The Papal Visit to America

John ArmstrongRoman Catholicism

The Pope comes to America this week (April 15-20) for his first visit to the United States as pontiff. Pope Benedict XVI sees this journey as a “missionary experience.” His expressed desire is to promote “a time of spiritual renewal for all Americans.” Said Pope Benedict of his American visit, “With the various groups I shall meet, my intention is to share our Lord’s word of life.” He means it and he will.

The theme of this visit is: “Christ is Our Hope.” The Pope elaborated on this message by saying, “Christ is the foundation of our hope for peace, for justice, and for freedom that flows from God’s law fulfilled in his commandment to love one another.” He asked for prayers for his visit. I am praying for him and for America as he comes. The only hope our society has, in the bigger picture of things, is not found in our political parties or in our secular systems of education. Culture will not be changed by these things in the long run, as important as they may be. It is found in our people when they learn to love one another and then to do to their neighbors what they desire to be done to them.

Last week I was on the campus of Catholic University in America located in Washington, D.C. The place is all spruced up and ready for this papal visit. But what will the elite leaders of the American Catholic Church, and President Bush, hear when Benedict speaks to them? His appeal, we are told, will be rooted in the golden rule. Explaining how Benedict will present this idea Father Frederico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, explains:

“This Jesus, with his commandment of reciprocal love, enlightens and fulfills the golden rule that is written in the conscience of every human person and upon which all of us can place ourselves beyond the differences between religions, beyond even believing or not believing: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do not do that which you would not have them do unto you.’”

Benedict comes, the Vatican says, to speak “to the heart of the nation," a nation that carries a large amount of the weight of the destiny of the world for both today and tomorrow as the world’s super power. Benedict wants to offer America moral clarity in these challenging times for the West. God knows we need it.

Catholic thought, about these kinds of moral and theological concerns, is more unified than most Protestant thought. The Church is understood to offer to the world not only salvation in Jesus Christ but fraternal love and moral clarity for all, Christian and non-Christian. Catholic social teaching has long understood what some Reformed Christians have called “common grace.” And Catholic theology has developed a long theological tradition on this understanding for about 150 years or more. Many evangelicals can not hear this theology very well since they only think in terms of particular (saving) grace. This is also why many in the Reformed community of evangelical Christianity, and I include myself among that group of Christians, believe that there is a unique and “new” ecumenism at work in the world today.

This “new” ecumenism is not like the older more official sort that did not attract either Rome or many conservative Protestants. This is a different kind of ecumenism because it does not seek to compromise away our differences. Rather it tries to see the common core of our ("mere") Christian faith that we share together while we continue to pursue our differences within our mission for Christ in a world shattered by war and upheaval. This new ecumenism is at work in many, many informal ways. This is why so many do not understand it or regard it as highly as they should. Sectarianism, often driven by a fearful and rigid fundamentalism, exists on both sides of the Protestant and Catholic divide within American Christianity.

It strikes me that this new ecumenism is like something that is bubbling up among millions of people scattered across the world and thus it is bringing new grace to the people of God in general. It is being created by the Holy Spirit, not by formal agencies. I expect this movement to grow. One of Benedict’s earliest books, a small volume on Christian brotherhood, laid this view out very nicely. I owe a lot to him on how I understand this very point.

Both Catholics and Protestants often fail to understand the thinking of the Pope on this matter. Rome is not saying that those outside the Catholic Church are condemned. Nor is Rome insisting or suggesting that the only way that we can get to Christ is to become Roman Catholics, though their doctrine of the Church still insists that they are the true Church of Jesus Christ. (This is not a simple matter to explore in a blog and thus Catholic conservatives and evangelical conservatives are very often prone to miss the nuances of the actual teaching of the Catholic Church very profoundly.)

I will follow the Pope’s visit with deep personal interest. I believe it is an important time for America to listen to one of the world’s great Christian leaders. I have read a lot of Benedict’s writings with deep interest and profound appreciation. He is a lovely man and a follower of Jesus just like me. Naaq071_popepi_20080413193641
I will listen and pray that his message touches many hearts and minds, my own included. Rarely have we had a Pope who possessed so much theological training and such unique ability as Benedict XVI. (John Paul II was an easier man to love and had a genuine warmth that transcended debates.) His writings have inspired me to be a better Christian even though I remain unconvinced of the claims made by the Roman Catholic Church regarding the see of Peter.