Almost five years ago I re-committed my life to Jesus Christ after a powerful experience in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and returned to the Catholic Church after a several years of absence and skepticism.
One afternoon, not long after my re-version to Catholicism, I found myself in a conversation trying to defend Catholic tradition and in particular, the papacy, to an evangelical Protestant friend. I failed miserably. Although I was still filled with a kind of “new convert zeal” I just couldn’t find the words to answer his questions and objections sufficiently on the spot. It was a deflating experience.
My enthusiasm was just not enough. He was not satisfied with my answers; and for that matter, neither was I. So I decided to write him an email that evening in an attempt to follow up and get out what I wanted to say earlier that day. I thought I’d share the email with you:
Written in the fall of 2010:
I can honestly say that I am blessed by your interest in gaining a better understanding of Catholic beliefs because it gives me an opportunity to defend my faith and re-examine my own reasoning. I am certainly not a theological expert but I think you would agree that most of us are not called to be theologians. Rather, we have been blessed as humans with free will and the ability to rationalize so that even the most simple of people can enter into a full life in Christ. I’m a pretty simple guy and as such, you may find my response to your question about the pope’s place in the Church quite simple. But here it is, for what it’s worth. I’ve decided to write you this “letter” because the pope is someone that I hold intensely close to my heart. He is a man. Not a God, or an object of idolatry, but an extraordinary man (like St. Paul) with an extraordinary calling. I’m sure you will find my words thought-provoking and some even controversial but that will make this fun and intriguing. I just love the Roman Church so much, and am honoured to discuss it with you and anyone else who is willing.
I think you are doing something that is crucial for every single Christian to do and that is to investigate the roots of our faith. Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant — we all originate from the same family tree, so the Roman Church is as much a part of your Christian heritage as it is of mine. In terms of the origin of the bible, it is interesting to consider that the Roman Catholic Church is responsible for the original discernment, compilation and safekeeping of the bible. Over the centuries, the leaders of the Church assembled into councils to discuss, debate and discern which Christian writings would be considered the inerrant Word of God. This was allowed to happen because the pope, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, authorized it. The Gospels, the letters from St. Paul and all of the books of the New Testament were discerned and integrated into the New Testament as we know it under the spiritual direction of past popes. The very bible that you read and study was compiled, distributed amongst the Christian community, and proclaimed to be the word of God by the authority of the early Catholic Church. This is a tough one to swallow for many non-Catholics but indeed, the bible as we both know it is inherently Catholic. I’ve pondered on how it is that a man, who is not God, can make indisputable decisions for all of Christ’s Church. I overcame this hurdle, however, when I came to the realization that the man does not make the infallible decisions – it is the Spirit through the man. It was by questioning that I found truth. Consider for a moment, whether it is St. Paul’s words in his letter to the Philippians (for example) that are infallible or is it the Holy Spirit through him? If St. Paul can speak infallible words that are to be taken as the Word of God by men, could Christ not speak through the humble, appointed leader of the two thousand year old Catholic Church? If a room full of men were all given the same amount of authority by Christ to make infallible, spirit-guided decisions for the entirety of the Church, would that not foreseeably lead to much difficulty and dispute in the settling of a final dogmatic decision that is to stand firm until Christ’s return? It is important to understand that not every word spoken by the pope is considered to be divinely inspired. In fact, many popes have fulfilled their papal duties without ever making an infallible statement. It is only in very specific circumstances that a pope will speak with what would be considered “infallible” wisdom.
Jesus, whom we are all made in the image and likeness of, was perfectly rational. Christ knew that after his ascension, the most sensible way for future leaders to come to a final decision in His Church on earth was to have one appointed and undisputed leader. As soon as you put two or more people in the position of equal authority, you set the stage for disagreement and difficult decision making. This is why businesses have one CEO, and hockey teams have one head coach, not two. The Holy Spirit is ultimately our one and only CEO and head coach, but in order to communicate effectively to His earthly Church, the Lord utilizes a physical, earth-bound vessel through which to communicate and reveal His commands and will. Many members (including priests) of the Anglican church, one of the largest Protestant denominations, have come to realize the error in their original withdrawal from the authoritative teachings of the magisterium. Today, a significant portion of the Anglican community is in the process of RETURNING to full communion with Rome. Interesting.
Another barrier for many Christians to overcome in regards to the authenticity of papal authority is its lack of biblical origin. Catholics would argue that scripturally it is clear. For those that do not agree, I would pose this question: Where in the bible does it say that the bible, and the bible alone, is the authority of Christ’s Church? There is nothing about the bible “in the bible” which means that at some point, a MAN other than Christ had to declare infallibly to the Christian community that the bible is inerrant. That is, without error. The inerrancy of the bible had to be accepted by Christians as dogma at the time of its compilation in order to be in full communion with the Church, as it is and should be today. The Church from that point forward, was grounded in tradition AND the teachings of the bible. Tradition has been argued to be unfavourable, especially the traditions of men. However, tradition is the natural manifestation of something that “works” within a certain community. When something works pleasantly, we tend to stick with it. Going to church on Sunday is tradition, celebrating Christmas is tradition and a bride wearing her flowing, white wedding gown at the altar is tradition. The authority of the pope and magisterium is a tradition. But is this truly the tradition of men? This is a question of massive importance, because if the traditions of the Catholic Church were indeed established by Jesus Christ, we must be sure to be in communion with those traditions. This is why prudent discernment of truth is monumentally important for all Christians.
