Roman Catholics and Their One Kingdom: A Report on John Paul II's Ecclesia in Asia

David VanDrunen
Thursday, July 5th 2007
Sep/Oct 2000

Investigating the nature of the kingdom of God means that one must come to grips with the nature of the world outside the kingdom. How Christians evaluate the spiritual status of non-Christian cultures and religions inevitably shapes their understanding of the Church, the Gospel, evangelism, and cultural engagement. A recent Roman Catholic address directly addressing such issues is Pope John Paul II’s Ecclesia in Asia, (1) a “post-synodical apostolic exhortation” given to the Roman Catholic community on the Asian continent last November.

This present article offers a survey of his address and reflections on its significance for confessional Protestants. As Ecclesia in Asia is quite lengthy, this analysis is not comprehensive. Rather, it focuses on John Paul’s discussions of non-Christian religions and their followers, the way the Gospel is meant to confront non-Christians, and the nature and necessity of evangelism. As ecumenical dialogue continues apace between Roman Catholics and various Protestant groups, producing claims of increasing agreement on the doctrine of salvation and its proclamation, these matters are pressing. Ecclesia in Asia presents a compelling vision of the Roman Catholic outlook, yet displays throughout that it remains fundamentally at odds with the theology of the Reformation.

Non-Christians and Non-Christian Religions

Ecclesia in Asia makes many claims, both directly and indirectly, about the spiritual condition of non-Christians and their religions. (Citations throughout this article are indicated by the section number of the address.) What may be surprising to many people who are only generally familiar with Roman Catholic teaching is the generosity shown by John Paul toward those outside the Church’s bounds. Though there remains a perception that the Roman Catholic Church’s high claims about its own status entail a corresponding condemnation of others’ convictions, both those on the left and right in the Roman Catholic Church warmly embrace and, in a sense, “Christianize,” much that is outside.

Consider, for example, the way John Paul describes the orientation of all people toward the truth and toward God himself. Commenting on the character of the Asian people, John Paul admires their “intense yearning for God” (9). Likewise, he notes the conviction of the Church that “deep within the people, cultures and religions of Asia there is a thirst for ‘living water'” (18). Even before proclamation of the Gospel, people possess an expectation (perhaps even unconsciously) of knowing the truth about God, man, and salvation (20). However, John Paul does not see such an expectation arising in people apart from God’s work. Even for those who have not confessed Jesus Christ, it is none other than the Holy Spirit who is the origin of humanity’s noble ideas. The Spirit is constantly sowing seeds of truth among all people in their various religions, cultures, and philosophies (15).

All this raises the perennial theological question of whether those outside the Church-and without faith in Jesus Christ-can be saved. The answer of Ecclesia in Asia, in harmony with the official and unofficial teaching of Roman Catholicism, is unabashedly “yes.” It may be helpful to summarize the Roman Catholic Church’s position presented in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Though the ancient phrase “outside the Church there is no salvation” is still affirmed, it is directly applied only to those who know the truth about the Roman Catholic Church, yet refuse to enter it. Others, who nevertheless seek God sincerely and try to do his will, may also achieve eternal salvation. (2) John Paul professes similar sentiments in Ecclesia in Asia. Jesus Christ is proclaimed as the “one universal Mediator,” so that even those without explicit faith receive salvation as a grace from him (14). The word “explicit” in the previous sentence is surely significant. The Roman Catholic Church continues to assert that faith is necessary for salvation. (3) Yet all faith is not explicit, and some Roman Catholic theologians have even spoken about an “anonymous Christianity.” (4)

Christ and the Church as the Perfection of What Is Incomplete

An important related question is how the Church and explicit profession of Christ are related to these “non-Christian” longings for God and his truth. In contrast to the thought of the great reformers, the Roman Catholic Church continues to view the ideas and affections of the nonbeliever as in fundamental harmony with the Christian faith. Non-Christian, or perhaps better, pre-Christian, beliefs and practices are regarded not so much as false or wicked but as incomplete and in need of fulfillment. Nature is good but requires grace to make it perfect. In the famous words of thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” (5) And though the precise relationship between nature and grace has been a point of controversy among Roman Catholic theologians in recent years, this basic conviction continues to hold sway, and was reaffirmed in 1998 by Pope John Paul in his encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason). (6)

