I’m Warming to the Pope

Pope Francis after his inauguration mass (Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press)

Ultimately, I am a pragmatist.

People occasionally say to me, “I don’t believe in divorce.” I respond, “Then I must not exist.”

In other words, you may not like divorce, but not believing in it is not one of the options. Divorce exists. Deal with it.

I’m not a fan of the papacy. I think that bureaucracies and hierarchies are bad for the gospel. I think they’re anti-gospel.

Nevertheless, I’m a realist. The Catholic Church is one-half of the world’s Christians, and that church has a pope. So, whether I like it or not, that one celibate dude has a lot of cultural cachet — how people see him will affect how they understand the religion that I practice.

Yes, I was cynical last week. Why is it huge news that a Christian leader paid his hotel bill? Shouldn’t that be the standard?

But as the days have progressed in Pope Francis’s tenure, it seems that his humility and generosity are neither a gimmick nor a fluke. His choice of shoes show more austerity than his predecessor. He has repeatedly stopped his topless popemobile to dismount and greet and bless people (I register my discomfit with this below). And he’s asked the masses to pray for him — actually stopping his sermon for an extended pause. It’s as though he actually wanted them to pray for him! And his sermons and speeches are filled with beautiful rhetoric that matches the Christianity that I attempt to practice, like this:

“Let us never forget that authentic power is service.”

I firmly believe that all human beings are ontologically the same. One human being does not have the power or authority to “bless” another human being, unless that blessing is seen as a mutual act that could just as easily go back the other way. That’s not SOP in Catholicism, where clergy are granted the ability to perform certain functions (e.g., perform sacraments) that emanate from a place of ontological priority. I unconditionally reject that notion as sinful, reprehensible, and ultimately responsible for all sorts of institutional misogyny and abuse.

That being said, I appreciate both the actions and the words of Pope Francis, for he seems to be subtly subverting the ontological priority that his system assumes he has.

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  • Exactly.

  • Elvenfoot

    I find it curious that you should find “blessing” another human being as reprehensible. Priests are given Christ’s authority at their ordination, so that they may bless their flock and even animals in His name. This is reprehensible? As a parent, I can bless my children in His name, as well. I know of a father–a famous Catholic teacher, in fact–who used to send each of his kids off to school with a blessing. Once he forgot, and his daughter reminded him; she clearly saw it as a meaningful way to begin her day. It’s all in the name of Jesus, not as one human being lording over another, as if he or she was better than the other. I think this latter, negative view is where you’re coming from, but it is not in line with what a true blessing is meant to be.

    • Ric Shewell

      As a parent, can you bless other people’s children in the name of Christ, too? I’m asking honestly. Can your children bless you in the name of Christ? Or would these things seem inappropriate?

      As a protestant, I firmly believe that we are called to be a priestly people, in that we all have complete access to God’s grace, and we all have the responsibility to intercede for and bless one another.

      A friend of mine asked a priest to come over and bless his new house. And I wondered to myself, “Why? What access, or what power does this priest possess that would make his words and prayers more effective for blessing this house than any other believer?”

      I think priests and pastors serve a unique function in the Body of Christ, but I don’t think that priests or anyone else has more authority or ability to bless, intercede, or proclaim forgiveness than anyone else.

      From this protestant to a Catholic: How are priests different from parishioners?

      • Elvenfoot

        Ric, I grew up evangelical and went to non-denominational, Lutheran, and Christian Reformed schools–so I understand the “priesthood of the believers” doctrine. I honestly don’t know if children can bless those in authority over them; the question has never come up for me, and I just have no idea. As for how priests are different from the laity, they are ordained in the line of apostolic succession; that is the difference. In the Catholic/Orthodox view, they are serving in the function of Christ. Although all of us are called to act as Christ’s hands and feet, priests have His teaching/leading authority. When a priest blesses a person, house, or sacred object, he is doing so in his priestly function, not as a brother in Christ. Could you bless me? Yes, I’m sure you could, and I’m honestly not sure if there is any fundamental difference. But it is special to someone when a priest does a blessing, much as it’s special when a priest or pastor does a baptism–because they are the physical manifestation of Christ in that instance with His authority and leadership. A layperson can baptize, I believe, but it is more deeply meaningful and proper for the person when the priest does it.

