The Papal Visit

The Papal Visit: The Religious Issues

Ministry Editor J.R. Spangler interviews Raoul Dederen, professor of ecumenics and of Roman Catholic theology at Andrews University.

Raoul F. Dederen, Morales, is professor of historical theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


Q. Pope John Paul II is only the second pope in history to visit the U.S. There seemed to be even more interest and fanfare regarding Pope John Paul's visit than there was fourteen years ago when Paul VI came. What reasons do you see for the extraordinary interest in this pope's visit among Roman Catholics and non-Catholics?

A. There is little doubt that there has been much more interest in the visit of Pope John Paul II than in the 1965 visit of Paul VI. There is, first of all, the general state of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, which has changed dramatically in the past fifteen years.

Next, one must keep in mind that when Pope Paul VI came, he visited just one city, New York. He went to one place, the United Nations, and he stayed little more than one day. John Paul II came for a week, and he visited not only New York, but Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Des Moines, and Washington, D.C., not to mention a few stops in between. The Pope didn't come only to visit the United Nations and deliver a speech on the present situation of the world. This time he offered masses in various places and addressed himself to the state of the church in the world in general and in the U.S. in particular. He visited Washington, D.C., the capital city of this country—interestingly enough, during the presidency of a Southern Baptist.

Since the situation was different, and there was a different frame of reference, I am not at all surprised at the amount of interest aroused by the recent papal visit.

Q. Until fairly recent times Protestants in the U.S. tended to be hostile toward their Catholic counterparts. What caused the shift in Protestant attitude toward Roman Catholicism? Protestants seemed as interested in the Pope's visit as Catholics, and former tensions seem to have largely disappeared.

A. In order to understand what took place let's go back a few generations. When Roman Catholics immigrated to America, their names, language, customs, and religion marked them as aliens. In a society that was English-speaking, and where Protestantism was the traditional religion, Catholics were criticized for what was regarded as fanaticism and supernaturalism, for a preoccupation with the ornate and ritualistic, and for mumbling in Latin. Such things were offensive, if not repulsive, to American taste and tradition.

Although shut out by their differences, these immigrants still sought acceptance and full membership in a society as open and as prosperous as America was and still is. But assimilation was ultimately assimilation into a non-Catholic society which in the mean time had become predominantly secular.

In a recently published booklet, The Present Position of Catholics in America,* James Hitchcock provides us with a keen analysis of what has happened to the Roman Catholic Church in the United States in the last decade or two. He shows us how the strongly cohesive and disciplined community of American Catholics of the 1940's and 1950's has become the disintegrating and confused Catholic community of the later 1960's and 1970's. And he underlines the shift from confrontation with secularism to accommodation to it.

Hitchcock believes that the two Johns, John XXIII and John F. Kennedy, were understood as representing a new Catholic opening to the world.

In the person of John F. Kennedy, American Catholicism seemed to be coming of age politically. At the same time, in Rome, Pope John XXIII introduced a religious aggiornamento, a renewal, which generated an immense amount of enthusiasm. Many perceived the conclusions reached by the Second Vatican Council as the surrender of essential Catholic positions, and presented them as such. The Council was explained by the media as a reform, and by Catholics themselves as a liberation, and many outsiders regarded the Council a defeat for the Catholic Church. This was used by radical and progressive elements within the Roman Catholic Church to suggest that the time had come to reconsider, if not outrightly reject, traditional Catholic doctrines and practices.

As I said earlier, a shift was occurring, a shift from confrontation with the secular city to accommodation to it. As the "Americanness" of the U.S. Catholics expanded, and as Catholics deliberately accommodated themselves to the social and cultural milieu of their generation, the tension between Protestants and Catholics naturally eased.

Q. What about the loss of confidence in the church being demonstrated by U.S. Catholicshow are their leaders dealing with this?

A. This loss of confidence in the Catholic Church's traditional values seems, in fact, to have affected not only the rank and file but the Catholic hierarchy, as well. Many Catholics have ex pressed their alarm at the fact that the leaders of the Catholic Church in the U.S. seem to be more interested in adopting positions acceptable to the rulers of the secular city than the standards that traditionally have contributed to the stability, endurance, and influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the world. Hitchcock himself wonders whether the hierarchy's vigorous social action program, its many national bureaucracies and position papers regularly issued on a variety of issues (such as the Panama Canal, Rhodesia, South Africa, world hunger, the California grape strike, nuclear weapons) are not merely interventions in areas where there already exists a settled consensus in the community of liberal opinion makers.

Many faithful deplore what they regard as a clear lack of strong direction from their bishops that often leaves the flock torn between conflicting opinions in grave moral matters. Bishops apparently teach, or permit others to teach, matters at variance with official doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, there is hardly a single teaching that has not been publicly questioned. The same applies to matters of ecclesiastical discipline. Many Catholic faithful believe there is a crisis of authority in the Catholic Church in the United States today, and the current state of disarray is regarded by many as resulting from the bishops' failure to use their episcopal authority in a time of crisis.