Ecclesia in Asia is replete with similar language. John Paul describes the Holy Spirit’s work in non-Christian cultures and religions as “preparation” for the Gospel (15-16). The Gospel enters to perfect what is yet incomplete. It “responds” to the “profound longing for the Absolute” and ensures “integral human development.” The Gospel can be presented as “the fulfillment of the yearnings expressed in the mythologies and folklore of the Asian peoples.” Jesus Christ is then seen as the one whose grace “brings to fruition the ‘seeds’ of divine Wisdom already present in the lives, religions and peoples of Asia” (20). The theme of “fulfillment” recurs repeatedly. John Paul praises Asia as the cradle of the world’s major religions, but claims that their values “await their fulfillment in Jesus Christ” (6). Even more expansively, he proclaims that in Christ the “authentic values” of all religious and cultural traditions find their “fullness and realization” (14). For John Paul, the good things found outside the pale of the Church-and there are many-are essentially anticipations and incomplete expressions of the Gospel’s truth as explicitly proclaimed by the Church. The Pope attempts to give this a profound theological grounding. He explains that the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is the Savior of all people, can be fully understood only in terms of the communion of life of the Trinity. All people are called to share in this communion and, indeed, all can (12). Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church is the privileged place of encounter between God and man, where God reveals the mystery of his inner life (24). Here again, therefore, the Church and its message are portrayed as providing depth to, rather than as correcting, the beliefs of the world.

The Nature and Necessity of Evangelism

The transition from non-Christian to Christian is a smooth process for Ecclesia in Asia, because it is essentially a development from an implicit to an explicit Christianity. Conviction about this process inevitably shapes the Roman Catholic view of evangelism. However, the nature of evangelism is contested among Roman Catholics. When the move to Christianity is a move from something good to something better, do Christians have the responsibility to proclaim the Gospel explicitly and call others to the Christian faith? If others possess Christ and salvation apart from such proclamation, is this proclamation a necessary aspect of the Church’s missionary task? John Paul suggests that this issue is confusing (19), and one senses that clarifying this matter was a central concern in delivering this address.

Allow a personal illustration reflecting the kind of “confusion” that John Paul surely has in mind. A professor of mine at the Catholic university where I study told us about his trip to a Muslim country many years ago. There he visited a missionary study center run by Jesuits. This study center existed to instruct Muslims about textual criticism, to enable them to apply historical-critical methods to their study of the Koran. Proclamation of the Christian Gospel was not on the agenda. A number of years later, my professor saw one of these Jesuits somewhere else and asked how the study center was doing. He no longer knew, he responded, because his Jesuits had closed shop and the Dominicans had taken over. And the Dominicans, he explained, were evangelizing. How did he feel about that, my professor inquired? The former missionary simply pointed one finger toward the sky, as if to say, “God alone knows.”

Are Roman Catholics to do as the Jesuit missionaries to the Muslims were apparently trying to do, namely, aid the other’s tradition through various means and rely on its internal resources for its growth and flourishing? Or are they to do as the Dominicans were apparently doing, namely, explicitly proclaim Christ as the fulfillment of already held beliefs? John Paul’s answer in Ecclesia in Asia is that both approaches play an essential role within the Church’s missionary task. Given the harmonious relationship between the Christian and non-Christian in Roman Catholic thought, this answer makes sense. Since the Roman Catholic Church sees a virtual continuum between what is non-Christian and what is Christian, pushing from below (our Jesuits’ method) and pulling from above (our Dominicans’ method) both serve the same cause: encouraging people toward an ever greater realization of the truth. Neglecting the former method risks imposing the Gospel as something foreign to a culture rather than as its completion. Neglecting the latter means that the name of Christ, who is the ultimate object of human striving, is not made known and, hence, that the final perfection of a culture is unattainable.

