Who’s really in charge?
Thursday 16 to Sunday 19 September will witness the first ever papal state visit to the United Kingdom. Arriving in Scotland, Pope Benedict XVI will meet the Queen and members of the Royal family at Holyrood House before flying south to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury and delivering an address at Westminster Hall.
His programme will include taking part in an open air prayer vigil in Hyde Park and celebrating the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Birmingham.
Unsurprisingly, the visit has attracted a great deal of criticism. Ian Paisley said it was a mistake to have invited Pope Benedict to Britain and criticised the Catholic Church’s response to the child sex abuse scandal.
On the same issue, secularist campaigner Richard Dawkins said, ‘This former head of the Inquisition should be arrested the moment he dares to set foot outside his tinpot fiefdom of the Vatican, and … be tried in an appropriate civil – not ecclesiastical – court’.
Gay activists are planning protests against the church’s attitude on homosexuality, while secularists intend to complain at the cost of the visit to the British taxpayer – an estimated £10-12 million.
Plans for the trip have suffered a number of hiccups, including an apology from the Foreign Office after a civil servant’s memo was leaked suggesting the pope open a hospital abortion ward, bless a gay marriage and launch a papal-branded condom during his visit.
Current debates within the Church of England Synod, about women bishops and the pope’s offer of a fast-track into the Catholic Church for disaffected traditionalists, will add a certain frissance to his discussions with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.
What are Bible-believing, gospel-loving people to make of the visit? At the human level, we can appreciate the visit’s impact on the Catholic population – estimated to be 4.2 million in England and Wales. Catholics, shocked by the depth and extent of their church’s involvement in child abuse, will surely want to meet and be reassured by their top religious leader.
In addition, Roman Catholicism, at times, almost seems an ally in traditional Christianity’s fight against secular liberalism. Pope Benedict has emphasised traditional Catholicism and spoken of the possibility that the Catholic Church might need to become more ‘sectarian’ as it stands for ‘orthodoxy’.
The pope vigorously affirms four fundamental tenets of the Christian faith – the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. However, it would be a big mistake to regard Roman Catholicism as an expression of genuine Christianity.
Catholic dogma denies that Christ’s work of redemption is finished and his atonement sufficient. In addition, Catholic teaching opposes the doctrine at the heart of the Christian faith – the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The Roman Catholic Church not only denies this truth, but actually condemns anyone who believes it. Catholics may say that they believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but their church’s spin on these affirmations effectively undermines their claim.
The Roman Catholic Church’s concept of ‘grace’ is not the free gift of God based on the finished work of Christ on the cross. Their ‘grace’ is only received in partial instalments dispensed through the magisterium of the Catholic Church.
Catholics still have a mandatory priest who stands at a mandatory altar offering up Jesus as an eternal victim at the Sacrifice of the Mass. The crucifix with Christ on the cross is ever-present, although the Bible makes clear that his body is in heaven.
Yes, Catholics can now read a Protestant Bible, but only the magisterium’s interpretation is permitted; there are still novenas (nine-day prayer vigils) and rosaries offered to Mary – ‘co-redeemer’, ‘co-mediatrix’, ‘Queen of Heaven’.
The pope is still considered to be infallible, even when his encyclicals contradict the Bible. Tradition is still given equal ranking with Scripture. The adoration of the wafer – not of Jesus – continues at Catholic communion, as does the priest’s professed ability to transform the bread and wine into the living body and blood of Jesus, by transubstantiation.
It has been suggested that evangelicals could agree with two-thirds of the Catholic Catechism. That may be the case, but it is the third we can’t agree with, centring as it does on the truths of the saving gospel, which is critical. It is true that some things have changed, but not one fundamental doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church has changed at all.
So, what should evangelicals do in relation to the pope’s visit? Should we join Richard Dawkins and other protesters?
Some may choose to protest – and are free to do so – but surely our most effective action is, first, to pray with deep compassion for our Catholic friends and neighbours and, second, to lovingly share gospel truth with them?
We need to remind them that the one in charge of this world is not Pope Benedict, but Jesus Christ, who is King of kings and Lord of lords. It is Jesus to whom one day every knee will bow; and whom every tongue will confess as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
General Secretary of the Fellowship of Independent Churches and Chairman of the Affinity Council