Evangelical Ecclesiology: Through the Pope’s Eyes


Journeys of Faith is the title of a recent book which contains a number of biographical narratives about people in the US context who have changed their Christian allegiance from one church or tradition to another.[1] It is a fascinating account on the complex reality of religious changes in peoples’ lives.

Journeys of faith are happening all over the world at all times. Religious migrations are ordinary events whereby people change the direction of their spiritual pilgrimages. In some areas, like Latin America, it is a given that the Roman Catholic community has been declining in its numbers at the expense of various Evangelical and Pentecostal churches for some decades now. Why did it happen? Sociologists and historians are giving some answers. The important issue was recently addressed by Benedict XVI and his comments now deserve some consideration.

No Theological Reasons

In receiving the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Colombia (June 22nd), Pope Ratzinger spoke about the Latin American context as a region where the Roman Catholic Church has to deal with a growing religious pluralism. Latin America in general, and Colombia in particular, used to be a more “unified” society from the religious point of view, but recent changes have transformed it into an extremely multifaceted area. Benedict XVI explicitly refers to “pentecostal and evangelical communities” as very active realities and primary agents for this change.

At this point he asks the “why” question before asking the “what to do” question. Instead of providing his own attempt to explain the situation, Ratzinger quotes the document drafted by the 2007 Conference of the Latin American Bishops which provides an interesting insight. The relevant section of the document (n. 22), quoted verbatim by the Pope, can be summarized in this way:

most people in Latin America leave the Roman Catholic Church not because of what the “non catholic” groups believe, but because of how they live. The fundamental reason is not doctrinal but instead lifestyle related. The problems they see are not dogmatic, but pastoral. They do not distance themselves from the Catholic Church for theological reasons, but instead out of practical concerns.

In other words the challenge that Pentecostals and Evangelicals represent for the Roman Catholic Church has little to do with their different doctrines of the Bible, authority, sacraments, the Church, salvation, etc., but with the quality of life they seem to live and to offer to outsiders.

The Answer is Even More Catholicism

The “what to do” answer is simple and is a consequence of the “why” question. There is nothing to change as far as the doctrine of the RC Church is concerned. The challenge is to become “better” Catholics: more hospitable, more inclusive, more compassionate. Actually, the Pope encourages the Colombian bishops to achieve this better quality of Catholic life by promoting the “catholic” distinctive features which are near to the Latin American soul: adherence to the traditions of the Church, the deepening of Marian spirituality, and the practice of a richer devotional life. The cure is not less Roman Catholicism and more Evangelicalism, but instead more Roman Catholicism in need of becoming richer and more profound than practical Evangelicalism.

Between Hardware and Software

To put it simply, in the Pope’s eyes Evangelicalism does not seem to have a theological “hardware” that is solid enough to be a real alternative to Roman Catholicism. This Pope has repeatedly argued that Evangelicalism is too doctrinally liquid and ecclesiastically unstable to be taken as a serious theological counterpart. However, what Evangelicalism has is good “software” of the Christian life, a better approach to the spiritual quest than present-day Latin American Catholicism can offer to the people. Catholics should therefore improve their “software” without changing their well established “hardware”. They should work on the output by reinforcing their DNA. Finally they should better their performances by closely abiding to what their Catechism teaches.

The Pope’s speech to the Columbian bishops is yet another instance of how Evangelicalism is perceived by Benedict XVI: a curious experiment that attracts people with its ability to grapple with their experiential expectations, but with little theological substance to be a real concern for the Roman Catholic Church. It also reminds us of the way forward that the Pope foresees for the future of his Church: an inner renewal without any doctrinal reform by way of grasping better its past and living tradition.

Leonardo De Chirico


Rome, 18th July 2012

[1] Robert L. Plummer (ed.), Journeys of Faith. Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Anglicanism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. The hardware/software metaphor is really helpful.

    I already knew that not only the Pope, but many Catholics have the same view of Protestant ecclesiology.

    But Sola Scriptura is still a better grounding than Sola Ecclesia.