Pope John Paul explains that the kinds of cultural, social, and educative work that we saw the Jesuits engaged in are necessary aspects of the Church’s mission. He explains that the Church tries to reach out to all people to build together a civilization of love, which is founded upon the universal values of peace, justice, solidarity, and freedom. All these values find their fulfillment in Christ (32). Likewise, the Church is committed to the care of the sick, as a vital part of its mission of offering the “saving grace of Christ to the whole person” (36). The vision of transforming society is also held forth (8). All this proceeds through ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, which John Paul also sees as essential to the missionary task (30-31). Yet he strongly warns that cultural development and vibrant dialogue are not the entire answer. He refers to the “absolute priority” of evangelism as the preaching of Jesus Christ (2), and states that there is no true evangelism without explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord (19). The universal presence of the Holy Spirit, which John Paul so clearly affirms, is no excuse for neglecting this explicit preaching of the only Savior (16). (7) Indeed, proclaiming Jesus Christ as the only Savior for all people is identified by John Paul as the Church’s “unique contribution” to the Asian people (10).

John Paul affirms that cultural work and explicit proclamation can, and must, hang together. The Pope explains that “the building of the kingdom cannot avoid borrowing elements from human cultures.” True, the Church renews cultures and imparts its values to them. But at the same time, the Church adopts positive elements already found in the various cultures as it makes the faith part of peoples’ heritage. For evangelists, this two-way process is obligatory (21).

Reflections and Critique

Many significant issues are raised here-and even more addressed in Ecclesia in Asia, which this article does not address. I wish to consider three matters that I believe are particularly pertinent to the contemporary theology and practice of confessional Protestant churches. While not exhaustive, the following comments are meant to provoke reflection as we wrestle with these issues, particularly in response to the ever-present challenges of the Roman Catholic Church.

First, this article has stressed John Paul’s understanding of the relationship between nature and grace. John Paul, reflecting the long-held (though sometimes disputed) position of the Roman Catholic Church, explains the relationship as one of fundamental harmony. That is, the natural abilities and accomplishments of people, apart from knowledge of Christ or his Gospel, are viewed in significant continuity with the Church’s teaching. It is not that everything proceeding from nature is good-John Paul has been a great cultural critic throughout his career. But, in nature, the good is predominant, and the Gospel confronts it not so much to challenge it as to complete and fulfill it. Grace perfects nature.

My own Reformed tradition, as well as other confessional Protestant traditions, objects to this paradigm. Reformed Christianity challenges the idea that all (or most) are sincere seekers of the truth, or that their virtues and philosophies are seeds of a more complete Christian truth. Rather, “there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10-11). All people know of God’s divinity, eternity, and basic moral requirements apart from the Gospel proclamation, yet “their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). A different view of the Gospel proclamation naturally follows. Reformed thought views the preaching of Christ and his salvation as a clear challenge to those ignorant of it. Though seeking to commend its truth to all who hear, it takes with utmost seriousness the warning of Paul that the preaching of Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). This has not been meant to negate everything that is not specifically Christian. Calvin’s incisive discussion of common grace, and its (at times controversy-provoking) development by later Reformed theologians, has guarded against this. The good deeds and insightful ideas of non-Christians on any number of matters is recognized-yet always with the caveat that the virtue of these deeds and ideas is only superficial. The basic attitude of every nonbeliever is rebellion against God and hostility toward his truth, and such expression can only be overturned by the Gospel, not perfected by it.

This divergence between Roman Catholic and Reformation thought on the relationship of nature and grace has been, and continues to be, fundamental. It has immediate bearing on one’s views of God and humanity, sin and salvation, and the Church and world. When calls are frequently being issued today, especially by those associated with the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” movement, urging ecumenical world evangelism, this crucial issue must be addressed. How can they labor together who profess two different views on what the Gospel proclamation is meant to accomplish?

Secondly, another particularly pertinent, and related, set of issues raised by Ecclesia in Asia is the way the Christian faith is to contextualize its message and to transform the context. John Paul is adamant that inculturating the faith is essential to the task of evangelism. Christianity’s message is to be tailored to the cultural context within which it is presented. Likewise, the Christian faith is to transform the culture it meets, just as the culture shapes the form of the Gospel. Such ideas are not immediately at odds with the Reformation’s theological framework. Contextualization and transformation are much-discussed ideas within conservative Protestant circles. We must admit that bringing the Gospel into a new culture does require sensitivity, and even adjustment in its presentation. Obviously, a different language requires different words to describe the great truths of the faith. Likewise, few would deny that Christian conviction has an impact on our lives within the broader cultures in which we live. Numerous examples could be given of the positive effect that successful missionary endeavors have had on societies all over the world.