Q. Could you give me an illustration or two of the confusion or the crisis of authority that seems to exist in the Roman Catholic Church today?

A. First of all, there is a crisis regarding the proper exercise of authority and the appropriate response to it. Catholic education, from elementary catechetics to the education of seminarians, is in disarray. Catholics in vast numbers ignore the moral and disciplinary decrees.

These and other problems have either not been dealt with by those in authority or have certainly not been perceived as having been dealt with by the Catholic episcopate. As a consequence, the faithful at every level—and this includes clergy and religious—are increasingly demoralized and discouraged. At times some of them have even been reprmanded by authority figures for demanding action or clarification.

Q. George Eldon Ladd, in his book The Blessed Hope, points out that many of the great Christians of Reformation and post-Reformation times interpreted the prophecies of Daniel 7 and 8 and Revelation 13 as identifying the Antichrist with the Roman Papacy. For instance, he refers to the Waldenses, the Hussites, Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and others as being adherents of this interpretation. Why did they take this view?

A. It is true that the early Reformers and their followers identified the Antichrist with the Roman Papacy. Why? Let's take the case of the Lutherans, who represent the first phase of the Reformation. They declared, clearly and repeatedly, that the pope was the Antichrist, although they did not hesitate to add—at least in some circles—that a re formed Papacy could be acceptable.

Why the Antichrist? In the early days of the Reformation, when the Reformers considered themselves members of the historic Catholic Church, the enemy was not Catholicism but rather the pope and the papists. The pope was denounced as the Antichrist in the sense of being an other Christ, a false Christ. It was precisely because the pope, with his unchristian and idolatrous claims, was within the Catholic Church, at the heart of the very community of which the early Reformers felt themselves to be a part, that his evil was denounced as diabolical, an example of wickedness clothing itself as an angel of light. And so the Papacy was clearly denounced as the Antichrist.

  Q. What about today? What view do the spiritual descendants of the Re formers hold and why?

A. Well, today for most Lutherans, as for most Protestants, the Pope is of little importance. His function is rather negative, in the sense that he is one of the factors that help the Protestants define what they are not. For most Protestants today the papacy is no longer a focus of intense animosity. They are simply in different.

Q. Do you feel that the Reformation interpretation of the Papacy as Babylon and the Antichrist was a valid interpretation?

A. An answer to a question of this kind would depend on one's hermeneutical methods. There are many who have interpreted the apocalyptic chapters of the books of Daniel and Revelation as applying strictly to the people and generation that existed on earth during the lifetime of the authors of these books.

If you interpret these chapters as God speaking not only to the contemporaries of Daniel and John but also as providing guidelines with regard to what will hap pen in later generations, then one would be entitled to interpret such chapters in the way the Reformers did. We may disagree with some details of their inter pretations—some of their remarks may be more relative to their situation than to ours, this is correct—but as a hermeneutical approach, as a principle of interpretation, I think they were essen tially correct.

Q. In the context of the tensions and theological differences within the Roman Catholic Church do you see the "Polish Pope" as a unifying force in Catholicism? What effect has his charismatic personality and strong leadership style had on both Catholics and non-Catholics?

A. After the Pope's visit to the United States there shouldn't be much doubt as to John Paul IPs ability to be a unifying force in Catholicism today. This should not be interpreted to mean, however, that all Catholics will simply rally behind him. His visit has also dramatically illustrated the divisions that exist in the Roman Catholic Church. Many will continue to protest, at times loudly, the clear position he has urged Catholics to adopt on such issues as birth control, the ordination of women priests, contraception and abortion, and priestly celibacy. Still, the overall picture remains that of a man unusually gifted to be the unifying force you have referred to.

Today, the Catholic Church, in the United States, despite its enormous re sources in property and organization, seems to have lost its sense of purpose. It lacks strong and effective spiritual leadership. The more liberal elements in the American Catholic Church have taken over the most influential positions within its structures, and in the vacuum of leadership they seem to largely decide policy. Pope John Paul II might be able to depolarize the Catholic Church in the United States. He is a sufficiently attractive figure to so many people that those on the far right are bound to have trouble expressing themselves, for they can't depict him as a flaming radical. The exceedingly liberal theologians will probably tend to muffle their criticism, for they are not going to gather much support over him. At least, this is the way it appears at this juncture.

The Pope's visit has meant a growth of morale in American Catholicism. As has happened in other parts of the world, his visit has revived and regenerated interest in religion and faith—not just Catholic faith in particular but also Christian faith in general. He seems to be able to make people aware that religion is an important powerful force that can be applied to the issues of the modern world.

