Can we trust Pope Benedict XVI?

Pope Benedict XVI has been in the news as of late, primarily for his thoughts on the possible legitimacy of prostitutes using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. I’m not especially interested in those article, other than to say that much of the chatter from Christian and secular newspapers has been decidedly hostile and misrepresentative of the carefully conceived and very nuanced position that the Pope has taken. But that aside, it has gotten me thinking about whether or not we can trust the Pope in this matter, or more specifically, whether the Roman Catholics can trust what their leader is saying. I think if I were a Roman Catholic, I would suspend judgement regarding anything any reigning Popes decree in my lifetime, because there is simply no reason for me to trust what they are saying.

There have been hundreds of Popes and a great deal whose private and public proclamations and teachings have openly clashed with each other. They have disagreed with each other. Fought with each other. Excommunicated each other. They have publically taught and defended heresies to the people of the day. They have been publically condemned by ecumenical councils. Pope Stephen VII, after his predecessor Pope Formosus died, exhumed his corpse, cut off three of his fingers, put him on trial where the rotting corpse was tied to a chair and found guilty of several charges. He was then thrown into the river. Some Popes had multiple wives and lovers, had many children with multiple women, and committed murder, rape, and incest. There have been up to three popes ruling at the same time, each condemning the other and teaching that the other Popes were enemies and heretics. We have had 1800 years of Popes, many of whom have engaged in the most immoral of acts and whose character might be described as nothing short of evil. I would imagine that many Popes are burning in Hell right now.

None of those revelations will surprise any knowledgeable Catholic, who would acknowledge that while they are indeed true, that their actions have neither corrupted nor tainted the truthfulness of what the Church teaches. That the miracle of the Church of Rome is that despite centuries upon centuries of hardships and corruption and wicked men at times leading the Church, that she has remained a true and spotless bride in what she teaches and confesses. How do they do that? By imposing the great anachronism known as Ex-Cathedra upon the Church. That is, they would say that the Popes only extremely rarely exercise their power of infallibility. And, of course, any time a contradiction between popes is noted, it is simply alleged that one or the other or both of the popes is not exercising his infallibility. By utilizing this novelty, they can look back thousands of years at the many horrors of the Papacy and say, for example, when Honorius I taught the heresy of Monothelitism and was subsequently condemned by all the Popes and councils for the next three hundred years, that he certainly was not speaking ex-cathedra for the church. Because he had not invoked this,  he could not have possibly corrupted the Church’s teaching and therefore the mysteries of Papal succession and its ability to safeguard truth and doctrine remains unbroken.

That in itself is worthy of further examination, but that’s still not my point. My point is this- how can we trust these Popes? In the past we have had Popes who have taught and rejected the apocrypha, who have taught and rejected the sinlessness of the virgin Mary.  Who have taught and rejected major tenants of the modern Roman Catholic Church. And like I said, they have condemned each other, excommunicated each other, and taught some very, very bad things. At the time these Popes were living and teaching though, they believed they were right, and were seeking to communicate truth to their people and their adherents. They were speaking because they wanted their listeners to understand and believe their words. When Pope Boniface VIII taught that everyone had to be subject to the Roman pontiff to be saved- he meant it, and he wanted those listening to follow it. I could pull a dozen wild and crazy teachings from Popes that any good Roman Catholic would look at and say “But those were his private teachings” or “those were his papal bulls and letters- those were not official ex-cathedra statements.”

But I don’t find that very helpful. The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholics have no way of knowing whether or not what their Pope says in the year 2010 will later be condemned as heresy. They have no way of knowing whether or not a future Pope will condemn and anathematize poor Benedict XVI. They have no way of knowing whether or not the teachings they hear from the Pope about condom use to prevent prostitutes getting AIDS will later be picked apart by future Catholics and embarrasedly dismissed as his private thoughts and not ex-cathedra.  They may distance themselves from him and he may go down in history as one of the many anti-popes. It’s happened before! Popes have called other Popes heretics- why not again? There is no certainty of continuity and there is no assurance that the man will not be a devil.  Like the Roman Catholics of centuries ago who were privy to some false  teaching without knowing it, right now any Roman Catholic has no way of knowing whether or not he is being deceived from the head of their Church any more than those Christians of old knew the were being deceived. That is a very, scary thing, and that’s why I would not throw my hat in with this potential-heretic to be.

Why I don’t ask God for forgiveness [Once was enough]

I remember a time many years ago where, as a new Christian, I would commit a sin and then I would lose it. That is, after I did something which troubled my soul and in which caused the inner parts of me to hurt with shame and regret, I would lie on my bed, close my eyes, and beg God to forgive me. That was my mantra. “God I’m so sorry, please forgive me. Forgive me. Forgive me. Wash away my sins and please forgive me.” It offered a sort of relief, whereby before I asked God to forgive me I would feel horrible. After I said those words I felt forgiven- as if in that moment they lifted off of me and they were separated as far as the East is from the West. The penance was in the asking and receiving. Forgiveness was actively happening to me every time I asked for it, and there was no shortage of asking.

Nowadays though, that does not happen. I never ask God to forgive me. I am still grieved by the things I do and my conscience still pricks me. The Holy Ghost still convicts me and brings about that visceral prompting which makes me turn to Christ for comfort and solace. But not for forgiveness.

Why?

