Monday, August 27, 2018

The Pope and I

For a Baptist pastor to respond negatively to  pronouncements from the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church may seem to be one of a number of things:
  1. It's predictable--after all this thing called the Reformation set out some pretty significant differences, and they haven't been solved.
  2. It's pointless--my people will like what I have to say, and the Pope's "peeps" will be all for Francis!
  3. It's presumptuous--he has half a billion or so people in his congregation--I'm a little short of that.
That said, I want to weigh in on the current controversy surrounding him, then recent theological change he has initiated, and why I believe he is not only wrong but is demonstrating exactly why some of us think "popery" (not potpourri) is a bad idea.

The Current Controversy.
We cannot miss the storm created over the weekend when a high placed archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church charged that he had informed the current pope, Francis, of the history of abuse allegations and accusations lodged against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington. Francis was already known to have ignored credible accusations while in charge of his archdiocese in South America. This news, along with the detail that the previous pope, Benedict, had sanctioned Cardinal McCarrick but Francis removed those sanctions, makes for a huge scandal. The accusations, published by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, also state that there is a "lavender Mafia" within the hierarchy of the church that protects and even promotes sympathy with homosexual behavior. This group is said to support Francis but was largely opposed to the previous Pope and his moves to limit such influence. The existence of such a group of clerics has long been talked about, but this is the most public statement offered about its existence in the controversy.

Ironically, this recent news broke as the Pope was returning from Ireland, where he was apologizing to the nation for the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church there. When asked if the charges in this latest report were true, Francis refused to comment. 

Francis, you cannot remain silent on these accusations if you hope to have any credible future in any role representing historic Christianity of any stripe. You must answer. Many are already calling this the greatest scandal in the Roman Church and potential catastrophe in the modern era.

The Theological Change.
Pope Francis announced that he is changing the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church to reflect an absolute ban on the death penalty--that it is never permissible or moral in the age of the gospel. This changes the previous stance which allowed for it when no other punishment was appropriate--and that was in very rare circumstances then.

What makes this interesting is that while the Pope can make pronouncements that are binding on the Church, such pronouncements are supposed to be clarifying, not contradictory because the Church is supposedly the guardian as well as the authoritative interpreter of the scriptures. It's hard to see how "allowed/not allowed" is anything other than contradictory. More than this, his predecessors not only allowed the death penalty, they encouraged and enforced it in previous eras of church history. Were they wrong in doing so? Roman Catholic dogma makes papal precedent (not just infallibility) pretty significant. 

My bone to pick is that Francis is very willing to ban something that the Bible does not. He knows (or at least has some pretty smart people around him who do) that the command, "You shall not kill" was not an absolute ban on taking life, but on murder. The same writer--Moses--who records the command also records the earlier introduction of capital punishment in Genesis 9 for the wrongful taking of human life. And in the theocratic nation of Israel, there were quite a number of crimes (sins) that led to capital punishment. While the New Testament introduces the gospel in the fullness of Jesus Christ, it is not as if there was no grace or forgiveness in the Old Testament. And the New Testament encourages a fear of the power of governing authorities that "bear the sword" (Romans 14). This wasn't just an ornament, it was the Roman means of execution for citizens and speaks of the power of life and death. While no nation is a theocracy, and the church is not given the right to exercise capital punishment, the practice is nowhere condemned in the New Testament, and the right is acknowledged by its writers. 

My own understanding of scriptural teaching would be that governments still have the right to exercise capital punishment if they so choose. Only in those cases where life has been wrongfully taken (murder) would I encourage its use (echoing Genesis), although a case could be made that certain activities might not be the actual taking of life but lead directly to it (sabotage of an airplane or treasonous lowering of defenses for an enemy attack could be two easy cases) would also be appropriate.

Why is it appropriate? Because this is a matter of societal justice. Justice requires punishment that is commensurate with the offense ("let the punishment fit the crime"). The principle of justice established in Scripture and universal among people cannot be avoided. Others point to capital punishment as a deterrence of crimes. I just heard today a report on a study that showed fear of capital punishment actually kept a significant percentage of criminals from escalating their evil deeds to the point of murder. And of course, a murderer who is executed is not likely to kill again. 

I do not think that those crimes listed under the Mosaic Law that called for the death penalty require it today--we are not, after all living in a nation where God is acknowledged as King (the evidence strongly suggests that even Israel was not very consistent in applying all of God's rules in the covenant). That many of those actions were evil and immoral is beyond question, but those laws were a part of a civil society and code that does not exist today, and no government can claim to speak for God and execute his judgments. This would leave murder as the remaining case where the Scriptures would call for capital punishment as the appropriate response.

Must it be practiced? No--I think that a government may choose to do other things, especially if there is a history of wrongful convictions in certain cases, or if the judicial system seems not to function effectively. Societies may limit their governments in such cases, which may or may not prove wise. And I believe that governments and officials can exercise clemency in cases where the punishment has been pronounced but extenuating circumstances occur. Some (including Christians) argue that the wiser course for governments may be to set aside the death penalty as a tool of justice. But for Pope Francis to weigh in as he has not only is an intrusion into the sphere of governmental authority, it is one that contradicts Scripture and places him alongside those who, rather than take the Bible seriously, seem more interested in making it bend to more acceptable, contemporary understandings. 

The Underlying Bad Idea of "Popes".
If this were Francis's only recent error, I'd probably not be so concerned, but having flatly contradicted Scripture here, it brings to mind his statements same-sex relationships, divorce, the reality of hell, and the necessity of faith in Jesus. As clear as he has been on capital punishment, he has been obscure--that's putting it kindly--about these matters, saying things that have sent some Catholic theologians scurrying to ask him for clarifications,  and for others to rejoice and say, "It's about time--I think. Wait. What did he say?"

I hope you understand that as I write these things, I am not trying to attack any who are committed to the Roman Catholic Church or are sympathetic to it or its practitioners. I won't say "some of my best friends are Roman Catholics" but actually, I have had more than a few. Many Catholic scholars are important voices on matters of both the culture and faith. And I am convinced that there are many that we will see in Heaven--although I would argue that it will often be in spite of their church's dogmas rather than because of it. Roman Catholic believers still affirm the creeds and read the Scriptures which have a power all their own to be used by the Spirit to bring faith and eternal life. 

But the belief that one person (other than Jesus) can rule the church, speak in ways that cloud clear scriptural teaching or even set it aside in the name of theological progress in understanding, continues to be a dangerous dogma. And the concurrent danger of a hierarchy within the church that cannot be challenged or overruled is painfully manifested as the evil it is as we watch the headlines scream of abuse and coverup by that hierarchy over decades. 

The Reformation actually revolved around this central issue--where is the authority for us when it comes to what we must believe? The Roman Catholic answer was that the Scriptures only as interpreted through the established tradition and by the church's hierarchy--focused in the Pope--have that authority. Protestants, led by Luther, said the authority rests in the Scriptures alone--sola Scriptura was the phrase. 

These contemporary disagreements and disasters for the Roman Catholic Church remind us that these issues still matter. Our authority must be Scripture alone when it comes to what we believe.

That said, we cannot simply point fingers at the Catholic Church as if they are the only ones with scandals. Plenty of Bible-believing churches have had scandals and failures. Having the right authority, but not submitting to it, does not help. Let's pray for those being led astray by bad leaders, and especially for those abused by those they have trusted. But let us also pray with vigilance lest we allow similar disasters through failure to guard our heart's devotion to Christ and his Word.