In Defense of the Pope
Vol: 79 Issue: 17 Thursday, April 17, 2008
I think maybe it might be time to defend the Pope. Wow. I can’t believe I just typed that line, so perhaps we should start by setting the parameters.
Let’s start with Catholicism. The non-Catholic beef with the Vatican is both deep and wide. The term ‘Dark Ages’ refers to the period between the 4th century and the 17th century in Europe, when the Vatican kept the Bible under lock and key.
All Bibles were published in Latin — a language used only by the priesthood, and possession of a Bible by non-clergy was a capital offense. For twelve centuries, there was no way to fact-check Vatican theology, until the first Bibles were printed in a common language.
Once the laity was able to fact-check the Vatican’s theology against the Bible, the Reformation went into high gear. Once the Vatican lost its lock on Christianity, its political power began to wane.
In an effort to retain its power, the Vatican launched the infamous Inquisition, in which torture was used to force conversions, non-Catholics were burned at the stake as ‘heretics’ etc.
The fire that burned John Wycliffe, who published the first English-Bible, was fueled by a stack of Wycliffe Bibles.
The papacy during the Dark Ages was a cesspool of corruption and vice, sex and murder. Some Popes bought their titles, others inherited them, others murdered for the job.
Pope Alexander VI fathered at least four children, including the infamous Lucretia Borgia, with whom he is reputed to have had an incestuous relationship.
And the Borgia Pope wasn’t the worst. Indeed, he was pretty typical for the Dark Ages. Pope Benedict IX became pope sometime between age 11 and 20; Pope John XII was 18.
Pope John XI was the illegitimate son of Pope Sergius III. Indeed, the history of the papacy in the tenth century was nicknamed by historians as the ‘Pornocracy’.
What is a bit less well-known about the Vatican was something known as the ‘Counterreformation’ of 1565, or the Council of Trent.
It was at the Council of Trent that the Vatican formally adopted the position that salvation is obtained through a combination of grace and works.
The Council of Trent also reaffirmed such practices as indulgences, pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and relics, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary were strongly reaffirmed as spiritually vital.
The Council also commissioned the Roman Catechism, which still serves as authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church.
The most recent edition, updated in 1992, updated and modernized the language, but the basic Catholic doctrines remain unchanged from 1565.
But of all the beefs non-Catholics have with the Vatican, the most intractable was the doctrine of heresy which stood in force until Vatican II in the early 1960’s. Under that doctrine, non-Catholics were declared heretics who were ineligible for salvation.
There is a joke about a guy who arrived at the gates of heaven and noticed an area of heaven separated from the rest by a high, impenetrable wall. The guy asks St. Peter what the wall is for, and St Peter says, “It’s for the Catholics.”
“Why?” the guy asks. “Did they do something wrong?” “No,” Peter replies. “They think they are the only ones here.”
My defense of this pope isn’t spiritual, or theological, or even remotely religious. My defense of this pope is logical.
I said at the outset that it is time to defend the pope. But before I did so, I wanted to spare everyone sending me the history of the papacy or some of the Vatican’s dogmatic statements about salvation and who qualifies as a Christian, so we could get to the meat of the matter.
Newsweek ran a cover story of the Pope’s visit under the sub-headline, “American Muslims Wait to See if Pope Will Reach Out to Them.”
It was an impassioned defense of the Muslim reaction to the Pope’s lecture at a German university in which he invoked the words of a 14th century Byzantine Emperor concerning Islam.
“Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
Newsweek made much of the fact that the Pope ‘never apologized.’ It tracked down Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of a Muslim lobbying group, whom they gleefully quoted;
“We want a meeting with his bishops and key Muslim figures in the U.S. The topic should specifically be Muslim-Catholic issues. But it doesn’t seem to be a priority [for them] right now, even though the pope seems to be a person with very strong views about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.”
The Pope did NOT express his own views about Islam and Mohammed, he quoted the views of an emperor dead more than 600 years.
And the anger the Muslims have directed at the Pope is still white-hot because, while they may find the quote insulting, it is impossible to dispute the accuracy of the offending statement, when weighed against the historical record.
I’m trying to think of how such an apology would be worded. “I’m sorry he felt that way 600 years ago?” “I’m sorry I know what he said?” “I’m sorry that history confirms the emperor’s assessment?”
Or the apology I’d like to see: “I’m sorry you guys are evil and inhuman.”
I am not defending the Vatican, or its doctrine, or the papacy — just this papal visit. A lot of us are disgusted with all the pomp and circumstance, but the ‘lot of us’ are not the whole world.
All this pomp and circumstance being heaped on this Pope is being heaped upon him by Catholics, non Catholics, Muslims, atheists, agnostics, Budhhists and Jews alike.
