by Trevor Anderson
I am both fascinated by and suspicious of the Roman Catholic Church.
–Dr. Gregg Allison
Dr. Leonardo De Chirico, whose thought forms the foundation on which Dr. Gregg Allison’s book Roman Catholic Theology and Practice (Crossway, 2014) builds its assessment of Catholic theology, wrote an article a few years ago titled “Roman Catholicism and the Evangelical Alternative.”
It’s an interesting article in that it seems to me to be a fairly clear example of what it looks like to apply the hermeneutic of suspicion. As G. D. Robinson summarizes, the hermeneutic of suspicion seeks to unmask “a false consciousness, a false understanding of the ‘text’ (society) by systematically applying a critique of suspicion, with the result that the true understanding, one that more faithfully tracks and correlates with the real situation now becomes unmasked and revealed.”
This sort of suspicious reading is sometimes applied to the Catholic Church in some evangelical communities, in more or less extreme forms (e.g., ‘all the Church is really after is money’, or power, or communism, or dragging as many souls as possible to hell, etc.). On such a suspicious view, the goal when interacting with Catholic theology is to ‘unveil’ the Catholic Church’s true intentions and teachings, which it obscures and hides so that it can achieve its real ends – which are more or less nefarious depending on one’s school of thought.
Now, Dr. Allison’s book is refreshing in that its rhetoric does not give the impression that this is the sort of hermeneutic he is interested in. So I was somewhat surprised, given the influence of his thought on Dr. Allison’s book, to find De Chirico putting forward just such a suspicious reading of Catholic theology in relation to its alternative, Evangelical theology. (The capitalization of ‘E’vangelical is De Chirico’s; the reason for it will become clear.)
To set the stage: De Chirico’s article is about the ostensible present-day possibilities for genuine Evangelical and Catholic ecumenism. To his mind, such possibilities do not actually exist. Rather, the Evangelical and Catholic traditions stand ‘distinct and distant’ (p. 21) from each other. Indeed, Catholic theology is ‘spurious’, ‘entangling’, and ‘contaminated by pagan motivations’ (p. 21). In opposition to the ‘feeling’ (p. 16) that Catholics and Evangelicals might be able to overcome what has separated them in the past stands the truth of the matter, that “Catholicism is a vision of the world against which the evangelical vision of the world must take its position” (p. 21). And said Catholic vision comes across as fairly sinister:
The Catholicism which surfaced from Vatican II…can no longer think of dominating the world absolutely and thus tries to infiltrate the world in order to modify it from inside. It no longer hurls anathemas against all that is modern but it strives to penetrate it and elevate it. No more can it enforce its power with coercive measures but tries to exercise it in a more polished way (p. 20).
The basic criterion of Catholicism is no[t] evangelical purity or Christian authenticity, but the integration of the particulars which is put in a universal horizon serving the institution that holds the reins of the whole project. The only ‘no’ which Catholicism is able to utter addresses what threatens its purposes. When this pivot is left undisturbed, all else can be integrated and catholicised (p. 18).
The system of Catholicism is continuously expanding because it is not ruled by a ‘yes’ or by a ‘no’ which act as binding criteria, but rather by a simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’ which opens the way to which is against biblical integrity [sic]. Evangelical faith is, on the contrary, the faith of a ‘yes’ which is firm, convinced, unequivocal, exclusive, bright to God’s truth; it is the ‘Amen to the glory of God’, the acknowledgment, the adhesion, the conformation to it (p. 20).
Here lies the whole difference between Evangelicalism and Catholicism. Catholicism can be viewed as the haughty ‘carnal wisdom’, a majestic cathedral of human thought, a fascinating religiously ideological structure, ever expanding; the evangelical faith on the contrary aspires solely to remain a simple and sincere ‘amen’ to the Word of God (pp. 20-21).
