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Is the pope a Roman Catholic?

July 2005 | by Peter Trumper

I hear you say, ‘Don’t be silly, of course he is! Everybody knows the pope’s a Roman Catholic!’ But do they? According to Rome’s official teaching, it is actually impossible to know – but then, some issues are best locked away in the Vatican vaults safe from the prying eyes of ordinary Catholics.

For example, the priest standing at his altar – is he really a Roman Catholic? Only if the bishop who ordained him truly belonged to the RC Church! If the bishop wasn’t a member, then neither is the priest, because his ordination would be invalid.

And if the priest is not validly ordained? Then the wafer and the wine which according to Roman Catholic belief change into the body and blood of Christ, do not in fact do so. Instead (as we know anyway) a simple biscuit has been adored!

Even more serious – if the priest is not really a Roman Catholic then any confession of sin to him (‘auricular confession’) is null and void, as is the absolution offered. In any case, if a Roman Catholic is unsure of the priest’s relation to his church, what is the point of entering the confessional box in the first place?

Come to think of it, if the priest cannot be sure he is really a member of his church, how can your Roman Catholic friends be sure that they belong?

Confused? That’s not surprising. Let me explain what this is all about!

One big gamble

Your Roman Catholic friends will probably never have heard of the Doctrine of Intention. The Vatican, being mistress of the masquerade, keeps her followers in the dark. Nevertheless this teaching, although secreted away, could have dire consequences for any Roman Catholic – even for Pope Benedict XVI himself.

This doctrine concerns what lies within the heart and mindof a priest – his secret ‘intentions’ – when he carries out any ‘priestly’ function. If these intentions are not as they ought to be at the moment of conducting the function in question, then the service he has rendered is invalid. If there is any insincerity of heart, uncleanness of mind, lack of belief in what he is doing, or even a straying of his thoughts – then what he does has no effect.

Cardinal Bellarmine, one of Rome’s outstanding authorities on such matters, draws an alarming conclusion: ‘No one can be certain, with the certainty of faith, that he has received a true sacrament, since no sacrament is performed without the intention of the ministers, and no one else can see the intention of another’ (Works, vol.1, p.488).

Or, as Pius 1V states in his Credo, ‘If there is a defect [in intention] … it nullifies the sacrament’.

Nor is this teaching merely the view of a few individuals. The authoritative Council of Trent used stern language to enforce it: ‘If anyone shall say that intention, at least of doing what the church does, is not required in ministers while performing and administering the sacraments, let him be anathema [cursed]’ [Session VII, Can. 11].

The appalling dilemma

So, where does this leave Pope Benedict and your Roman Catholic friends? The answer is, in an appalling quandary. Joseph Zacchello, a converted priest, could not articulate the dilemma more clearly: ‘This teaching implies that no Roman Catholic, be he priest or layman, can ever be sure that he has been properly baptised, confirmed, absolved in confession, married, received holy communion or extreme unction …’

That, of course, includes the new pope. And anyone who has not been validly baptised is not a Roman Catholic at all!

Dr Zacchello provides the following moving scenario: ‘Supposing a child is baptised by a priest who lacks the proper intention. The baptism is then of no avail and the child grows up a pagan.

‘If he should enter a seminary and be ordained a priest, his ordination will be invalid. All the thousands of masses he says, all the sacraments he performs, will likewise be invalid. If he becomes a bishop, the priests he ordains and the bishops he consecrates will have no power.

‘If by chance he should become pope, the Roman Catholic Church would then have as its “Vicar of Christ” and “infallible” head a man who was not even a Christian (i.e. Roman Catholic) to start with!’

Small wonder this aspect of Catholic doctrine is little known.

The song few can sing

So, next time you meet a Roman Catholic friend or neighbour, ask a very pertinent question: ‘How do you knowPope Benedict is a Roman Catholic? How do you know youare?’

Then, your question having been asked, quote scriptural passages that explain how real Christians knowthey are members of Christ’s body and are ‘accepted in the beloved’ (that is, in Christ) by grace alone (Ephesians 1:6).

For example, ‘This is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hathlife, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life’ (1 John 5:11-12). Then burst into song;

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Saviour all the day long.

If you have been quickened by God the Spirit that is indeed your story. Or, as a Roman Catholic once said to me, ‘We Catholics have the beautiful jewel box, but you evangelicals have the Jewel’. How true!