Is the Pope Catholic?

  • Mark Gilbert
  • 17 August 2016

In Australia, we have a saying we use when someone asks something blindingly obvious: “Is the Pope Catholic?” The assumption is of course he is!

On 31 October of this year, Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio) will take part in in an ecumenical service with the World Federation of Lutheran Churches. It marks a year of celebrations to commemorate 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the castle church in Wittenberg. As I mentioned in a previous article, when commenting on this event, Pope Francis said, “And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification”. When he makes comments like this, he shows himself to be entirely Catholic, which is, after all, what you would expect.

Let me explain what I mean: the word ‘Catholic’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘according to the whole’. In short, the Catholic Church means ‘the unified church’. Unity is the most important thing for the Catholic church because it is Catholic.

This brings us to an important question: “How does the Catholic church understand unity?”

The Catholic Church sees itself as a sacrament of unity for the world. By this, they mean that they are a visible and effective sign of unity—visible because they are seen to be at the centre of unity and effective in that they unite various religions and philosophies with God.

In the above diagram, the large blue dot represents the Catholic Church, which (according to Catholic understanding) has the fullness of unity with God. They understand unity as unity in succession from Peter and the apostles, unity in creed (the ancient Nicene creed) and unity in liturgy (by which they mean the Mass).

The other blue dots represent other religions and philosophies. Those closer in represent religions such as the Orthodox Churches, the Anglican Church and other Christian churches. Those further out represent other monotheistic religions like Judaism and Islam, polytheistic religions, and even atheistic beliefs and philosophies. They are all varying distances from Catholicism, but are linked to Catholicism.

The arrows represent the links between different religions and Catholicism. The Catholic Church, has been working very hard over the last 50 years to document what these various religions have in common with the Catholic Church. They call this process ‘ecumenism’. Notice, however, that there is no sense that the Catholic church will change to become closer to other religions. No; it is entirely about identifying what other religions and philosophies have in common with Roman Catholicism. This process is important for Catholics because they believe unity with the Catholic Church is the only way these religions can be united to God—because the Catholic Church is the sacrament of unity for the world.

Because these statements of unity are aimed at demonstrating agreement, they unfortunately tend to obscure or even avoid any differences in order to produce a document that both groups can agree on. This tends to come at the cost of clarity. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Catholics and some Lutherans is a good example of this. The end result of this process is Francis making statements like the above: “And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification”. However, the truth is Catholics and most Protestants are in profound disagreement on the doctrine of justification! (See my previous article: ‘Why the Reformation is definitely not over’.)

Another example of the Catholic Church promoting their agenda of unity is the way in which they encourage the rapidly growing number of evangelical leaders to engage in public displays of unity with the Pope. (See for, example, his recent meeting with evangelical and charismatic leaders in Rome.) But these public displays of unity between evangelicals and Catholics only serve to promote the Catholic agenda to be the sacrament (i.e. visible and effective sign) of unity with God for the world.

So what’s wrong with this view of unity? Unity is very important to God, but his unity is not the sort of ‘obscuring the differences’-type of institutional unity the Catholic church and, sadly, some Protestants are promoting through documents like the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. True unity is unity based on truth, because it is unity with God himself (John 17:11). This unity is not a sacramental unity through an earthly institution, but unity in the Spirit, who knows no bounds, with the Father and through Jesus Christ alone (cf. Eph 4:30-5:2, where the three persons of God work together in unison in the work of salvation to bring us into relationship with him and with each other). It is unity with God, who has unity as a characteristic of his very being—Father, Son and Spirit. If you are a Christian, you are already united to God by adoption into his family, and therefore you are already united with every other Christian as their brother or sister.

Because unity with the Catholic Church is important for Catholics and unity in God is important for us, why not invite your Catholic friends and neighbours to be united to you and your church family by joining your church, your mother’s group, your play group, your Bible Study group, your prayer group and your youth group? There they will be able to hear clearly from God directly through the Bible, and by trusting him, be truly united to him (and you) for eternity.

If you’re in Sydney and you’d like to learn more about sharing this great message of certainty for eternity with Catholics, you may be interested in the Certainty4Eternity conference: ‘Understanding Roman Catholicism in the 21st Century and developing effective evangelistic strategies’:

Date: Saturday, 20th August, 10am-1pm.
Cost: Free.
Location: Moore College, 19 King St, Newtown NSW 2042.

Register here.