Protestants who are considering a return to the Roman Church need to look a little closer. There are serious crises brewing in Roman Catholicism, from dissident cardinals, to open theological disunity, to clerical scandals, and a pope whose purposes and aims are an impenetrable fog.
Lately it has been astonishing to me how many conservative (basically orthodox) Protestants have been looking toward Roman Catholicism with longing eyes.
Tired of the liberal direction of their own churches, they think they see something unchanging and solid in Roman Catholicism. It looks so ancient; so united; so deep in history; the dust of the saints seems to hang in the sunbeams shining through the high windows of St. Peter’s. They long (as we all ought to) for stability and connection with faithful forebears. So much so that they indicate that they are ready to swallow a little Mary veneration and papal infallibility if only to belong to a church that opposes the progressive trend and gives them back their Christian history.
These Protestants are standing on dangerous territory. They have lost sight of the reasons the Reformation happened in the first place. They have lost confidence in the centrality of the Word of God. In many cases they lack a strong concept of Christian history, or perhaps, have a fantasy version of Christian history that never existed in the first place. They have lost sight of the fact that the practice of pure Christianity can and does change form from age to age.
Long ago it was practised by fishermen in small homes with glassless windows, and in prison cells, and on long and dusty roads. And then it spread throughout Europe, Africa and eastern Asia where it was practised principally in Latin and Greek in small village chapels. It was practised by an antecedent church that would later mutate into the Roman Church.
Five hundred years ago its form changed again. Under the guidance of God, it began to be practised, believed and disseminated by the Reformers, then the Puritans and the great missionaries, who wore their sombre black teaching gowns and took the Good News to the colonies; to the far reaches of the earth.
Today, pure Christianity is increasingly practised by small cells. Sometimes small faithful cells of true believers who remain together in the rotting body of a larger church. Or more frequently, Christians who gather in plain, simple independent local churches and dispense with the robes and the stained glass and get back to basics with the exposition of the pure Word.
Anyone contemplating a return to Rome needs only to look at its present situation to realise that there are no answers there. The Roman Church has entered a state of decline. It is in free-fall without any possibility of arrest.
Its doctrine and teachings are un-reformable (always the hazard of “infallible government”). It is sclerotic, shackled to traditions that have long passed usefulness or even good sense, and has become so indifferent to its own teachings that it is unwilling to enforce them on privileged members like celebrities and politicians.
Its adherents are often poorly catechised – something even acknowledged by the church hierarchy – with suggestions that maybe half of Roman Catholics do not know what their church really teaches about transubstantiation and the Eucharist, even though this is the centrepiece sacrament in Roman theology. (A Protestant might cynically observe that such widespread ignorance is the Roman Church’s strength.)
Many Roman Catholics are anchored more by familiarity to custom and allegiance to the pope than the official truth claims made by their church. Indeed, knowledgeable Roman Catholics worry about papolatry, defined as the elevation of the pope to a quasi-divine figure. Examples of this abound, from a nun who says that Pope Francis loves you even from the other side of the world to Vatican officials asking Filipino Roman Catholics to use images of Christ and not of the pope.
In popular demonstrations of Roman Catholic pride, singers and dancers have displayed a giant head of the pope with a dove hovering above it, as in the case of the 2015 Argentine mardi gras (caution: I have provided only a link to a secondary website with a clean photograph. If you research this further you will come across photographs of the event which featured dancers in very impure costumes. Best avoided.). Their float featured near-naked dancers cavorting before the papal visage, summoning up images of that ghastly pagan dancing in in the movie classic Solomon and Sheba (1959). To the best of my knowledge, this float was never repudiated by the church’s hierarchy.
Upon Jorje Bergoglio’s election, cute Youtube cartoons quickly appeared which presented him very nearly as a perfect saint. When he visited the United States, a Roman Catholic group put up a Twitter theme featuring the word HOPE with the Pope’s head as the letter O. In an effort to reign this in, some Roman Catholic blogs dealt with comments regarding “blasphemy” against the pope. Protestants are forced to wryly observe that blasphemy is always an offence against God. Even when men spoke against St. Paul or St. Peter, they never charged their accusers with blasphemy!
But Rome’s obsession with human mediators and human intercessors does not just end there. During the “Year for Priests” all kinds of Roman Catholic Youtube videos appeared glorifying the priesthood in audio-visual displays akin to worship. The most disturbing of these featured a song by Brian Flynn who sings, “You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek, in persona Christi ad majorem dei gloria“.
For a Protestant, the full lyrics are unendurable. The song appropriates the words written to the Hebrews about the glory of Christ our High Priest who supersedes any earthly priesthood. The song-writer takes that glorious teaching and applies it to feeble, mortal, sinful men who claim they have power to bring Christ down from heaven on their command and render him present on their altars! Who do these priests think they are? And where in sacred scripture is such a power ever bestowed upon men? Most assuredly, it is not ever given to men.
If the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church knew what they knew now, I suspect they would never have elected Jorje Mario Bergoglio as pope.
Pope Francis has been treated very kindly by the media, far more so than his predecessor. Initially this was because he seemed to promise a new direction. The media believed that he might change Roman Catholic practices and introduce a wave of 1960’s style policies, like ordaining women priests, giving communion to divorcees, and softening the line on practising homosexuals.
We were hammered with talk of something called the “Francis Effect”, which turns out to be almost entirely a media construction. It is a textbook example of the sort of “phenomena” the media falsely discovers, spends months chattering about in broad abstract terms, before realising that it never existed in the first place.
