When I was a boy one of my favorite comic book characters was Batman. Unlike most of the other “Super-heroes,” Batman really wasn’t. That is, unlike Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc., Batman did not have super-human super-powers. He was just a regular human being who fought crime using his wits, fighting skills, and a cache of high-tech machines and tools. Perhaps his most effective machine was his technologically advanced automobile call the “Batmobile”.
Now, obviously, Batman is only a fictional character created decades ago by a cartoonist named Bob Kane. Thus, there is also no real Batmobile. Nonetheless, there is one famous and powerful world figure who does indeed ride in a high tech car called the “Pope-mobile.” Yes, I refer to the world head of the Roman Catholic Church, known as the Pope. The word Pope is the English translation of the Greek term “Pappas” which means simply “Father.” For the world’s more than one-billion Roman Catholics, the Pope is the supreme leader of the worldwide church.
On February of 2013 the world was stunned to hear that the current Pope, named Pope Benedict XVI, was resigning his office. No Pope in nearly 600 years has left his post prior to his death. The last to do so was Pope Gregory XII in 1415. Official reasons given for Benedict’s retirement was that he felt his declining health, at age 85, had rendered him “no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” Some news outlets, however, quoting sources in the Vatican (the church’s headquarters in Rome), indicated that criticism of the Pope’s handling of several controversial issues (including notorious child sex abuse scandals involving priests) may have contributed to his decision to step down (e.g.: The Washington Post: Pope Benedict XVI’s leaked documents show fractured Vatican full of rivalries.
Benedict XVI’s real name is Joseph Ratzinger. He was born in Germany in April 16, 1927. During World War II, he was drafted into the Hitler Youth and the German army but deserted its ranks in 1945. He later became a priest who worked his way up the church ladder as a theology professor (1951 – 1977), to a Cardinal (1977), and finally to be elected Pope in 2005 by the church’s College of Cardinals. That body consists of about 120 men from around the world and is the highest level of Roman Catholic Church authority. It is also the organ of the church which elects each Pope, usually (but not as a requirement) from among its own membership. Traditionally, whenever a man is chosen as a Pope, he assumes a new Papal name, often that of an early Apostle or one of the many Catholic Saints. The last four Popes before Benedict were John XXXIII (1958 – 1963), Paul VI (1963 – 1978), John Paul I (Aug. – Sept., 1978), and John Paul II (1978 – 2005).
Prior to his elevation to Pope, Ratzinger was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and chief counselor to his predecessor Pope John Paul II. He was well known for his intellectual prowess, conservative doctrinal positions and strict enforcement of church discipline.
The term “Petrine ministry” refers to the Catholic belief that the Pope is the successor of St. Peter as the Bishop of Rome. Roman Catholic doctrine asserts that Peter was the first Bishop (Pastor) of the church in Rome and therefore whoever has that position fills his shoes as the “Vicar of Christ” or Christ’s titular representative on earth.
“So,” we might ask, “just how does the College of Cardinals actually go about electing the new Pope?” The answer to that question is not easily answered since its proceedings are kept secret and all documents leading up to the final decision are systematically destroyed. What we do know is that when a Papal vacancy is present, all members of the College of Cardinals under the age of 80 gather behind closed doors in the Vatican to debate and vote for the new Pontiff (Pope). This gathering is called a “Conclave” (secret meeting). Throughout the proceedings black smoke is emitted from the chimney of the building where the conclave is meeting. When finally the decision is made as to who the new Pope will be, the smoke is changed to white as a signal to the world. At that point the church will declare to its members “Habemus Papum!” (We have a Pope!). Soon afterward, the new Pope is introduced to the world and formally invested.
The importance of the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church is multifaceted. For one thing, as we have said, he is the formal head of the church. He represents to the entire world the face of Roman Catholicism and for many is the symbol of world Christianity in general. Catholics assert that the Pope’s authority is derived from his position as the successor to the Apostle Peter. They point to several New Testament passages they interpret to mean that Jesus intended for him to have that level of authority. For instance in Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus told Peter.
