The unchanging papacy

In the wake of Pope Francis’ recent visit to the United States, the notion has been nurtured that real change may at last be in the offing for the Roman Catholic Church. The benign, allegedly all-inclusive, presumably non-judgmental image the current pope is fostering has certainly raised hopes—among Christians and non-Christians, among the devout and among the doubting—that the changeless rigidity which for so long has characterized papal teachings may be eroding at last.

It’s a refrain we’ve heard before, even among some Adventists. Some years ago, one author in an independent Adventist magazine claimed that since the Second Vatican Council in 1962, “everything written about Catholic life and thought ‘from the outside’ before then has become obsolete” (“Adventists and Catholicism,” Spectrum Magazine, Summer 1999, p. 31.). More recently, in advance of the papal visit to America last month, a leading figure connected with another independent Adventist journal dismissed the “anti-Catholic” tone of "The Great Controversy" as supposedly the product of a bygone era characterized by a nativist, anti-immigrant, “Know-Nothing” ideology, and proposed a “letter of apology” for the General Conference President to write, which would ask the pope’s forgiveness for the recent distribution of 700,000 copies of The Great Controversy to residents of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Aside from the utterly laughable notion of Elder Wilson even considering the possibility of writing such a letter, the above claims of allegedly obsolete convictions on the part of Adventists regarding Roman Catholicism merit careful analysis and consideration. Speaking as an evangelist, one thing that has concerned me very much through the years is the extent to which many of my fellow evangelists have employed Catholic statements of a century or more ago as a means of establishing in listeners’ minds the fulfillment by the papacy of biblical prophecies regarding the Antichrist. The too-frequent use of such material, to the neglect of more recent evidence along the same lines, has given unwarranted credence to the theory that classic Adventist beliefs regarding the papacy belong to an era as far removed from contemporary times—in terms of culture, worldview, and human progress—as that era was from the Biblical period.

What follows is an overview of Catholic statements drawn solely from the past several decades, well after the Second Vatican Council, up till and including the reign of the present pope.  Readers will be able to see for themselves whether or not those papal beliefs and practices against which the original Reformers and classic Adventism have offered protest are still held by modern and contemporary leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

No Forgiveness Directly From God

On December 12, 1984, the Los Angeles Times ran the headline, “No Forgiveness ‘Directly from God,’ Pope Says." The report which followed stated:

Rebutting a belief widely shared by Protestants and a growing number of Roman Catholics, Pope John Paul II dismissed Tuesday the “widespread idea that one can obtain forgiveness directly from God,” and exhorted Catholics to confess more often to their priests.

Pope Francis agrees. In anticipation of the pending Holy Year of Mercy, the current pope has declared that local priests, not just bishops, now have the right to grant forgiveness to women who have had abortions. According to one report:

The pontiff said he will allow priests “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” during the special year, beginning December.

But since when does any human cleric have access to the motives of fellow human beings? How can any human priest determine whether someone is truly “contrite”? The Bible declares, speaking of God: “Thou, even Thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men” (I Kings 8:39). This is why Scripture is emphatic that “there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5). Only One with direct access to the hidden thoughts and intents of the heart can know whether or not the biblical conditions for receiving divine pardon—confession as well as the forsaking of sin (I Chron. 7:14; Prov. 28:13; Isa. 55:7; I John 1:9)—have been fulfilled.


Even the sale of indulgences, against which Martin Luther protested so strongly, has continued under the previous two popes, and under Francis as well. As the turn of the millennium approached, the late John Paul II made much of the availability of indulgences. In 1998 a front-page headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune reported:

Pope John Paul II announced yesterday that throughout the millennium celebration, penitents who do a charitable deed or give up cigarettes or alcohol for a day can earn an 'indulgence' that will eliminate time in purgatory. Pope invites Catholics in 2000 to earn indulgences,” San Diego Union-Tribune, Nov. 28, 1998

The following year the Vatican released a new manual on how these indulgences might be obtained, the Associated Press reported:

Vatican officials . . . insisted that the new attention on indulgences--the forgiveness of sins through good works--shouldn't harm recently improved relations with the Lutheran Church, whose founder, Martin Luther, rebelled against abuses in granting indulgences.
The new manual incorporates John Paul's directives on indulgences, including advice that individuals can do penance by such simple acts as giving up smoking for a day. “Vatican releases new manual on how to gain indulgences,” Associated Press, Sept. 17, 1999

Ten years later, under Benedict XVI, the Church again took pains to promote this practice:

In recent months dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago—the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife—and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.

The fact that many Catholics under 50 have never sought one, and never heard of indulgences except in high school European history (Martin Luther denounced the selling of them in 1517 while igniting the Protestant Reformation), simply makes their reintroduction more urgent among church leaders bent on restoring fading traditions of penance in what they see as a self-satisfied world." “For Catholics a Door to Absolution is Reopened,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 2009

And Francis agrees:

Tech-savvy Catholics will spend less time in purgatory—or so says Pope Francis.  The Pontiff has decreed that people who follow the events of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro via the Vatican’s Twitter feed can get indulgences, which Catholics believe reduce time spent atoning for sins in the afterlife. “Trending@Pontifex,” Time, Aug. 5, 2013

It would seem that no matter how loving, merciful, and open to diversity the current pope portrays himself to be, the heresies against which the original Protestants bore witness are still alive and well under his pontificate.

