Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Is the Pope a Theologian?

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 Richardson
22 September 2010
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  1. Thank you! Couldn't formulate the words myself, but you have encapsulated all that I have been thinking and have been unable to express.

  2. Thanks DM. Just to point out, the end of sentence went missing in the version you would have read:

    "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."

  3. Very interesting post, thanks. Came across the term 'theological amnesia' recently, which popped into my mind when reading this. I think it was used in terms of general church culture - but applying it more specifically I have to ask: how can you forget what you have never learned? Theology by nature, the study of God, must go deep. So often we spend our time skipping in the shallows, and as you infer, don't make those essential links between theology and practice (such as shown in that very sentence you repost above). Too often, we don't even notice the links are there.

  4. This is an interesting comment, and I am glad to read it, but as a Catholic priest I must say that you show a poor understanding of both the theology of the Catholic priesthood and Catholic Social Teaching. Neither of these things can be judged by referece either to the scandals (which have to be seen in context)and a limited expression of policy from the American bishops. There are reams of stuff and books and compendiums on these matters, and with regard to the Social teaching of the Church it is firmly grounded on Christ and the Gospel. I refer you to a two-volume presentation of this by the late Fr. Roger Charles. With regard to the priesthood there are too many books to mention, but one is "The Priest is Not His Own" by Arcbishop Fulton Sheen. Another good way of gaining a deeper understanding of the Catholic priesthood is to read about St. Jean Vianney. I recommend the book, "The Grace of Ars" by Fr. Frederick L. Miller

  5. A good argument marred bacause it is based on flawed understanding of Catholicism but then I would expect that from an evangelical!!!

    What I think it underlines is that we no longer are a protestant country but have become a liberal one. Just as we are no longer a protestant church (though strands remain) but a liberal one and that explains the changes

  6. Both the Catholic and Anglican churches betray their written beliefs, rules and ideals by their actions.

    A priest or a pope or a leader is many things at many levels...ultimately a flawed and limited human being allied with others equally so... yet many see what we wish/hope/desire that person or group to be. This is true, by tradition for Catholics. 'Councils err' (Article XXI) is not on their radar screen. For Catholics, the Pope and Rome is the spiritual epicenter for the Christian world, while all Scripture declares there is only One Holy Father, One Builder and Lord of The Church, One Great High Priest Jesus Christ and that Jerusalem is His Bride and The Eternal Holy City, place of worship, sacrifice, refining furnace, nurture, peace and all blessing.

  7. I enjoyed this thought-provoking piece.

    A papal visit in 1860 is one of those fascinating 'what-if' questions especially in relation to consequences it might have had for the Oxford Movement and the Irish Question.

    Agreed with Fr. John, I would suggest that Rev. Richardson may have confused the 'theology' of priesthood with might be best termed a 'sociology of priesthood'.

    Also agreed with Fr. Ed, this piece in particular highlights the changes within the Church of England herself, and of course raises questions of why that is? I would humbly suggest that the reason may be linked with Bp. Ryle's quotation above - a church that became wedded to 'progress'?

  8. Thinking for yourself within a Church which embraces all within its tradition is the expression of freedom that is missing from the Catholic Church. Catholic thinking seems to be constrained by Doctrine and Dogma and in a straight jacket.

    The last Vatican Council introduced much change in culture and liturgy, which the Pope now seems keen to reverse.

    I do not see that the Catholic Church will change in any real way, therefor storing up more problems in the future.

    What a shame.

  9. Once again, from UK viewer, a poor understanding of the Catholic Church and also doctrine and dogma. I suggest you look at the works of Hans Urs Von Balthasar and then maybe consider, again, the Development of Doctrine of Cardinal Newman (there are too many names to mention - going back beyond St. Augustine), then come again and tell me that Catholics are in a "straight-jacket" (nonsense!)

  10. I am glad to find thoughtful critique of your post, John!

    Is it time that evangelicals moved on from the straitjacket of the 39A view of Roman theology? While the dogma and doctrine of the RCC may have changed little since the 16th century, the underlying explanations have: medieval to modern, renewal of Augustinianism, etc. Evangelicals need to engage with Roman dogma and doctrine as currently constructed. That, I suggest raises interesting questions for us because we are finding within our own ranks a series of interesting questions and issues arising about how we understand soteriology (for me a key distinction between Catholic and Protestant theology). Specifically, 'the New Perspective on Paul' challenges evangelicals as to whether the true, biblical understanding of salvation is as obviously imputational and not impartational as many evangelicals think it is.

    In short: more sympathy for Benedict and his theology, less anxiety that it was not engaged with?

