Thoughts on a Papal Visit

And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say. – Luke. 12:11-12

But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me – Acts 26:25-29

It might be slightly odd for a Lutheran pledged to the Lutheran Confessions, which call the Papacy the antichrist, to be interested in what a Pope says or does. Well, there is always a fascination with the anti-anything, but that is not all the confessions have to say. The same confessions that would call the Pope the antichrist are clear that it isn’t the office as Bishop of Rome that is the problem, but its claims. Bishops are fine human offices, it is when they claim authority beyond what is common to all pastoral offices and do so by claiming the divine name that they function as anti-Christ. (Catechism note 2nd commandment: “we should fear and love God such that we do not…lie or deceive by His name.” The claims of divine authority are a deception through the use of God’s name.) Specifically the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope had three objections: 1) The Pope’s claim by divine right to be above all other bishops and pastors in the church, 2) The Pope’s claim to possess authority in the realms of both Church and state and 3) The Pope’s demands that people acknowledge this authority as a requirement for salvation. The years since Luther have not been humanly kind to that office. Kings and Presidents no longer seek the confirmation of the Pope for their position upon coronation or inauguration, and the Papal States are a single hill in Rome. And the Roman Catechism itself acknowledges that while Luther might be damned as a schismatic, “one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who are born into these communities…the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers. (p818)” But the papal claim of being the Vicar of Christ, holding the Keys by divine right, is still front and center. Melanchthon’s short treatise – The Power and Primacy of the Pope – still has some amazing relevance as do many of the Confessional documents with a little thought.

But the real reason I’m thinking about the Pope is his recent trip to our shores. The Pope is probably the only Christian witness that would be invited to address a joint session of Congress after having an audience with the President. When Paul got his dime in front of Caesar, he didn’t waste time. He didn’t argue about Caesar’s tax plan or the Roman welfare system (bread and circuses!). Paul did two things. He proclaimed Christ risen, and he encouraged Caesar to respect his own laws and eyes. Whether it is Peter or Paul or later martyrs (witnesses!) this is a familiar pattern. Both Jesus is Lord and we Christians are your best citizens calling you to respect what is best among you.

The Pope’s recent address to Congress was interesting in that I believe it was effective at the second portion of that pattern. The Pope cited four Americans: Lincoln, MLK, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He used well each of those examples well. And each you could say fit well within this current Pope’s frame of mind of social justice. He wished at the beginning, through Congress, to enter into dialog (which seems to be a favorite word) with all Americans. And through that dialog to spur us to live up to the best of us.

Then I searched through the entire speech. Not one mention of Jesus. The word Christ is never used. The Pope opened with Moses, flattering the assembled legislators that they too are engaged in Moses’ task. But I want to quote that section in full.

Yours is a work which makes me reflect in two ways on the figure of Moses. On the one hand, the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel symbolizes the need of peoples to keep alive their sense of unity by means of just legislation. On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.

In one sense it was very appropriate. In a speech to lawmakers, it was all law. The unity of the people depends upon just legislation. Moses leads directly to God which is merely a stand in for the transcendent dignity of the human being. Right there you have the religion of rational man which knows nothing of Christ and faith. If our hopes for unity are in the law, we have none. If our hope for dignity rests upon Congress protecting us by the law, we are already stripped and in bondage.

I longed for Paul’s plain witness to the gospel of Jesus. Moses does not point to God directly other than the hidden God who never answers. The law tells us our need for something beyond it, something truly transcendent. We always fail the law and it never stops accusing. But that failure tells us our need for Jesus. And Jesus has won. Our dignity is not based in being human. Our human dignity is because Jesus took our humanity into God. That humanity is transcendent not by itself but because of the work of Jesus confirmed in the resurrection. Our image of God is cracked by sin, but God restores it in Christ, in baptism and through the indwelling of the Spirit.

Can you imagine a Pope, speaking to the gathered legislators not about a general human spirit, but The Spirit of Christ? An address that called on them to fulfill their vocations as lawmakers in the best American tradition, but also to trust in the grace of Jesus and to empower the body of Christ, the church, to be that grace, instead of shrinking it to a freedom to worship? An address that would make Chuck Schumer run for the nearest camera and say “Did the Pope really think he could so easily convert a NY Jew?”

That is what we are here for. Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me. Whether dialog or road to Damascus, would that you would hear Christ and believe. You are my witnesses, in Jerusalem and Judea, in Samaria and the US Congress. Don’t worry, the Holy Spirit has a few good words, and they begin with the name Jesus.