I know it’s been a while since I’ve written a post. I’ve been going through some stuff. I’ll leave it at that.
However, the Pope finally responded to the Pennsylvania news, and I wanted to think out loud about it, so here it goes.
A quick disclaimer: I do speak fairly strongly against the Roman Catholic Church in this post. I hope that my Roman Catholic friends understand that I am not speaking against THEM, but against particular doctrines of the institution with which they identify. Please don’t take personal offense at my words, and please talk to me and explain where you perceive that I might be misrepresenting you or your church’s doctrines.
As for a post outline… First, I’ll summarize what’s happened recently in Pennsylvania for any who don’t know. I’ll then analyze some doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that I think have led to this situation. Finally, I’ll analyze the Pope’s letter addressing it.
What’s Happened Recently in Pennsylvania
For any who don’t know, about a week ago, a grand jury report was released in which credible allegations of sexual abuse and rape were leveled against over 300 priests in various dioceses throughout Pennsylvania. Well over 1,000 children are suspected of having been horrifically abused by priests for a period of decades, and there is clear evidence that the leadership of the RCC was involved in covering up the scandal.
If you need details, and have a strong stomach to consider how evil someone can be, you might read the grand jury report, which details the downright demonic actions of some of these men in positions of power in the RCC.
Some Roman Catholic Doctrines that Have Led to This Situation
There is no longer any doubt that this not only was, but is, a widespread problem within the RCC, at the very least, and possibly within other religious communities in which men are vested with great authority and little to no accountability. I pray that men in my own protestant churches who may be guilty of such horrific sins will confess them openly, repent, and remove themselves from places of leadership within churches, submitting themselves to the discipline of both the church and the state.
That said, I’d like to state clearly some of the doctrines that I believe have made the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, a breeding ground for this particular kind of abuse and evil.
There are two specific sets of doctrines I would argue contribute heavily to the problem, and are very unbiblical: (1) Ecclesial Structure and Apostolic Succession (2) the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
Ecclesial Structure and Apostolic Succession
The first of these doctrines is rather large and hard to summarize, but I will do so with the words “ecclesial structure” and “apostolic succession.” Ecclesial structure relates to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic bishops, priests, and laity. In short, there is a hierarchy of power that ascends a ladder ultimately leading to the Pope. Specifically, according to the RCC, the pope “enjoys, by divine institution, ‘supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.’” Again, according to the Catechism, the pope “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful [i.e. the Church]. For the Roman Pontiff [the Pope], by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” What does this ultimately mean? The pope is effectively God on earth, and speaks with the authority of God Himself, according to the RCC. Beyond that, the same language is used to describe the extension of his power into the Bishops. “The Bishops, established by the Holy Spirit, succeed the apostles. They are ‘the visible source and foundation of unity in their own particular Churches.’” Meaning that, what the Pope is for the whole church, bishops are for individual churches.
I actually don’t have a big beef with the idea of an organized leadership structure in which you work up a ladder of authority to make hard decisions. The issue comes when we speak of individual men on the ladder (instead of a plurality of men, “elders”) who only answer to those above him on the ladder (and not those below him), and one individual man at the top, who answers to no one on earth. A better ecclesial hierarchy, I think, is a ladder where only a plurality of elders is held accountable to the word of God by the local churches they lead… but that’s another post for another time.
This Roman Catholic ecclesial hierarchy is justified in their eyes, and further distorted in mine, by Apostolic Succession. It is the Roman Catholic belief that the power given to Jesus (Matt 28:18-20), he gave to his apostles, and it was passed down, person-to-person, in an unbroken chain to the current Pope and Bishops. There is mystical power in the laying on of hands, according to Roman Catholics, and Peter laid his hands on a guy, who laid his hands on a guy, who laid his hands on a guy, and that line connects right down to the present. This is Apostolic succession, and it gives the Roman Catholics their justification for unfettered power and authority in their ecclesial offices because it goes back to “all authority” that was given to Jesus. Unfortunately, he never gave THAT power and authority to the Apostles… at least, not in the Biblical texts.
The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation
The second of these doctrines is called “The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation,” or more commonly called “confession.” In the Roman Catholic sense of the term, confession of a sin is something that must be done to a priest if that sin is actually going to be forgiven by God. In the Catholic Catechism it argues that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins (I agree) and passed that authority onto his apostles (I disagree) and the current bishops and priesthood have the same authority of the apostles passed down in an unbroken chain (I disagree, further. We’re back to apostolic succession). This is specifically stated as such when the Catechism says, “Since Christ entrusted to his apostles the ministry of reconciliation, bishops who are their successors, and priests, the bishops’ collaborators, continue to exercise this ministry. Indeed bishops and priests, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, have the power to forgive all sins ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’”
Furthermore, priests are ordered by the Church Magesterium to keep all confession a secret under the “sacramental Seal.” The catechism says, “Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him.”
The Effect of These Two Doctrines
These two linchpins, working together within the RCC are the errors that breed corruption. By entrusting fallible and sinful men with the ability to wield the power of God on earth, as if they were God Himself, and particularly, the exclusive power on earth to forgive sins, you entrust to him his destruction. I would argue strongly that Apostolic Succession, as taught by the RCC, is false. The apostolic authority given to the apostles was not the exact same authority Jesus claimed at his resurrection, and further the authority that was given them died with the apostles. It was followed up with a different kind of authority given to pastors and teachers. I would further argue the authority given to pastors and teachers is dependent entirely on the scriptures. They are there to lead according to the revealed word of God; they are not there to reveal the word of God. Your pastor is not God on earth, and I even hesitate to say he is God’s representative on earth. If I do say that, I must clarify that he is such a representative in the exact same way that ALL CHRISTIANS are God’s representatives on earth.