        About blessing a house, I believe that a person who knows how can legitimately do it, and I have personally benefited from this. Some years ago, I was being spiritually harassed through awful, recurring dreams and unbidden thoughts about strange and unfounded fears. They began after I had a religious conversation with someone who I sensed was involved in something “not right” (but I didn’t know what). Some friends came over one night, Catholic convert friends who had also been evangelical and who had been trained in special intercessory prayer before they converted. When I told them about my spiritual harassment during their visit, the woman offered to bless our house. She went around to every window and door and blessed it with holy water and a special prayer. My spiritual harassment ended that night. That is where the priesthood of believers comes into play. The priests have special functions that the laity cannot claim, but some functions are shared by all believers, whether clergy or not.

        • Ric Shewell

          “The physical manifestation of Christ in that instance…” -This is what we have beef about. This connotes an ontological difference between priests and laity. I completely agree that the office of pastor and priest are different and have different functions in the body of Christ. But a pastor or priest is no more the manifestation of Christ than any other in the body (maybe even outside of the body).

          • Elvenfoot

            Yes, I realize that is where P’s hit a wall. We believe, however, that the pope is the vicar of Christ on earth. A vicar is “A priest who acts for or represents another…”. We believe he does this for Christ, and that all of the priests and bishops under him are also in that line through the laying on of hands (apostolic succession). The Orthodox claim this, too, through the patriarchs. So, with respect, I disagree with you. We believe Christ “ordained” the apostles at the Last Supper. The apostles all had successors who were ordained in the same way that Christ ordained them (laying on of hands). If you follow that down through the centuries, it therefore follows that a priest also has the teaching authority of Christ. That’s how Catholics perceive this, and that is why priests are a manifestation of Christ in a way that no one else is.

            • Ric Shewell

              I just mentioned below, Stephen and Phillip, in the book of Acts, were two people that were not given authority to preach, just the opposite, in fact. However, the Scripture lifts them up as fulfilling the thesis of the Book of Acts (You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

              Were Stephen and Phillip in the line of the Apostles? The simplest reading of the text is that they were not. They were widow-servants, yet they preached, with or without the Apostle’s blessing.

              The image of apostolic succession is nice, and it is historical! But not in the way it is interpreted today. None of the Apostles claimed to stand in the place of Christ for the benefit of the people in such a way as you are describing. It’s just not there in the text. It’s a very big interpretive leap to say that Christ was ordaining the Apostles at the last supper. Was Judas ordained? Ordained to do what? Then is Paul special? And if so, why are there no other “special” apostles? The Scripture is just not explicitly sharing your view of the Apostles and apostolic succession.

              Don’t get me wrong, I think your understanding of apostolic succession is nice and beautiful, but I don’t really think that the practice of the Catholic priesthood lives up to that, either. The New Testament is clear that Jesus had female disciples, Paul had female co-ministers, Peter had a wife. So where are the women? Where are the wives? Could something more than Scripture and Apostolic Succession be influencing the practice of the Catholic Priesthood and ordination? Martin Luther and I think so.

              I hope I don’t come off too harsh, but I think there are legitimate reasons to question this part of Catholicism.

