Confession: I could be a wannabe Catholic.
Not long ago, on a trip to Paris, my wife and I were in Notre Dame Cathedral during Mass. A congregation in the thousands refused to be distracted by gaping tourists as the great organ exploded in music summoning all the human senses to look up and contemplate the transcendent glory and mystery of God.
I understood what a Marxist said to a Christian in a 1960s "dialogue" between Communists and followers of Christ – "You have awakened in us the hunger for transcendence." I understand, and yearn for that "high and lifted up" worship.
On the vital issue of the right to life, the Catholic Church has so far refused to surrender the ground. Despite the sexual sins of priests who are sinners like all the rest of us, the Catholic Church has stood relentlessly for moral truths revealed in God's Word.
And yet, despite my admiration for people like G.K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge, great British writers who converted to Catholicism, and heroes of mine, I could not become a Catholic. A recent statement by Pope Francis reveals why.
Italian agnostic journalist Eugenio Scalfari questioned if non-believers could be forgiven by the God worshipped and proclaimed by Christians. Addressing "the attitude of the Church to those who don't share faith in Jesus," the Pontiff wrote that God's mercy "has no limits if one turns to him with a sincere and contrite heart."
However, the Pope argues that the deciding issue for one who doesn't believe in Jesus as Savior "lies in obeying one's conscience. Sin, also for those who don't have faith, exists when one goes against one's conscience," wrote the Pope.
Francis is right, in light of passages in Romans, when he says that violating the conscience makes one a sinner. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them," says Romans 1:18-19.
If the Pope is biblical with regard to what categorizes sin, his view of salvation is the reason why I could never become a Catholic. It is the crisis of Catholicism. "Obeying one's conscience" seems to be the means of forgiveness and salvation for the person "who doesn't believe and who doesn't seek the faith."
The crisis of Catholicism, which makes it difficult for many who respect the Catholic Church to link with it, is the issue of authority. For the Pope to disregard clear biblical teaching about the necessity of Christ's atonement for humanity's salvation, is apparently no great problem for Francis, since the Bible is not the exclusive authority in Catholicism. The Church looks to the Magisterium, the sanctioned accumulation of its own traditions, interpretations and pronouncements over the centuries, along with the Bible. Too frequently, this conglomeration of doctrine becomes the standard for measuring the Bible.
Evangelicalism has its own biblical authority crisis. Liberal evangelicals try to adjust biblical revelation to suit the demands of a culture in flux. They speak of "making the Bible relevant" to today's generations, as if the Bible were not eternally and absolutely relevant across all times and places.
Another set of evangelicals abuse biblical authority by allowing cultural style to drive theology. Bravo for efforts to communicate the eternally and absolutely relevant truth of God's word in a relevant way – but not to the point of denying and rewriting key biblical truths to suit the style du jour.
"I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me," said Jesus. (John 14:6)
No one has the authority to alter that assertion – not even the Pope.
Sadly, the emergent Pope may be leading the Church down trails that look new and fresh, but actually are deeply rutted from all the others who have already explored them, as we will see in Part 2 of this series.