Monday, February 10, 2020

Final Thoughts on the Shared Errors of Anti-Francis Catholics and the First Protestants

Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things
—(Romans 2:1)

Over the past few months, during my studies of Martin Luther and John Calvin, I’ve demonstrated similarities in attitudes and assumptions between them and the modern anti-Francis Catholics who accuse the Pope of corrupting the Catholic faith, ironically accusing him of being “Protestant*.”

I say it is ironic because these self-appointed defenders of the Church use the term “Protestant” as an accusation against any change of discipline they dislike in the Church, but they actually behave like Luther and Calvin did in rejecting the lawful authority of the Church to bind and loose justifying their rejection in the name of defending true Christianity—as defined by them—from “error.”

When I look at Luther and Calvin on one side, and the anti-Francis Catholics on the other, I see in both sides a conviction that believes their understanding of how the Church should be is right and any opposition to that understanding by the Church is “proof” of their accusation that the Church has fallen into “error.” The problem with that conviction is that the critic never asks himself—or quickly discards—whether he or she is the one who got it wrong. It’s not a sin to be mistaken as long as one constantly seeks out the truth and looks to the Church as the way to properly form right understanding and right conduct. But, once the critic stops looking to the Church as the guide and instead insists on the Church looking to him or her, such a critic has fallen into error.

Why? Because Catholics profess to believe in a Church that teaches with Christ’s own authority, and to reject that authority is to reject Him (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16).

At this point, I should make one thing clear: While the Church cannot accept the non-Catholic beliefs that contradict# what she teaches, she does not impute guilt to those non-Catholics who were brought up in communities that reject Catholic teaching. If there is guilt (and that is for God to judge, not I), it would be on the part of those who—knowing that the Church is necessary—made the conscious decision to reject the Church when she teaches in a way they disagree with, not those who grew up sincerely believing that falsehoods they were told about the Catholic Church were true.

God will be the one to judge the culpability of those, like Luther and Calvin, who rejected the Catholic Church. But, those who use the term “Protestant” in a contemptuous sense show by that usage that they think the founders of Protestantism did wrong in rejecting the authority of the Church. But if they recognize that Luther and Calvin were wrong to do it under Leo X and his successors, these modern critics are without excuse when they reject the teaching of the Church under Pope Francis.

This is where the anti-Francis Catholic objects. They claim that the difference is that the Protestants were wrong to reject the Church but they are defending the Church from error—oblivious to the fact that Luther and Calvin used the same argument to justify their own disobedience.

What the anti-Francis Catholic fails to grasp in giving a litany of “errors” against the Pope is that the first response to an accusation is not to ask “why does he do this?” but to ask whether the accusation is true in the first place. For example, let’s look at Calvin, condemning the sacrament of Confirmation:

But if they prove that in the laying on of hands they follow the apostles (in which they have no similarity to the apostles except some sort of perverted zeal), yet whence that oil, which they call “the oil of salvation”? Who taught them to seek salvation in oil? Who taught them to attribute to it the power to confirm?

— Institutes of the Christian Religion IV, xix, 7

The response is not to defend oil as giving salvation. It is to say “No matter how much he might believe it, Calvin spoke falsely about us.” Because we do not believe that oil saves. We believe that God’s grace saves, and by His choice, the grace is bestowed through a sacrament that uses oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #436, 695, 1291, 1297). Calvin§ grossly misinterpreted Peter Lombard’s Sentences and condemned the Church for teaching something it never taught in the first place.

This is what the anti-Francis Catholic does when he accuses the Pope of supporting same sex “marriage,” contraception, divorce and remarriage, socialism, and other things the Church condemns. Because the anti-Francis Catholic never questions whether he is wrong in his accusations or wrong in his interpretation of past documents, he assumes he is correct and that the Pope errs. But, since the Pope does not support what his critic accuse him of, the critic has done what men like Luther and Calvin have done—falsely accuse the Pope or the Church of holding error when the error is on the part of the accuser.


(*) I find it interesting that actual Protestants see no similarities between what the Pope teaches (or what Vatican II teaches) and what they profess.

(#) Ecumenism involves dialogue to correct misunderstanding about what the other believes. Even when differences are irreconcilable, we act with charity in explaining why we must hold to our views.

(§) Calvin left off studying Catholic theology as a teenager when his father left the Church, and began studying Law instead. The result is—to put it charitably—that the accusations against the Catholic Church in the Institutes of the Christian Religion read like it was written by a lawyer with a juvenile understanding of the Catholic Church.

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