              • Elvenfoot

                Oh, dear, I can see where this is going–nowhere with any resolution. Been there, done that many times, so no offense. The thing is, I used to be exactly where you are. As I said before, I was raised evangelical–and I mean, conservative and dutifully anti-Catholic. We’re talking Wheaton College parents, Billy Graham theology, etc. So for me to decide that I must become Catholic took more than four years of intense study and anxious journeying–kicking and screaming much of the way, I might add (long story). I totally get where you’re coming from, but the fact is that this is a pretty complex topic that requires more than a blog thread for a good answer. Therefore, I can’t respond to all your thoughts and questions for this reasons; still, I stand my ground on this. And I really don’t think much of Martin Luther, except that I admire his zeal for God and his search for truth, so I don’t see him as any authority. So, I have to simply say that you are mistaken, but I realize that my saying that doesn’t mean much, because your opinion is that I’m mistaken. So there we are, and there we will have to leave it.

                I will clarify one thing, though. Being a priest doesn’t mean you are the only one who can preach and bless and all that. The special function of a priest (both Catholic and Orthodox) is that you can consecrate the Eucharist. There are many lay missionaries, writers, teachers, speakers, etc. in both the Catholic and Orthodox church who are not ordained. It is important to understand that.

      • Steve

        Think of it this way: Citizens can make a citizen’s arrest, but police can actually arrest some one. Are police different in nature from citizens? No, they’ve been invested with authority, though.

        Priests, likewise, have been invested with a certain character of authority. Like Timothy and Titus, they’ve received the laying on of hands for ministry. This enables them to do blessings in the name of the whole Church. Whereas I cannot.

        As it says in Eph 4:11 – “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

        • Ric Shewell

          What? You can’t bless in the name of the whole Church? Why not? Because you haven’t gone to seminary? Come on. The Scriptures are full of heroes that were not given authority to preach and teach.

          The last thing I want to do is proof text, because we know that I find scriptures to back up what I am saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, etc,” “You are being made into a royal priesthood, etc.”

          But I will point to Acts 6. The Apostles appoint people to wait on the widows so that they preaching isn’t hindered. And from that point on, the Book of Acts is uninterested with the Apostles. Instead, Luke decides to focus on some of the 7 that were chosen to wait tables. They are the ones that begin to preach, and while the Apostles narrow their vision and stay in Jerusalem, the Gospel explodes beyond borders through these people that were not appointed to preach. Interesting.

          • Elvenfoot

            I am not Steve, but I would like to point out that the apostles did not all stay in Jerusalem. They traveled to the corners of the earth to spread the gospels and found churches. They also appointed many successors to help them continue their work. Interesting. The priestly function we are discussing has nothing to do with missionaries who are not ordained.

          • Steve

            Proof texting is the last thing you wish to do… and so you do it? When Paul says there is neither Greek nor Jew, he was saying that the Gospel is for all people and that those saying one must become Jewish first before becoming a Christ were wrong. He didn’t mean that the Church is a flat plain and no one has any higher authority than anyone else. This is why he can say things like: 2 Corinthians 13:10 and Hebrews 13:17.

            When Peter says, “You are a royal priesthood” he is in fact quoting the Old Testament, [Exodus 19:5-6]. The Hebrews were a priestly people, but there were three levels of priesthood. There was the high priest, the ministerial priests, and the common priesthood. The New Covenant has the same thing. Jesus, the high priest. The ministerial priests on earth. And the common priesthood of all Christians. The verse you cite (proof-text) points to the opposite of what you think it does.

            I don’t understand what you’re saying about Acts 6. The book of Acts doesn’t lose interest in the apostles, it continues to follow the journeys of Paul and Peter. And it contains a beautiful illustration of hierarchy and authority in Acts 15. So I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

            • Ric Shewell

              I’m not dismissing authority. I am a pastor, I have a bishop, etc. I understand that different people have different functions in the church. However, no one has greater access to God than any other, and no one has more power to bless or proclaim forgiveness than anyone else. My beef is this legend of apostolic succession that has been so codified by leaders, that we end up with a belief that certain people are anointed to stand in the place of Christ, or be Christ’s physical manifestation as Elven said, while others are not. Where’s that in the NT? I get there are certain roles, apostles, teachers, and preachers, etc. But where does Paul say, “Only Apostles or those who stand in the line of Apostles can concecrate the Eucharist,” or “Only Apostles are the physical manifestation of Christ to a gathering of Christians, He should not be married, and you should confess your sins to him,”?