Until Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation in 1517, the entire Christian world accepted the pope as their spiritual leader instituted by Christ. That means that for the subsequent 1500 years after Christ ascended to heaven, the holiest of Christian men that walked the earth, in careful discernment, accepted and followed the lead of the pope, along with the rest of the Christian community. It would seem to me quite distressing to think that for the first fifteen hundred years after Christ established His Church, that the body of Christian leaders got it WRONG. If the pope is not who the Catholic Church claims him to be, we can then conclude that for the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity, Christians were sinning heretically by idolizing a leader who, historically, has made false claims to teach infallibly. Essentially, Christ’s bride would have been in the constant state of infidelity. Could it be that the Holy Spirit failed to move the leaders of the Church in the direction of the will of God for a millennium and a half? My sense of reason causes me to doubt that.
Most diligent Christians are familiar with the core scriptural arguments for the establishment of the pope, such as John 1:42 and Matthew 16:19. In addition to the Catholic interpretations that have existed unceasingly for two millenniums, I find it interesting that St. Paul journeys to Jerusalem to confer with Peter and stay with him for an extended period of time in Galatians 1:18. In Acts 15:7, Peter stands up and speaks as the voice of authority to the Council of Jerusalem. Peter’s words to the men are so strong that it causes the entire room, amid the tension of debate, to fall silent and listen. Although it may be argued that these are not solid scriptural arguments for Peter as pope specifically, they show us that he was a man of significant authority in the early Church. I have found that when you put all of the pieces of the puzzle (no matter how seemingly miniscule) together, Peter’s position in the Church becomes clear.
Understandably, it can be hard to get past the fact that there have been some nasty popes in the history of the Church, such as Pope Alexander VI. It bothers me as much as it does you, of this I am certain. Interestingly, none of these “bad” popes ever pronounced anything to be deemed infallible. The temptation of their acquired power detached them from the Holy Spirit, and spiritual withdrawal from their loyal service to the Church subsequently resulted. The sins of these men are tragic, but we must never forget that the pope is as much of a human as you and I. The flesh of the pope is no less “weak” than yours or mine. If you were the evil one seeking to bring ruin to the Church, who would you attack most viciously? From time to time, we hear about leaders in the Church who have been charged with awful crimes. People ask, “How can it be that such trusted and seemingly holy figures could commit such terrible acts?” I myself have asked that question but I am always reminded that ministers, preachers, deacons, priests, bishops and the pope are all – human. Peter, himself, was a lowly sinner like us. It is apparent that the Christian leaders of the past and present face the same degree of temptation (if not more) as we do. In many cases our past popes were known to be some of the humblest men to have ever lived. When Pope John Paul II passed away in April of 2005, he died with no possessions of value to his name. His funeral liturgy was no different than the funeral mass that will be provided for me when my last day has come. His funeral brought about the largest comprehensive gathering of heads of state in history. Leaders at war with one another, Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Jews, all found themselves standing in Rome, side by side, in honour of the beloved pope. He was an extraordinary man with an extraordinary calling. But in his very nature, he was nothing more than a humble man trying to get to heaven.
Perhaps the reason why I am so passionate about this topic is because of my own personal encounter with Pope John Paul II in 2002 (in Toronto). His very presence radiated something that cannot be explained. He was physically a broken man, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and other ailments, yet he was spiritually alive and thriving. The love of Christ burned deep within him. This was apparent in his exchanges and encounters with the Church’s faithful gathered at World Youth Day that summer, and in all of his papal encounters, writings and addresses during his service to the Church. This is a man who experienced life in Poland under the Nazi occupation, where he faced the relentless murder of many of his loved ones at nearby Auschwitz. Following World War II, Karol Woyjtyla lived under tyrannical Communist rule. As a young man, amidst the present dangers, he pursued seminary studies secretly underground. If the hidden seminary would have been found, he surely would have been executed, yet he was willing to take that chance. He wanted to serve God as a Catholic priest that intensely. This is also a man who visited his would-be assassin in prison in 1983. After recovering from severe blood loss due to the four bullet wounds received from his attempted assassination, he visited the hired Turkish hitman, Mehmet Agca, and offered his forgiveness. The bond between John Paul II and Agca became so profound that the Turkish prisoner deeply grieved the passing of his “brother” upon the death of the pope in 2005. As is plainly obvious, the story of this Blessed man’s life is much too extensive to adequately describe here, but you can see why so many people were willing to follow him as their foremost Church leader. He was truly “one-of-a-kind.” Pope Benedict XVI, our current pope, follows the same suit. Joseph Ratzinger’s early life was no less dramatic or intriguing than that of his predecessor. He is a humble man of many gifts and talents, and has stood firm as our Catholic teacher and leader, amidst a time of great world-wide immorality and conflict, to lead Christ’s flock faithfully.
By now you can clearly see my strong affection for the pope, and my firm standing on the authority of the magisterium. Doctrine, in its irrefutable nature, makes things much easier as a simple believer and follower of Christ because there is no room for dispute. You cannot “correct” the Holy Spirit. I know it is tough when you get caught in the middle of arguments, because there are strong arguments on both sides. However, there can only be one truth. Ultimately, that is for you to decide and I will accept you and love you as my Christian brother no matter where you plant yourself to be nourished. It is my true privilege to share my beliefs with you, as a Roman Catholic.
Yours in Christ,