March 18, 2013

Is the Pope Catholic? (And other things not to say to Joe Catholic)

by Clint Archer

White smoke signal

You’ve got to admire Pope Benedict ex vee one for knowing how to quit while you’re ahead. As far as climbing the corporate ladder goes, getting the keys to the kingdom and the company Popemobile is a sign you’ve maxed out your promotability. And the responsibility of being infallible is a burden no octogenarian should have to bear for long. When you’re getting on in years, and noticing an increased frequency in “senior moments” you don’t want to have to invoke St Anthony to help locate either misplaced bunch of keys.Papal keys

As for the new kid on the block, weighing in at a spritely seventy-six years young (getting the white smoke green light two years sooner than his predecessor), Pope Francis ushers in a new era of pontificating. Personally, I think the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a cooler name than Francis (no offense pastor Chan), but having a 1 in your name certainly scores points for originality.

My concern whenever the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) perennially makes the news, is that Evangelicals get swept up in peripheral discussions with their Catholic counterparts in water cooler debates at work. Evangelicals assume that Joe Catholic at work knows and believes what the Pope teaches.

I grew up in a loving, fun, and staunchly Catholic home. When my Evangelical schoolmates lobbed half-baked assaults on my Mariology, purgatory, indulgences, and praying to St Christopher for a safe bus ride, they accomplished no more than convince me they were ignorant of my beliefs.

My Baptistic buddies learned, from their youth pastor no doubt, that Catholics believe in odd myths like the treasury of merit, that contraception was evil, and that Mary was born sinless and was assumed into heaven without ever tasting death. It was true that the Pope and other die-hards knew, understood, and believed in all those issues, but I could dismiss most of their attacks by honestly denying that I believed any of it. This muffled their clamorous conversion attempts, and left me just as Catholic in my own mind as I would be if I actually did subscribe to the official teachings of the RCC.

I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret a nun taught me in the 1st grade when I questioned transubstantiation (it turns out trace elements of Sola Scriptura were already stashed deep in my spiritual DNA from before the foundation of the world, according to Eph 1:4). Here it is…

Catholics are not expected by their parish priests to actually subscribe to everything the RCC teaches. Only if you want to make a career out of Catholicism and get a shot at the Pope gig do you need to actually go along with everything.

As long as you adhere to the basics of baptism, communion, confession, or whatever your parish determined were the biggies, you could call yourself Catholic. A catechism teacher flat-out admitted to our fornicating youth group that he and his wife use contraception, and surmised that everyone in our parish did too, citing as evidence the unremarkable sizes of all our families.

Not all people who call themselves Catholic are Catholic in their beliefs. You may be arguing against a sliver of dogma they have never heard of, never mind see as an integral part of their theology. They may defend it anyway. They won’t admit to a Protestant that they aren’t really Catholic in ever iota of their belief. But even if you “win” that argument, you may lose that relationship. Your goal should never be to win debates; it should be to win souls.

Let me interject here that not all parishes are as lenient with dogma as others. But in various parts of the world, adherence to the official papal teaching is a breathtakingly cavalier affair. If you think every Catholic you speak to knows about how Mary got to heaven, you are assuming too much about her supposed assumption.

Remember that historically the RCC was pragmatic and integrationist in their approach to conversion. Charlemagne, for example, coerced pagan hordes to “convert” by offering them a white shirt in exchange for accepting baptism. Some plundered the Christian wardrobe by getting baptized multiple times.Popemobile

If you asked the Godfather’s Mafioso hit men if they were Christians, they’d unhesitatingly respond with, “Is the Pope Catholic?” Then they’d shoot you and be conscientious about attending confession before the next mass.

The role of the Pope is key. The reason Catholics hold to unbiblical doctrines is because they trust the Pope’s authority (and the tradition built on successive Popes’ additions to the body of dogma). If you want to address theological issues with them, you first have to get them submitting to the same source of authority as you—the Bible. If you don’t have this, nothing else can be resolved.

So, when you as an Evangelical engage a Catholic acquaintance in theological discussion, I would humbly suggest that you avoid gunning for prayer to saints, venerating Mary, and other symptoms of Catholicism. Go after their heart. Get to the root of the matter: Sola Scriptura and Sola Gracia, to invoke good ‘ol Reformation language.