  2. As a former Catholic who is now a Protestant Minister I find it interesting that 2 out of the 3 distinctives that the Pope encourages Latin Americans to focus on (worship of Mary and adherence to the traditions of the church) are portions of ‘hardware’ that can be dismantled by the Word of God itself.

    “Too doctrinally liquid??” – um,…physician heal thyself.

    1. According to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor, Dr. Russell Moore, in our sex-soaked culture, Evangelicalism has traded-in the blessed Virgin Mary for Margaret Sanger:


      The HHS Contraception Mandate is just one example how this worship of Sanger and her Pill is impacting the Church.

      When we relegate Mary to a spot under the Christmas tree, something will always fill the void. In our day, sexual anarchy is fills this vacuum.

  3. While the words of Pope Benedict break my heart, as a Latino who has been to several Latin American countries and see Evangelicalism there first hand, I am sorry to say that what he says is true. Not that I agree with the Roman Catholic position whatsoever, but the truth is that in Latin America the way one lives tends to be of more importance than theological truth. The fact is that most believers in Latin America think very little about doctrine; holiness is of much more importance to them. It’s a view of holiness that very often leads to a legalism.
    For all the talk of Evangelicalism’s growth in the global south, I remain skeptical about the depth of this growth in terms of theological faithfulness.

  4. Thanks, Erby, for that insider’s perspective. This past Sunday I attended the Annual Feast of Mount Carmel, the oldest and largest Catholic procession and festival in the country, I am told. I intend to write an article about it with reference to Augustine’s “On True Religion.” The point is the same one you have made: very often–in the fourth century as in today–the church defines herself by culture and experience over and against objective standards of doctrine.

  5. I think Chris hit the nail on the head here! I grew up Protestant. I went through some personal things in my 20’s which led to a high risk, unplanned pregnancy. Doctor’s gave me a 20% survival rate for my baby and seemed to encourage abortion. I knew the Lord from my youth and decided to turn back to Him. I had a beautiful, healthy baby boy. I eventually married a great guy and we had another baby. My son and his “step” father have an amazing relationship. My husband is a cradle catholic and my son attends a wonderful catholic school. I decided to attend RCIA and was welcomed into the church during the Easter Vigil Mass this year. I also attend Bible study at a local Presbyterian church. My experience has led me to the conclusion that the Bible is the LIFE GIVING, literal word of God. God’s word speaks to us personally when we make that decision to follow Christ, and have a relationship with the Lord. NOTHING compares to the voice of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer. It is not just a feeling or emotional charade. When the Holy Spirit speaks to you and through you there is no mistaking it’s CLEAR voice. I don’t care if your Catholic or Protestant or Evangelical, etc… I find beauty in all forms of Christianity. But I have found that when people are born again the experience is one of peace, community, and communion, a GIFT that we sinners did nothing to deserve. There are people who have and don’t have that relationship in ALL Christian churches. All that I can speak to is the FACT that if you ask God into your heart, life will change, and the answers will be clear as day 🙂

  6. @Eric;

    I didn’t read anywhere above that the pope was encouraging “worship of Mary.” As a matter of act, I would ask you to kindly buy a catechism, (their cheap on amazon used) and read what the Church actually teaches regarding Mary. As a former Catholic and now a protestant minister, you confirm the reality that Catholics who leave the church never understood their Catholic faith. I know, I was one of them too, but came back once I realized what the Church teaches, which is a very different thing than what protestants say the Church teaches.
    I would encourage you Eric, for the sake of charity in the body of Christ, that you retract your statement regarding worship of Mary. It is truly offensive and doesn’t promote the irenic dialog that I believe Chris Castaldo is attempting to pursue with Catholics in his ministry and blog.

  7. eric:
    Please check out this link.

    For .01 cent, you can find everything you would ever desire to know about what the Church teaches. It would truly benefit you to know what the Catholic faith is about, especially in your position as a Protestant minister. Think about it. You need spend one cent to greatly improve your knowledge of the faith you left and it will give you much more credibility when you make statements about Catholicism in com boxes. I will offer to buy and send you one if money is an issue.

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