Imagine that you are a Protestant blogger who awakens one morning to a comment on your recent post entitled “The Joys of Fasting.”
You looneys worship a BOOK that tells you what to do! You think your Logos book is eternal and created the whole universe!! You think it talks to you!! Well then, how do you explain the fact that I can burn your book and it can’t even stop me! HA! HA!
When will you Biblians come to understand the truth and realize that God is invisible and not written down?? Huh? You never thought about that, did you??
Praying for you, but you will go to hell anyway,
Yes, indeed…. Fine way to start the morning.
Well, you could begin by pointing out that Mr. Nutso’s contribution is undeniably off-topic – that’s probably the easiest observation to make. Everything else is so convoluted that the temptation to delete the comment is almost overwhelming. You’ve been taught to believe in teachable moments, however, and in the hope that this might be one, you attempt to compose a reply.
First you must untangle the twisted chain of this person’s understanding. Where in the world did he get these ideas? Does he really think that Protestants worship the Bible as God? Seriously, if he googled around he could come to some kind of basic understanding of Protestant beliefs! Just the simple fact that no reputable website advocates worshipping the Bible should give him a clue!
It’s hard to decide where to begin because he’s addressing so many points at once and has got such a faulty grasp on all of them. You’re going to have to explain to him, first of all, that you are a Christian, not a Biblian (I bet he thinks it’s cute calling you a “Biblian” – made that up all by himself!). You’ll need to declare in no uncertain terms that Christians follow Christ Jesus, God Incarnate, born a Man yet God eternal. You’ll have to make him understand that while Jesus is called “the Word of God” and the Bible is called “the word of God,” Protestants are not thereby insinuating that the Bible is God (that’s going to be fun to try to explain). You’re going to have to point out that Protestants don’t believe that the inspired Word of God literally “speaks” to the reader, but rather that God the Holy Spirit speaks to the heart of those who read the Bible (which will entail a discussion of the Holy Trinity – good luck with that). All this before you head off for that 8 o’clock meeting at work.
The delete button is calling your name….
Of course, this kind of comment could appear on a Catholic blog, too. After all, Catholics agree with 99% of what conservative Protestants believe about Holy Scripture. As Dei Verbum puts it:
Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text).
The Catholic Church insists that the Holy Scriptures are divinely inspired and inerrant. Really the only point at which Catholics and conservative Protestants part ways on this issue is the Protestant doctrine of “sola Scriptura.” Catholics believe that Jesus established and gave authority to His Church, making it the “pillar and foundation of truth.” (1 Tim 3:15), so our guidance cannot come from the Bible “alone.” Since the Bible nowhere teaches the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura, Catholics feel that they are on pretty solid ground!
But when I.R. Nutso comments on Catholic blogs, his posts tend to run more along these lines:
You looneys in the Roman Church believe in popal infallibility! How in the world can you believe in a doctrine invented out of thin air in 1870, that a man can be without sin, and that everything he says can be right?? When are you guys going to stop worshipping the pope and start worshipping the One True God?? Where is the word “pope” in the Bible, anyway? Huh? Where? You never thought about that, did you??
Not even praying for you – you’re just plain lost.
And now the Catholic blogger confronts a dilemma similar to the one the Protestant blogger faced. You’re going to have to explain to Mr. Nutso, first of all, that you’re not a member of the “Roman” church. That’s just rude. The Church Jesus established calls herself Catholic (meaning “universal”) – this appellation dates back to before St. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred circa 107 A.D. To call the Holy Catholic Church the “Roman” church betrays a misunderstanding of the various rites in the Church. Millions of Catholics are not “Roman” Catholic – they are Maronite Catholics, Melkite Greek Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Syro-Malabar Catholics, etc. – all embracing the same teachings as Roman Catholics and all in communion with the Bishop of Rome, and therefore just as Catholic as Catholics of the Roman Rite. I.R. in his ignorance is using the term “Roman” as a pejorative; not a great way to make friends and influence people, although you suspect it makes him feel cool.
Beginning at the end, you can point out that while the word “pope” cannot be found in Scripture, neither can many other important theological terms. The word “rapture” isn’t in there – if he’s a “secret rapture” proponent, that might take the wind out of his sails. Neither is the word “Incarnation” or the word “Trinity” – does that prove that God never became man, or that God is not a Trinity of Persons? Seriously, I.R. – think things through!
While the word “pope” may not be in the Bible, the man who was the first pope certainly is – Simon Peter, the first bishop of Rome. But you’re going to have to confront I.R. with the historical evidence that St. Peter died in Rome, evidence in the writings of Clement, Ignatius, Irenaeus and Tertullian – in fact, never is it claimed in the ancient literature that Peter died anywhere other than in Rome. No one worshipped St. Peter, or his successor St. Linus, or any of the 266 bishops of Rome to date – to believe that the pope is capable of making infallible pronouncements under certain conditions is certainly not the same as believing that he is divine! Neither has anyone claimed that the pope is “impeccable,” which is what I.R. is saying: “that a man can be without sin.” Popes sin. Catholics don’t worship the successor of Peter, nor do we think that he is “perfect.” However, we do believe that he is the earthly head of the Church, and that he was considered to be the head of the Church from the beginning – we have evidence of this from the writings of Pope Clement (who in the first century commanded the Corinthian church to reinstate leaders who had been deposed – what made him think he could do that?), St. Ignatius of Antioch (who at the beginning of the second century wrote that he couldn’t command the Roman church because that church “holds the presidency in love,” so therefore he wished merely that what that church had taught might remain in force – what gave him those ideas?), St. Dionysius of Corinth (who wrote in the late second century that the letters of the late Pope Clement and of the current Pope Soter were being read aloud in the church in Corinth – why were they doing that?), St. Irenaeus (who called Rome “the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul” and who insisted that “with that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree” – why did he think that?) – and all this before the end of the second century.