Under Francis’ leadership, the Roman Catholic Church has lurched from disaster to disaster, both internal and external. It exposes the ever-broadening contradictions, inconsistencies, and disunity within the Church itself, as it navigates the 21st century with all the acuity of a rudderless vessel.
Numbers of Roman Catholics in the developed world continue to fall. There are massive and widening internal divisions within the Roman Church, between the progressives who wish to pull in a more liberal direction akin to their Lutheran counterparts, and the conservatives who often wish to pull in a more traditionalist direction and return to the Tridentine forms of worship. This chasm will result in schism. It is well and truly on the cards now, and this is being muttered about even by very conservative Roman Catholics whose allegiance to the Vatican is absolute.
The Synod on the Family (2014-2015) exposed both internal machinations and deep theological divisions. And the resulting encyclical Amoris laetitia has clarified nothing and instead prompted months of debate and disputation, some of it very unpleasant. There is now virtual open warfare between the highest ranking members of the hierarchy over the encyclical, with four cardinals going public with their “dubia” or “doubts”. And this hasn’t just been a recent development. Even while the dust was still settling from the Synod, the words began to fly with cardinals openly calling each other out over this.
Meanwhile, the progressive editor of La Civilta Cattolica, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, who gets interviews with Pope Francis and produces the only Roman Catholic magazine to be examined under draft by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, has been using Twitter in a manner that has prompted journalists to write lengthy and detailed exposes. It has been suggested by these websites that the tweets have been aimed at those very same cardinals who went public with their “dubia”.
Francis’ public comments have certainly been fodder for misinterpretation. From the “who am I to judge” comment in relation to homosexuals to the implication that good atheists might enter heaven. Many defenders were quick to point out that these may have been misunderstood, misinterpreted or misquoted. Maybe they were, but one cannot help noticing that if this is the case, Francis has been the unfortunate victim of this on many, many, many occasions. At some point, blaming the translator starts to seem a little empty.
Satirists, like the famous Lutheran Satire, were not so forgiving. Their humour has a cold zing to it because they sourced their material more-or-less verbatim from Francis himself:
They lampoon some of his comments. For example, the report in which the Pope said that youth unemployment and loneliness among the elderly were the most urgent problems facing his church. Not the salvation of sinners, apparently.
But then we come to the here and now.
The latest remarks from the pope this week were so off-colour I initially thought they were satire or “fake news” when I first read them on an Italian news site. But alas, they appear to have been quite real. In speaking about media coverage of scandals and corruption, the Pope referred to sexual arousal over faeces and eating faeces, explaining that this is what the media do when they chase negative stories. In turn, the Spectator in the United Kingdom published an analysis of this, and asked whether or not it was time for the pope to retire.
Yet, the pope and his church have still other problems. Recently, it lurched from the progressive angle and banned all men with homosexual tendencies from the priesthood. There is multiple news coverage of this and it is not very clear what the Roman Church is saying. Whatever it is saying, however, it seems the church is able to judge something after all regarding homosexuality.
According to news sources, from this point forward, a man with homosexual tendencies, even if he is committed to priestly celibacy and continence, will not be allowed to serve as a priest. Some of the comments from the Daily Mail readers suggested that this would decimate the priesthood if it were enforced on existing clergy. Their glib comments do point to something serious. The fact that this ruling has been made at all suggests that there are many such men entering the priesthood. It also suggests that such men may be a source of trouble for the Roman hierarchy.
In fact, at least three Roman Catholic bishops have been involved in sexual scandals in the past 10 years or so. One was even videoed having sexual relations with another man. This is to say nothing of openly gay priests. We do not know how many such men carefully conceal their sexual activities, but some groups suggest that around 50% of the Roman Catholic clergy may be homosexual. These claims are made by liberal and conservative groups. (See: source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4.)
The pope is meant to bring unity, which is the big drawcard for conservatives in embattled denominations. But conservative Roman Catholics within the Roman Catholic Church are growing increasingly dissatisfied themselves. These conservatives are eyeing traditionalists groups with increasing longing. Since Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum issued in 2007 gave priests far greater freedom to celebrate the old Latin form of the mass, the traditionalists have started to grow in number. Their enclaves have expanded, but for many of them, the Roman Church is still not traditional enough.
Consequently, traditionalist schismatic groups like the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) continues to grow and continues to reject any rapprochement that involves accepting the present doctrinal state of the Roman Catholic Church. (A move that seems rather wise in light of the explosive growth of the SSPX and the equally evident decline of the parent organisation.)
Although they would deny it, the Society of St. Pius X is essentially a breakaway church, developing into a parallel organisation practising a robust Tridentine Catholicism. It has an ever-expanding constellation of seminaries, schools, nursing homes, university institutes, churches, chapter houses and monasteries. But more than this, the SSPX is a vivid demonstration of just how much the “unchanging” Roman Catholic Church really has radically changed in the past 70 years.
The two religious groups bear virtually no relation to each other at all. The form of worship is different; the whole premise of their respective ecclesiology is different. Neither is this just a superficial flourish. Modern Roman Catholicism is simply not the same religion that it was in the 1950’s and earlier. The church defended by G. K. Chesterton would be unrecognisable to him today.
It reminds us all that the only unchanging authoritative centre of true Christianity is that which God himself has given us. Namely, his word, which cannot change.