  11. Just a brief response to those who have posted.

    It seems ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the Church of Rome and the Church of England position themselves very differently vis a vis one another. Interestingly, though, and in undoubted contrast to what would have happened a century ago, these distinctions were entirely ignored in a debate which polarized between ‘faith’ and ‘secularism’. Yet, in my view, this not only gave a false impression but resulted in a missed opportunity.

    It would be remarkable (again, in my view) to discover that Rome and England actually stood for essentially the same Christian understanding, although as Peter Carrell observes, in at least one area this is precisely what certain versions of the New Perspective on Paul would tend to suggest.

    If Rome has, indeed, accepted that justification is ‘sola fide’, as the Articles have it, and if the Lord’s Supper is a participation in the benefits of the cross, rather than the propitiation of the sacrifice, then we may be closer than I realized, with perhaps only the Marian dogmas standing in the way of a closer rapprochement.

    Prior to its demise, however, it was clear from the efforts of ARCIC that the movement was always theologically one way – towards redefining Anglican beliefs to fit better with Rome. It was also clear that this was a move away from ‘classical’ Anglicanism.

    As we all know, ‘moving to Rome’ is still a considerable shift for Anglicans who take that path. In the wake of the Pope’s visit, perhaps the reasons why could form the substance of a new debate.

    Incidentally, vis a vis Hitler who has been dragged into the discussion largely by Mr Dawkins, the former’s view was that Protestants and Catholics must give up fighting one another in order to address the greater threat. Just a caution!

  12. I am interested, John, in the possibility observed by you above that only the Marian dogmas stand in the way of unity. In my own experiences of attending Mass only two things seem objectionable to me as I absorb the content of the liturgy: the possibility of 're-presentation' of Christ's sacrifice being inimical to Scripture (but I recognise, as you do above, that considerable work in Anglican-Catholic and Lutheran-Catholic dialogue has gone into reflection on whether there is real theological difference on the matter) ... and Marian dogmas.

    The latter are not inconsequential, of course, as they sharply raise the question whether there is but one Mediator!

  13. Peter, just to be clear, my suggestion, such as it was, that "only the Marian dogmas stand in the way of unity" is posited on the basis that Rome has accepted justification by faith alone, and a non-sacrificial view of the Mass. We may still have a way to go, therefore.

  14. 1928 Prayer Book - it is very interesting that the Church Assembly passed this revised Prayer Book with a large majority, and that in the House of Commons if only the English MP's votes had been counted (for the Prayer Book of the C of E had nothing to do with Wales or Scotland), it would have passed there too.

  15. Greetings RevD,

    When you talk about the current scandals facing the Vatican and Church, you should also point out to people that there is now stunning and comprehensive proof that the New Testament is a Roman deception. Furthermore, religious leaders in Rome have always known this.
    Finishing the Mysteries of Gods and Symbols
    Don't you think it is finally time to help end their centuries-long international crime spree? Write about me and what I have proven !!

    Here is Wisdom...

  16. May the Force be with you Seven.

    Chris Bishop

  17. Dear John P Richardson,


    Abide in Me, and I in You...

    Jesus said:
    "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.

    You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

    I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

    If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you."
    (John 15:1-7)

    Wow! In those seven verses, the word ABIDE is mentioned seven times. The context of those verses provides us with a lot of light as to what is required of us by GOD for our eternal salvation.

    Jesus said:
    "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (Matthew 7:13-14)

    So we must not only ABIDE in Him but we must also strive to enter by the narrow gate. If we do not ABIDE in Him, then it is obvious that we are not on the path to the narrow gate of salvation, but on the path to the wide gate and to eternal destruction.

    So Jesus said that if we do not ABIDE in Him (the Vine) then we will be taken away from the Vine by the Father, and will be cast off only to wither, to be gathered, and then to be thrown into the fire and burned.

    Now that I have your attention, shouldn't we now find the meaning of the word ABIDE?

    The theological meaning of ABIDE is to dwell within. Jesus would come and dwell in us and we likewise in Him. So as long as we do what Jesus requests of us then we are on the path to the narrow gate to salvation.

    So to assure that we are on right path, Jesus has commanded that we must ABIDE in Him.

    What is required in order to have Jesus ABIDE in us and we in Him?

    Can we do it:

    1. By accepting Him as our our own personal Lord and Savior ?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    2. By the grace of GOD only? Sola Gracias?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    3. By faith in GOD alone? Sola Fides?
    No. Where does the Bible say that?

    It is simple common sense that since He commanded that we must do something, then doesn't it stand to reason that He would also tell us how to do it?

    Jesus was very clear in what we must do in order to have Him ABIDE in us and we in Him.

    Jesus left this command for us in John 6:53-57:

    53 "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (the taken away branch);

    54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.


    57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me."