Catholics consider the pope to be the vicar of Christ. I.R. must know the word “vicarious.” A vicar is someone who acts for and in the place of someone else. While all Christians, as members of Christ’s visible body here on earth, act for and in the place of Jesus, the bishop of Rome does this in a very special way. Something that I.R. might want to look up in the Bible is the footnote on Matthew 16:19, the verse where Jesus gives Peter the “keys to the kingdom.” That footnote will take him to Isaiah 22, where the story of Eliakim plays out. Eliakim was the royal steward, entrusted with the keys to the household. The similarities between the passage in Isaiah and the passage in Matthew are many, including the fact that the steward will be “a father” – the word “pope” means just that. The point is, Jesus was appointing Peter as steward over His Kingdom. It is to be expected that sooner or later the steward will die – but the office of steward will remain and must be filled.
The bishop of Rome is the successor of St. Peter, the modern-day “steward” of Christ’s Kingdom, wielding Petrine authority. As we can see in Acts 1:20, the apostles held “offices” in the Kingdom – Judas’ office had to be filled before the apostles could continue their work. Since the papacy is an office, Catholics believe that Jesus’ instructions and commands to Peter apply to the successors of Peter as well, for example, John 21:15-17: “Feed My lambs, feed My sheep,” and Luke 22:32: “…strengthen your brothers.” We believe that the pope as Peter’s successor can make infallible pronouncements in two areas, faith and morals, in accord with Jesus’ statement “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Think about it – if the successor of Peter could “bind” the faithful to a false teaching in the area of what must be believed (faith) or what must or must not be done (morals), then the gates of Hades most certainly would have prevailed! As Jeffrey Mirus puts it:
…if a Pope could bind the faithful to error, it would be a clear triumph of the powers of Hell, because the entire Church would be bound to follow the error under Christ’s own authority. Obviously, this cannot happen. Therefore, the logic of the situation demands that the Petrine power of confirming the brethren must be an infallible power.
So, to make it crystal clear – Catholics do not believe a blanket statement like “the pope is infallible.” The Church teaches that the pope will, under certain, very specific conditions, be prevented from teaching error. Assuming I.R. is some kind of Protestant, you might try pointing out to him that even he believes in the possibility of infallibility, since he believes that God rendered the first pope, St.Peter, infallible on two occasions: when he wrote First Peter, and when he wrote Second Peter. The difference between those occasions and modern-day cases of infallible pronouncements is that none of the successors of Peter will receive new revelation from God; the popes’ assignment is to guard the deposit of faith handed down to us from the apostles, not to add to it. When defining the faith, they are guarded from error by the Holy Spirit just as the Bible promises (2 Tim 1:14).
And lastly, it’s PAPAL infallibility, I.R. – not “popal.”
Will I.R. listen? Hard to tell. But if Protestants can get a feel for what we go through when we answer convoluted charges like Mr. Nutso’s, maybe they’ll have more patience with us when they ask their questions. If a Protestant can compare what he thinks the Church teaches on a given subject with an official source of information like the Catechism, or even a reliable website like EWTN or Catholic Answers, then any remaining questions will be much better phrased and easier for real, live Catholics to understand and answer – just think, if I.R. had checked the Catechism, EWTN and Catholic Answers to find a basic definition of papal infallibility, he would have found:
The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals CCC 891
When the Pope (1) intends to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme authority (3) on a matter of faith and morals (4) to the whole Church, he is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error. His teaching act is therefore called “infallible” and the teaching which he articulates is termed “irreformable”. EWTN, “Papal Infallibility by Jeffrey Mirus, PhD”
Infallibility belongs in a special way to the pope as head of the bishops (Matt. 16:17–19; John 21:15–17). As Vatican II remarked, it is a charism the pope “enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (Luke 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter. Catholic Answers tract “Papal Infallibility”
These are all saying the same thing and so, having read them, a Protestant would then begin to have a grasp of this Catholic doctrine and would avoid making himself look silly by bringing wild charges à la Nutso. He’d be informed on the subject, and would be able to pose intelligent objections along the lines of “I still cannot see how Catholics can believe in a doctrine (papal infallibility) which wasn’t invented until 1870!” – to which, of course, the real, live Catholic would answer that the date on which a doctrine is solemnly defined is not the date on which people first started believing it; think of the Council of Nicaea defining the deity of Jesus Christ in 325 A.D. – “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.” Did no one believe this doctrine until the Council proclaimed it, or is this not rather an instance in which a Council proclaimed something believed and taught from the beginning, at least in seed form, in order to combat any confusion on the subject?
Well-informed participants in Protestant-Catholic dialogue is what we’re hoping for.
I.R. Nutso need not apply.
On the memorial of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his 119 companions
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Photo of the Book of Isaiah page of the Bible (cropped version) by Trounce