As my recent series on “Common Ground?” has demonstrated, Protestants and Catholics disagree on a great deal. Even when we use the same terminology, we oftentimes use those terms differently. Yet there are scores of issues upon which Protestants and Catholics truly agree. We agree, for example, on the necessity of being born again. We agree that we are saved by grace through faith. We agree that Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God and true Man. We agree on the subject of His Virgin Birth, His bodily resurrection and on the fact that He is coming again. We agree that the Bible is the infallible word of God. There are also those in-between subjects, the ones we can agree on in a certain sense, yet profoundly disagree upon at a deeper level. We agree that Jesus established His Church, yet we can’t agree on whether or not to capitalize the “c” in that word – is His “church” merely a body of believers called out from the world by God to live as His people under the authority of Jesus Christ, or is His “Church” also the “universal sacrament of salvation”? You’d certainly get some discussion going on that issue. We agree that Christians are Christ’s body, yet the Catholic understanding of that body as the Church Militant, Church Suffering, and Church Triumphant, with all that the “communion of saints” then entails, gives many Protestants the willies; they find it presumptuous of us to flesh out those doctrines to such an extent. “Presumption,” too, is an issue Protestants and Catholics agree on in one sense – we all believe that it is very wrong to be presumptuous (i.e., audacious, brazen, impertinent, cocky), especially when you are being presumptuous in matters of faith – yet when you get down to the details of that issue, our understanding could not be more different.
Protestants make no attempt to hide the fact that they find the Catholic Church to be somewhat lacking in humility. They find the Catholic Church presumptuous, for example, when she claims that the Holy Father, the pope, can teach infallibly. How can a sinful man claim to be so perfect that he can teach infallibly? How presumptuous to claim that your Church is led by some semi-divine bloke who never makes a mistake!! How awful to call a mere man “Holy Father!”
The Catholic answer to that is that it certainly would be offensively presumptuous to call a mere man “holy” if we meant by that what Protestants think we mean by that. It would be terrible to claim that a man could live without sinning, that he is “semi-divine” and never commits errors. That’s why we don’t do it.
Catholics call the pope “holy” because he is holy in one biblical sense of the word: Scripture speaks of “holy ground,” “the holy mountain,” “holy offerings,” “holy anointing oil,” “holy incense,” “the holy altar” – it even says that “Every cooking pot in Jerusalem and in Judah will be holy to the LORD of hosts!” This sense of the word “holy” simply means “set apart.” If St. Paul advised the Colossians that they were “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” then it’s not a far stretch to claim that the Pope, too, might legitimately be referred to as “Holy Father.” This in no way claims semi-divinity for him; it is simply a misunderstanding of terms on the part of Protestants. Catholics do not consider the pope to be incapable of making a mistake or incapable of sinning; that is simply not what the doctrine of papal infallibility teaches. Patrick Madrid, in his book Pope Fiction, explains it like this:
At this juncture, we should spell out exactly what papal infallibility is not. First, it doesn’t give the pope the answers to theological questions (as inspiration would), nor does infallibility guarantee that he will be proactive and teach what needs to be taught, when it should be taught, in the way it should be taught. Infallibility doesn’t mean that the pope is prompted by God to do or teach something. It doesn’t even guarantee that the pope, when he does teach, will be as effective or persuasive or clear as he should be in what he teaches. Papal infallibility guarantees none of these things. Rather, it is a guarantee that God the Holy Spirit will preserve the pope from formally teaching error.
Please note that this Catholic understanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility, far from being presumptuous, is actually a model of humility. We don’t believe that the Holy Father receives direct inspiration from God as the authors of Holy Scripture did. We don’t believe that the Holy Father will necessarily be a great evangelist, or teacher, or apologist. We don’t believe that the Holy Father will necessarily be kind, or good, or even smarter than the average bear. All that the doctrine of papal infallibility is claiming is that if the Holy Father is toying with the idea of formally teaching error as truth, or even if he is bound and determined to teach error as truth, God in His mercy will stop him. This is how Catholics know that they can rest easy, never awakening to find that a 2,000-year-old Church doctrine (like the universal condemnation of contraception as a sin and a crime against nature) has been overturned, as Protestants did in the 20th century. The pope simply can’t overturn the constant teaching of the Church. The doctrine of papal infallibility, rather than granting the pope carte blanche, is severely limiting.
That really doesn’t say much about our Catholic confidence in the guy elected as the successor to Peter, and that’s the point. We are humbly recognizing the fact that human beings like the pope sin and err, yet Jesus PROMISED that “the gates of hell will not prevail” against His Church. Simply put, that means that He’s got to stop the Church from formally teaching error as truth, lest we fallible humans ruin the whole job. Praise God, He has remained faithful to His promise.
Well, it certainly is somewhat lacking in humility to claim to be able to make certain people into “saints” just because they advanced your cause! The Bible says that we are all saints, but the Catholic Church presumptuously claims to know who’s in Heaven and who isn’t!