Q. Do you see the growing popularity of the Pope as due to his personal magnetic charisma or to other factors?

A. Several factors have contributed to the popularity of John Paul II. One of them is the fact that he came at the time when the Catholic Church needed his type of ministry. Pope Paul VI provided leadership at a difficult time of transition. He was selected by his fellow cardinals to bring the Second Vatican Council to its completion and to implement its decisions, which was a difficult task. Fifteen years later, in the selection of his successor John Paul I, the cardinals indicated their wish for a change in the papacy's style, if not in its substance. This pope's greatest contribution—although his pontificate lasted only 34 days—was probably that he set a new model for the papacy by the way he conducted himself. He was the "smiling pope." He laid the ground for another similar pope to be elected, namely John Paul II. The flexible intransigence John Paul II developed in Poland in dealing with a hostile regime as well as his insistence on discipline in internal Church affairs, seemed to set him apart as the kind of leader the Catholic hierarchy was striving for. Now that the more extreme postconciliar movements had hopefully run out of steam, there was a demand for people who would build up rather than pull down. This is unquestionably a time for confident leadership, and a large majority of Catholic faithful are responding to it.

The Pope is also a rare blend of the old and the new. And this is probably where his charisma is particularly evident. For example, he has a swimming pool, and he climbs mountains, skis, and writes poetry. On the other hand he respects ancient traditions. He is a man rooted in the people's piety, in ordinary devotions such as devotion to Mary. So it is not as much in what he says as it is by his life style that he asserts the legitimacy of the old and the new in an attractive way.

Q. Is there any indication that the Pope is becoming a spokesman for universal Christianity? For instance, a few weeks ago, Billy Graham, on a national TV program, referred to the Pope as having "probably more moral influence in the world right at this moment than almost any other person in this country," and that he "would like to see him call some sort of a tremendous peace prayer conference about the Middle East." Do you think this is a fair representation of what the Pope could achieve today?

A. It would be difficult to deny that the Pope probably has more moral influence in the world today than just about any other person. This is a fair representation of the situation in which we find ourselves, and it goes back to what I have mentioned earlier—here the dearth of moral leadership in the Christian world today.

Whether there are any indications that the Pope is becoming or could become a spokesman for universal Christianity is another matter. But there are obvious signs pointing in that direction. I have indicated that for most Protestants the Pope is of little importance. Several bi lateral conversations that the Catholic Church in the U.S. is holding with representatives of the Lutheran and Episcopal-Anglican churches suggest that there are non-Catholics that are concerned about the papacy and the role it would play in a reunited Christian church. There is growing interest in the papacy as at least potentially providing a positive and irreplaceable service to the whole Christian family. The U.S. Catholic-Lutheran dialogue, for instance, suggests "a papal primacy renewed in the light of the gospel," while the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Com mission recommends a universal primacy exercised by the Roman Bishop as "appropriate in any future union." At . this juncture one gets the impression that the papacy, even evangelically re formed, is not regarded as a positive good, but at best a pis-aller, the lesser of the two evils. Under the circumstances it could be tolerable, but only because dis unity in the church would even be worse. Some are convinced that a couple of Pope John Pauls could change the traditional image of the papacy and convince Christianity at large of its positive potential.

Q. In the Pope's appeal for greater freedom for the Catholic Church in Poland, do you believe he was refer ring to greater religious freedom for a// religions, or did he have the Catholic Church alone in mind? What is the attitude of the Pope regarding religious freedom, and would he advocate it in a reunited Christian church?

A. A close observer of the role and concerns of John Paul II during the years of his priesthood in Poland will rapidly recognize that Karol Wojtyla was a resolute defender of religious freedom and human rights. Although it is possible that his concern was essentially to assure such freedom for the Catholic Church in its confrontation with a Marxist State, non-Catholic churches in Poland have probably benefited from his strong stand on this issue.

Whether John Paul II will continue this policy and encourage religious freedom everywhere, now that he is the supreme bishop of the Catholic Church, it is too early to say. The concerns he has shown in earlier years should, to some extent, give us an idea of what we can expect. But he will probably need a few years to express and articulate his views on this point. The Second Vatican Council has officially taken a position in favor of religious freedom, and John Paul II's earlier writings indicate how highly he regards the dignity of man. Many have interpreted this to mean that he could implement the decisions of Vatican II, and that religious freedom would be recognized as the birthright of every Christian believer, whatever his confessional affiliation.

The fact remains, however, that history has taught us some painful lessons concerning religious freedom. Given the often sorry history of the papacy in this respect one should understand the worry of those who fear that a universal church could once again resort to the kind of oppression and persecution against dissenters we all have heard of.


* Published by the National Committee of Catholic Laymen, Inc., Room 840, 150 E. 35th Street, New York, New York.

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Raoul F. Dederen, Morales, is professor of historical theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

November 1979

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