Faith Works 9-26-15
Authority is the answer, what is the question?
Sometimes, I have two different thoughts at the same time.
I like Coke and I like Pepsi. Not often, usually not either, but if I'm thirsty in the right way, I'm intrigued by either.
There's something about classical music, like Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring," that makes me remember why I like bluegrass so much. And vice versa.
All of my life, I've been a Protestant sort of Christian, growing up in the congregational tradition in which I minister today, living a town filled with Lutherans of a very protesting sort; yet the larger Chicago region in which we were set made me aware of archbishops and cardinals and just to my west was the high holy place of South Bend, Indiana and Touchdown Jesus. Notre Dame is just a little Catholic, you know.
So I relate to the attraction of having a Pope, even though the office and authority is foreign to most of what I've ever known personally in church life. Johns and Pauls and John Pauls were always in doorways and on dining room walls of friends' homes and Catholic churches are not unfamiliar to me.
And I'm used to, if disconcerted by, the deep-seated antipathy many Protestant folk, even clergy, have towards the Catholic church and the Papacy. There's a harsh side to this tension, rooted in the Klan's popularity in my own Indiana and right here in Ohio during the 1920s, a Klan that was as aimed at Catholics as it was at other minority groups. They preached a form of nativism, with the occasional collaboration of Protestant churches, that continues to be, apparently, the last form of acceptable bigotry for some otherwise educated people.
My friend Monsignor Paul Enke, when he had me help lead a series of devotional evenings at St. Edward's Parish in Granville, enjoyed pointing out as we went into the church building for the Stations of the Cross that they have no basement, so there can't be a tunnel to the Vatican, or a cache of guns hidden beneath the altar. The irony is that my own middle name comes from a political candidate a mere century ago who was willing to run for the presidency with support of the chant "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion!" about the supposed unfaithfulness of Catholicism to American values: there really were people claiming tunnels to Rome or munitions for sedition.
This week we have seen much of the United States joyfully celebrating the visit of a pontiff to these shores for what is, for he who was Jorge Bergoglio, his first time in our county. Now Pope Francis, the Vicar of Christ and Bishop of Rome is coming to the US as the leader of Vatican City-State, and the chief priest of Roman Catholic Christians around the world.
There's much confusion among Protestants, let alone Catholics, as well as non-Christian folk, about how a Pope is "infallible." Infallibility is not a doctrine that says whatever any fellow elected "Il Papa" says is always true, it is a refinement of the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church that says when a Pontiff speaks "ex cathedra," from their authoritative role as a teacher of the faith, those statements will not lead the faithful astray.
You can call that belief a leap of faith in its own right, but it's certainly not a blanket validation of any comment a Pope makes as divine truth. He can mess up, just not when he issues a considered and official teaching on behalf of Christ's church, and for the guidance of the faithful. That's a teaching "from the official chair," or in Latin, "ex cathedra."
In fact, that's not far off of what is understood by believing Mormons about their chief executive, the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Thomas Monson is understood to be a "prophet, seer, and revelator," but that doesn't mean any comment he makes is to be taken as divine writ, but his official declarations are to be accepted as true and normative for believers.
As a Protestant Christian myself, I plan to listen closely to what Pope Francis has to say. His authority does not govern me, not officially, but I believe it is only gracious to hear him out, and to consider what he has to say about the faith we affirm, together.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him what sources of authority speak to you at email@example.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.