              Like I said, I don’t disagree with different jobs in the Body of Christ. Priests are called to perform certain jobs, but they are not ontologically different from any believer. Any believer can stand in the place of Christ for another.

              About Scripture, yes, Peter is quoting Exodus, but reinterpreting it for the Church, the people, not just the leaders. You can’t dismiss it just because he’s quoting it. Why is he quoting it? What’s his point? etc.

              Acts 6. This is usually a story that is interpreted as an excellent example of church leadership and delegation, but that ignores what happens next. Those chosen to serve extend the church through preaching. Elven called these missionaries, but I think a plain reading of the text shows that the Luke is uninterested in what the Apostles do because they stopped the movement of Gospel forward. The only time they reappear is in discussion of the Gentiles, and when Peter goes on a mission to Gentiles. I was able to sit in on a Lecture by Joel Green of Fuller, where he expounds on this reading of Acts. I’m not sure if he’s put this interpretation in a book yet. Anyway, needless to say, I was convinced.

              • Elvenfoot


                I think the crux of the problem here is “sola scriptura.” You (and I used to) come from the POV that Scripture is where all revelation and truth lies, whereas Catholics and Orthodox (you must consider them both) dismiss this as heresy. Both branches of the Church believe in Oral Tradition as a source of revelation, too. Therefore, when you look only at the Scriptures, that means to a C and O that you are dismissing a great deal of other stuff that we hold to be reliable.

                The fact is that both C/O’s hold to apostolic succession as true and reliable, and we also look to early Church history (oral and written) for truth about how the Church progressed. According to both C’s and O’s, the Apostles did not at all stop the Gospel from moving forward; they went to the corners of the earth to spread the Gospel and plant churches and were martyred for their pains (all except John). With respect, P’s don’t look at the whole story, because they stop at Acts and ignore the line of successors down through the ages (or else don’t study it sufficiently to understand why O’s and C’s hold to it).

                And “any believer can stand in the place of Christ for another”? Does that mean that ordination means little, that I could take your pulpit next Sunday if I was a member of your church? If so, then we have a radically different view of what it means to be ordained–which makes sense, since it sounds like you aren’t of a denomination that believes in the consecration of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ (which would be Anglicans, Episcopalians, and maybe Lutherans). I think, then, that you are right. Without the kind of ordination C’s and O’s (and the P denominations I mentioned) consider as being essential, anyone can stand in the place of another. But we believe that ordination means something bigger than that, and thus we believe that there is a difference. Priests aren’t BETTER or more superior; but like husbands and wives in the home, they have a different role from the laity. That is why you will never see a full mass without a priest. In serious situations there can be mass-like services (don’t know the proper term), but there can be no consecration without the priest, just as there could be no Last Supper without Christ. To attempt to “consecrate” a Eucharist without a priest would be sacrilege.

                • Ric Shewell

                  Sola Scriptura is a good corrective for church leadership. I don’t ignore the oral tradition or apostolic succession, which was clearly necessary before the New Testament was written and while literacy was so low and while the Holy Scriptures were not accessible to all save priests.

                  Is it necessary any longer? I don’t think so. To hold on to such ideals of apostolic succession ignores much of history, especially when those endued with such power miss the mark so badly.

                  I think of Eli and the sons of Eli as an example of God moving away from an older model of priesthood. I think much of the church has moved away from the older model of Christian priesthood, and I’m okay with it.

