The world greets a new spectacle in the resignation of the current Pope, effective at the end of February. Such a remarkable act is an unusual tribute to considering leadership as an act of service rather than of an opportunity for power and control. When humble leaders recognize their own inability to serve, they remove themselves rather than decrease the quality of their service. The proud and power-hungry leader doesn’t care. Many thoughtful Christians will ask how the Bible can view Catholicism as a religion of arrogance and spiritual (if not physical and mental) tyranny. Has the world’s great religious bureaucracy become humble and less dangerous?
First, we must express our anger at Catholic haters. God, through His Bible, never gave us the right or opportunity to hate any individual. Jesus declared that He loved righteousness and hated evil. Evil is a choice, an action, not a person. Because evil is a thought and an act, Jesus could take our evil onto Himself and die because of that sin. If evil were individuals, Jesus would have to become those individuals to save them. History never records anything like that happening. Catholics are not evil; some of the theology and some of the actions of Catholicism are.
Adventism is not concerned with the members of Catholicism. Many decent and thoughtful people are in that religious institution. Ellen White says we have spiritual family there, “There are now true Christians in every church, not excepting the Roman Catholic communion” (The Great Controversy 449). Every member of the Catholic Church is another sinner like ourselves in need of the same loving Savior by whom we are saved. They are people with red blood flowing through their bodies and with emotions and needs just like the rest of humans.
Nor do we condemn the kindness and generosity of particular Catholic Church members. The benevolence of Sister Theresa is not evil just because she was a member of a church that has historically injured millions of people.
Nor do we reject Catholicism because we are righteous. We have an insignificant history as an institution compared to Catholicism. But we cannot claim all our actions are faultless or fit for heaven. We too have wronged individual church members, disappointed the public, and dishonored God.
God Himself takes issue with Catholicism, and we do well to appreciate His concerns rather than manufacturing our own ideas. Revelation 13 tells of a secular power that insults God and tyrannizes man. The only historical institution that fits this description is the Catholic Church. The same is true of Paul’s description and of Daniel’s visions.
The issues God takes with Catholicism are exactly its insults to God and its tyranny to mankind.
- It injures those who love God (Daniel 7:21, 25; Revelation 13:7; 17:6).
- It insults God directly through its declarations (Daniel 7: 25; Revelation 13:5, 6).
- It seeks to change morality itself (times and laws) (Daniel 7:25).
- It despises and disregards truth itself (Daniel 8:12).
- It attempts to usurp the place of God Himself in our lives and in our world (2 Thessalonians 2:4).
This list is terrible, so terrible we really do not appreciate it. But our ancestors did. During the centuries between the ancient Roman empire and our modern civilization, the Papacy carried out the single largest genocidal campaign known to man, killing those who disagreed with them. The history of arrogance and homicide over matters great and matters trivial is almost forgotten by us today. But our forgetfulness does not lessen the horror of past crimes. Today we are drunk with our own comfort, and the great human sacrifice of times gone by is ignored. But the God who suffers temporarily with us will rise up and impose justice in our own future. He has not forgotten a single tear or drop of blood. Nor can we ignore the oceans of injustice. We ought to learn lessons from that history so we never repeat those crimes.
Is Mr. Ratzinger, the current pope, guilty of what his institution did centuries ago? Can we hold modern Catholicism accountable for its terrible past?
If God were to hold anyone of us accountable for the evil of our physical or our spiritual ancestors, the guilt would be so great none of us would survive. Satan tries to pin the past of others on us to hold us back from surrendering to God and finding peace with Him. He is the accuser of the Brethren that will find any possible way to find fault. God holds us accountable for only what we can control.
