The Papacy

A friend recently showed me a fascinating old book she had discovered at a used bookstore.

Published in 1885, it was titled “America or Rome: Christ or the Pope,” and was penned by John L. Brandt and dedicated to “all patriots and Christians.” (Brandt apparently also wrote another book, 20 years later, titled “Anglo-Saxon Supremacy; Or, Race contributions to civilization.”) The opening chapter, “The Alleged Infallibility of the Pope,” explains that the “dogma of infallibility exempts the Bishop of Rome from error, and resolves the Church into the Pope, and substitutes for the worship of Christ a man-God in Rome for the God-man in Heaven.”

The pope, in Brandt’s book, is a sort of demigod who wields divine powers as freely as Christ himself. In a later section, on Mary and the saints, Brandt flatly claimed that “Mary is Rome’s most conspicuous object of worship.” Mary, readers are assured, is a sort of demi-goddess who apparently, in “Romanist” belief, shares freely in Christ’s divinity and may even somehow be responsible for it.

After my wife and I entered the Catholic Church in 1997, I spoke with a friend — a fundamentalist Protestant — about our decision. After arguing various points of contention, I asked, “Will you give me the top three reasons why you think Catholicism is false?” He responded immediately: “Catholics worship Mary; they worship the pope; and they think the pope cannot sin.” Time and again, I found that these two subjects — Mary and the pope — were the points of the most vigorous and, dare I say, rabid debate with certain Protestant friends.

There is a wealth of fine Catholic apologetics out there explaining the biblical roots and historical basis for Catholic doctrines about the Blessed Virgin and the office of the papacy. I simply want to consider briefly a couple of reasons for the ongoing “arguments” brought up by certain sincere non-Catholic Christians. Consider, first, that these controversies involve two of the people closest to Jesus: Mary and Peter. Is this not peculiar? Wouldn’t it seem reasonable that people who profess a deep love for Jesus Christ would naturally want to know and understand those closest to Him? Yet another relative once told me that Mary was nothing more than a “biological vessel”! And Peter is usually portrayed by fundamentalists primarily as the one who denied Christ. His profession of Jesus’ identity (see Mt 16:13-20), his restoration to head of the apostles (Jn 21:15-19) and his leadership (Acts 1:15) are largely ignored. Paul, in short, is the man.

One reason for this, of course, is Martin Luther’s focus on Paul and the Epistle to the Romans. But another reason, I’m convinced, is that many fundamentalists are simply not comfortable with the messy, earthy and lived reality of the Gospels and historic Christianity. I was raised, for example, believing in the Incarnation, but we rarely considered its many astounding implications. It was data to be stored, not really contemplated. And for all of our talk of having a “personal relationship” with Jesus, that relationship often came fairly close to a high school crush: myopic, self-serving and individualistic. Harsh? Yes. True? I do think so.

Fundamentalists attack the pope for having too much power and authority, yet the pastor of a small nondenominational church has more power to change doctrine and tweak practices than does the pope. The papacy is rejected because only Christ is the true head of “the Church” — so says Pastor Smith, who founded his “church” 10 years ago and makes nearly every decision for his congregation. The ironies abound. A key problem is an anemic ecclesiology. No religious body can grow, maintain common belief and worship, and defend itself without leadership. Yet I’ve witnessed the amusing sight of the religious leader of a 2,000-year-old institution being dismissed by religious leaders of 20-year-old groups as being “man made.” It’s both funny and frustrating. Christ established Peter as the Rock, not so we would worship a “man-God,” but so belief in the God-man would be preserved, defined and defended. When I understood that truth years ago, I saw more clearly the way that God works on earth, in history, among men. And I’m thankful for it.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight (www.ignatiusinsight.com). He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.