When I heard the gospel powerfully expounded from Ephesians 2:1-10, and I grasped the authority of Scripture, the impotence of my own good works, and the wonderful sufficiency of Christ’s unmerited grace by faith alone, I was radically converted and everything else fell into place. Every time I read the Bible after that day, I submitted to God’s word as the sole authority in my life.

Pope Benedict XVIIn summary, what the Pope believes may be vastly different from what Joe Catholic at work believes. Rather than go after what Popes have taught for centuries, ask Joe what he believes. Then take him to the Scriptures and let the gospel out of its cage.

Don’t get sidetracked by symptoms, the primary disease is sin, and the only cure is Jesus. Your arguments against hagiolatry and transubstantiation are getting in the way. Your efforts will be better spent going after papal authority and works righteousness. Get them reading the Bible and trusting in Jesus. Everything else will come with time.

And if Joe asks, “Are you saying that the Pope is wrong about something as foundational as how a person gets to heaven or hell?” You can reply without being facetious, and with heartfelt sincerity, “That depends, is the Pope Catholic?”

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Michael Coughlin

    Clint – GREAT points. Very good advice for Christians.

  • Michael Coughlin

    You may delete this comment, but there are several TYPOS/Grammar problems. Corrections are in ALL CAPS. This is an excellent article, and I want people to understand it and not stumble over these areas. Please correct them. Thanks, brother.

    1. You may be arguing against a sliver of dogma they have never heard of, never mind SEEN as an integral part of their theology. They may defend it anyway. They won’t admit to a Protestant that they aren’t really Catholic in EVERY iota of their belief.

    2. The reason Catholics hold to unbiblical doctrines is because THEY trust the Pope’s authority (and the tradition BUILT on successive Popes’ additions to the body of dogma).

    3. So, when you as an Evangelical ENGAGE a Catholic

    4. When I heard the gospel POWERFULLY expounded from Ephesians 2:1-10

    5. GET (not give) them reading the Bible and trusting in Jesus.

  • disqus_i49hn6Dtrd

    TYPOS, continued:

    6. you are assuming TOO much about her supposed assumption.

  • That picture is not the most flattering…great article, sir!

    • Ha. True, but then again flattery wasn’t really the goal. Thanks for checking in DKA-B.

  • I’m probably the only one who get’s cold chills whenever Roman Catholics make the news, but then that stems from spending a lot of energy reading Foxes Book of Martyrs and the Martyr’s Mirror, and realizing that given enough power again Rome would have no problems with tossing folks like myself into the flames for what I profess and believe. Seems like evangelicals take this aspect of church history a little bit too lightly…

    • We might get to see that in our lifetime yet. Depends on your view of Revelation.

  • Will

    Thanks, Clint, for your confessions as a former Catholic for the help of those like me. I only knew 1 Catholic growing up in the river basin populated by Presbyterian emmigrants from Scotland and Northern Ireland. I serve in the Colonial Capital of North Carolina (strange providence?) which has the longest standing Catholic parish in the State and I have more Catholic neighbors than Protestant. And for your enjoyment I’ll add one bit of North Carolina history – one the first three State Supreme Court Justices was a Catholic from my present city, New Bern. When he died in the Capital, Raleigh, he was not allowed to have his body buried within the city limits because he was a Catholic. They buried it outside the city and then eventually moved it to my city for its final resting place.

    • Love historical trivia. Thanks for sharing.

    • DelawareMom

      So you are bragging about anti-Catholic bigotry?

  • Mike Stephan

    Do you think that many of the same reasoning/arguments would pertain to the LDS?

    • I confess I don’t have much experience interacting with Mormons, but would imagine the best line to follow is to major on the majors of the gospel of grace and the uniqueness of Christ in their case.

  • DelawareMom

    You mention Sola Scriptura in your article. I am trying to find that in the Bible. Can you please tell me where to find it?

    • Thanks for your enquiry. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, or “the BIble alone as the final authority”as opposed to human tradition (or dogma) can be found in these passages:
      In 1 Cor 4:6 Paul reminds the Corinthians to” not go beyond what is written” in Scripture.
      In Matt 15:1-6 Jesus condemns the use of human tradition to supplant the teachings of Scripture.
      In Mark 7:3 Jesus rebukes the Pharisees again for teaching tradition as if it were from God.
      In contrast, we are told that “all Scripture is God breathed” and profitable that we may be complete lacking nothing for our spiritual lives (2 Tim 3:16); we are told that we have been given “all things pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet 1:3), and therefore not lacking anything; Jesus extolled God’s word in Matt 4:4 and John 17:17 for example, but no where commends human additions or traditions.
      And Ps 19:7-11 is a peon to the sufficiency of Scripture in our spiritual lives (not to mention the entire 119th Psalm).

