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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Breaking News: the Pope is still Catholic

The Pope just returned from his visit to Brazil, and three different stories from the trip dominated the religious news last week. First, he declared that retweeting his updates about World Youth Day would help merit an indulgence. Then he led Mass for 3 million people in Brazil, and finally he declared that it is “not my role to judge gay priests.”
That’s quite a news cycle, but hardly news.
If you are not familiar with the differences between Catholicism and the gospel, here is a one paragraph theology lesson followed by a one paragraph history lesson: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that people can be saved from hell through a combination of faith and works (works energized by faith, if you will). Of course, salvation from hell is only part of the story, because according to the RCC, at death your soul goes to purgatory where the remaining sin is purged through suffering and torment. The difference between purgatory and hell is one of duration, and clearly the doctrine of purgatory is not compatible with even a rudimentary understanding of the New Testament.  
In the 1500’s, a Catholic Priest named Martin Luther learned Greek, got his hands on a New Testament (the church had forbidden the translation of the Scriptures into any language people used), and compared what he found there with the practices of the Catholic Church. He saw the differences, and in the process of enumerating them, he was confronted with an indulgence salesman. It was the practice of the Catholic Church then (and now, mind you) to sell indulgences—in other words, to reduce the time you would spend in purgatory based on how many Catholic Certificates you purchase. Luther was appalled at the concept of indulgences, wrote 95 reasons why they were false, and why the Catholic Church had left the gospel. With that, the reformation was launched.
Five hundred years later, not a lot has changed inside of Catholicism. In the 1500’s you could buy an indulgence for someone who had already died (imagine that sales pitch: “you loved your grandma, didn’t you?”). Now it is limited to the living, but the concept is the same.
If you accept the basic tenants of Catholicism—that you earn your salvation through works, the Pope is infallible in matters of doctrine, and that the sacraments are the essence of spiritual life—then indulgences make perfect sense. And once you accept the concept of work being meritorious, how absurd is an indulgence, really? If you can buy an indulgence for your son (I have a friend who got one as a graduation gift), they why shouldn’t you get one for yourself? And if you can get one for yourself through your money, why shouldn’t you be able to get one through other works as well? Like, say, praying for the Pope? And if they come that way, then certainly retweeting the Pope’s status is more or less the same.
After the story about retweets and indulgences broke last week (AP headline: “Pope OK’s Indulgences for the Tweeting Masses“), the Vatican was quick to point out some of the fine print. Time out purgatory via social media only applies if the retweet was accompanied by faith, and the initial tweet was about The World Youth Day. Which leads to the second news item. At the end of his time in Brazil, the Pope led a Mass for 3 million people on World Youth Day. Here the sacramental system was in full view. The Pope offered indulgences for those who attended the event (or for those unable to attend who retweeted his status about it, and I’m not making that up).
This was a confluence of all things Catholic: the opportunity to pray for the Pope, to celebrate the Mass, and to participate in World Youth Day, all three of which are meritorious and can reduce time in purgatory. With the promise of time out of purgatory for those who attended, 3 million participated. On the flight back from Brazil, the Pope was asked for his thoughts on the scandal that has been breaking in the European Press (not a lot of coverage in the US) about openly homosexual priests forming a gay lobby inside of the Vatican. While the Pope’s comments were treated as news worthy (USA Today called it “a new statement” that would “impact church policy”), the truth is it is the same thing the Catholic Church has always taught. Namely, that it is fine for priests to be gay. The Catholic Church has historically made a distinction between gay priests and homosexual priests, the former being kosher and the latter simply being inconvenient.
I, for one, am thankful for the news out of Brazil last week. When Francis became Pope, it resuscitated some of the latent ecumenicism in the US. I heard from people who were confused about what the differences are between Catholicism and the gospel, and many were wondering if the new Pope would bridge the divide between Protestants and Catholics.
But his Brazil trip showed that the divide is still there. On one side is a system of sacraments, works, indulgences, and Papal authority. The other side features repenting from confidence in works—regardless of how infused they may be—and instead trusting the finished work of Jesus. Salvation is for those who turn from their works and turn to the Lord. Purgatory is a lie because Jesus offers complete forgiveness from sins, and you don’t have to retweet it to receive it.
In other words, the head line should have been, Breaking News: The Pope is Still Catholic.

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