I am not much given to commenting on Roman Catholic affairs. Few, if any, religious bodies are so unaware of internal problems that they welcome sidewalk superintendents. It is increasingly clear, however, that the Roman church is convulsed with revolt against authority and faces a tumultuous future in the rest of the twentieth century.

The Pope commands well over a million ecclesiastics—more than 430,000 priests and 600,000 members of religious orders. The controversy now raging over priestly celibacy has left few of these world-flung legions untouched. Half the lay Christians in the world are Roman Catholic. For a vast multitude of these, the controversy over birth control has nurtured unabashed disagreement with the Pope; whatever their theoretical convictions about papal authority may be, their private practice in this area of living implies a forthright rejection of papal directives.

If Protestants, as someone has said, do not know what to do with an infallible pope, Roman Catholics do not know what to do with a fallible one. In the matter of birth control the Pope in no sense presumes to speak infallibly; he gives counsel, rather, as the shepherd of his flock, counsel that the Vatican contends must be obeyed by those desiring a good conscience. But identifying good conscience with papal conformity in an area where the Pope does not speak infallibly, and where many Catholics think he has not spoken wisely, is the point at issue.

Neo-Protestant ecumenism has long dreamed of one World Church to erase the division of the Protestant Reformation and annul the divorce between Eastern and Latin churches. Pursuing Rome much more energetically than evangelical Protestants, the ecumenists included Orthodox churches in the framework of the World Council of Churches with more than a hope that Rome, too, might in time be enlisted. Conciliar ecumenism faced several logistic problems, however. Non-Catholic ecumenical strategists were ready to welcome the pope as “first among equals” in a collectivity of leadership that included Orthodox ecclesiastics. But historically the pope has always claimed to be Peter’s successor and viceregent of the church, and recent claimants have not seemed eager to demur. Moreover, if Rome came into the WCC, its vast world constituency would technically dominate the organization by proportionate representation, a fact that would virtually destroy the movement’s presumptively pan-Christian identity.

These problems were more theoretical than practical, however. Emergence of Vatican Councils I and II left no doubt that the WCC was no more the only authentic expression of Christian ecumenism for Rome than it was for vast multitudes of unaffiliated evangelical Protestants. In the United States, interestingly enough, one plan for revitalizing the ailing National Council of Churches provides for an enlarging role for Roman Catholic leadership. Concerning the NCC, however, one observer has noted that Protestant evangelicals would not now take the NCC as a gift, and Rome is too astute to inherit it. In this ecumenical game of musical chairs, moreover, the Orthodox seem to want out as the Catholics are urged in.

While conflict over authority was a basic issue in the Protestant Reformation also, the central concern at that time was remarkably different. For Luther, the crux was how a sinner can find peace in the presence of a righteous God; for modern Catholics, the controversy centers, rather, around sexual concerns. The Reformers found their alternative to papal authority in the authority of Scripture; just where the contemporary Roman Catholic finds his locus of authority is more difficult to determine. Yet the current turning away from papal authority can have ecclesiastical consequences no less staggering than those of Reformation times.

For good or ill the papacy has had enormous influence upon the Catholic world. If, on the one hand, one thinks of dogma like the perpetual virginity and assumption of Mary and the espousal of Thomism as the official Roman Catholic philosophy, one must also note, on the other hand, the initiative for reform taken by Vatican II. The official commitment to Thomism is now a source of growing academic uneasiness.

In time past there was loose talk of an American-based Vatican, but in view of present pressures the Pope can be thankful that the hierarchy’s $5.5 billion portfolio of stocks is beyond the reach of Forman-type reparation demands.

This discussion must not overlook a refreshing development that in its quiet course may at present seem as minor as some of the antecedents of the Protestant Reformation must have appeared before the fire fell. A growing company of Roman Catholic priests and laymen have come, largely through association with Protestant evangelicals, into a genuine experience of the new birth and have found a fresh power in Scripture that shames not a few routine Protestants. More church-conscious than many evangelicals, they are not attracted to the idea of leaving Rome either for neo-Protestant ecumenism or for evangelical independence; moreover, they have a greater feeling for tradition than for pietism. Some of them are disconcerted over effusive ecumenical statements made by certain prominent Catholics—Cardinal Cushing for one—to general or to Protestant audiences, but not to Roman Catholic congregations. Fellowship with evangelical Protestants, especially by the converted laity, has become a mutually rewarding aspect of this Christian development.

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If evangelical Protestants are to move creatively and boldly into the future, they will not ignore the possibilities of this wider perspective and enlistment. The problem of reaching the Roman Catholic for an evangelical commitment is not essentially different from that of reaching non-Catholics. As the son of a Roman Catholic mother to whom I was privileged to witness of a personal faith, I know how receptive a Catholic soul can be, and how genuine its welcome for the evangel.

The present Roman Catholic revolt against authority can lead to the loss of all objective authority, and hence in the direction of neo-Protestant subjectivism. But it can also lead to acceptance of the reliable authority of Scripture, to a rediscovery of justification by faith, and to all the vitalities from which could emerge a new Reformation.


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