Book Review: Same Words, Different Worlds by Leonardo De Chirico (IVP, 2021)

This recent publication from IVP is timely given current conversations around the recent high-profile case of the conversion of former Church of England bishop, Michael Nazir-Ali, to the Catholic church. Such conversions happen every so often, and naturally produce a range of responses, from self-examination and critique (‘what are we doing wrong?’) to defence and attack (‘how could he have abandoned his convictions?!’) One reflection that has certainly been missing from my Twitter feed in response to this story is centred not on us but on Christ. ‘Have we/they lost sight of the Gospel?’ In a world where offence is swiftly taken, we are increasingly reticent to label things black or white, to call out the subtleties of false teaching or the dangers of distorting the Gospel. Led by a grace reflective of the grace shown to us in Christ, we would all do better to respond to the latest crisis or controversy with a rallying cry for Gospel submission, both in others and ourselves. (As a side note – on this idea of rightly centring the Gospel in both our personal lives, and our church lives, let me commend a new podcast series to you. ‘You’re Not Crazy’ is a new podcast from Sam Allberry and Ray Ortlund, which seeks to challenge believers on the issue of Gospel culture. It’s a helpful listen and a useful tool for personal reflection.)

I don’t know Bishop Nazir-Ali, and so I cannot tell you his motivations for his conversion. Nor can De Chirico, and this new book (at only 150 odd pages) can hardly answer all of the questions that surround these kinds of stories. What I think this book does really helpfully do is answer the question it poses in its subtitle: do Roman Catholics and Evangelicals believe the same Gospel? This in itself is a helpful contribution to current debates, but also a useful clarification, as through reading it I was painfully conscious of how little Roman Catholic history (especially of recent centuries) I was aware of.

Before launching into why I think this book is a helpful read, I ought to add one brief caveat to what will be a largely positive review. It seems to me that De Chirico at no point in the book defines ‘evangelical’. Roman Catholicism is held up against “evangelical Protestants” – though it is unclear exactly what De Chirico means by this term. Given the multitude of connotations the term ‘evangelical’ now has (some of which are the negative product of some of the very issues skirted around in my introduction) it would have been helpful for the book to have begun with a clear definition of this, rather than the apophatic presentation that emerges as the book goes on. (That is to say, evangelicalism is sort of defined by what it is not in the presentation of Roman Catholicism.)

Exploring the Key Issue

The fundamental premise of the book is explained by the author in his introduction. “This book will try to show why the Roman Catholic words are similar to those of the gospel and yet the Roman Catholic language is different from the gospel’s language.” (2.) Throughout his four chapters, De Chirico is concerned with exposing the incompatibilities between a reformed Christian faith, and a Roman Catholic one.

The question of whether or not the fundamental truths of the Gospel are found in Roman Catholicism is explored throughout. This process begins in Chapter One as De Chirico questions some common assumptions, challenging the idea that shared viewpoints are most important of all. This leads the author to exploring the Roman Catholic understanding of several words or phrases key to the Christian faith in Chapter Two. Chapter Three develops this, digging deeper into some of these terms (including an excellent section on the papacy), before Chapter Four draws these various discussions together in an examination of the fundamental theological core of the Catholic faith.

The book builds to consider “the ultimate issue: Yes and No to the Gospel” (114.) Using Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthains 1:15-22, De Chirico explains how the teaching of the Catholic Church leads to it simultaneously saying “yes and no” to Christ Himself. Whereas the five solas of the reformation answer an emphatic ‘yes’ to Christ, the Roman Catholic church presents a theology in tension. As De Chirico makes clear in his conclusion: “[the] words may be similar, but Rome’s theological world is different.” (120.)

Illuminating Another World

As the book progresses, De Chirico introduces the reader to this world well. In a book bursting with commentary from Roman Catholic figures, extracts from ecumenical texts and papal edicts, as well as extensive discussion on events like Vatican II and doctrines such as the place and person of Mary in Catholic thought, it can feel at times a deeply unfamiliar world. Whilst there is plenty of technical jargon in the book, it is almost always explained, and context is helpfully provided.

De Chirico’s expertise with regards to the subject matter is clear to see, but it allows the author to guide the reader not only through an evaluation of such alien topics, but also through an exposure of Catholic developments. This reviewer found for example the discussion around the developments in Catholic teaching discussed in Chapter Two, to be particularly insightful. De Chirico explains how the Roman Church has moved from a position of ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation) to a much softer approach towards those following other religions (58). Such a change, though buried in often complex Church writings, is carefully laid out in this book.

In his conclusion, De Chirico points out that the teachings of Roman Catholicism represent a distortion of the Gospel. Some of this distortion is obvious, such as Marian dogmas, but some are more subtle, such as the above development over often long periods of time (120). Same Words, Different Worlds is helpful in its ability to explain and explore the implications of both of these.

Conclusion

In his foreword to the book, Michael Reeves writes that Same Words, Different Worlds will show “how Rome can use words familiar to evangelicals… but intend quite different things by them.” (xi.) To me this seems a fair assessment, and De Chirico’s book is certainly up to that task. To that I would add that this short book is useful for illuminating a world that seems so opaque to most reformed, evangelical readers. (I would add, the several appendices at the end of the book also support this effort, especially Appendix II, which introduces the reader to nine key Catholic figures.) Whilst De Chirico is clear that there are believers within the Catholic church, he is honest in his assessment, that official Roman Catholic teaching takes much away from the truth of Scripture, and adds much to the simplicity of the Gospel. To return to the topic with which I opened this review, De Chirico’s book is a helpful aid for such conversations. Not just as it provides a helpful introduction to this other world, holding up evangelical truths against Roman Catholic teaching, but it also encourages the reader to rightly prioritise the Gospel in their theological and ecumenical convictions. This seems a helpful publication, and as I said above, a timely one for current conversations.

Same Words, Different Worlds, is available from IVP, having been published earlier this month.

My Italian is at best rudimentary, but I offer for fun a brief review in Italian as well: Il libro di De Chirico è un’introduzione chiara e utile all’insegnamento cattolico romano. Questo breve libro (c.150 pagine) esplora le differenze tra evangelici e cattolici, e dice semplicemente l’importanza del Vangelo. Io consiglio a tutti.

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