Has Rome Really Changed?

Chris Castaldo (HT: Justin Taylor) takes issue with R. C. Sproul’s claim:

The indisputable fact is that Rome made a number of strong, clear theological affirmations at the Council of Trent. Because Trent was an ecumenical council, it had all the weight of the infallibility of the church behind it. So, there is a sense in which Rome, in order to maintain her triumphant view of the authority of the church and of tradition, cannot repeal the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. As recently as the Catechism of the Catholic Church at the end of the twentieth century, it made clear, unambiguous reaffirmations of Trent’s teachings. So, those who argue that these teachings on justification are no longer relevant to the debate between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are simply ignoring what the church itself teaches. Yes, there are some Roman Catholic priests and scholars who dispute some of the teachings of their communion, but as far as the Roman hierarchy is concerned, the Council of Trent stands immutable on its teaching regarding justification. We cannot ignore what Trent said in evaluating where we stand in relation to the Roman Catholic Church and the ongoing relevance of the Reformation.

Castaldo, a former Roman Catholic, now evangelical, who is writing a PhD diss. on the doctrine of justification in Peter Martyr Vermigli and John Henry Newman, responds:

The notion that Rome doesn’t modify authoritative teaching such as the articles and canons of Trent is, with all due respect, out of step with reality. If you were looking for an example of a church that hasn’t changed for over a millennium, you’ll want to consider Eastern Orthodox Churches, not Rome. In the words of Calvin Scholar A.N.S. Lane, “The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, has in the last generation changed more than the great majority of Protestant churches. This reality is often obscured by the Roman method of changing, which is not to disown the past but to reinterpret it. If we expect the Roman Church to disown Trent we will have a long wait; if we want to see Trent reinterpreted, we need only look around.”

He continues by contrasting Unam Sanctam (1302) with post-Vatican II (1962-65) developments (via Hans Küng) that after Vatican II Rome, in effect, Rome no longer views Trent as a fixed constitutional document but rather more like a living constitutional document that must be re-interpreted. Castaldo argues that, in fact, Rome has re-interpreted it, in certain ways. He concedes that, in some ways, Rome has not changed her doctrine.

Is he right? Well, I commend to you the reading of the Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church. Look at the footnotes. Read the text. What does Rome actually say? There is no question whether Rome, post-Vatican II has changed in some ways. The question is, however, whether Rome’s doctrine changed substantially. To be sure, considered sociologically, Rome is not monolithic (and never has been). Rome is the quintessential “big tent” organization. In this regard, I agree with Darryl Hart, who has been pointing out to the Called to Communion folks that the Roman communion they’re marketing to naive evangelical and Reformed folk doesn’t really exist any more.

Further, there is no doubt that there was a party within Rome before, during, and after Vatican II, that wanted to blur the boundaries between Rome and the Protestants in certain ways. Joseph Fitzmyer essentially concedes the Protestant understanding of justification. Idris Cardinal Cassidy confides to evangelicals that he had a born-again experience. The problem with these sorts of cases is that, however, interesting they are they amount to sociology more than dogma.  They don’t really tell us what Rome confesses. On an institutional level certainly Vatican II brought about other sorts of changes, e.g., vernacular masses, vernacular Bible translations, a new interest in Bible reading and study, a certain softening of the public rhetoric regarding Protestants and other non-Roman Christians but the question remains whether there has been a substantial change in Rome’s doctrine.

R. C. is right. That’s why I endorsed his book, Are We Together? so strongly, because he tells the uncomfortable truth, the truth that so many would like to go away: the essential questions between Rome and the Reformation haven’t changed. I do agree with Castaldo’s point regarding the ethics involved in the way some are re-interpreting the Roman tradition. There is a certain disingenuousness afoot here. We see it in the approach of the volume, The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide? The objective, historical, theological, and ecclesiological questions are trumped by an appeal to religious experience. Doctrine is not merely or even firstly a reflection of religious experience. It is firstly a statement about what is objectively true. It is an account of objective divine revelation.

It is true that, considered from a political perspective, the progressives in Rome, e.g., Küng) were probably “winning” from Vatican II until the election of John Paul II. From the point forward, however, things began to swing in the other direction and Benedict XVI has continued that trajectory. The last two popes have sought to limit the potential damage to the tradition from Vatican II. The progressives are no longer in the driver’s seat. Thus, what R. R. Reno writes about the the struggle between the political left and right within Rome is just as true of the theological left and right:

The answer, at least in part, can be found in the changing character of the American Catholic Church. In the years after the Second Vatican Council, liberals thought that the future was theirs. They saw the way in which the hierarchy acquiesced to dissent in the aftermath of Humane Vitae. Their way of thinking seemed natural, inevitable. But it wasn’t so. During the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the Church slowly solidified around a vision more traditional than trendy. Liberals went from being presumptive heirs to embattled outcasts.

Finally, we don’t have to guess at what Rome confesses about how Roman Christians are to think about Vatican II and change. In 2007 in a document published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church.” I won’t comment on it. You read it for yourself. It seems quite clear to me that the position of the Roman church is that the position of the Roman church has not substantially changed.