Because I have already been forgiven, and asking God to forgive me over and over again is a theological trainwreck. When Jesus died on the cross in that great exchange, he took my sins and I took on his righteousness. Through repentance and faith  all my sins, past present and future, were never again to be held against the me.  I don’t believe that the death of Christ on a cross “potentially” took away my sins, or made it possible for them to be taken away, but that they were actually taken away. In that moment I was forgiven of everything I had done and will do in this lifetime. Every wicked thought and evil deed was no more. Its all done, buried in the blood.

If that is the case, then why would I cry and plead for God to do something that he has already done? As a believer, when I ask God to forgive me, he won’t do it then and there. It’s empty words because it’s already been done. That great act has been finished, and there’s no cause for me to ask him to do so. Not only that, but I would even argue that it is unwise to ask it, as it presumes wishful thinking over established fact. For example, in my prayers I don’t ask God to love me. I don’t say “Oh God, please love me. Just love me. I need you to love me. Will you love me.” I don’t do that because I am already thoroughly loved by the saviour. When I ask Jesus to take a concrete action which he has already done, it distorts the reality and the magnitude of what he has already done. It’s bad theology because it tacitly questions settled acts of the saviour and cast them in a unbiblical light, which then reinforces the bad theology. It’s like saying “Jesus, show yourself to be God.” He’s been there, done that, and has the holes in his wrists to prove it.

Instead of saying “God forgive me.” the better thing would be to say something along the lines of “God, help me feel forgiven.” or “God, I know I’m forgiven, help me respond to your forgiveness better.” or “God, I hate my sins, let the fact that they are covered by your blood lead me hate them even more, that you would have to die for them.” But a believer asking God to forgive you after the fact, as if its in that moment God would actually forgive you? Ultimately that’s blasphemy, as it distorts and degrades what Jesus has already done thousands of years ago, and it’s not something that I feel comfortable saying.

Bringing Light To The Dark Night Of The Soul

I was listening to a local church sermon podcast, and the subject of  The Dark Night Of The Soul arose. For those who are unfamiliar with it, it is a poem written by St John of the Cross, a Spanish Carmelite Monk and Mystic who lived in the 16th century and whose eight-stanza poem outlines the soul’s journey from the distractions and entanglements of the world to the perfect peace and harmony of union with God. The woman preaching [another matter altogether] gave the poem and the man unequivocal praise and highly recommended that everyone read his poem and the accompanying dissertation he wrote which explains and outlines the poem. She stated “If any of you in your Christian walk feel like you are pursuing God, and yet you are feeling this drought, I strongly encourage you to read it…It is a very powerful truth and a very strong discipleship lesson that hopefully we will all go through in our Christian walk.”

This naturally caught my attention for several reasons. The first because I find Roman Catholic mysticism and the so-called “desert fathers” to be an intriguing part of history and the whole concept truly fascinates me. But secondly, and more importantly, it was clear to me that the woman preaching was not particularly familiar with either the man or the poem, which resulted in a misrepresentation of both. To that end, I found her enthused endorsement extremely troubling. I believe a real lack of discernment was exhibited with recommending and then preaching an entire sermon on the man and his techniques, and then implying that they were beneficial to the believer today.

The preacher refers to him merely as a “theologian and a philosopher” But such general terms are vague and not particularly helpful. From a theological point of view he was the Roman Catholic counterpart of the occult mystics of the 5th century who excelled in the theology of darkness. Deeply devoted to esceticism, he teamed up with another occult nun, Theresa of Avila to “reform” the Carmelite order  by pushing it to heights of fanaticism. [An order by the way, which was consecrated  to the Virgin Mary, and who had as one of its tenants the belief that if you wore a brown scapular, the Carmelite habit, you would be saved from eternal damnation] He became her right hand and the confessor for her nuns and together they explored the heights of enlightened mysticism [which resembles Kabbalah more than anything] which they believed lead to Christian perfection. The mysticism is composed of three parts: purgation, in which the senses and spirit are purged of all desires; illumination, in which God supernaturally floods the soul with his love while the individual remains passive; and union, in which the soul is united with God in perfection. St John of the Cross says that such an individual will be able to skip purgatory since purgatory’s work has been completed in this life. If you completed it and achieved that perfection, you would not have to suffer punishment in purgatory for your sins, but rather would go straight to heaven.

That’s the  context in what we’re dealing with, and I know that’s not what the preacher believes. For her, she takes the poem and the treatise on their own and understands the poem to mean that when we are baby Christians, God gives us the warm fuzzies. Later in life, God removes them so we can grow deeper with God and so he can purify us. I’d be interested to hear where that is spelled out in the bible, but that for now is besides the point. Her type of Dark Night Of The Soul is not what St John of the Cross believes or is trying to communicate, not with his understanding of the purpose and end results of consolations and desolations. I don’t believe for a second that the idea of a step-by-step process of self-denial and affliction culminating in glory is  taught in Scripture, and I don’t think it’s useful or beneficial for us Christians to be taking lessons and to be getting advice from a Pseudo-Dionysian, Roman Catholic, pro-purgatorial, pro-christian perfection, ascetic mystic monk. Do we really want to involved ourselves in that? I don’t believe it is wise to consider pursuing that, not with with the plethora of false teaching and the gospel confusion. I also don’t  believe it wise to promote a poem and a book from a “theologian and philosopher” without offering a proper contex of what they are bringing to the table by way of beliefes, values and presuppositions, and how these might affect what is being promoted.