second. If the ecclesiology is not right, it shows that the Christology is not right.” Obstacles to unity, therefore, are “not secondary issues, but essential questions.”
Chirico also recalled the criticism Bregoglio did in the past about the “heretic” Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. “We should not be naïve, the fact that Francis is a Jesuit should not bewilder us, but it helps to see that the unity they are talking about is a bit more difficult than it seems. We must read the whole reality.”
Leonardo de Chirico closed his time during at the roundtable by saying: “Francis is the most successful incarnation of Vatican II, which is only the last evolutionary stage of a system designed and developed with an ‘original sin’ which has not been redeemed, but even reinforced. No ecumenical diplomacy will change this, not even adding a new ‘evangelical offer’ to the traditional menu. The invitation of the Lord Jesus in Mark 1:14 is still open for all: ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe in the gospel’.”
“OUR RESPONSIBILITY VERS OUR NEIGHBOURS”
Earlier in the afternoon, the President of the AEI, Giacomo Ciccone, had opened the assembly reinforcing the idea that “Catholics are our neighbours, but many times we have not exercised our responsibility with them.”
He was alluding a double responsibility which other speakers mentioned during the sessions that were to happen in the next 24 hours. On one side, Catholic believers are neighbours that have to be loved and respected, and at the same time, they are individuals which need to listen to the good news of the biblical gospel.
“We do not only need to speak, but we should listen more”, Ciccone admitted. All possible ways of “co-belligerence” (the cooperation in specific areas) with Catholics should be explored: “Not only in matters of life, but also in Human Rights, etc.”
But when it comes to ecumenism, the vision of the AEI is still the same as that outlined in the 1986 WEA Singapore Declaration, which mentioned clear obstacles to unity with Catholicism.
The members of the Italian Evangelical (founded in 1974) should work having in mind four priorities, the President concluded: “Appreciating our spiritual heritage, improving our discernment, identifying who our neighbours are and looking to the future.”
PROFESSOR BOLOGENSI: “WHO SERVES GOD?”
The assembly attendants had the opportunity to learn more about the evangelical heritage in the session with Professor Pietro Bolognesi, from the Italian Evangelical Formation and Documentation Institute.
“One of the strengths of evangelical faith has to be its capacity to look to the past”, he said. When doing so, “the question has to be: ‘Who served God? Who did not serve Him?”
“In the decades before World War II, the situation was very difficult for evangelical Christians, it was hard to give testimony to our faith and we were marginalised.”
Even in the second half of the 20th century, evangelicalism in Italy was referred to as a “sect.”
Bolognesi was honest when speaking about how Italian evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance have not always agreed on how believers should relate to Catholicism. In 1980, for instance, Italy, Spain and France dissociated themselves from the initiative of inviting Catholic representatives to the WEA world assembly.
Then, Bolognesi said, “some leaders of the WEA were more preoccupied with the relationships [with Catholicism] than with the essence of our faith.”
On the other hand, Singapore 1986 was a landmark in a positive sense. It was “a very polite text but in which evangelicals took a stand about the impossibility of cooperating together with the Church of Rome.”
From this perspective, Bolognesi concluded that “the evangelical representatives should not be in closed groups, with their own internal discussions, but be part of the reflection happening in the local churches.”
Finally, the professor outlined 4 factors which define the “mutation” of the Catholic-evangelical relationship:
- “Emphasis on the polyhedricity.” After Vatican II, “Catholicism mixes the popular religion (superstition and magic included) with the highest dogmatic solemnity.” It would, therefore, be “naïve” to not understand this change while dialoguing with the institution.
- “Difficulties for evangelicals in defining their identity.” This has brought the Italian evangelicals to be seen at times as a “neo-fundamentalist sect which has serious interlocutors.”
- “Identification of ethical issues.” In evangelical churches, sometimes “ethics are seen as more important as the gospel itself.” Meanwhile, there has been a “lack of a profound evangelical reflection” on the current issues happening in society. As a consequence, “many times we have joined the Catholic ethical positions without doing our own thinking”, and this has led to a “big influence on us in this area.”
- “Fluidity of the themes.” It is easy to find among evangelical Christians a certain degree of “apathy and ignorance” which has to do with a “lack of interest in history.”
Bolognesi concluded with an exhortation: “The people of God need to keep reforming, and this has to be through the action and for the glory of God.”
ALL THE UNRESOLVED ISSUES
Another session helped to understand the view of the local churches. Evangelical pastors Agustino Masdeo and Giovanni Di Francia gave their views.
“When we hear about unity, lately, we never hear about the unresolved issues”, Masdeo said. “We all know that the Roman Catholic Church needs to go through a real Reformation, a return to what for us is the only foundation of the faith: the Word of God.”
If this does not happen, the only other way for unity would be “a sort of ‘Evangelical Counter-Reformation’ and went back to positions held before the Reformation”, the pastor said with a irony.
“We must dialogue with Catholics”, but we need to leave the “obsession of achieving unity with them.” Quoting 2 Timothy 2:15, the pastor said that “what is at stake is the truth; if we give more importance to unity than to the truth, then unity is possible. But, is not the whole Bible true? Who are we to say some parts of the Bible are not essential for unity? If we ignored some parts of Scripture we could have unity. But that wold mean we could also have unity with Mormons.”
Masdeo concluded: “The Roman Catholic Church has changed, but not in its substance, only in its dress. The shape has changed, also the language, but it could be because of the loss of believers, especially in Latin America. We do not have to be arrogant, but we will not need much time to see if the change is real.”
In his turn, Pastor Di Francia asked himself “why evangelicals, and especially Pentecostals, forget our history so easily.”
Agreeing with Masdeo, he said the election of Pope Francis opened “the moment in which evangelicals need to show the differences there are in the content.”
The pastor said cooperation with the Roman Church is not a matter of “love.” “If we talk about love, well, God loves everyone. But, what does loving mean? Leave everything as it is?” He also asked “what the basis of dialogue is. The Catholic Church will not dialogue with us on the basis of the Word of God, because in the end, it is their tradition what judges the Word.”
FOCUS ON THE MISSIONAL MANDATE
Already on Saturday, members of the AEI participated in the assembly’s official session, which included reports, questions and votes.
While closing program, Giuseppe Rizza summarised the 2016 annual meeting calling everyone to contribute to “a strong evangelicalism, which is not aggressive or arrogant, but his marked by a humility, integrity and simplicity that only God can give. Let’s pray the He continues to expand His kingdom in Italy and the rest of the world.”