Nevertheless, considering how John Paul handles these issues ought at least to provoke caution from those in the Reformed and other confessional Protestant traditions. His calls for inculturation of the Gospel are clearly wedded to his convictions on nature and grace: if the Gospel comes to complete a culture, then preserving the culture in all its integrity and preaching the Gospel only within these bounds are necessary. Any Reformed attempts at inculturation, or contextualization, must proceed from different premises, and should undoubtedly be more sanguine. Similar things could be said about the idea of cultural transformation. Though the idea persists in many Reformed communities that “transformation” is a distinctly Calvinist idea, its roots are probably more accurately located in Roman Catholic soil. Once again, John Paul’s reasoning is instructive. His call for the transformation of cultures is grounded in the harmony of nature and grace. The transformation of culture is part of the completion and perfection of the good in nature.

Crucially different is the Augustinian (and Reformational) view that there are two cities, one of God and one of Man. Though the two are constantly interacting in the present age, they will remain in fundamental disharmony with each other until their complete separation at the Last Day. John Paul’s vision of transformation is built on his conviction that there is ultimately but one City, of whose unity the Roman Catholic Church is the sacrament. The Church’s desire to transform the world is understandable on these premises. But it is difficult to see how understandable it is on Augustinian premises about the fundamental-and permanent-conflict between (sinful) nature and grace, and between the two cities.

Finally, emphatic warnings must be given to those tempted by Roman Catholic embraces of Protestants as their brothers in Christ. Here again, we enter into a discussion that deserves more than a few words. Yet my warning is one that Ecclesia in Asia clearly calls forth. John Paul and the Roman Catholic Church, it is true, acknowledge a special bond with non-Catholic Christians based upon a common confession of Jesus as Lord. Ecumenical dialogue is distinguished from interreligious dialogue. However, non-Catholic Christians find themselves in much the same position as those of other religions, and even atheists. According to John Paul, all non-Catholics can be saved. All non-Catholics who are saved are saved apart from the ordinary means of salvation. All non-Catholics who are saved are saved through a mysterious and imperfect communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It seems fair to say that the difference between non-Catholic Christians and those of another (or no) religion is, for Roman Catholics, essentially only one of degree. Confessional Protestants are considered closer to Roman Catholics than the others, but the difference is more quantitative than qualitative. According to the Roman Catholic view, both non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians pursue many true beliefs and virtuous actions, but the beliefs and virtues of both stand in similar need of completion and perfection in communion with the Church of Rome. Ecumenical brotherhood is not always as attractive as it first sounds.

May the churches holding to the faith of the Reformation be well instructed on these matters before rushing headlong into mission at the expense of message.

1 [ Back ] My copy of this document was downloaded from the Vatican Web page ( The address has been published in Origins, vol. 29 (November 18, 1999), 23: 357-84. References to the address in this article are cited by section number.
2 [ Back ] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), par. 846-847. Also relevant is this document's interpretation of the doctrine of the necessity of baptism for salvation (par. 1260).
3 [ Back ] Catechism, par. 161.
4 [ Back ] One example is from an article which I will cite again later, written by perhaps the most prominent Roman Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner: "Anonymous Christianity and the Missionary Task of the Church," Theological Investigations, vol. 12 (Baltimore: Helican Press, 1961), 161-78.
5 [ Back ] Summa Theologiae 1a 1.9.
6 [ Back ] Fides et Ratio (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1998). One particularly important contribution to the contemporary Roman Catholic debate on nature and grace is Karl Rahner's "Concerning the Relationship between Nature and Grace," Theological Investigations, vol. 1, 297-317.
7 [ Back ] Despite the apparent Roman Catholic "confusion" on the question of the necessity of evangelism, the issue has been addressed, at times authoritatively, in the recent past. For example, see the papal encyclical of Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, sect. 22 (in Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage, ed. David J. O'Brien and Thomas A. Shannon [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998], 311). See also Catechism, par. 848. For a somewhat different take, see Rahner's "Anonymous Christianity and the Missionary Task of the Church," cited above.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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