Furthermore, this power of priests is heightened when a priest is entrusted with the actual ability, to forgive sins. Yes, they claim it is only through the power of Christ, but they maintain that the laity does not have this same power. This is wrong.
All who believe the gospel, all those who are “regenerated” for the theologically minded in the crowd, are saints according to the Bible (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Col 1:2; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1). A pastor or teacher (elder) has no more or less authority to forgive another man his sins than the believing janitor or babysitter has, that is to say: none. God is the one with authority to forgive sins.
By giving some divine right to priests to forgive sins, and then reinforcing that with a powerful secrecy, the sinful nature of the priest in question is given a playground.
Confession is supposed to be a bringing to light of evil done and realigning one’s will with God’s. I encourage people all the time to confess their sins. It is right to do. But I cautiously discourage confessing sins in secret or “safe spaces.” Do you not know that what you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops? Do you not know that you are to walk as children of the light, and expose the unfruitful works of the darkness? Confess them in the light now. The power of an unconfessed sin is the same as the power of a sin confessed only in private and secret: the fear that others will not forgive you for that sin if they knew about it. But guess what? They can’t forgive you for that sin anyway. God is the one who can, so it doesn’t matter if someone here on earth forgives you or not.
To that end, I want to take a moment to confess in the light some of the sins I am tempted to only confess in secret.
I have looked at pornography. I have lusted after women. I have murdered in my heart. I have abused food through bulimia. I have selfishly regarded my own comfort before the needs of my roommates.
I have sinned. And I hope you don’t think, dear reader, that I no longer sin. I do. And when I do, I try to confess it quickly to God, and to anyone who will listen.
This is the gospel, friends. God saves sinners, purely by his grace. He forgives sins because he chooses to do so… not because they were confessed to a priest who holds the keys to forgiveness, or because you said five Hail Mary‘s.
In short, the non-biblical, but no less true phrase, “Power corrupts, and Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the problem that has led to the current situation in the RCC. The power of being “God on earth” and to wield forgiveness in secret has led to the possibility of abusing that power, and placing a stamp of God’s authority (which these men do not have) upon acts that God himself in his word calls detestable, evil, sin.
The Pope’s Letter Addressing the Problem
If you’d like to read his letter in full, here is a link to it.
My initial (and sinful) reaction to this letter is to dismiss it with the phrase “too little, too late.” But that would be wrong of me. Having addressed the issues I see in the RCC’s structure, I now see it fit to, temporarily, accept these errors, insert myself into the Roman Catholic worldview and say, “work within the system already established, and evaluate the Pope’s words on their own merits, without getting caught up in the ‘he shouldn’t have this kind of authority to begin with’ question.” When I try to do that, I find the Pope actually wrote a pretty good letter renouncing the evil at hand, confessing the sins of his flock (not in secret, but to all), and implementing steps of repentance within his institution, the Roman Catholic Church.
In fact, the two big doctrines I outlined above, seem to be spoken of negatively (if not explicitly, then implicitly) in this letter from the Pope, and I praise God for that.
There are very rightfully contrite statements that I would expect anyone who leads to make when his followers commit acts of evil. “With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner […] we showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.” Later, “We have delayed in applying these actions and sanctions that are so necessary…” And, “Let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and the sins of others.”
From whom must the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, and the Pope in particular, beg forgiveness? The answer can only be this: from God. And it seems assumed that the Pope supposes God will give this forgiveness without the intermediary approval of a priest, but through the intermediary of his son. Amen to that.
In one stunning paragraph not being widely reported, the Pope seems to denounce the hierarchical structure of his own institution, under the term “clericalism.” I will quote the whole paragraph:
“It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives. This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that ‘not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people.’ Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism.”
These statements are encouraging to me. While I realize he probably means something different from the term “clericalism” than I do, this is a step in the right direction. I’m not going to denounce a statement by the pope if it at least points his people toward a more biblical understanding of authority and power. All believers are saints. Pastors and teachers have special responsibilities, but are accountable to the people of God on earth, and to God Himself in heaven. The “clericalism” the pope denounces here suggests that bishops and priests are accountable only to other bishops and priests, and I support any denunciation of such a system.
There are, obviously, things with which I will disagree. (If you read this blog ever, you know that I always find something with which to disagree!) The Pope’s emphasis on “fostering a culture” instead of “teaching and practicing the truth of scripture” is bothersome. His reference to communal salvation only, instead of individual salvation is interesting to me. His veneration of Mary as his final (and repeated) example to follow as a disciple of Christ (above even Paul who instructed people to imitate him as he imitates Christ) makes me shake my head and sigh.
But I’m willing to put those aside for now and say this: I agree in large part with what Pope Francis said here. If his actions line up with his words, I’ll support him as he goes about instituting change on this front. Whatever else he may be, he is this: he is a man in a position of authority who claims to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, and so when he leads in a manner worthy of the title “Christian” I will support him in doing so, and try to do the same in the institutions I lead.
May my fellow protestant friends do the same.