21 April 2005

Long live Benedict XVI! (from a "reluctant" Protestant)

I haven't blogged for a while because I was sufferring "internet exhaustion" after the whole Terri Schiavo affair. And then I was joining my Roman Catholic brethren in prayer for the late Pope. And then I was eagerly anticipating the results of the conclave...

Well, I for one am happy about Cardinal Ratzinger's election to the papacy. For one thing, the media seem not to like him. That bodes well in my mind. For another thing, he is theologically conservative. No, he's not Reformed, but you can't have everything...even in a Pope.

Of course, since, unlike the Pope, I am Reformed, one may wonder why I even care. The reason I care is that I consider myself not just "reformed"; that is to have a modififier without a thing modified. I am not a "reformed" Christian; that would mean that I was once a Christian and have recovered. No, I am a Reformed Catholic. For the better part of 12 years, from 1978 to 1990, Pope John Paul II was my pope. And I was fairly proud of him. So I am very pleased that one of his disciples has succeeded him.

This alone is not why I care. The big reason I care is that I still feel a certain afinity for the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps this is because my experience as a Roman Catholic was not the same as that had by other former Catholics.

As difficult as it may be for some Protestants to believe, I first heard the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in a Roman Catholic Church. I took catechism in St. John's Roman Catholic Church in San Marcos, Texas. (My catechism teacher was Sister Maria. And I'm sure that I was not her favorite student.) And in that church (or Sister Maria's class anyway) catechism was all about Jesus. I learned that he was God and the Son of God, which I absolutely did not understand (being in elementary school.) I learned that he became man and lived and died for me. I learned also that he rose from the dead three days after he died. I learned that I was not a good person; that is why Jesus died for me. And I needed to believe in him in order to go to heaven. I learned that Jesus expected me to obey his Father, and my parents, and the government and all other authorities (including, of course, the Church). In catechism I was not taught very much about Mary, though I was taught to pray, on certain occasions, "The Hail Mary." (And I still object to a football pass being referred to as a "hail Mary" pass. To me it is disrespectful. What if such a pass were called a "hail Calvin" pass? After all Calvin trusted in the sovereignty of God, right? Does not such a pass connote trusting in something like either fate, or divine sovereignty?). In my childhood, I never, when I prayed, offered a single prayer to any saint (with the exception of the aforementioned occasional prayer to Mary); I prayed either to the Father or to the Son. (I did not understand the Holy Spirit.)

One of my fondest recollections of my childhood, is the huge (and I do mean huge) mosaic of the risen Lord Jesus behind the altar. St. John's has a high vaulted ceiling. It must be twenty feet high. The mural starts at about 8 feet and goes up just about to the ceiling. There he is, facing the congregation. The holes in his hands and feet are visible, and he seems to be reaching out to the congregation. To the left and the right of the altar are smaller statues (only a few feet high) of Joseph and Mary. At St. John's, this mural of Jesus was not easy to ignore. Indeed, it demanded your attention.

In my teens, I lost whatever sort of faith I had as a child. At one point I became an atheist. But I was done being an atheist by the time I joined the Army in 1984. When I enlisted I declared Roman Catholic as my religious preference. In 1988 when I finally came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ I believed myself to have become a real Roman Catholic. The things I believed at that time were the things stipulated in the Nicene Creed, a creed I learned as a child in the RCC and the first creed that I truly believed when, in 1988, I professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And I had no doubts in my mind that I truly had become a Christian. And the morality that I adopted--overnight--was the morality of the Roman Catholic Church. Overnight, I was pro-life, anti-euthanasia, sexually chaste. The Church's teachings on abortion, life and death, sexual morality, and contraception were the moral teahcings I adopted; and they still are. When I cried out to the risen Lord to save me, I cried out as a Roman Catholic; and I knew what was expected of me, morally, as a Roman Catholic, and had resolved, so far as God gave me strength, to obey the moral teachings of the Church.

I shant go here into my reasons for leaving the Roman Catholic Church, except to say that they are, for the most part, just the sort of reasons one can expect a Calvinist (I still prefer the term Augustinian) to have.

