5th Sunday in Lent

On Wednesday the Roman Catholic cardinals elected a new Bishop of Rome. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentinean by birth, becomes the 266th one but the first one to take the papal name of Francis. The world has watched with interest and for the most part commentaries and reports have been positive. The media have reported his humility and humour. He’s apparently declined many of the ‘papal’ trappings of office, insisted on paying his own hotel bill after being elected, and quipped at the cardinals, ‘I hope you don’t regret this!’. Within 24 hours he was re-ported to have challenged the church with such comments as, “If we do not confess to Christ what would we be? We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down.” At his first audience at the Vatican, he is reported to wanting ‘a poor Church for the poor’.

Yesterday ‘Straight Answers to Awkward Questions’ on Lutheran Radio UK, I answered the question ‘Is the Pope the antichrist?’. The question certainly seems in poor taste if nothing else. Accepting for the moment that the question simply isn’t rudeness, Lutherans have asked it – and answered it from time to time. In 1537 a good many Lutheran theologians signed a document outlining how they understood the Papacy. The docu-ment ‘Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope’ is one of the documents in the Book of Concord – one of the confessional documents of the Evangelical Lu-theran Church. One of the things it says is that the marks of the Antichrist is clearly evident in the Papacy (the structure not the individual). That was the 16th century with all its tension, fights, claims and counter claims between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. (And the Roman Catholics in their official documents declared Luther a heretic and the Lutheran teaching on justification an anathema.)

Since Lutherans don’t have a central government or one global voice in the world but instead have a unity around one confession of faith (as compiled in the Book of Concord) in which this treatise exists, we are honour bound to consider this issue. It would be easy to just maintain the old battle lines – the trench war – they’re wrong – we’re right. Lutheran responses however tried to adopt a path of showing agreement in the Christian faith and disagreement about ‘abuses’ (eg. consider the Augsburg Confession). We call the 16th century a Reformation rather than a Revolution.

Nearly 5 centuries later, would Lutheran theologians write the same ‘Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope’? I’m not so sure. Monolithic Roman Catholicism has and hasn’t changed.  Lutherans have unity in the Book of Concord but we are all very much aware that there is consid-erable disunity among Lutheran churches as well. Yes, there are still disagreements in theology – many (not all) Lutherans joined with Rome in signing the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justi-fication in 1999. The Papacy still remains problematic when you consider all the claims about it.  But would we use such words today? I don’t know. What I do know is that we are called to speak the truth in love. We daren’t ignore the history associated with 265 bishops of Rome. Nevertheless we are the people of God who live in our baptism (Lutherans and Roman Catholics alike) which testifies to new beginnings – forgiveness and new starts each day. So we watch what is happen-ing in Rome with interest and with prayers – that we all live in such a way that the world will en-counter Jesus, who serves us all.  — GS