As a warm-up to Reformation Day–next week Monday–I decided to re-run this post, which I wrote when Benedict XVI became the first pope ever to resign from his post.
You’ve got to admire Pope Benedict XVI 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. An ironic flavor or the “Peter principle.”
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 your misplaced 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 the First 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 debates with their Catholic counterparts at the water cooler without really knowing what Catholics believe. 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 arcane ideas like the treasury of merit, that contraception is 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 doctrines, but I could dismiss most of their attacks by honestly denying that I believed any of it. This curtailed their 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 youth group that he and his wife used 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 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 responded by getting baptized multiple times. You can never have too many shirts.
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. If you want to address theological issues with them, you first have to find a common ground of authority in the Bible.
So, when you as an Evangelical engage a Catholic acquaintance in theological discussion, I would humbly suggest that you avoid gunning for hot button issues like praying to saints, venerating Mary, and other symptoms of Catholicism. Go after the heart. Get to the root of the matter: Sola Scriptura and Sola Gratia, 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.
In 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 how a person gets to heaven?” You can reply without being facetious, and with heartfelt sincerity, “That depends, is the Pope Catholic?”