Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Pope Retires

I have been wondering how people view the Pope's retirement. Yes, the Pope retired in case you have not seen the news in the past month. The Pope is the top leader of the Roman Catholic Church. When he retires it is big news because Popes never retire. They serve til they die. Then, a college of very colorfully clothed Cardinals select the next Pope in a mysterious way no one, except Cardinals, seem to know. Never mind the way the Pope is selected, most of us are still wondering what a Cardinal is. I am not a Roman Catholic although I have great respect for the Roman Catholic Church and admire many things about it. I am also puzzled by it. My church tradition is quite modest next to it. The whole splendid spectacle of the Roman Catholic Church getting down to selecting another leader is an enigma to me. And I assume to most people, Catholic or not. For many non-churched folk it is a throwback and a curiosity but not one to waste much time on. It looks like a bunch of old men electing another old man to run a church. What does a Pope do anyway? Does he affect our personal histories, say the way Obama and Boehner do when they can't agree on what's best for our country? Really, what difference does a new Pope make to me?

Most of us know him as the Head of the Roman Catholic Church who rides around in a Popemobile and every once in a while appears on a balcony at St. Peter's in Rome and waves to the crowds. He lives in a cathedral. Beyond that we are stumped. We know he has something  important to do with the authority and order of the Roman.Catholic Church. And Popes have done that for a long, long time, since the time of Jesus or soon after many Catholics would say. For those of us who are part of the Church and care about it's future, picking a new Pope is an important moment in history. It raises all kinds of questions about Church order and authority. For the Pope is synonymous with authority. He is the personal incarnation of the Truth that the Church serves as witness to. That's why he cannot just retire, Popes are not like you and me. You don't get to choose to not be Pope. It's like God has chosen you to be his main representative on earth. For the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope is the supreme guardian and interpreter of Biblical Truth and the Tradition that supports it. That's not a job to be taken lightly. It is often said that for Roman Catholics the Pope is the authority and for Protestants the Scriptures are. We naturally feel we have the upper hand here. No one person trumps Scripture, God's Word. But, that's too simplistic. Roman Catholic theology holds that Scripture is God's Word to us, too, and it is the most important thing about the Church. But it must be interpreted - and the Church has the job of interpreting and the Pope is the final authority. Our final authority, as Protestants, is the Holy Spirit who inspired and speaks through the Scriptures to His church. Of course, the Pope believes that too but the difference is he is the final and absolute arbiter of Scriptural Truth. This is a pretty handy doctrine to have available when the Scripture is hard to understand or to apply... well, the Pope says... ok, that settles it then! But, of course it doesn't and many Roman Catholics disagree with the Pope on lots of issues. And he is still their Pope. How do you disagree with someone who is infallible? For us Protestants this opens a whole can of worms. Having been a Protestant pastor for many years, I've met many popes in the Protestant church. I've met many pastors who think they are the pope of their church. Surprisingly, you don't even have to be a pastor to think of yourself as pope! The tricky thing in our non - popedom, is to figure out where the authority lies in the church. Sometimes it lies with the pastor, or the biggest giver, or the one who has been in the church longest, or the local tradition, you know, "the way we've always done things here". I find many Protestants bowing their heads to Scripture as their authority for faith and practice - but  acting as if each individual Christian is his or her own authority. It's whats called a sticky wicket. I've been in church fights where each side claims Biblical authority: "The Bible says..." Each side falling back on the final authority of Scripture's interpretation which, interestingly, is exactly their interpretation. This public demonstration of how the Roman Catholic Church views authority in the Church is a good time to ask ourselves how we view authority in the church. It's a good question. What is authoritative in our postmodern times? We act like the gospel is authoritative within our small church enclaves but what sort of truth claim does it have in the wider world? We appreciate the bond "we share in Christ", but who do we believe that Christ is? What effect does He have on our lives outside church? How is Christ our authority? How is Christ's authority fleshed out in our churches?