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A slippery rock

Confusion and instability are hallmarks of this papacy

Pope Francis holds a consistory The Vatican on Sept. 30. Associated Press/ Photo Riccardo De Luca

A slippery rock
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For decades now, evangelicals in the West have increasingly looked at the Roman Catholic Church as a bulwark helping hold back the progressive flood, or even an example in how to escape the worst excesses of modernity. During the conservative pontificates of John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013), evangelical leaders often embraced Catholics as allies. Some even abandoned Protestantism altogether, confident that Rome offered a better answer to the moral chaos of our age. After ten years of Pope Francis, such confidence seems increasingly misplaced—and never more so than after the pope’s recent hints in favor of blessing same-sex unions.

The pope’s incendiary remarks, penned in response to a set of Dubia—formal queries expressing doubt or concern—by five leading cardinals, touched on several hot-button issues, including the authority of divine revelation and the possibility of women’s ordination, as well as the paramount question of same-sex blessings. The Dubia, in short, presented the question: “is the Roman Catholic Church going to go the same direction as liberal Protestantism—adapting Scripture to suit contemporary culture, ordaining women, and accepting the legitimacy of same-sex unions?” Pope Francis’s answers, as always, were neither “yes” nor “no,” but a cleverly woven thicket of prose capable of many interpretations. He certainly did not say no.

On same-sex unions, for example, the pope re-emphasized that they could not be thought of as marriages and blessed as such, but that if the request for a “blessing” be understood as a “plea to God for help,” then surely the Church should not withhold this from any sinner. Well, maybe, if you put it that way, but the pope’s treatment intentionally obscured the distinction between asking God’s blessing on an individual in a same-sex relationship and blessing the relationship itself. Given that certain German and Flemish bishops have already authorized doing the latter, this evasiveness constituted gross pastoral abdication at best. Most troubling is the basic methodological evasiveness outlined in the pope’s discussion of women’s ordination. Although acknowledging that his predecessors declared women’s ordination to be “definitively” impossible, he goes on to caution, “let us recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a ‘definitive statement’ has not yet been fully developed.” A sentence worthy of a master satirist—not what one would hope for from the “successor to St. Peter.”

Pope Francis’s responses to the Dubia should at least conclusively debunk the notion that Rome’s structure of authority and tradition renders it impervious to the acid of modernity.

Although inconclusive in themselves, Pope Francis’s responses to the Dubia should at least conclusively debunk the notion that Rome’s structure of authority and tradition renders it impervious to the acid of modernity. The Rock of Peter turns out to be mere quicksand, every dogma—however definitive—capable of redefinition, depending on papal whim. Indeed, the current turmoil should invite us to recall the deeper reasons behind the Protestant Reformation in the first place. We frequently highlight doctrines such as justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers, and these were essential, to be sure. But these need not have caused a schism within the Western church—the Reformers felt that the errors on these doctrines could have been reformed from within were it not for the tyranny of the papacy, which dared to introduce new doctrines on its own authority and demand the whole church conform to them.

As John Calvin wrote in his famous Reply to Sadoleto, “Nay, it is you who are mistaken in supposing that the Lord set tyrants over his people to rule them at pleasure, when he bestowed so much authority on those whom he sent to promulgate the gospel….[Their office] is not presumptuously to introduce whatever their own pleasure has rashly devised, but religiously and in good faith to deliver the oracles which they have received at the mouth of the Lord.”

For centuries, Rome insisted that she “rashly devised” nothing—that every doctrine she taught was simply the same as she had always taught. When this charade became impossible to maintain by the mid-19th century, Cardinal John Henry Newman offered a new theory of papal authority. The church’s official doctrine did change, he admitted, but always only as a fuller understanding and articulation of truths it had always implicitly held but never before made explicit. A true enough description of many doctrinal developments, but ultimately useless as a standard for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate development—especially when the first “development” on the new theory was the pope’s declaration of his own infallibility!

The Reformers, in short, were not wrong in attacking the papacy as a tyranny. Not because every pope was oppressive or evil—many, like John Paul II, have been great forces for moral good in the world—but because papal power is so unconstrained and thus unpredictable. Since the declaration on infallibility in 1870, the Catholic Church has been blessed by several godly and conservative popes and afflicted by several woolly-headed progressives. Three and a half decades of the former may have deceived us into thinking of the Catholic Church as a rock of stability, but Francis’s pontificate reminds us that it resembles instead James’s “double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

Brad Littlejohn

Brad (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for 10 years as president of The Davenant Institute and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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