If I were to summarize the tone of these quotations (and of the article, if you read it), the honest impression I get is this: The Catholic Church is an institution whose rampaging pagan synthesizing, which knows no bounds, stops short only at ‘what threatens its purposes’. Having begrudgingly given up its plans to ‘dominate the world absolutely’, it now dons its assassin’s outfit and seeks instead to ‘infiltrate’ the world and to ‘penetrate’ it at its most vulnerable points. No longer having its druthers of enforcing its laws by ‘brute force’, it adopts the polished, two-faced ‘decency’ of a Madame Merle to Evangelicalism’s guileless Isabel Archer. It ‘holds the reins’ of an insatiable, stampeding ‘project’ geared toward ‘dominating the world absolutely’.
I cannot see how such a presentation of Catholic thought could lead to anything but the a priori exclusion of good-faith dialogue between the two traditions under discussion. The hermeneutic of suspicion assumes there is always some deeper motive – what the writer/society (in this case, the Catholic Church) is really trying to accomplish. And this is not the stuff that conversations, friendships, and learning are made of: a constant wondering if the other person is, deep down, up to something else (and, of course, something worse).
But then, mutual enrichment is not exactly desirable when one is dealing with a totalizing, haughty, carnal system. Rather, such a system can only be opposed, and that by something as different from it as light is from darkness – namely, the simple sincerity of Evangelicalism. Thus De Chirico writes near the end of the article that
If there is to be an alternative to Catholicism, we cannot rest content with criticism aimed at this or that point; if this is what we were to do, it would not be a question of alternative but of simply correcting one aspect of the system which, nevertheless, is capable of absorbing changes without modifying its basic structure (p. 21).
But of course, it is a question of (absolute, binary) alternatives, and of overthrowing basic structures, so the task at hand is consequently not about engaging Catholic thought – it is about opposing it.
I don’t want to start psychologizing Dr. Allison based on De Chirico’s article, but I do want to mention what was going through my mind as, having read Allison’s book, I was reading De Chirico’s article. Namely, the quotation above seems to summarize exactly the project of Allison’s book: not an engagement with this-or-that point of Catholic theology, but a systematic evaluation of Catholic thought from the perspective of its alternative, which is ‘Evangelical Theology’ taken as a coherent system.
Now, Dr. Leithart and others have questioned Dr. Allison’s use of this term, ‘Evangelical Theology’, as perhaps presumptuously over-broad; but I think that now I better understand why Dr. Allison uses it. I may be wrong, but it seems that he presents ‘Evangelical Theology’ as a unified system because it is intended as the logical contradictory of ‘Catholic Theology’ (that is, the truth of one necessitates the falsity of the other). Thus, Dr. Allison takes his lead from De Chirico not only with respect to the latter’s philosophical and theological critique of the Catholic nature-grace and Christ-Church axes, but also regarding the great drama these axes are a part of: an all-or-nothing, binary, War of the Last Alliance-style conflict between two great religious systems: the Catholic and the Evangelical. Thus, the goal of Evangelical interaction with Catholic thought is not engagement and mutual growth, but opposition, full-stop.
This is why, as Dr. Echeverria has observed, (a) Dr. Allison’s stance toward the Catholic faith, after decades of interaction, has not progressed further than ‘intrigue and critique’, why (b) his final chapter of Roman Catholic Theology and Practice is titled ‘Evangelical Ministry with Catholics’, i.e. how to evangelize Catholics, rather than ‘Ecumenical Ministry with Catholics’ i.e. how to…well, begin ecumenical relations with Catholics, and why (c) there is no mention in his book of how Evangelicals might benefit from any facet of Catholic theology or practice. This is not a conversation between partners, but a confrontation between adversaries. His book lacks the strong language of De Chirico’s article (which I appreciate!), but the substance all seems to be there. The hermeneutic of suspicion is not pronounced, but the absolutist stance that results from it is: there can be no exchange – what could be gained? – only critique. It is an issue of standing (Evangelical Theology) or falling (Catholic Theology).
De Chirico begins his article with the question: Evangelicals and Catholics: do they share a common future? With the view of the Catholic Church he puts forward, any reasonable person could only answer ‘No’. I, needless to say, disagree. Whichever position one holds, however, it does seem that if real communication were to occur between these two traditions, there would be no other option than to put off the hermeneutic of suspicion and take up a hermeneutic of charity.