“18 I also say to you that you are Peter (Petros – lit. a small stone), and upon this rock (Petra – lit. a large rock) I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (NASB)
Catholics argue that, by calling him Peter (a small rock), he was conferring upon Peter the position of His representative on earth and leader of His church (i.e. Pope – the Petra – large rock) and granted him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
They also point to Jesus’ post-resurrection restoration of Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in John 2:15 – 23. There Jesus tells him to tend, or shepherd, His sheep. Catholics see that as evidence that Jesus intended Peter and his successors to be the pastor of His whole church.
Second, he is the focus of ecclesiastic power in the church. That is to say, that by virtue of his authority, he has final say over such important decisions as who will be appointed to various bishoprics, archbishoprics, and as Cardinals. Usually, a Pope will appointment men whose ideas reflect his own philosophy and theology.
Third, through his declarations, letters, and general writings, the Pope sets the basic principles and positions on public policy issues and personal morality for the whole church. Such writings, called “Papal Bulls” or “Encyclicals,” are regarded as authoritative, but not dogmatic, positions of the church.
Finally, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, he has, at least, the capability of receiving special divine revelation. As such, he may establish new theological dogma (formal doctrine) for all
church members to affirm without reservation. This authority is limited only to times when the Pope speaks “Ex Cathedra” (from the throne).
That tenet is called the doctrine of “Papal Infallibility.” Historically, it has only been exercised twice. First was in 1854 when Pope Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception.” That teaching asserts that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was conceived by human parents. However, the doctrine declares she was without the stain of original sin that infects all other humans. Thus, she alone was qualified to be the “Mother of God” (i.e. of Jesus).
The second application of Papal Infallibility was as recently as 1950. That year Pope Pius XII declared the doctrine of the “Bodily Assumption” as dogma. That doctrine says that Mary was taken immediately to heaven at the very moment of, or immediately preceding, her physical death.
Granted, most Roman Catholics already believed those two doctrines, but by declaring them “Ex Cathedra” the Popes cemented them permanently into official church theology. That despite the fact that neither concept is mentioned in the Bible.
An Evangelical Appraisal
Most Evangelical Christians shared a high level of respect for Pope John Paul II. Perhaps no single individual, except perhaps for US President Ronald Reagan, did more than he to bring down the Soviet Union and end the scourge of Communist tyranny in Eastern Europe. He showed great courage as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Poland, in the 1970s, and as Pope in the 1980s. His bold stands against the Communist puppet regimes in his homeland marked him as one of the major figures of history in the 20th Century.
Most evangelicals also respect Pope Benedict XVI’s stands against the tides of secularism and moral decay in the 21st Century. That being said, we must also be honest and forthright in our evaluation of the whole idea of the Papacy. Evangelicals, like Protestants, historically do not affirm either the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to be Christ’s only true church on earth or the authority of any Pope as leader of world Christianity.
The assertion that Jesus intended Peter to establish the institution of the papacy, based on Matthew 16 and John 21, is, at best, a stretch of the biblical texts. For instance, we have to question whether Jesus’ naming of Peter as Petros can be equated with the Petras upon which He would build His church. A more reasonable interpretation is that Jesus was simply affirming Peter’s solid rock declaration that He was “the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Thus the Roman Catholic belief that the Bishop of Rome is the supreme leader of all Christians, along with the concept of “Papal Infallibility,” is biblically untenable. Most evangelicals, in fact, reject the whole notion of a world church organization led by any central leadership cadre. The Bible indicates that each individual local church body is ecclesiologically autonomous and not directly answerable to any higherarchy. The authority for the church is no man or institution on earth, but rather Christ Himself and His Word as revealed in Scripture. Thus the doctrine of Papal Infallibility is without biblical substantiation and the extra-biblical doctrines promulgated by it are false (i.e. Mary’s “Immaculate Conception” and her “Bodily Assumption”).
So who will next ride in the Pope-mobile? As of this writing, no one knows. But by this Easter (March 31), if the current Pope’s wishes are fulfilled, the Roman Catholic Church will again declare, without biblical support, “Habemus Papum.”
© 2013 Tal Davis