Personally, I hold no animosity towards the Pope as an individual. Theologically, however, I have to say that I disagree with him, and I also have to observe that I belong to a Church which, to say the least, distances itself from his theology in its core formularies: the Book of Common Prayer, the Thirty-nine Articles and the Ordinal.
I mention this, because the reaction to the Pope’s visit within these shores seems, with the exception of the ranters (amongst whom we must now include Dr Richard Dawkins) to have ignored issues of theology almost entirely.
Thus, where there has been controversy, it has been almost entirely over matters of morality, and as we know, whilst theology and moral issues overlap, they are not at all the same thing.
I could not help, in the last few days, speculating as to how different this visit would have been had it taken place in, say 1860 rather than 2010. Of course, such a thing would have been impossible, but had it, in some parallel universe, nevertheless occurred, the reaction would surely have been quite different, not only from the Anglican church but from the lay leadership of the establishment.
We must remember that the Roman Catholic Relief Act would only have been passed comparatively recently (in 1829), allowing Roman Catholics full participation in the political process.
More importantly, however, parliamentarians and others possessed then a degree of awareness of and sophistication in religious matters which we would today find astounding (though those of us who are clergy might equally be gratified to encounter it amongst our congregations). Parliament was, in those days, quite capable of serious religious debate. Jumping forward half a century, we must recall that it was the House of Commons which twice rejected the 1928 revised Prayer Book on theological — and specifically Protestant theological — grounds.
Today, such a debate is unimaginable. It is not simply that most MPs are of vague or non-existent religious persuasion. More importantly, they lack the knowledge to be able to debate such issues. (We may be sure, incidentally, that when the Synodical Measure to introduce women bishops is finally brought to Parliament, the debate will be entirely about justice — with maybe a few side references to God not being ‘a man’ — and that few, if any, will stand up for theological principles on either side.)
To illustrate what this means, let us again imagine a different scenario — this time not one where a Pope visits an earlier Britain which still valued theology, but one where present-day Britain was visited by a Pope whose Church had an unblemished track-record on moral behaviour. In that case, we may have little doubt that he would have been welcomed with open arms. Indeed, the former Pope, John-Paul II, did receive such a welcome when he visited these shores in 1982, helped no doubt by the absence of scandal, but also by his being a likeable and popular figure whose previous name had not been as unattractive-sounding as ‘Ratzinger’.
In fact, as it turned out, the scandals surrounding the Catholic Church made little difference to the attitude either of the political or religious hierarchy towards Benedict XVI. The former were generally polite and the latter generally rapturous.
And yet one has to question the wisdom of both.
Going back to the hypothetical nineteenth century scenario for a moment, there is little doubt that the political hierarchy of the day would not only have questioned the Pope’s theology, but would have championed our own national Protestantism as one of the reasons for our national success. In other words, they would have said that we were what we were, and enjoyed the freedom and prosperity we enjoyed, precisely because we were not Roman Catholic. Specifically, they would, I have no doubt, have pointed to the personal freedom that flowed from this, particularly in the area of intellect.
Bishop J C Ryle, a firm but moderate Protestant, nevertheless opposed the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church for their social impact as well as their religious significance. Advocating private judgement in matters of religion, he wrote,
I ask you to remember that the greatest discoveries in science and in philosophy, beyond all controversy, have arisen from the use of private judgment. To this we owe the discovery of Galileo, that the earth went round the sun, and not the sun round the earth. To this we owe Columbus’s discovery of the new continent of America. To this we owe Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood. To this we owe Jenner’s discovery of vaccination. To this we owe the printing press, the steam engine, the power-loom, the electric telegraph, railways, and gas. For all these discoveries we are indebted to men who dared to think for themselves. (Prove All Things)
And ‘thinking for themselves’ was precisely what he felt that Rome inhibited! The Pope, therefore, would have been just as unwelcome on social as he would have been on religious grounds.
But the religious opposition back then would have been just as strong, which is why it is significant to see the Pope welcomed today by all but the hottest of the Protestant fringe! The reason, of course, is partly that our own Anglican hierarchy has all the vim and vigour of blancmange. We simply lack anyone who can act as a similar rallying point because we lack anyone of comparable stature. As a result, it seems that anything, even from the Vatican, is better to reignite the theological debate than the nothing with which we are otherwise left.
Yet we must not forget that theology matters, even when those with whom we disagree may be members of the Church Universal. Indeed, it is arguable that the recent scandals involving Roman priests were exacerbated by a wrong theology of priesthood, which isolated the perpetrators from public censure and which created an imbalance of power in their relationships with others in the Church.
Again, in welcoming a Christian critique of social policy, we must not forget that Roman Catholic social teaching is the outworking of Roman Catholic theology, and that this, too, is therefore not above theological criticism. Indeed, Andrew Hartropp offers just such a critique in his solidly-researched What is Economic Justice? (Paternoster, 2007, 134-146), beginning in 1891 and looking at some recent pronouncements by the American House of Bishops. He concludes,
One fundamental inadequacy is the lack of a Christological understanding of the Good News. Christ is mentioned as the one who brings the Good News, and who is proclaimed by it, but no further Christological content is given. The consequence, in terms of justice, is that the relationship of Christ himself to oppression, and to the bringing of justice, is simply not addressed. (140)
Undoubtedly there will be those who would want to answer Hartropp’s objections. But we must not overlook the seriousness of the accusation that a purportedly-Christian social theology is not centred on Christ!
And this is precisely the kind of debate that was lacking in the past few days. What should have been said by our Protestant (and therefore Anglican) religious leadership was that the Pope is undoubtedly a very nice man and that the followers of Roman Catholicism are undoubtedly very sincere people, but that he and they are both in error and thus in darkness, and need to come into the light of understanding properly all that Christ is and has done for us.
Had this been 1860 instead of 2010, this message would have undoubtedly have come from many segments of society — albeit, perhaps, without sufficient grace towards the recipients. We have undoubtedly benefited from an improvement in manners in this regard, but we must not let good taste blind us to bad theology.
John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
22 September 2010
22 September 2010