Related Posts and Resources:

Is the Reformation Over?
Was the Reformation a Big Misunderstanding?
Resources on Roman Catholicism




The Second Vatican Council, with its Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, and its Decrees on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio) and the Oriental Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum), has contributed in a decisive way to the renewal of Catholic ecclesiology. The Supreme Pontiffs have also contributed to this renewal by offering their own insights and orientations for praxis: Paul VI in his Encyclical Letter Ecclesiam suam (1964) and John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint (1995).

The consequent duty of theologians to expound with greater clarity the diverse aspects of ecclesiology has resulted in a flowering of writing in this field. In fact it has become evident that this theme is a most fruitful one which, however, has also at times required clarification by way of precise definition and correction, for instance in the declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), the Letter addressed to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Communionis notio (1992), and the declaration Dominus Iesus (2000), all published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The vastness of the subject matter and the novelty of many of the themes involved continue to provoke theological reflection. Among the many new contributions to the field, some are not immune from erroneous interpretation which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt. A number of these interpretations have been referred to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Given the universality of Catholic doctrine on the Church, the Congregation wishes to respond to these questions by clarifying the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium which are open to misunderstanding in the theological debate.



Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?


The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.

This was exactly what John XXIII said at the beginning of the Council.1 Paul VI affirmed it2 and commented in the act of promulgating the Constitution Lumen gentium: “There is no better comment to make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach. In simple terms that which was assumed, is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation”.3 The Bishops repeatedly expressed and fulfilled this intention.4

What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?

Christ “established here on earth” only one Church and instituted it as a “visible and spiritual community”5, that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted.6 “This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him”.7

In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church8, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.

It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.9 Nevertheless, the word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe… in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church.10

Why was the expression “subsists in” adopted instead of the simple word “is”?

The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth” which are found outside her structure, but which “as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity”.11

“It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church”12.

Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term “Church” in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?

The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. “Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds”13, they merit the title of “particular or local Churches”14, and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches.15
“It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature”.16 However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches.17
On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history.18

Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of “Church” with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?

According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery19 cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense20.

The Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ratified and confirmed these Responses, adopted in the Plenary Session of the Congregation, and ordered their publication.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 29, 2007, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

William Cardinal Levada
Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
Titular Archbishop of Sila

[1] John XXIII, Address of 11 October 1962: “…The Council…wishes to transmit Catholic doctrine, whole and entire, without alteration or deviation…To be sure, at the present time, it is necessary that Christian doctrine in its entirety, and with nothing taken away from it, is accepted with renewed enthusiasm, and serene and tranquil adherence… it is necessary that the very same doctrine be understood more widely and more profoundly as all those who sincerely adhere to the Christian, Catholic and Apostolic faith strongly desire …it is necessary that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which is owed the obedience of faith, be explored and expounded in the manner required by our times. For the deposit of faith itself, or the truths which are contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; another thing is the way in which they are expressed, with however the same meaning and signification”: AAS 54 [1962] 791-792
[2] Cf. Paul VI, Address of 29 September 1963: AAS 55 [1963] 847-852.
[3] Paul VI, Address of 21 November 1964: AAS 56 [1964] 1009-1010.
[4] The Council wished to express the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. This is clear from the discussions on the decree Unitatis redintegratio. The Schema of the Decree was proposed on the floor of the Council on 23.9.1964 with a Relatio (Act Syn III/II 296-344). The Secretariat for the Unity of Christians responded on 10.11.1964 to the suggestions sent by Bishops in the months that followed (Act Syn III/VII 11-49). Herewith are quoted four texts from this Expensio modorum concerning this first response.
A) [In Nr. 1 (Prooemium) Schema Decreti: Act Syn III/II 296, 3-6]
“Pag. 5, lin. 3-6: Videtur etiam Ecclesiam catholicam inter illas Communiones comprehendi, quod falsum esset.
R(espondetur): Hic tantum factum, prout ab omnibus conspicitur, describendum est. Postea clare affirmatur solam Ecclesiam catholicam esse veram Ecclesiam Christi” (Act Syn III/VII 12).
B) [In Caput I in genere: Act Syn III/II 297-301]
“4 – Expressius dicatur unam solam esse veram Ecclesiam Christi; hanc esse Catholicam Apostolicam Romanam; omnes debere inquirere, ut eam cognoscant et ingrediantur ad salutem obtinendam…
R(espondetur): In toto textu sufficienter effertur, quod postulatur. Ex altera parte non est tacendum etiam in aliis communitatibus christianis inveniri veritates revelatas et elementa ecclesialia”(Act Syn III/VII 15). Cf. also ibid pt. 5.
C) [In Caput I in genere: Act Syn III/II 296s]
“5 – Clarius dicendum esset veram Ecclesiam esse solam Ecclesiam catholicam romanam…
R(espondetur): Textus supponit doctrinam in constitutione ‘De Ecclesia’ expositam, ut pag. 5, lin. 24-25 affirmatur” (Act Syn III/VII 15). Thus the commission whose task it was to evaluate the responses to the Decree Unitatis redintegratio clearly expressed the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church and its unicity, and understood this doctrine to be founded in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium.
D) [In Nr. 2 Schema Decreti: Act Syn III/II 297s]
“Pag. 6, lin. 1- 24: Clarius exprimatur unicitas Ecclesiae. Non sufficit inculcare, ut in textu fit, unitatem Ecclesiae.
R(espondetur): a) Ex toto textu clare apparet identificatio Ecclesiae Christi cum Ecclesia catholica, quamvis, ut oportet, efferantur elementa ecclesialia aliarum communitatum”.
“Pag. 7, lin. 5: Ecclesia a successoribus Apostolorum cum Petri successore capite gubernata (cf. novum textum ad pag. 6, lin.33-34) explicite dicitur ‘unicus Dei grex’ et lin. 13 ‘una et unica Dei Ecclesia’ ” (Act Syn III/VII).
The two expressions quoted are those of Unitatis redintegratio 2.5 e 3.1.
[5] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8.1.
[6] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 3.2; 3.4; 3.5; 4.6.
[7] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen gentium, 8.2.
[8] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, 1.1: AAS 65 [1973] 397; Declaration Dominus Iesus, 16.3: AAS 92 [2000-II] 757-758; Notification on the Book of Leonardo Boff, OFM, “Church: Charism and Power”: AAS 77 [1985] 758-759.
[9] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, 11.3: AAS 87 [1995-II] 928.
[10] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8.2.
[11] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8.2.
[12] Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 3.4.
[13] Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 15.3; cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter Communionis notio, 17.2: AAS, 85 [1993-II] 848.
[14] Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 14.1.
[15] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 14.1; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, 56 f: AAS 87 [1995-II] 954 ff.
[16] Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 15.1.
[17] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter Communionis notio, 17.3: AAS 85 [1993-II] 849.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 22.3.
[20] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Dominus Iesus, 17.2: AAS 92 [2000-II] 758.