                  • Elvenfoot

                    Oh, I don’t think so at all. I emphatically disagree with everything you said and must remain with the Church on this. That the Orthodox and Catholics are as old as the Church and still follow Oral Tradition and apostolic succession is a much stronger testimony to me of reliability than modern Protestant speculation and scholarship, which is based on heresy and schism in the first place. Surely, you’re right that those in “power” have missed the mark badly–I mean, give me Billy Graham over some of those older popes any day, if we’re going to focus on Christ-like example–but I don’t think that makes a compelling-enough case against the continuity of apostolic succession. Much deeper study needs to be done to resolve such a discussion in a P’s mind for the C/O side of the argument, and I am certainly no scholar on the topic. I understand that there are serious arguments to be made on the P’s side of things, but in all my study I did not find any to “win” over the C/O claim to the trustworthiness of apostolic succession. This was many years ago, so don’t ask me to spit out the arguments on the C side. I am way too rusty, now, to argue with any backup without researching first. I am sure there are good apologetic materials on the subject, though.

              • Steve

                Actually, your core issue is in not understanding what Catholic actually believe about the priesthood. They are not ontologically different from other human beings. Their pipeline to God isn’t necessarily different from that of lay people.

                However, they’ve been given authority to do things. You acknowledge different roles in the body of Christ, but it seems that you just object to the roles that Catholics acknowledge. “Catholics do it, so it must be wrong.”

                Sola Scriptura is not a corrective to Church leadership, it’s a blank check. It appoints every individual as his own aribter of truth. That is why you say,”Is it necessary any longer? I don’t think so.”

                Is this the authority you have? Christ establish a chain of leadership passed on by the laying on of hands, and you think it got phased out at some point? The Catholic Church has apostolic succession because it claims LESS authority than other Christian traditions. We cannot change the words of our Master. No matter what.

                • Ric has the authority of the Holy Spirit, which the Bible clearly teaches resides in each of us. The Holy Spirit is the arbiter of truth, not the magisterium.

                  • Elvenfoot

                    Then I do, too, and so does Steve. We both believe that Ric is mistaken and that Christ gave the apostles transferable authority that would last through the ages because he promised the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into truth? Now how does it work that Ric and Steve/I see this issue so differently, if all have the authority of the Holy Spirit, who does not lie or cause division? You are misinterpreting that whole concept.

                    • A) I’m wondering what kind of biblical hermeneutic leads you to take a passage like that so literally.

                      B) I’m wondering what kind of metaphysic you hold that says “authority” is some substantive entity that can be “transferred” from one person to another.

                    • Elvenfoot


                      You said, “A) I’m wondering what kind of biblical hermeneutic leads you to take a passage like that so literally.

                      B) I’m wondering what kind of metaphysic you hold that says “authority” is some substantive entity that can be “transferred” from one person to another.”

                      I won’t answer that directly, because I am no apologetics scholar with hermeneutic studies under my belt. To pretend I am would be silly. As for “B,” Christ imbued the apostles with His authority at the Last Supper and when he gave Peter the keys in Matthew (?–no time to look it up). I also believe, along with every Catholic and Orthodox over the past 2000 years (not counting Luther, of course), that the Bible does not contain the only words of truth, and that there are very good, sound reasons for taking John 16:13 literally (which is what I think you mean). I also believe it is a potentially-fatal, not to mention illogical, mistake to accept the distinctly Protestant concept that anyone can legitimately claim themselves as an authority to determine what the Bible actually teaches when it opposes the sound, centuries-old teachings of the Church.. You need to take it from here and study Catholic apologists yourself, because I am out of time (and that’s why some of this may be ungrammatical, so sorry if I am not very lucid).

                      Here are some books to get you started on this issue, if you want to take it further with people who know more than I do: “By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition,” by Mark Shea; “The Catholic Verses: 95 Bible Passages that Confound Protestants,” by Dave Armstrong; “Where is That in the Bible?” by Patrick Madrid; and “Pope Fiction: Answers to 30 Myths and Misconceptions about the Papacy,” by Patrick Madrid.