Religious Liberty

In his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis made much of his devotion to religious liberty. His private visit at the Vatican Embassy in Washington with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, was likely intended to underscore papal concern for this particular issue.

But while Bible-believing Christians share Ms. Davis’s conviction that homosexual behavior is sinful, her refusal to grant the same liberty of conscience to others that she seeks for herself makes her profile as a martyr for religious liberty seriously suspect in many thoughtful minds. Ms. Davis is neither a church official nor an employee of a religious institution. In such settings as these, her refusal to endorse or perform gay weddings would be fully within her Constitutional rights, and any attempt by the state to force her to bless such relationships would violate those rights. But as an elected official of a non-theocratic government, she is obligated to serve the interests of all. Her use of civil power both to deny marriage licenses to those whose lifestyle contradicts her religious beliefs, even more her refusal for a time to even permit her deputies to issue these licenses, is more in harmony with papal practices during its years of medieval supremacy than with those martyred for their faith during the same period.

Little wonder that Pope Francis met with her and endorsed her actions. Little wonder also that he canonized as a saint the Franciscan founder of the original Spanish missions in California, one Junipero Serra, whose idea of “mission work” included beatings, forced conversion to Catholicism, forced marriages, and the slaughter of thousands of the natives through starvation and other means (Rupert Costo and Jeanette H. Cost, The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide). The protest of leaders from at least 20 native tribes against Serra’s canonization obviously made no difference to Pope Francis, despite feeble efforts on the pope’s part to mitigate the bloody record of history.

This, in fact, is in full harmony with the Catholic understanding of religious liberty, even as it is held in contemporary times. In a recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1994, it is stated that “the right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error" (511). And as the papacy still reserves to itself the right to define error, the above definition of liberty includes only those adhering to papal teachings.

The late Malachi Martin, in his bestselling book The Keys of This Blood, spoke of those he called the “Minimalists” (Seventh-day Adventists and others) who differ with papal dogma:

Every person (according to Adventists and others) must literally be assured the right to choose Hell over Heaven.  That obligation carried to that extreme not only sets the Minimalists (Adventists, etc.) apart from John Paul; it sets them against him as well.

It sets them apart from the Holy Father because democratic principles cannot take precedence over divine revelation. . . . It is axiomatic for John Paul that no one has the right—democratic or otherwise—to a moral wrong.

If that doesn’t sound like something straight out of The Great Controversy, what does?

Catholic Politicians and Their Church

While the late Mario Cuomo was Governor of New York State, the local cardinal threatened him with excommunication because of his belief that the church’s opposition to abortion should not be enforced through civil law (Richard Ostling, “To Tell With Choice,” Time, June 24, 1990).  Similar convictions were expressed by Roman Catholic Senator (now Secretary of State) John Kerry, also under threat of excommunication from the church.  Vice-President Joe Biden, also a devout Catholic, spoke recently of similar beliefs of his own—how he accepts the church’s belief that life begins at conception, but nevertheless refuses to force that belief on others through secular civil means.

We need to be clear about what the issue was (and is) in these particular cases, and what it is not. Every church, including our own, has the right to hold members accountable for adherence to its stated beliefs. And each of the above individuals were (or are) in harmony with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church—to which they belong—regarding life and its beginnings. But each of them refused—and in the cases of Kerry and Biden, continue to refuse—to believe church dogma should be enforced by the state. In each of these cases, it is the choice of these public servants to grant liberty to those who differ with them—not their personal beliefs or practices—that has upset Catholic leadership.

Conclusion:  The Unchanging Papacy

Nearly ten years ago, while I still pastored in the Greater New York Conference and lived in Manhattan, I visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in the company of a pastoral colleague. Our hearts broke as we saw attractive, successful professionals lining up to receive absolution from priests, giving large sums to the church, even in some cases doing penance by walking on their knees down the church aisle—in much the same manner as Martin Luther while ascending “Pilate’s staircase” in Rome centuries ago. As my colleague and I walked out, sadness seasoned our words as we spoke of the grave need for the Reformers’ message of liberty in Christ even in this present, postmodern age.

In short, the words of Ellen White in The Great Controversy still ring true: “It is the boast of Rome that she never changes" (581).  Honest souls who peruse the pages of this book will find breathtaking relevance to current headlines.  The stunning, even outrageous betrayal of Protestant principles seen most recently in Christianity Today—where a headline prior to the pope’s visit read, “From Antichrist to Brother in Christ”—is likewise a fulfillment of Great Controversy predictions (563-564).  Despite the papacy’s stubborn clinging to the doctrines and practices against which the Reformers protested, the spiritual descendants of these noble champions of truth rush to be reconciled with a power that still presumes to forgive sins, to grant indulgences for sin, and that only recently declared itself the “sole path to salvation” (“Vatican Declares Catholicism Sole Path to Salvation,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 6, 2000).

With humility, courage, and most of all with love, Seventh-day Adventists continue to hoist the increasingly unpopular banner of the Protestant Reformation, and to sound the summons of Revelation 18 to the millions of God-fearing, God-following Christians in both Catholic and Protestant communions: “Come out of her, My people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Rev. 18:5).