In the wake of Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States this week, Barna conducted a poll to discover the pope’s “approval ratings” among Americans. According to the poll, 79% of Catholics approve of Francis, while 58% of Protestants approve. Given the tumultuous relationship between Protestants and Catholics since the 16th century, an approval rating so high among Protestants may seem surprising at first. Does this mean that Protestants no longer “protest” the authority of the pope?
What is the “Protestant” attitude towards the papacy? One thing that often gets lost in the shuffle when discussing Protestant/Catholic relations is that Protestants oppose the office of the papacy itself, as it currently exists, but this doesn’t necessarily mean opposing the individual who happens to be occupying the office at any given moment. Lutherans historically identify the “Man of sin” or “Antichrist” with the papacy, but they point out that, while the office itself is a source of grave concern, the man presiding as pope at the moment may be a genuine Christian. When polls show that Protestants like Francis, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that Protestants acknowledge him as the worldwide leader of all Christendom who, when addressing matters of faith and morals, makes statements that are both infallible and “irreformable”.
Why do Protestants oppose the office? The short answer is that Protestants believe no human (whether it be a political leader, business leader, church leader, etc.) should be accorded the unlimited power given to the pope. The old maxim, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, sounds trite because it has been repeated so many times, but it nevertheless remains true. This position is not a uniquely Protestant quirk either; the Eastern Orthodox Church also argues that the papacy gives vastly too much power to one bishop. In the early church, power was shared among the bishops of the universal church and the bishop of Rome was accorded at most a “primacy of honor” as the first among equals. He was not regarded as possessing more authority than his fellow bishops. Throughout the era of the seven ecumenical councils of the church (325 A.D. to 787 A.D.), it was generally assumed that the highest authority one could appeal to when resolving theological disputes was an ecumenical council. The bishop of Rome didn’t even attend the first (and arguably most important) council of Nicaea. Before the tragic schism between the Eastern and Western church, ecumenical councils had actually deposed corrupt popes, again testifying to the fact that councils, not popes, were regarded as where the buck ultimately stops.
This changed in 1870 when the First Vatican Council declared that the pope, when speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals is infallible. Church historian Phillip Schaff commented at the time that Vatican I’s pronouncement seemed to make any future ecumenical councils unnecessary. Why, he asked, bother with assembling all the world’s bishops to resolve conflicts if the bishop of Rome by himself can unilaterally pronounce infallible doctrine? Schaff died long before the 2nd Vatican Council was convened, but it’s easy to understand the point he was getting at by asking his question.
In recent years, more and more Catholics have been willing to question the power structure within the Roman Catholic Church. Several years ago, journalist Rod Dreher explained in a blog post what led him to depart from the Roman Catholic Church and embrace Eastern Orthodoxy. For him, unrest began in 2001 when he began investigating the infamous sex abuse scandal within the American Catholic priesthood. His friend, Father Tom Doyle, a priest Dreher says “ruined his own career by speaking out for victims” warned him: “If you keep going down this path, you are going to go to places darker than you can imagine.”
This proved to be true for Dreher in the months that followed:
“I heard from many, many people who identified themselves as faithful orthodox Catholics, but who wrote of the pain and suffering they had undergone because either they or a close family member had been molested by a priest, and their diocese had covered it up and even attacked them when they sought justice. There was the monk who learned that there had been a molestation ring in his order, and when his superior suspected that he was going to go to the authorities, had him committed to a mental institution… There was the woman who, along with other women, had to clean Vaseline off the altar in her parish in the mornings after the priest there… had been doing God knows what the night before. She told me she went to the bishop with this news, and had reason to suspect he was being blackmailed by this priest. The bishop now enjoys a reputation as being one of the more conservative prelates in the American church… I began to understand what Tom Doyle’s warnings meant.”
As one might imagine, Dreher’s investigative work earned him plenty of enemies within the Catholic Church:
“There was the prominent priest who yelled at me on the phone one day that if Bishop X. told me there was no scandal in his diocese, that should have been good enough for me to quit my investigation… There was the Catholic therapist I saw briefly for help in dealing with my anger over the Scandal and over 9/11, who spent an entire session literally yelling at me about how I was going to go to hell for questioning the Pope’s handling of the scandal.”
Of course, the horrendous behavior of individual church leaders in a specific nation doesn’t in and of itself prove that the worldwide Roman Catholic Church as a whole is false. All denominations have shameful representatives (as an aside, the two most godless, wicked individuals I’ve ever had the misfortune of meeting are members of local Baptist churches). The Roman Catholic scandal presented a thorny problem for Dreher, though, because like many faithful Catholics a decade ago, he thought that as he traveled up the “chain of command” within the Church, he would find bishops fixing the problem—instead, to his horror, he often found that the higher ups were complicit in covering it up. Where does the buck ultimately stop? In an unwieldy, bureaucratic organization (which certainly describes the Catholic Church), it’s hard to know where it stops. Though the pope may not be directly responsible when such nightmares occur, he is in some manner responsible for the behavior of all Catholic bishops worldwide as their “supervisor”, just as in a company a supervisor is held responsible for the behavior of her employees. The pope shoulders a tremendous responsibility.
When bishops can bulldoze people and cover it up by manipulating with guilt those who would speak up for the oppressed, something is seriously wrong. How many isolated examples of evil within an organization must one encounter before concluding that the organization itself is evil? Surely many faithful American Catholics that have exited the Catholic Church in recent years did so because they concluded, in despair, that there weren’t any dioceses left that didn’t in some sense have blood on their hands.
What does all of this have to do with the pope? Cynical Protestants may ask what good it does to have an infallible pope to address moral matters if he can’t prevent the moral travesties plaguing the American priesthood. The question is understandable, if not entirely fair.
It’s difficult to reform the bureaucracy when the head of the bureaucracy is deemed to be God’s infallible spokesman. As Dreher pointed out, many Catholics saw challenging the corrupt bureaucracy that allowed the scandal to happen as challenging the pope himself (which is tantamount to challenging the authority of God himself). To be sure, we read of similar scandals in other denominations. But the power structure of the Roman Catholic Church makes reform uniquely difficult. The greatest legacy Pope Francis could leave the Catholic Church would be to “de-bureaucratize” it.
With all that said, why do Protestants generally like Pope Francis as an individual? Christianity Today has reported on this phenomena on numerous occasions the past two years. In a CT article published this week, Chris Castaldo said, “Protestants and Catholics alike see Francis as a transparent, down-to-earth kind of servant who prefers washing the feet of prison inmates to the traditional pomp and circumstance of the Vatican. Such qualities resonate with evangelicals who generally see themselves as egalitarian and pietistic… Evangelicals are flocking to Pope Francis because they resonate with his approach to theology, which is more pietistic than doctrinal…When we cherish piety over doctrine, disagreement over religious authority and salvation easily fades into the background.”
Castaldo succinctly sums up what many Protestants find so charming about Francis. He doesn’t seem to be a product of the corrupt bureaucracy himself. That has revitalized the hopes of many Catholics, as well as Protestants, about the long term health of the Roman Catholic Church.
The church needs more Christ-like leaders who would rather wash the feet of prisoners than have underlings wash their feet. This may sound unrealistic. If Protestants want what is truly best for the Roman Catholic Church, they should pray for a real overhaul of the leadership structure of the church. The Reformation in the 16th century seemed absurdly unrealistic too, but it happened. With God, all things are possible.