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  1. Rome: the more she changes, the more she remains the same…

    I wonder if some of the CtC converts will at some point have a bit of an awakening similar to that of the Tom Cruise character in the film “The Firm”…
    This isn’t the law firm I thought it was!

    Thanks for this, Dr. Clark.

  2. I’m finding that the real Riddle of Romanism (to tweak Pelikan’s title) is that they are always the same, yet constantly changing, yet constantly the same, yet always … etc.

    As you note, there have been some “changes” going on. While Rome would call them changes in “tone,” they’re so sweeping that I think they’re deluding themselves if they think they’re holding fast to the faith once delivered and constantly passed down via apostolic succession. One can hardly read pars 818 or 1400 of the catechism without saying, huh?! (Then reading the 2007 document will raise an even bigger HUH?!?!?!) Yes they’re citing Trent and any number of papal encyclicals, but they’re doing so in such an underhanded/self-serving way that it is hard to see that as a meaningful affirmation of continuity. (Remember, Newman’s approach heavily colors everything they say.)

    This is why RC Sproul’s book is indeed so excellent – he calls on the floor some of this silly equivocation on Rome’s part. And this is why what Darryl has been doing at Old Life is so spot on too. The CtC sect is in a dreamworld and people jumping on that bandwagon need to open their eyes to the real faith and praxis of Romanism.

  3. So, one implication is that because of what are truly substantive changes in doctrine and practice in the RCC, especially those changes associated with Vat. II (ca. 1965), the RCC is not as ancient and universal as she claims. In fact, not even as ancient as the OPC (1936), for example.:-)

  4. Jack,

    Look at that. The fifth question and response lays it out; It all melts down into the Mass. Who’d a thunk it. “Never mind the doctrine, we all go to Mass.” And who can blame them, Thomistic ontological nuance is a doozy. I always have enjoyed the whole; ‘It’s always been there in the deposit, but was not in need of being developed until it came into contention.” What others may deem a rose-colored or ‘convenient’ view of history and doctrinal cohesion, the RC’s like to attribute it to the response of ‘faith’ by the ‘faithful’. In the end it’s sola ecclesia.

  5. Clipped from a reply to the Viva Catholic apologetic site:

    “Yes, the Catholic church “never changes”… it merely engages in doctrinal development or “aggiornamento” — which stretches interpretations and frameworks thus enlarging the meaning of them. It’s like the scrawny kid who builds himself into a 250 pound bodybuilder — ‘aggiornamento’ would claim that this is no “change” but merely a “development”! And if that’s not crazy enough, the scrawny kid wants you to know that there was never a time when he wasn’t a hulking 250 pounder — only that he hadn’t officially been recognized as such! George Orwell would be impressed with such double-talk.”

    • The Scarlet Harlot does indeed change, she waxes worse & worse.
      I remember reading somewhere that ratzinger had mentioned that Vat II
      was only a pastoral council, so in effect was subordinate to Trent.

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