Of Rome And Popes And Humility

Pope Francis has landed and, if the media circus is an indication, it’s a pretty big deal. Historically I can understand the significance of his visit. He’s only the fourth Pope to come to the United States—the first being Pope Paul VI in 1965. For the first time in congressional history the Bishop of Rome addressed both houses of Congress. And since over seventy-million people in America are more or less devoted to the Holy See, his voice on social concerns from the unborn, to immigration, and family values isn’t completely irrelevant. Despite the pomp and pageantry maybe it’s a good day to be reminded why we’re Protestant.

One of the things that has captured the attention of the world is Pope Francis’s humble approach to the papacy. From the moment he was inaugurated he refused the papal car and rode on the bus with his fellow bishops. Everyone was amazed when he took time to pay his hotel bill. He even chose to forgo the Apostolic Palace as a place of residence and prefers the more modest St. Martha’s Guesthouse. Just this week he turned down an invitation to lunch with Washington’s elite to serve and dine with the homeless. While this has enamored the media, drawn tribute from President Obama on the White House South Lawn, and won praise from so many people, I personally find it completely contradictory that a man with such a reputation can still call himself “Pope,” or according to his full title, “His Holiness, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God.”

Why do I say that? Because there’s no humility in the office of Pope. That title isn’t a meaningless word. It has a definition. Or, to put it this way, it has doctrine. The Pope isn’t simply some foreign dignitary with social concerns ranging from the unborn to climate change, he isn’t only some figurehead who holds the power of opinion and persuasion, he isn’t a church leader who only exercises supervision and guidance or starts conversations. In Catholic belief he is so much more.

For instance, the Catholic Catechism says:

“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’ ‘For 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’” (882).

“In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility…The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in their faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (888, 891).

The Council of Florence declared:

“We likewise define that the holy Apostolic See, and the Roman Pontiff, hold the primacy throughout the entire world; and that the Roman Pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter, the chief of the Apostles, and the true vicar of Christ, and that he is the head of the entire Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him in blessed Peter by our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed, rule, and govern the universal Church.”

The First Vatican Council maintains:

“If anyone says that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy let him be anathema” (4.2.5).

“We promulgate anew the definition of the ecumenical council of Florence which must be believed by all faithful Christians, namely that the apostolic see and the Roman Pontiff hold a world-wide primacy, and that the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole church and father and teacher of all christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our Lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal church” (4.3.1).

“We teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchal subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters of faith and morals, but in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world” (4.3.2).

“This is the teaching of the catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation” (4.3.3).

The Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium affirms:

“But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power.”

Those aren’t humble and lowly claims–they’re extraordinary! The man who was greeted by our President, who addressed a joint-session of Congress, who is meeting tens of thousands of Americans in three cities believes he is Christ’s substitute on earth endowed with universal authority and power over all Christians who cannot, without endangering their souls, deny him. Where is the humility in that? It is, or in the very least it comes extremely close to “proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:4)–especially since there isn’t a shred of biblical support for it. The Vatican itself has acknowledged, “The New Testament contains no explicit record of a transmission of Peter’s leadership; nor is the transmission of apostolic authority very clear” and that “the New Testament texts offer no sufficient basis” for Papal supremacy (see First Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission, sections 6 & 7). So lofty and grandiose are the claims of the Papacy that Roman Catholic theologian Matthias Scheeben wrote, “If the power over the human mind and the infallible possession of Divine truth claimed by the Catholic hierarchy did not really come from God, the claim would be horrible blasphemy, and the hierarchy would be the work of the devil.” Such strong language probably makes many Protestants (and, I suspect, many Catholics!) quite uncomfortable. So much for a humble approach to the Papacy.

4 Comments

  1. Tara September 25, 2015 at 12:42 pm #

    I would have to agree with some of your statements, however, I would suggest delving further into Orthodox Christianity, which the Catholic Church split from. You might find Fr. Josiah Trenham a great resource. He has a wonderful book titled “Rock and Sand” that is fabulous. Furthermore, he is a former Presbyterian;) Blessings.

    • Kyle Borg September 25, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

      Tara,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      I appreciate the recommendation. For what it’s worth, I won’t pretend to be well verses in Eastern Orthodoxy, but I have spent some time in it–reading Timothy Ware’s introduction, dabbling in Maximus the Confessor, and other books here and there.

      While it’s an area of interest to me, Orthodoxy comes, in my own mind, with its own concerns–from the Trinitarian formula, to libertine free will, apophatic theology, ontological fall, and a Christus Victor theory of the atonement. Nevertheless, I will try to carve out some time for Trenham’s book. Thanks!

  2. Brooke Demott September 28, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

    I am brand new to the RP denomination, and a first generation Christian in my family, walking with Christ for 9 years now. Can you tell me, is the Roman Catholic Church considered to be a legitimate arm of the true church which contains errant doctrine (like Pentecostalism) or is it considered to be a cult (like the Mormon tradition)?

    • Kyle Borg September 29, 2015 at 10:33 am #

      Brooke,
      Thanks for your question! It’s a challenging one, but an important one.

      I’m going to suspect that you’d get different answers depending on who in the RPCNA you would ask. So the best I can offer is a couple of suggestions from our Constitution and personal conviction.

      I don’t know how familiar you are with our Constitution but two of the documents that serve as our doctrinal standards (subordinate to the Bible of course!) are the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Testimony of the RPCNA. The Testimony seeks to apply the truth of the WCF to our own contemporary situation. With regard to the Roman Catholic Church the WCF says two very helpful things. First, we regard “papists” to be “idolaters” (see WCF 24.3). This is because of their praying to the saints, veneration of Mary, and the observance of the Mass as a perpetual sacrifice. Secondly, the WCF recognizes the Pope as “Antichrist” (WCF 25:6) and the RP Testimony tones that down a little recognizing there will be “many antichrists” (25:18).

      Now, whether or not that is enough to remove the Catholic Church as being a “legitimate arm of the true church” is probably a matter of differing convictions. Of course, to answer that one must know what makes for a legitimate church. I understand the church to be where the gospel is faithfully preached, the sacraments are administered, and discipline is practiced. For my part I do not believe the Roman Catholic Church is a legitimate branch. Why? Because at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Roman Catholic Church offered its response to the Protestant Reformation where, in very strong language, they condemned anyone who believes we are justified by faith alone. In so doing, I think, they cut themselves off from the true church by denying the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Galatians 1:8-9). Subsequent councils–like Vatican I and Vatican II–have tried to water-down some of Trent’s condemnation but they have never reversed it and, because of how Roman Catholicism works, they never can. To put it simply, the Roman Catholic Church–as institution–denies the biblical gospel.

      I want to clarify, however, that I’m not saying there aren’t Christians in the Roman Catholic Church. If there are–and I’m sure there are–they are Christians not because of the Roman Catholic Church but in spite of it. I hope you see the difference.

      Hopefully that clarifies it a little for you. If you have any follow-up questions please feel free to ask!

      Blessings!

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