12 April 2005

A Calvinist's View of the Papacy

So, what are we to make of the recently deceased pope? Even among Roman Catholics there is considerable disagreement about John Paul II and his achievements. Most liberals, both Catholics and non-believers, always reviled him as a backward fossil who was out of touch with reality. Yet many nominal Catholics in Europe—those who barely make it to church once a year—mourned him as one of the greatest popes the church ever had, a view shared by many conservative Catholics around the world.

Pope John Paul II was honest and consistent. Once he had made up his mind he would not waver. He did not change direction with the wind. He was consistent in everything, sometimes to minute details that nevertheless could affect important public pronouncements. John Paul II condemned war as an outworking of sin and as inherently evil, but he did not reject it as morally repugnant by definition. He believed that any country has the right to defend itself and use military means if all other avenues were exhausted. As a result, he was known to be against the Iraq war, a fact often cited by anti-war protesters. But he condoned the US intervention in Afghanistan without having to compromise his principles because that war was justified: it was in direct reaction to a military attack and thus counted as self-defence.

He was a fierce promotor of environmental protection and criticized the false notion, still held by many American conservatives, that capitalism is the most effective economic system ensuring freedom and equality. One can hardly accuse the pope of having been a communist, since he saw its evils firsthand in his native Poland. He was simply smart enough to see that economic policy can only do so much to make man happy.

But in other areas Pope John Paul II had more troubling views. Liberal secularist condemn his views of abortion, women’s rights (within and without the church), contraception, gays and AIDS. As a Calvinist, I disagree with many theological doctrines held by the Roman Catholic church. The heresies pointed out by Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other reformers are still adhered to by the largest Christian denomination in the world. The erroneous idea that Mary and the saints can somehow intercede for us with God, among the most damaging inventions of the medieval church, was strongly revived by John Paul II. The Roman Catholic church still holds to a number of such errors, such as the validity of the apocryphal books of the Old Testament, the idea that one is saved through faith and works, indulgences and purgatory, and transsubstantiation during the Eucharist. Any Protestant must be annoyed that the Roman Catholic church never repealed its 16th century pronouncement that all non-Catholics are going to hell. And, finally, the whole idea of a "pope", based on a misreading of Jesus’ charge to Peter, is something Calvinists shrug their shoulders at.

In other words, there is enough for Protestants to complain about. Some have called the pope the anti-Christ, echoing the words of the Westminster Confession. Similarly, the Heidelberg Catechism talks about the "papal mass" as a condemnable idolatry. But these documents always talk about the institution, never about individual people. While I heartily agree that the Roman Catholic church stopped being a faithful church somewhere during the High Middle Ages, that does not mean that there is no shred of Christ or the Gospel left within that denomination. Nor does it mean that all Catholics are condemned to hell, neither the ordinary believer nor those in orders.

The man Karol Woytiła was a sinner like everyone else. Yet he seems to have loved God and his neighbor to the best of his ability. As pope he did nothing special to deserve to be condemned to hell by any on this earth. That judgment is up to God. He was gentle and kind, a charismatic speaker and writer, intelligent, principled and a good leader. He was someone who heard, believed and taught a version of the Gospel infected by a millennium of Roman heresies. Considering the extent of the pollution, it is to the credit of God that His grace shone through even within the Roman Catholic church during the ponitificate of John Paul II. Just as no man is expected to grasp all of God’s truth completely, neither was the late pope. The errors he taught will be charged against him at the Judgment Seat but if he believed in Christ as his only Savior, then he, too, is now in glory.

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