Thursday, April 07, 2005

Losing Protestant Perspective

When the Pope died, it never occurred to me that prayers for the Pope should be offered during worship in our Presbyterian congregation. However on Sunday, a member of the congregation stood up during one of the services, made some remarks about the greatness of the late pontiff, and asked the entire congregation to rise and say a prayer for him. Our pastor, though startled by the interruption, asked him to be seated and said the concern would be covered later when he led the congregational prayer.

Several people seated around me and El Jefe asked us, "what was that all about?" We didn't really know. Apparently after the service the member told the associate pastor that he was very angry because he didn't think the Pope had been properly acknowledged in the service. I thought our pastor handled the interruption with tact and good grace. His prayer, entirely appropriate to our Presbyterian tradition, expressed sympathy to our Catholic neighbors and reminded us that the church universal is not dependent on one man.

I wouldn't have thought much more about it, except that apparently another member has expressed his dissatisfaction with the acknowledgement given in worship of the death of the Pope who he saw as a "great spiritual leader." That made me wonder if other Protestant churches are getting similar reactions from some in their congregations.

Anyone else have this experience? I am not sure what is going on here.

On the one hand, there is certainly a lot of admiration for the late Pope's stance vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, particularly where I live which is one of the most conservative Republican areas of the country. I'm sure many of the members of our congregation also appreciate his pro-life stance and the clarity and consistency with which he refused to compromise with the popular culture. Wall-to-wall television coverage of his last illness, his imminent funeral and then the conclave to elect his replacement has probably influenced some into thinking that they should be a part of this international event in some way, even if they are not Catholic.

Where I grew up, Protestants were a distinct minority in the largely Catholic city of San Antonio. We were raised to be aware of the differences between our church and the Catholic church and to be proud that our forebearers in faith had broken away from the Catholic church during the Reformation and established a church government that deliberately avoided vesting ultimate authority in any one man or even small group of clerics. It would have been unthinkable to pray for the Pope in one of our church services or to do much more than wish our Catholic friends well in the selection of the next Bishop of Rome.

That was all pre-Vatican II. John XXIII did a lot to modernize the church and improve its relations with the Protestant churches. But John Paul II was a traditionalist in church doctrine and policy. See the excellent article by Thomas Cahill in the New York Times in which he argues that John Paul II was a great political figure, but not a great religious figure. I doubt that those who want to see the late Pope honored in worship in the Protestant churches admire and embrace his theology as much as they do his politics. Perhaps because we don't do a good job of teaching theology or comparative theology, they have not developed a Protestant perspective on the office of the Pope.

As I drove home today, the radio news announced a recent poll saying that over 60% of the country thought that there was too much coverage of the Pope's death and the funeral ceremonies. Is that because people have a short attention span or because they think that these events are not as important as press coverage would imply? Jesus Christ is the head of the church, not the Bishop of Rome, or the Moderator of the PCUSA, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, or any other church "CEO". I'd like to think this poll reflected some awareness of that fact.


will spotts said...

You make a very good point here. I have also noticed this in the last week. I'm by no means anti-Roman Catholic, but I am a convinced Protestant. And when I think about it, I suspect many members of Protestant churches may not know the differences; or they may know the difference in terms of polity and style of worship, but not in terms of theology.

Quotidian Grace said...

Part of the reason for that is that they don't know the theology of their church either.