On Speaking Well of the Pope

A friend recently wrote to ask me to clarify some things I had said about Pope Benedict XVI (defending him from some attacks by atheists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins).

… [Y]our blog seems to imply that Benedict is really a good guy who is not the head of a corrupt and fallen religious movement. Quoting you: “What does Benedict offer? Consider what he wrote to the people of Ireland. He calls the sinner to look at their lives in the light of God’s law, recall his coming judgment, and repent. He calls all to holiness, and to faithfulness in upholding God’s law and the standards of Christian morality. He calls all to remember their Creator, and to take refuge in him. He, too, is angry. He is ashamed. But he knows in whom he has believed, and knows that he is able to see us through.”

I am a fallen human being as well and I am not implying superiority. I can also understand your desire to make sure we have the facts straight. But let’s not forget who this guy is! As “good” as he may be, this is a very relative term. He is the head and leader of a very corrupt, fallen, impure, and enslaving system of religion.

Certainly I have theological disagreements with Benedict and with the Catholic Church. So the question is, how do we speak of those with whom we disagree? How should Protestants speak of the Catholic Church–and of individual Catholics?

When I read Ellen White’s book, The Great Controversy, I see an emphasis on God’s faithfulness through the centuries. I see that God had faithful witnesses in every era. She lifts up as examples Celtic monks like Columba, Catholic priests like Wycliffe and Hus, Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and later figures like Wesley. She knew she had some differences with them, but she lifted them up as men of faith who lived up to the light they knew and were worthy of study.

Adventism is not a faith that divorces itself from 2000 years of Christian history, like Mormonism. It is a faith that affirms that God stayed with his people through the darkest moments of that history and was faithful and worked with them and honored faithfulness when and where he saw it. Thus a faithful Adventist evangelist, George Vandeman, could write a book called, What I Like About … emphasizing what he shared in common with other Christians, seeing no need to tear them down or dismiss them or their practices with contempt.

When atheists Hitchens and Dawkins suggested having the pope arrested (as a scapegoat for the sexual abuse crisis within Catholicism), many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants cheered. They said, “We might not like what these guys normally say and do, but they’re right here!” They were willing to believe the accusations of the press and a pair of sensationalistic atheists, because these things seemed to give support to their prior convictions about the Catholic Church. When I appeald to the facts of the case, they dismissed my arguments as an attempt to be an “apologist for the Catholic Church.” When I pointed to Benedict’s response, calling for repentance, and an eye on God’s law, and the coming judgment, that merely gave more fuel to their fire–”It’s the wrong kind of repentance, the wrong view of God’s law, the wrong view of the judgment!” They were unwilling to give the man any credit for anything, or to acknowledge there was anything they might have in common with him.

In their zeal for “all the commandments of God,” I think they were missing one–”Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” I don’t mean to single them out. I think they are pretty typical of “apologists” in many Christian churches who build up their own views by tearing down what they represent as the beliefs of others. It’s as if apologetics is a zero-sum game that requires taking away from the other in order to score points for ourselves.

I think the commandment against bearing false witness is applicable in such situations. We might rephrase it thus: “When in dialogue or debate, do not misrepresent the beliefs or actions of the other person.”

When I teach Introduction to World Religions, I begin with a lecture that makes this point in a different way. I say my goal in the class is not to get them to think that all religions are the same (they are not), or to change their own theological beliefs. My goal, I say, is to get them to the point where they can talk about the beliefs of someone else in such a way that the other person can recognize themselves in the description and agree that we have represented their beliefs accurately.

If you are a Catholic, can you represent the teachings of Protestants accurately, and not merely repeat old slurs and misrepresentations? If you are a Protestant, can you do the same thing when discussing Catholicism? Can you get your quotes about what the other believes from his own sources, and not from attack sites that give you ready (if questionable) ammunition?

Another way of putting this is to refer to Jesus’ command: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

You will not get someone to think their position is wrong if you cannot describe it accurately–you are aiming at a false target. You have created a “straw man.” You can hack at it all you want, and the person will be able to say, “Well, yeah, you’re right, that’s a wrong idea. I don’t believe it either.” Or, “If you can’t honestly talk about my beliefs and my faith, why should I consider your ideas?”

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” That means you shall speak the truth about others. And Paul says we must speak that truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

Luther puts these things together to give us this interpretation of the commandment. “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything” (or, in another translation, “interpret charitably all that he does”).

How differently would our discussions proceed if we did that? How more fruitful might our attempts at evangelism or apologetics be if we followed that advice? Then people might say of us, as they said of Christians in a bygone era, “See how these Christians love one another!”

Despite her criticisms of Catholic teaching and practice in books like The Great Controversy, Ellen White never criticized individual Catholics–not even the popes of her day. Pius IX was pope from 1846 to 1878; he was followed by Leo XIII, who was in office until 1903. Leo in turn was followed by St. Pius X, who ruled until 1914. That’s a period of nearly 70 years. These were some of the most influential popes in history; their writings are voluminous. Yet they’re never called out by name–never even mentioned by name except for one instance in Great Controversy when she quotes a passage from Josiah Strong who refers to a couple of statements by Pius IX.

She says instead things like, “It is true that there are real Christians in the Roman Catholic communion. Thousands in that church are serving God according to the best light they have” (GC 565), stressing that it is the system that is problematic.

She says,

It is true that we are commanded to “cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins.” Isaiah 58:1. This message must be given, but while it must be given, we should be careful not to thrust and crowd and condemn those who have not the light that we have. We should not go out of our way to make hard thrusts at the Catholics. Among the Catholics there are many who are most conscientious Christians, and who walk in all the light that shines upon them, and God will work in their behalf. Those who have had great privileges and opportunities, and who have failed to improve their physical, mental, and moral powers, but who have lived to please themselves, and have refused to bear their responsibility, are in greater danger and in greater condemnation before God than those who are in error upon doctrinal points, yet who seek to live to do good to others. Do not censure others; do not condemn them. CW 63

Brethren, I feel hurt when I see that so many decided thrusts are made against the Catholics. Preach the truth, but restrain the words which show a harsh spirit; for such words cannot help or enlighten anyone. The Echo is a paper that should be circulated largely. Do not do anything that would hinder its sale. There is no reason why it should not be as a light shining in a dark place. But for Christ’s sake heed the admonitions which have been given in regard to making scathing remarks about the Catholics. Many Catholics read the Echo, and among the number there are honest souls who will accept the truth. But there is such a thing as shutting the door in their faces as they are about to enter. Put more cheering testimonies of thanksgiving into the Echo. Do not hedge up its way, and prevent it from going to all parts of the world by making it a medium for hard expressions. Satan rejoices when one word of bitterness is found on its pages.–Letter 20, 1896. CW 64-65

Sounds like good advice to me.

2 thoughts on “On Speaking Well of the Pope

  1. Interesting read… I do not think anyone should be bashed or brought down even the Pope, I see you basically would rather side with the “Christian” than the atheist because that exactly what an atheist wants. If the man was guilty thats one thing but if he isn’t then what place does an atheist who doesnt even believe in justice (by his own admission) make a comment?

  2. Good post. Unfortunately, I meet this quite a bit. Some Adventists who are afraid to acknowledge the good amid the bad. They think that they must always be on the attack and always ignore, deny, down play good in other groups least people think well of others.
    Truth stands quite well on its own and it doesn’t need such blinkered efforts.
    Some people have more confidence in ‘fear’ dissuading, rather than in the ‘truth’ convincing.

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