Habent Papam

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken May 1, 2005

It has been some weeks since our last Window on the World, and as you know, in the interim there have been some major developments in the Roman Catholic Church. On April 19 white smoke rose over the Vatican and the news spread around the world: Habemus Papam, “We have a Pope.” But since as Protestants we do not recognize the primacy of the papacy, it would be more accurate for us to say Habent Papam: “They have a Pope.”

Over the past month many Protestants have wondered how they should evaluate both the legacy of the late Pope John Paul II and the elevation of his successor Pope Benedict XVI, the former Cardinal Ratzinger. The Pope is one of the most important and influential men in the world, leading more than a billion members of the Roman Catholic Church. What are some of the implications of the recent transition in the papacy?

Pope John Paul II was one of the truly great men of the 20th century. I remember doing research during my senior year in high school and concluding, to my surprise, that the Pope represented the best chance for ending Communist domination of Eastern Europe. This judgment turned out to be at least half right, for it was John Paul II's visits to Poland that set the stage for the peaceful transition of power there, in the Soviet Union, and elsewhere. That alone would be enough to secure his place in history.

But of course there was much more. An image-conscious man in a media-savvy age, Pope John Paul II was perhaps the most famous man in the world. It is said that during his more than 25 years in office—one of the longest papacies ever—he appeared in person before more people than any other man in history. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that his funeral turned out to be the world's largest worship service, with more than 4 million people in attendance.

Any Protestant evaluation of Pope John Paul II needs to make two important distinctions. One is between the man's social ethics and his soteriology, or theology of salvation. Evangelical Christians are in strong agreement with the moral stand that John Paul II took against what he famously called “the culture of death” that now pervades Western society. His was a courageous and persuasive voice against the evils of euthanasia and abortion. The Pope opposed the tyranny of totalitarianism, seeing it as “a degradation, indeed a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.” Human dignity was a recurring theme in his writings. He was a firm believer in “the inviolable mystery of the human person” as a creature made in the image and likeness of God. It is not surprising, then, that in recent years there has been increased cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics on pro-life issues.

When it comes to the doctrine of salvation, however, and to many other important areas of theology, the dividing line between Roman Catholics and Reformation Protestants remains clearly drawn. In his work at Vatican II and afterwards, John Paul II opened a wider door to other faiths, viewing not only Protestants but also Jews and even Muslims as brothers who can meet God through their own religions and find salvation outside of explicit faith in Jesus Christ. We take a more precise view of the claims of Christ, and insist that whether Jew or Gentile, “Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe in him is condemned, already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18; cf. Rom. 10:9–10).

To the end of his life, John Paul II defined the work of Christ as that which cooperates with human effort, rather than as a sovereign and divine grace that alone is sufficient to secure our salvation. And he was a strong advocate of devotion to the Virgin Mary. The Pope honored her as Mediatrix and Co-Redemptrix; he prostrated himself before her image, and he made Totus tuus his personal motto: “All yours,” he would say, with reference to Mary and not to Jesus. Such veneration is a grief to Protestants—and, we believe, to Mary herself—because it goes beyond the plain teaching of Scripture and denies the honor that Jesus deserves as our only Mediator, only Redeemer, and only Lord.

Another distinction we should make is between the man Karol Jozef Wojtyla and the office he assumed when he became Pope. It is right and good for us to honor and admire the man for his moral leadership. After all is said and done, this is how he will stand before God: as a man—a sinful man—who can only be saved by the grace of God in Christ, received by faith alone.

But having considered the man, and given him the honor he deserves, it remains appropriate to say that we believe his office of the papacy to be unbiblical. The Bible affirms neither a hierarchy of bishops nor the supremacy of Rome. We can and should say this while still admiring certain aspects of the John Paul II's person and work.

As you know, the Roman Catholic Church now has a new Pope. Benedict XVI is not a philosopher, like his predecessor, but a theologian. Given his staunch opposition to what he calls “a dictatorship of relativism,” it is hardly surprising that he has received a cool reception from the secular media and from liberal Catholics, especially here in America.

From the Protestant perspective, the new papacy is likely to be a mixed blessing. We admire the Pope's belief in the objective claims of truth, and his Augustinian perspective on human sin. We also appreciate having a Pope who knows his Calvin. When Benedict XVI stands for Catholic doctrine against the Reformation—as he undoubtedly will—at least he will have a good idea what he is standing against. As we see him go about his social, spiritual, and theological work, we should remember to pray for him, and for the grace of God in the Roman Catholic Church.

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