Pope Boniface VIII

Pope Boniface VIII, click for image source

This is an edited excerpt from an essay I wrote for a Church History course. It specifically highlights the three doctrinal features of Roman Catholicism which combine to make what I call a “dangerous tapestry”. Three current events spurred me to post it. One is the enormous popularity of the pope, especially among young evangelicals and those involved with ecumenical discussions *1. The second is the current crisis in the Middle East, and the revival of talks about “Christian civilization” in the face of ISIL. The third was the President’s talk at the prayer breakfast, and all the varying reactions to it. I think that this portion of my essay is very relevant for all three of these things.

The first doctrinal feature is the belief that the “kingdom of God”, the very purpose of Christ’s work and the end of history, are political realities (though not exclusively political realities). They are “political” in the sense that God is concerned with the structuring and nurturing of human life. This involves the spiritual state of individual humans, but also humanity’s redeemed life with one another. The “new Jerusalem” of Revelation is a society, now fully re-created in Christ. In Roman Catholicism, this political reality is affirmed, and differs from the “separation of church and state” idea, which is more popular in Protestantism. So, in this view, it is not true that the “government’s role” and “the church’s role” and non-overlapping spheres; the church is more responsible for lives of its’ people than the government, and the church (at its’ best) should be executing all of the functions necessary for human life. Personally, I am closer to this view than the belief in the “separation of church and state”, but the kind of “church”, and the kind of “state” that Catholic doctrine would form is, I believe, anti-Christian, as we’ll see by the next two doctrinal features.

The supremacy of the Roman bishop is the doctrinal feature which I have the most aversion to and the doctrine to which I have even stronger aversions to after my study of its’ development. It is in my opinion a religious form of absolutism, and indicative of deeper theological, philosophical, and political beliefs which Roman Catholicism adopted early on unofficially, and later on overtly. The error of absolutism in connection with the papacy is unique in Roman Catholicism because of its’ dogmatic character. What I mean by that is although leaders can function as absolutist in almost any setting, the Catholic church has made this functionality an explicit teaching. It is most obvious in the title “Vicar of Christ”, which is still the second title of the Pope after “Bishop of Rome”, and the pope claims this title for himself alone. The most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered (emphasis mine) *2.

This supreme power is by not checked by the body of bishops, as is evident in the next statement of the Catechism:

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head” *3.

The implications of this teaching are far-reaching and contradict the essence of Christian leadership as displayed in the New Testament. This absolute authority of the Pope has caused egregious defamations to the name of Christ, especially when combined with the final aspect of Roman Catholicism that I highlight below. I also find it surprising that some Protestant Christians are so disposed to compliment Pope Francis’ individual acts, and not truly engage with the institutional problem of his very existence. This is even more surprising to me because it seems as though those Christians more attracted to ecumenical discussions are also more aware of institutions in-general, and the need to correct institutions which lead to injustice.

The final thing I want to highlight is the Roman Catholic church’s endorsement of violence. This is where the converging doctrines of Catholic ecclesiology repel me the most, though the sanctioning of violence on the part of worldly governments is a sad reality among almost all of the church. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that “Secular power is subject to the spiritual power as the body is subject to the soul”. In my course on church history, the interesting realization I had was that I do not theoretically disagree that the church is supposed to govern the whole life of the community of saints. Where I disagree, is that the church’s form of governance should be so conducive to tyranny and violence.

A quote from Boniface VIII perfectly illustrates the dangerous tapestry formed by these threads:

..in this church and in her power there are two swords, a spiritual one and a temporal one…Certainly anyone who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not paid heed to the words of the Lord when he said, “Put up thy sword into its sheath”.

This is the justification for the use of force by the Roman Catholic Church, and while the current Pope condemns violence in-general, it is still the official position of the church to condone it, especially when done for the advancement of the Church or causes it thinks are good. Recent historical examples are the revolutionary politics created by Liberation Theology in Latin America, whose features would be far more attractive if it were not for their endorsement of violence.

It is the convergence of 1) a church governance structure enabling/condoning autocratic power, 2) the true affirmations that the kingdom of God is both “not of this world” and “within/among us”, resulting in the belief that the church’s responsibilities encompass the same spheres as the governments of the world, and 3) the acceptance of worldly methods to enforce this rule, that make it impossible for me to ever become Catholic myself.

I think it will be important as this century goes on for Christians who believe that peace is central to the Gospel to see the structural dangers to this witness that are inherent in Catholicism, even as we continue global ecumenical discussions. It is also important to confront the lie that Western civilization in its’ current form is “Christian civilization”. Christian civilization looks like Christ, dying for its’ enemies, showing self-sacrificial love, living lives of holiness. Such a society may sound “utopian”, or “naive”, since, some may say, such a society would just be conquered and enslaved. The appropriate response to this doubt is to point us to the resurrection, where our Lord’s own self-sacrifice, love, and holiness, resulted in ultimate victory. If we believe this, it is no longer a stretch to believe that we are called to do the same, and that He can accomplish it!

*1 I myself have a strong ecumenical bent, but am simultaneously very averse to pursuing institutional unity with churches whose structures create the kind of dangers that Roman Catholicism’s does.

*2 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2A.HTM , loc.

*3 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2A.HTM , loc. 883