Monday, February 18, 2013

A Pope Resigns

Joseph Ratzinger was born in Bavaria in 1927. In 2005, following the death of John Paul II, he was elected to the Papacy, and took the name Benedict XVI. In a huge shock, on 11th February 2013 he announced that he would be resigning from office at the end of the month. I had to check to make sure he had not said that he would be resigning on the 29th February 2013, but no, he really meant it.

And yes, a Pope can do that. Celestine V established that in 1294, shortly before exercising the right, quite probably because the man who would succeed him as Boniface VIII was leaning rather heavily on him at the time (with good reason, we hasten to add, Celestine V was a hermit who could not handle the role). But it is a right that has been exercised very little. Now, as far as I am concerned the whole thing is a matter of very little importance. The nice thing about Benedict XVI is that you know where you are with him. He is a conservative Roman Catholic, and so he believes there is such a thing as absolute truth. That's the good part.

 But the trouble is, he's wrong about some rather important matters. The whole Roman Catholic system is the problem, and however good a man a pope may be, he is still holding an office that ought not to exist. Many years ago in a small village church by a river in Norfolk, I heard an old Anglican minister give a short sermon on the Papacy, and one thing that stuck was that good old man's insistence that there is really no such thing. There is a Bishop of Rome (that is, a chief Presbyter of the Church of Rome), but he has no right to the title of "Papa", that is, "Father", as his exclusive property. That has stuck with me, though the man who taught it to me is now in glory, where few great men in the eyes of the world go. There is no office of Pope in the Bible!

Back in 2005 I was at Seminary in London, and Rev. Graham Harrison, my systematic theology tutor, set us as an essay topic, "What happened to the Pope when he died?" Of course he meant us to think about the Bible's teaching about the end of a person's life. What it finally comes down to is this: what or who are you trusting in? And I am very much afraid that the Roman Catholic Church encourages people to put their trust in the wrong place; in the Roman Catholic Church, not in Jesus Christ. It represents itself as the channel of God's grace (coincidentally it was Boniface VIII, who persuaded Celestine V to resign, who promulgated the Bull Unam Sanctum, which officially stated that outside the Roman Catholic Church there is no salvation), though liberals have modified this in recent years.

More than that, it has a fundamentally false idea of grace, that it is in the nature of a substance that you may have more or less of; and the whole sacramental system of Rome is a massive and elaborate method of getting and keeping this "stuff" that centres upon what the believer does, and upon the priestly system. While the Bible tells us that there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, Rome says in effect "yes, but you need mediators with the mediator". In effect it lost the humanity of Christ through emphasising his kingship, for it made him a Medieval king, approached through his courtiers (the saints) and his mother, and not the one we may go to directly.

The Council of Trent is still the touchstone of Roman Catholic theology. Of course Rome teaches that grace is necessary for salvation - but not that it is sufficient for salvation. Rome still teaches that we must co-operate with the Holy Spirit in salvation, and have the free will to do so or to refuse; that salvation is not after all, "All of grace". However many liberal Roman Catholics explain it away, Transubstantiation is still taught, Purgatory is still dogma, and the Mass is still said to be a re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ. Alphonsus Ligouri's Glories of Mary is still very much representative of Roman Catholic thought, however horrific (and yes, I have read it, at Seminary, back when we had that essay!) it may appear to Protestants.

There will be those who will point to the scandals of child abuse by Roman Catholic priests - and that is a terrible thing. But there have been Protestant pastors who have done the same thing, and Protestant Church members too. No, the problem with a Roman Catholic priest is not that he is a wicked man, but that he is a sacrificing priest! The problem with monasteries is not that they are sinks of iniquity - it is that they are monasteries. Protestants and Roman Catholics all agree that child abuse is wrong - the priest abusing a child is being a bad Roman Catholic. But even if he is a good Roman Catholic, he is in error! At the time of the Reformation there were many who, like Desiderius Erasmus, criticised the abuses of the papacy, but it took a Luther to see that the real problem was not the abuses, but that false doctrine about salvation had crept into the Church.

A number of leading Protestant scholars have said many nice things about Ratzinger - and a lot of those things are true, so far as they go. But at this time what Protestants need to do is to point out, as that faithful old man in the Norfolk Church did, that Ratzinger occupies an unbiblical office, and however many good things he has said, however many good books he has written, facts are facts, and he is not our Pope - because we have no pope. And also we must say that, whatever his excellencies (and they are many), there is one fatal flaw - the fatal flaw of the Roman system of salvation by grace plus. The Gospel is more important than anything; we must speak the truth in love - and remember that we dare omit neither the love nor the truth!