My wish list for Catholics is terribly old-fashioned and terribly assertive. There’s hardly space here to defend my positions or thoroughly critique the Catholic position, so this may end up sounding like a drive-by shooting or a childish tantrum. I trust that I can formulate my wish list with enough calmness that it doesn’t turn it into a bitch list.
I want the Pope to give up his claim to infallibility. In our day, the Papacy stands as a global symbol of Christian faith, and popes of recent decades have been among the greatest Christian leaders of recent history. The Pope is a universal teacher, a stout defender of Christian morals, a living icon of charity, a father to princes and presidents. None of that makes him a definer of dogma. No matter how narrowly tailored papal infallibility may be, it is theologically and historically unfounded, as Lord Acton knew.
I want the Pope to give up his claim to exclusive primacy. Why not be content with being primus inter pares among the ancient sees? Suppose Peter was the first Bishop of Rome: Didn’t he leave it to Paul to lead the mission to the Gentiles? Besides, should we not be open to the possibility that the center of Christian gravity will shift dramatically in the future? In 3000 years, might not the Bishop of Beijing or Lagos or Brasilia be the actual primate of the Church? In 10,000 years, will Vatican-centered Christendom be anything more than a distant memory?
Catholics Should Give Up
I want Catholics to give up their sectarian exclusiveness. Jesus and His Spirit are present in the suburban Bible church, the Chinese house group, the Pentecostal assembly at one of Rio’s garbage dumps. The Son and Spirit have promised to be wherever word is preached and bread broken, where disciples strive together toward maturity in Christ. These assemblies are no less churches than the congregation of St. Patrick’s. Fellowship with Rome is not the same as fellowship with Jesus; submission to Rome is not the same as catholicity. Jesus and His Spirit do not observe Vatican protocols.
I want Catholics to stop spreading pious falsehoods about Mary. Protestants have unjustly neglected Mary’s central role in the Bible and redemption, but Catholic Marian dogmas are a cure worse than the disease. I want Catholics to honor Mary by giving up inventions like the immaculate conception and the assumption. Failing that, I would be content if these speculations were treated as speculative opinions rather than dogmas.
I want a Catholic to explain how Mary, a Jewish woman of the first-century A.D., can simultaneously hear the appeals of millions of people who speak dozens of languages that she never learned. I know Catholics don’t believe Mary has become God, but that looks like something only a God could manage.
I want Catholic theologians to give up the pretense that the dogma of the Church has never changed. When they try to explain that nothing substantive has changed between Trent and Vatican II, when they distinguish between unchangeable doctrine and changeable formulations of doctrine, they appear disingenuous. I prefer the old free church Independents, who eagerly expected the Spirit to break out fresh light from Scripture.
Worse, the premise of unchangeability makes it impossible for the Church to repent of mistakes. Catholics don’t think Vatican I, for example, will ever need to be overturned; it cannot be. But that means either that there will never be full reunion with Protestants and Orthodox, or that Catholic theologians must find a way to massage Vatican I so that it doesn’t say what it manifestly says. The possibility of saying “the church erred” is excluded in principle.
When I attend Mass, I want Catholic priests to let me share the Eucharist with my Catholic brothers. I want Catholics to accept my invitation to celebrate Eucharist with me and my Protestant brothers, and give up any doubts they might have that what we Protestants celebrate really is Eucharist.
I want Catholics to give up veneration of the consecrated host and other sacred objects. Jesus gave us His body and blood to eat and drink, not to admire. Whatever Catholics think they are doing, to Protestants they appear to be indulging a form of liturgical idolatry. At the very least, they are distracting from Jesus’ purpose for the Eucharist: “Take, eat; take, drink.”
Everyone, Become More Catholic
My rants are typically directed against my own tribe of conservative Protestants, and typically I am urging them to become more Catholic: to acknowledge church authority, to cultivate sacramental piety, to embrace the glories of the whole Christian tradition, to honor Mary and the saints, to conform worship to the pattern of the ancient Church, which is essentially the pattern of Scripture. Typically, I am urging Protestants to receive Catholics and Orthodox as Christian brothers, which they are.
I am not contradicting myself when I rant against Catholics and urge them to become Protestant. What I want above all, for both Catholics and Protestants, is full reunion and reconciliation in the truth. What I want is a Church where the old names of Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or other, are discarded so that we can all wear the old/new baptismal name: Father, Son, and Spirit. And I want that because I am persuaded it is what Jesus wants.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct senior fellow of New St. Andrew’s College in Moscow, Idaho. He is the author of many books, most recently Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor) and Traces of the Trinity (Baker). An ordained minister, he is a member of Evangelical and Catholics Together.
Other articles in the series
David Mills’ What We Want from Protestants (Catholic)
Bruce Ashford’s Save the Drowning (Southern Baptist)
Carl Trueman’s Be True, Not Paper, Roman Catholics (Presbyterian)
Christopher Jackson’s More Good Bishops, and Better Eschatology (Lutheran)
Susannah Black’s Occupy the Public Space (Anglican)
Jerry L. Walls’ Don’t Overreach (Methodist)
John Wilson’s Keep Doing What All Faithful Christians Have Done (Evangelical)
Bob Hartman’s Read the Bible More (Churches of Christ)