Unlike the RCC, I do truly believe that humans are totally depraved, a state which extends to ratiocination. This condition requires an unearned, even unsought for act of God to save the sinner; in short I believe in unconditinal election. I believe that although the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can certainly atone for all sins committed by all people, since the saved are elected to that status, Christ's death atones only for those elect. I believe that election, being an act of God's free, unmerited grace, is completely certain; the elected sinner will by faith turn to God in Jesus Christ for his salvation. I further believe that the sinner, being elected and saved by almighty God himself, shall persevere to the end; he cannot lose that salvation which God has given him (unless, of course, we will assert that God takes back what he has given as a gift). The church of my childhood, regrettably, believes none of these things--despite the great comfort they offer!

And of course, I believe in justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and have done from the first moment of my Christian life. On an evening in September 1988 I (literally) looked up to the heavens and cried out to the Lord Jesus: "Lord Jesus Christ, I now know that you are the Son of God. Have mercy on me, forgive my sins, save me and change my life." I don't think I bothered to say an "Amen". And I believed at that very moment that Jesus had heard me and saved me. I did not know it then, but what I believed was that I had been justified by faith. The RCC, last time I checked, still anathematizes such people.

There are other reasons for not returning. I reject transubstantiation, as well as the notion that the mass recapitulates the sacrifice of Christ. I reject the notion of prayers offered to saints. I strongly suspect that Peter was never in Rome; and doubt that he was the first Bishop of Rome. I do not find it easy to believe that Mary was protected by the Holy Spirit from all sin. I do not claim to know how major or minor these things are. It suffices for me that I believe these things to be false.

Of course, my Catholic friends and relatives would ask me if I am not just a little arrogant. After all, I am only one person. For one person to argue against thousands of Catholic theologians and thousands of years of tradition is a bit presumptuous. And if I tell them that I believe that the Scriptures trump tradition, they will remind me that we have those Scriptures by the very same tradition a large part of which I wish to deny. Is it not, they might ask, more humble simply to accept the teachings of a thousand scholars and over a thousand years of tradition (most of which is accepted by both Roman Catholics and the Orthodox) even if some of it may be mistaken than to assert that a relatively small band of zealots is right and the vast majority of Christians are wrong? After all, they would remind me, we are saved by grace, not by purity of doctrine. I will admit that it is this sort of argument that I find more difficult to overcome than all the arguments the Romans and Reformed have about salvation by faith alone, predestination, the Real Presence and so forth. In truth, I would rather be humble than right all the time, about everything. It does take some doing, at times, to believe that the Church started going wrong almost right after the apostolic fathers died and remained in error until Martin Luther came along. (For example: the liturgies of both East and West were relatively fixed within the first couple hundred years of church history, as was the custom of referring to Mary as Mother of God--and offering prayers to her.)
Perhaps we Reformed (Catholics?) are in need of some humility. Well then, may God give it to us.

Whatever my present feellings and beliefs about Rome, it still remains the fact that the Catholic church was my spiritual mother. I learned the basics of the Christian faith and most of my morality at her feet. Although I feel that she has disowned me, I still care about her and pray for her. So I care who her Pope is. I look forward to seeing good things from Benedict XVI, especially as a co-belligerent in the fight against "the tyranny of relativism". Of course, I doubt that the RCC will embrace Reformation thought during his pontificate. But, like I said above: you can't have everything--even in a Pope.


Gone for now said...


Great post! We have enough enemies in this world. We need to recognize the good where we see it. While we acknowledge the important issues we have with the Roman church, we also must be honest and recognize the many things we have in common. As thinking people, we also must admit that some of their arguments are respectable. To maintain the same sort of antipathy toward the Roman church that many of our Reformed brethren perhaps rightfully held in the 16th and 17th Centuries is, I think, no longer appropriate. Times have changed, and so have both of our churches. We are no longer pursued to the death by the papists. We now have a context of peace, of which we must take advantage. To reunify the church under sound doctrine may seem impossible, yet we do, after all, serve a God who created the entire universe from nothing. Anything is possible with Him.

Peace to you,

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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