  • David Wright

    Agree with some not all of this article. Please dont accuse one branch of the church as dogmatic then spout dogma yourself! perhaps we are all pragmatists now -and Heaven forfend-ecumenicalists!
    My dog is bigger than yours? Nah -they are all pussy cats!

  • Glad to see that you’re giving the pope a chance. I think the humility he’s showing is quite important and biblical. While I understand where you’re coming from regarding who can bless and who can’t, I think it’s still a bit heavy-handed. Assuming theoretically that every aspect of the Catholic church is accurately discerned from God’s will, the role of priest should be similar to that of a pastor. Theoretically, becoming a priest implies that a person has made many sacrifices in their lives in their desire to follow God (not necessarily implying chastity here). If they are devoting their lives wholeheartedly to serving God, the blessings they offer should mean something (e.g. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”). Maybe not enjoying more of God’s privilege than the average person, but rather that they are becoming symbols of God’s presence that people can see and touch. Those kind of blessings can be quite powerful because of the example they lead in their lives (e.g. sacrifice, humility, love).

    Certainly, we have similar things in the protestant church that don’t require quite as much of a overt sacrifice, but a priest truly doing the duties of a priest says a lot. Of course the world isn’t as rosy as I’m painting it. But essentially a blessing is a declaration that God cares about a person and that God desires to instill “happiness” in their lives (cf. Beatitudes).

  • I’m having a hard time getting a read on Pope Frankie. I keep hearing contridictory things about him. I do like the fact that, unlike his predecessors, he seems to have kept at least a smattering of humility about himself. Time will tell, I suppose.

  • Steve

    I don’t understand why the guy had to start from behind with you, Mr. Jones. Is this your reaction to everyone?

    As for the issue of blessings, it may be weird for 21st century Americans, but the idea of being blessed is perfectly Biblical. There is Acts 5:15, which has people lining up just to get into Peter’s shadow. There are the 70 whom Jesus sent out with authority to heal and cast out demons, and there’s James 5:16, which says the prayer of a righteous man profits much. Then you could go to the Old Testament and find a culture littered with this sort of business.

    As for hierarchy being anti-Gospel, I’d have to ask for your commentary on Acts 15. Why did the people bring the question to Paul and Barnabas? Why did they bring the question to the elders in Jerusalem? Why did they make a decision that was binding on everybody? Again… the Bible describes a culture that ain’t 21 century American rugged individualism.

  • Pax

    Why do you believe that all human beings are ontologically the same?

    • Because ‘being’ does not exist any more than ‘the dagger can kill thoughts’.

    • Because the Bible affirms that view, and because I am philosophically committed to that view.

      • Pax

        Yes, I assume that you hold that given your statements, but you’re not showing your work.

  • Cross of St. Andrew

    All we are saying is give Pope a chance…

  • Dan

    I think the big deal about him paying his hotel bill is that HE actually went and paid it himself. He didn’t send an assistant, which would be common place for a man in his position.

  • jaybird68

    Might I just add that the red shoes that Pope Benedict wore were not made by Prada. The red shoes are a papal tradition, and they represent the blood of the martyrs. Our Catholic religion is very whimsical and childlike in many ways. Our minds are prone to wander from the things of God, so we have signs and symbols everywhere to bring us back. They bombard all our senses, as we are not just spirits, but flesh and blood.

  • So glad to hear you say this… if I recall you were a bit of an ass when his election was announced… I’m glad you are starting to see the side of him that got me excited!

  • Theodore Seeber

    And now I remember why I stopped reading this blog- because your ideas are so progressive that they deny the Body of Christ teaching from Paul.

    No, we’re not all cut from a little cookie cutter,ontological. Men and women are different, ontological, and it’s not misogyny to say so- but it might be misandry on your part.

    Let’s face it- you don’t like the Catholic Church for the same reason the New Atheists do- because if Truth really is objective and Christ really did die on the cross and was raised on the third day, it means you are a sinner- like EVERYBODY ELSE.

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