      I hope that helps. Good question.

      • DelawareMom

        Those are good points. But lately I’ve come to the conclusion that since the New Testament wasn’t around to include as scripture for Paul and the apostles, then the only scripture they would have had to use would have been the Old Testament. It would seem to me that Christ’s teachings, which were still being handed down orally, would have been considered “tradition” by the early believers. (I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Catholic or Protestant put it this way.)

        • elainebitt

          Are you saying Paul (and the other Apostles) had no knowledge of anything that had been written as Scripture other than the OT?

          • DelawareMom

            I’m saying they weren’t calling our New Testament “Scripture” . It hadn’t all been written or collected yet in Paul’s time. After all, Jesus had just been crucified and Acts pretty much starts with Pentecost. No one had time to write everything down yet. For example, Luke wasn’t even one of the original disciples. He was a companion of Paul and wrote the Gospel of Luke probably around 80-90 AD. It was all communicated orally for a very long time.

          • elainebitt

            2 Peter 3:15,16

            “just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which
            are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable
            distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own
            destruction.”

          • DelawareMom

            That just means that Peter knew Paul wrote letters to these same people, which makes sense. It doesn’t prove anything more. He didn’t call them “scripture”. At the time, it was just communication. Peter and Paul had no idea that their writings would be meaningful to us 2000 years later.

          • elainebitt

            The passage is very clear, Peter calls Paul’s writings Scripture (“the rest of the Scriptures”).

            Truths that “the untaught and unstable distort”. Well said Peter!

          • I’d recommend perusing a book on bibliology, Catholic or Protestan should deal with the recognition and formation of the canon of Scripture. Even a good church history book will help with this. Justo Gonzalez is a catholic, and an excellent historian, who deals with the canon and the council of Nicea etc.

          • DelawareMom

            I believe Justo Gonzalez is Methodist.

        • Thanks for your interaction. I agree with elainbitt’s comments showing that Peter considered Paul’s writings to be on par with Scriptures. There are other areas where Paul acknowledges that his words are new revelation, and where he cites Jesus’ teachings. Once the canon closed with the book of Revelation, which was recognized by all orthodox believers at the council of Nicea, the “tradition” became recognized as “Scripture.” The reason this can’t happen again (i.e. with the Pope’s additions, which no one claims is Scripture anyway) is because of the closing verses of Revelation which prohibit adding any more. Not even the Pope claims to be adding to Scripture. His additions are dogma.

  • K B

    In the midst of my prodigal… I married a catholic. It has and continues to be a soar subject between us. I was raised in AofG (pentecostal), I had no idea what catholics believed just thought they were the uptight Christians that did the silly cross thing. Since returning to proper fellowship I did a LOT of research on catholicism and have had a hard time dealing with the situation in my own head. I have had times of anger and times of trying to understand. You’re article was great and helped me with positive perspective and keeping to a nice guy approach. Still hard time dealing with it, hoping she see’s the light…

    • Thanks for your transparency KB. I’d highly recommend that you get some pastoral, biblical counseling with your wife and a spiritual leader you both can trust, on how to deal with that issue in your marriage.

  • Justin Esposito

    Thanks for a great post. If I may, I would also suggest explicitly edifying the Catholic for the truths they hold in common with us. I am reading Ratzinger’s “Jesus of Nazareth,” and would gladly admit that some of his writing and doctrine concerning Jesus is a breath of fresh air. There are some excellent truths held by Rome – and so to the Catholic, they ought to feel like we are on the same team: looking for God’s truth, yet at the same time recognizing Rome’s outright rejections of the Gospel, and so drawing them out of the system of dogma that contradicts the saving message of Christ.

    • Starting with common ground is always wise. Thanks for the counsel.

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  • Michael Delahunt

    Very helpful Clint. I am attempting to evangelize a catholic coworker…I have seen exactly what you have explained above simply by letting him explain himself. I was just thinking today that I should get him a Bible to read…”let the Scriptures out of the cage” AMEN!

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