How Should We Think About the Pope?

If you’ve been paying attention to media of any kind, you’ll know that Pope Francis has been in the United States lately, doing all sorts of things like visiting the White House and speaking in front of Congress. In fact, Francis has gained a lot of media attention since his election back in 2013. Many people and publications, both liberal and conservative, have given much love to the Pope, and with the recent media frenzy, it forces the question of what to think about the guy into our minds once again.

First, it must be made clear that our issues with the Pope are theological, and not personal. Often times, if we bring up theological issues with the papacy, they are misconstrued as attacks on the person or character of Francis, and that isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the case. Francis seems like a nice enough guy, but there are enormous theological issues with both his particular papacy, and the papacy as a whole that we, as protestants, need to address.

Much has been made about the humility of Pope Francis, ever since his election. It is notable that he has done certain things which tone down the regalia, if you will, of the papacy. However, while it is common courtesy to refer to him as “holy father” or “his holiness” (an issue in itself), the position of the Pope has one of the most ostentatious titles in all of history. The full list of titles that Pope Francis currently has is as follows: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop an Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God. If someone knowingly takes on these titles, they cannot be called humble in doing so. There are a couple of them which deserve our attention.

Vicar of Jesus Christ

This particular title is probably the most problematic, as vicar essentially means the supreme/ruling/authoritative representative of Jesus on earth. This is somewhat tied to the “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles” title, because they believe that Jesus made Peter the ruler of the Apostles. The story goes that Jesus gave the power to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19, and there has been an “unbroken line of succession” (you’ll hear them say that a lot) of Popes from Peter down to Francis.

There are so many problems with these ideas that it would be hard to address them all with any brevity, so I’ll try and just point out a couple. I think it is fair to say that those verses are referring to Peter, and I think it is also fair to say that Peter was a sort of “first among equals”, but it is simply ridiculous to make the move from saying that to saying that he had authority to rule over the other Apostles, and that that power has been passed down to the blown-up supreme authority given to modern Popes.

Need another example of the blown-up, supreme authority of the Popes? When the Pope speaks ex cathedre “from the chair”, then the Pope is infallible in whatever matter he is speaking about. Strange how so much power is supposedly drawn from Peter, but obviously Peter was not infallible, so now we see how the Popes even supersede their caricature of Peter in authority and power.

Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church

This is an interesting one, because you have to realize that when Rome says “Universal Church”, they are only referring to the Roman Catholic church. According to the  Council of Trent, us Protestants are heretics, unsaved, and condemned. This is something that the humble, loving, caring Pope Francis has not reversed. This is one of the reasons why this particular clip from Rick Warren is troubling.

Is it wrong to care for the poor and the disfigured? Of course not, and I’m glad to see the Pope doing those things. However, this same man will hold those same people condemned if they do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church.

Those things are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with the Papacy in general, but what about Pope Francis in particular? It’s been very interesting to watch what he has said and done since 2013, and it seems like we may have the first postmodern Pope. What I mean by that is that he subtly makes vague and confusing statements which are interpreted to align with a more liberal (theological/political) agenda, while not officially changing conservative Roman Catholic doctrine. This allows him to change the public face of his church, while still retaining the same doctrine. This is only possible in a climate which has given up on the idea of holding consistent beliefs in all areas of life, which is exactly what postmodernism does. To support this claim, Christianity Today wrote an article on Francis, and why Evangelicals love him. A large reason is because his approach to theology is “pietistic instead of doctrinal”, and this resonates with Evangelicals who take the same approach. In Evangelical terms, this would be a “relationship, not a religion” or “deeds, not creeds” approach. This is a fatal mistake to make, and how people come to Rome, despite the multitude of doctrinal and counter-Scriptural problems.

In three “Briefings” this week, Albert Mohler spent the first section of the short podcast talking about the Pope’s visit to the country, and he makes many good points that are worth listening to (here, here, and here). When Francis addressed congress, there were a few interesting things about what he said, or chose not to say. He spoke vaguely about marriage, but did not define it or address homosexual marriage in particular. Is this because the Roman Catholic Church is vague on the issue? Definitely not.

1601 “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”84

1603 “The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws. . . . God himself is the author of marriage.”87 The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity,88 some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures. “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.”89

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.”142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

Francis also vaguely referenced abortion, without being specific or using the word abortion. He said “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Now to those of us in the pro-life camp, this will immediately cover life inside the womb, but without expanding on the issue or defining terms, this could just as easily refer to life only outside the womb. Now is this vagueness a reflection on the official Roman Catholic Church policy? Of course not.

2270 Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.72

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law

Both of those citations are taken from the official catechism of Rome, and can be found at the Vatican’s own website, along with the full lists on their respective topics here and here.

Perhaps most telling is the fact that in his entire speech, he did not mention Jesus once. He mentioned Moses and the Golden Rule, but not Jesus? The Man whose life, death, and resurrection is the foundation of Christianity was not mentioned once by the man who is called the Vicar of Jesus Christ. Let that sink in for a moment.

As much as there may be things to applaud about the life or character of Pope Francis, it must be firmly stated that there many things that he and/or his office says or does which are contrary to Scripture. So while we don’t violently hate the Pope, we do lovingly call him and his church to repentance and faith in Jesus alone, submitting to His authority and the teaching of the 66 books of the Bible. For we know from Scripture Alone that salvation comes only by Grace Alone through Faith Alone in Christ Alone to the Glory of God Alone.

– Jesse