Pope Fiction: The clash of the Protestant Titans

pulp fiction_travolta and jacksonAs I’ve watched the events unfold these past few days with Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S., I’ve watched another set of events unfold – Protestants. Angry Protestants. Protesting Protestants. Protestants that pepper the interwebs with angry rants about the evils of Catholicism and the falsehood of the pope celebrated as the head of the church (which actually he would say Christ is the head of the church as would any knowledgeable Catholic). Nonetheless, I’ve been somewhat amused at the “hit job” that has emerged from a simple visit as if the Pope is seeking to take over the United States and must be silenced.

Now, I am staunchly Protestant so please don’t confuse me with a overly mushy ecumenical sympathizer who just wants to blindly sing Kumbaya with my Catholic friends (some of whom really are Christian by Protestant standards BTW) while I bask in the presence of his majesty the pontiff. I’m no expert but I believe I have a somewhat firm grasp on the distinctions between Catholics and Protestants. While I am sympathetic to the premise of Catholic belief especially the intrinsic relationship of Christ to his church, I don’t agree with some tenants of Catholicism primarily the way the indistinguishable nature of the invisible church with the visible church leads to a faulty view of justification as a Christian. Of course, as a Protestant I believe that justification is a one time forensic act through the work of the Spirit not an infusion as one walks out their Christian faith in the context of the church. I am also vehemently opposed to the veneration of Mary and prayers to the saints.

However, given the tumultuous Catholic v. Protestant divide, I took the opportunity in seminary to really investigate Catholicism through a couple of required research papers with the intention of dealing fairly with the material, to the best of my Protestant ability. Considering the charges that are commonly levied against Catholicism and it’s adherents as being misled at best or a false religion at worst,  I thought it was really necessary to examine the charges levied against this system by actually striving to understand the system. Given the love that Christ has lavished on his church, I think some caution is in order before banishing folks out as heretics.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that when Catholicism is viewed through the lens of Protestant paradigm, meaning a scriptural mandate, we will miss the foundation of Catholicism, which is that God’s revelation in Christ was deposited in the Church. In Catholicism, it is believed that Christ delivered his revelation to his Church as a corporate body through Sacred Tradition, encompassing both Scripture and church tradition. In other words, whereas Protestants would say the divine revelation was deposited in Scripture testifying to Christ, Catholicism believes that revelation was also deposited in the apostolic tradition.

The Church, as a recipient of this revelation has a responsibility to hand down the faith it was given, to teach it and defend it.  Since Christ granted the authority regarding his witness to his apostles, the apostolic office is seen as the agent through which the deposit of truth would be transmitted through the Magesterium, which is the teaching office of the church as the succession of apostolic teaching (note it’s not just the Pope).

I do find it kind of amusing when I hear Protestant Christians say things like, “Catholics don’t follow or believe the Bible.” Actually they do. There is scriptural support for the basis of how Catholic doctrine is derived, and particularly in relation to the authority of the church. The deviation is a result of hermeneutical differences that apply an overly literal approach to key passages upon which Catholic doctrine is founded and has been developed through the church’s history leading up to the Protestant Reformation and refined thereafter.  The overarching paradigm of Sacred Tradition has secured interpretation of such passages as it developed through the historical development of church practice sourced in the apostolic tradition.

The church as an institution, literally is the body of Christ and dispenses the elements of faith through the Magisterium, participation in liturgical worship and sacraments. There is a tangible relationship to the deposit of apostolic teaching and the physical elements. That’s why saying silly things like, Catholics believe in justification by works or is a bit off base. In fact, I think us Protestants can learn a thing or two concerning this connection to physical matter since we can lean towards gnostic tendencies by relegating the material to irrelevancy. As an aside, I believe the high view of physicality has translated well into a not only a reverence for the church but faithful social ethics, especially on issues of life and marriage, which again evangelicals can learn something from.

It also helped that I had both required and elective historical theology classes. Understanding Catholicism from a historical perspective is important regarding it’s development as an institution. So the first paper I did was in Historical Theology I in which I examined the validity of Sacred Tradition in the early church.

As seminary goes, we often think we’re better and more knowledgeable than we really are. So 1 1/2 later, I seized another opportunity in my systematic theology class on ecclesiology to do a paper examining if the premise of church authority was a legitimate representation of Christianity. Since I don’t have the capacity to provide a link, I might break it up into a couple of pieces in separate posts. Again, I’m claiming to be an expert and am still learning. But if we’re going to be opposed to something to does help to understand what we are opposed to and why. I’m still learning, too.

Both of these papers and the questions that provoked them, encouraged me to deal honestly with Catholic resources, including the catechism of the Roman Catholic church. One thing I learned in seminary and have had a growing conviction, is that if you want to know a particular position you have to read people who actually uphold that position. The worse thing we can do is to derive opposition to Catholicism because of stuff angry Protestants have written. Here’s a link to the catechism of the Catholic church that is worth checking out.

The bottom line is that let’s please make sure we’re doing due diligence before sending out the hit squad.


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