Again, it would be presumptuous of the Church to claim that she can make or break saints! The process of canonization, though, is a process of discernment. In other words, the Church believes that God makes clear that miracles are being performed through the intercession of a given deceased person, indicating that that person is in the presence of God. The Church in no way “puts” the person in Heaven or “makes” that person a saint. She simply publicly declares what God has made evident: that that person is one of the saints in Heaven. The Church has never, on the other hand, publicly declared that any given person is not in Heaven, just as she has never taught that any given individual or group of individuals is in hell. She just doesn’t know those things.
Well, what’s more presumptuous than claiming that “the Church is the divinely appointed Custodian and Interpreter of the Bible”? That claim makes the church equal, if not superior, to Holy Scripture! Can the Catholic Church claim to possess even an ounce of humility if she continues to press this presumptuous claim??
Which is more presumptuous, to say “I can understand the Bible all by myself,” or “I need help! Lord, send me Your Church as you sent St. Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch, who in his humility insisted ‘How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?'” (Acts 8:31) You see, the Bible must be interpreted, and somebody’s got to do the interpreting. St. Philip didn’t lay hands on the eunuch and pray that God would explain the Scriptures to him – St. Philip, as a representative of the Church, did it himself. God could have made each individual believer an infallible interpreter of Scripture, in which case all Protestants would agree on the interpretation of each verse of the Bible. We all know that is not the case. God chose, in reality, to make His Church the Custodian and Interpreter of the Bible, because without an authorized interpreter, no one can be sure his own personal understanding of a given verse or doctrine is an orthodox one. In other words, God made His Church to be “the pillar and foundation of the Truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Far from being an audacious claim, there is nothing presumptuous about the Church’s claim at all.
Those charges of presumption commonly made against the Catholic Church simply won’t stick. God delegated special authority to certain people not because they or the Church as a whole are so great, but because we’re NOT. We need special help! He has provided it.
While we’re on the subject of presumption, though, Catholics have a few questions of their own:
- The Catholic Church does not claim to know a great deal about the End Times. “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end” is about as much as she’s ever officially stated on the subject. Evangelicals, on the other hand, presume to know a great deal. The Evangelical doctrine of the pre-tribulational rapture is made an Article of Faith in some churches; they are leaning on their own understanding, and yet making it binding upon believers. “Prophecy conferences” with self-proclaimed “prophecy experts” draw large crowds, as these men teach doctrines unknown to the early Christians. “We are in the last days!” they pontificate, and have been pontificating for generations now. Yet, no man knows the day nor the hour? How is this not presumptuous?
- Catholics do not presume to declare that a given deceased person is not in Heaven. The Church does not claim to possess that knowledge. Yet Evangelicals claim to know that millions upon millions of people who never heard the Gospel are without a doubt in hell, in strange opposition to the teaching of St. Paul:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. …
For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. …
for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. (Rom 1:20, 2:12-16, 4:15)
Because this teaching appears to contradict the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone, Evangelicals disregard St. Paul and presume to proclaim that every individual who dies without praying the Sinner’s Prayer will without a doubt go to hell. When one of the Apostles made it clear that “it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,” how can insisting otherwise not be presumptuous?
- Protestants will be the first to tell you that they are not infallible – that no one is. You will struggle to find a Protestant church where the pastor claims that his teaching on a given subject is the only correct understanding (he may hint at this, claiming that his understanding is “the clear teaching of Scripture,” but the majority of pastors will shy away from making claims of infallibility for themselves). That said, many, many Evangelical Bible teachers will claim to KNOW which verses of Scripture are meant to be taken literally, and to KNOW which are meant to be taken figuratively. Genesis 1 and 2, for example, MUST be taken literally (ask Ken Ham!); John 6:41-71, on the other hand, MUST be taken figuratively (ask any Evangelical pastor). How can they know this? Yet their understanding of which verses were meant literally and which verses were meant figuratively has become for them, just like the pre-tribulational Rapture, an Article of Faith. Tell a 6-Day creationist that you don’t believe that the first two chapters of the Bible have to be taken literally. He will tell you that you are not a Christian, because you reject his entirely arbitrary understanding of which verses need to be taken literally. Ask him how he knows that his understanding of this issue is the correct one. He will tell you that it is OBVIOUS to real Christians….
When the Catholic Church claims infallibility for her Pope, she is admitting a fault – Catholics are so prone to fail their Lord that He had to build safeguards into the system to prevent His people from sinking His ship. To claim that the Church is protected from error is an act of humility. Protestants who would never claim infallibility for their own private interpretations of Scripture, yet nevertheless assert their own opinions as non-negotiable, are making some pretty cheeky claims. Presumptuous is as Presumptuous does.
On the memorial of Blessed Francisco and Blessed Jacinta Marto
Deo omnis gloria!