Now to the heart of the question. Why? To the world at large, who does the Pope represent?
Forget, for a moment, the deep theological differences that exist between Catholics and non-Catholics and take a look at what the world sees. (The lost and dying world that is our mission field).
Listen to the praises and honorifics being extended; “His Holiness”, the “Vicar of Christ”, the “Visible Representative of Christ on Earth” — the list is as long as one wants it to be.
To non-Catholic Christians, all this praise is being heaped on ‘just a man’. It makes us angry and bitter, and we are not shy about expressing our feelings.
Like I said, forget about fine points of theology for a second — they are meaningless to the lost anyway.
Who is the world honoring when it honors the Pope? Joe Ratzinger of Germany? Regardless of the way we Christians might view him, the lost and dying world is honoring the Person that they believe the Pope represents.
The honorifics are not being extended to Joe Ratzinger, but to Jesus Christ. Don’t misunderstand me. I could bash Catholic theology in every OL for the rest of the year and never go over the same points twice.
But in all the years I’ve been a Christian, I’ve never convinced a Catholic by bashing their faith or their theology. Why?
Because to a Catholic, it is like bashing Jesus. We can go over all the reasons why they’d be wrong to see it that way, but that doesn’t make any difference to the Catholic.
If I walked up to you and told you that your faith is in vain and that you aren’t really saved, I doubt that you’d wait around to let me explain why.
More probably, you’d never speak to me again, so what good have I done either of us?
The world’s interest in the Pope is an excellent opportunity for us to discuss Jesus Christ, and Him crucified, and the Biblical definition of salvation, but I fear that most of us will blow the opportunity in favor of explaining all the things that are wrong with the Vatican.
Think of it from the perspective of some lost person who suddenly wants to know more about Jesus Christ.
So they come to their spiritual friend who is always talking about Jesus and they bring up ‘His Holiness’ — hoping to learn a bit about Jesus and using the Pope’s visit as an ice-breaker.
They mention the Pope, and we blast the Vatican, give a thumbnail history similar to the one I just did, explain why the Pope isn’t really a Christian.
And then, having done all we can to destroy the Pope’s Christian testimony, we invite our friend to enter into the ‘love of Christ’.
To a Catholic, one can’t be saved unless one is a member of the Catholic Church. To many Christians, one can’t get saved unless one is NOT a member of the Catholic Church.
We explain all this carefully, warn of the dangers of Mariolatry, the ridiculousness of Catholic doctrines like transubstantion, confession and purgatory — but all our friend wanted to know about was Jesus Christ and salvation.
And in our zeal to protect them from the evils of Vatican error, we never present the Gospel. We present TWO Gospels. The first is the one that labels the very Pope that prompted their interest in Jesus as really the leader of the ‘synagogue of Satan’.
The second Gospel, (notice we always wait and give the true Gospel second) then falls on deaf ears – ears deafened by our impassioned ‘defense of the faith’ to somebody who only wants to know if Jesus is real and that His promises can be trusted.
So I must defend the Pope’s visit to the United States. Not his theology, not his papacy, not his doctrine, but his visit.
For some Americans, it is the first time they’ve heard the phrase “Jesus Christ” without someone having first hit his thumb with a hammer.
For others, it is the first time they’ve heard His Name expressed in a positive context. It isn’t about the Pope, or the Vatican, or the divisions that exist between the Vatican and non-Catholic Christendom.
Somewhere, here in America, at some point during the papal visit, somebody is going to ask somebody else, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ — because of all the pomp and circumstance. Odds are, though, he’ll be treated to a history of the Vatican and the ‘synagogue of Satan’.
The whole thing reminds me of when Mary Magdalene washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, and anointed Him with expensive oil.
The Apostles cried out against her act, saying the ointment used could have been sold for ‘three hundred pence’ (almost a year’s wages) and given to the poor.
“And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on Me.” (Mark 14:6)
So, too will the Pope have ‘wrought a good work on Him’ if just one person asks that question, “What must I do to be saved?” We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ.
Church membership is irrelevant to salvation. Each of you knows that — or I’ve not been doing my job. One can be saved on the floor of St Peter’s Basilica, at the altar of a Baptist Church — or in the middle of a cornfield.
It isn’t church membership that saves, it is Jesus Christ.
I pray that, should I be the one blessed to receive that question, that I remember the correct answer isn’t, “avoid the Vatican at all costs,” but rather, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
Don’t blow your opportunity by getting the cart in front of the horse. Salvation first. There is plenty of time for doctrine later.
At the moment, I am enjoying all the positive press Jesus is getting. The papal visit ‘hath wrought a good work in Him.’
And I don’t want to be the one to spoil it.