But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right, And hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, neither hath defiled his neighbour's wife, neither hath come near to a menstruous woman, And hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge, hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment; He that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man, Hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord GOD. If he beget a son that is a robber, a shedder of blood, and that doeth the like to any one of these things, And that doeth not any of those duties, but even hath eaten upon the mountains, and defiled his neighbour's wife, Hath oppressed the poor and needy, hath spoiled by violence, hath not restored the pledge, and hath lifted up his eyes to the idols, hath committed abomination, Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him. Now, lo, if he beget a son, that seeth all his father's sins which he hath done, and considereth, and doeth not such like, That hath not eaten upon the mountains, neither hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, hath not defiled his neighbour's wife, Neither hath oppressed any, hath not withholden the pledge, neither hath spoiled by violence, but hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment, That hath taken off his hand from the poor, that hath not received usury nor increase, hath executed my judgments, hath walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live. As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, spoiled his brother by violence, and did that which is not good among his people, lo, even he shall die in his iniquity. Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?
First, we observe that God does not hold us accountable for actions of our ancestors per se. But we notice that He does hold us responsible for the actions of our ancestors that we continue. If we say and do evil things, we are guilty even if unconsciously we inherited them. God holds the third and fourth generations accountable of those that hate Him (Exodus 20:5). Evil is simply always evil, no matter who does it, or why they do it. We have a moral duty individually and institutionally to discover what we might have inherited that is evil and to overcome it. That is the essential concept of Adventism. Sabbath reform, health reform, tithe reform, educational reform, organizational reform are all an acknowledgement that what we learned from our past, what our parents and cultures handed to us, is flawed and tainted. We need to receive God’s instruction in what is holy and healthy. Science and human mental effort can recognize and dispense with many wrong things. For example, modern medicine has upended many unhealthy practices of our human past. But human wisdom is not enough. God alone can lead us to a lifestyle and actions that are harmless to all beings at all times. Too often, as Adventists, we have stopped short of where God would lead us because we are content with where human wisdom has come already.
We respectfully disagree with the words and actions of the current papacy so long as they continue the tradition God pointed out of hostility to those that love God and blasphemy of God. So long as they continue to teach millions of people around the world that hard work spiritually will make them decent and benevolent and evil-free people, rather than that spiritual success comes by surrender to God, we hold them accountable for misleading those people. Every act of intolerance to those who disagree with them, every word and act of tyranny they continue, they are responsible for. Every place where they claim the right to guide the world morally in the place of God Himself, God holds them accountable for blaspheming the Holy Spirit that was given to humans for that purpose.
The Bible tells us that this same institution will once again injure millions of humans for the benefit of itself. We do not need to ask how this will happen. For our only protection from future tyranny is God Himself. The martyrs of the past could not protect themselves from the rack and the stake by predicting the next move of the papacy. Nor can we keep ourselves from harm by our own wisdom. We can only ask God for strength and cheerfulness to face whatever comes in each moment of our lives.
We admire the willingness of the current pope to resign from a position that has not been resigned from in centuries. Whatever intrigue may have influenced his choice, we applaud the choice itself. We admire his apologies and his humility. They are welcome from a leadership with such a history of arrogance and haughtiness. In appreciating the choice made so recently, we recognize that one good choice does not undo all of the wrong ones, nor do the wrong ones erase any good ones. Each choices stands before God on its own. Each choice influences our world and contributes to the total river of influence emanating from the person or institution.
Let us also be humble ourselves. Although God gave us the blessings of His word and the opportunity to learn the series of reforms He offers His world does not make us right or holy. We are judged in the final judgment by our actions according to Ecclesiastes 12:14, not by our assertions.
The Bible teaches us we are not to trust in God’s love and mercy while we reject His demands and claims. Jeremiah 7:3-11:
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, The temple of the LORD, are these. For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute judgment between a man and his neighbour; If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt: Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye know not; And come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, We are delivered to do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it, saith the LORD.
God grant us the grace to live trusting in Him each moment. God grant us the grace to accuse no man, women, or child. God grant us the commitment to stand opposed to evil and tyranny, wherever they may appear. And finally, may God grant us to live a life of contentment in Him and gratitude to Him for His infinite and incomprehensible love for each one of us. Amen.