Pope John Paul II died today at the age of 84. I have little to say except that, as a Protestant, I'm extremely grateful for the most Protestant-friendly pope so far. What I'll remember him for has little to do with what most of the media outlets have been talking about endlessly for the last 24 hours. It's for the groundbreaking progress in Catholic-Protestant relations under his watch, most notably the accords within the last decade between Catholics and Lutherans.
According to a the Catholic end of the declaration from that time, the heresy they had condemned as Lutheranism turns out not to be Lutheranism after all. Luther wasn't a heretic, they now say, though the view they had condemned is a heresy. He just didn't hold that view. They now understand Protestants to be using the word 'justification' the way Paul does, and they believe they've been using it all along the way James does. In the end, the views are close enough that neither should see the other as a heresy.
Joseph Fitzmyer's commentary on Romans and Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary on James are both by Catholics in the new school of Catholic scholarship that recognizes Protestants to have been focusing on how Paul uses the justification family of terms and Catholics closer to how James uses those terms. Both commentators argue that Paul and James are consistent with each other, just using language in different ways. Fitzmyer's interpretation of Paul is remarkably similar to historic Protestant ones, and even sounds like Luther according to D.A. Carson, and Johnson's defense of James and Paul's consistency also sounds very Protestant.
I don't believe either book has the imprimatur, but the cardinals saw all this and discovered that they'd just been using terms in ways that aren't the primary ways they've been used in scripture, thus realizing that they don't disagree with Luther all that much after all, at least in comparison to how much they had thought they were disagreeing. This was a truly historic document, one the Pope signed, and I think it will be seen to be part of his legacy in the long run far more than much of what they've been talking about for the last 24 hours on the news.
From what I remember of the time this all went down, there were a number of Protestants, particularly among the more cranky of the Reformed sectors, who just simply refused to accept this. My suspicion is that it's mere anti-Catholic animus with no basis in reality, but I and some in my immediate circle at the time looked at their arguments anyway, and they just didn't fit the facts. Their claim was that this was just wishy-washy relativism that didn't accept what the Protestants were saying as true in any strong sense. From what I remember, some of the Lutherans involved with this dialogue may have tried to mask the issues with relativistic language (after all, they were from the religiously liberal Lutheran denomination), but I don't think it's a fair charge to say the Catholic contributors to the discussion did so. They seemed to be genuinely convinced by Catholic thelogians' work that had gone back to the Bible to examine Protestant teachings in light of Paul rather than in light of traditional Catholic glosses on Protestant language that had turned out to portray Protestants' views unfairly.
I hate to say this, but I even wondered if some of the critics probably just didn't understand the point the Catholic theologians were making due to being not philosophically acute enough to follow the discussion and just labeled it weaseling out via word games. I see that a lot among cranky types who aren't willing to engage in an argument. They call it word games and won't address what it says. As a philosopher, this frustrates me greatly, but it's all too common. Let me be clear here. I'm not accusing anyone of doing this. It just seems to me that I see it all too often from people who refuse to engage with issues, calling it playing with words. The way some of these people were talking really sounded to me like that.
One place where this sort of thing came out was during the last U.S. election about John Kerry, regardless of whether he was playing word games or whether he had a genuinely nuanced position. There were times when he played word games. I think he painted himself into a corner on abortion, but it's not for the reasons a lot of people were saying. I think he changed his mind a number of times on Iraq or just wasn't sure about crucial details, and his pretense to a consistent position sounded like word games. On the other hand, most of the people making fun of his nuance were just expressing a root American attitude of anti-intellectualism, and I have to wonder if some of the theologians who looked at this issue, or rather didn't look carefully enough at it, were doing the same thing.
Surely not all of them were doing this, and some of the people who I wonder about would be doing something shameful given their training if this is indeed what was going on, but I have to wonder how they can look at an issue that's just so obviously making a clear and specific point about how different groups were talking past each other because of different definitions and then recast it as relativism. That's why I think this declaration by the Roman Catholic Church was a major event toward good. It was officially endorsed by the Pope and carried out by people who had come to influence under the kinds of change that went on under his leadership, and I'm glad for the environment he helped to create that allowed this.
I'm certain to get some cranky people claiming that Catholics commit the Galatian heresy and therefore shouldn't be brought back toward Protestantism. The first thing to keep in mind about that claim is that it's contrary to the gospel. If Catholics don't believe the gospel, then wouldn't we want them to move closer to it? The second point I will insist on is that if they do indeed believe the gospel, and whole quarters of Protestantism pretend otherwise, then their divisiveness is a grave offense against the unity in Christ that Paul so passionately speaks of, most centrally in Ephesians. So either way, this should be seen as a good thing. I don't happen to believe that Catholics commit the Galatian heresy, at least not in the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, but that will take a further post to argue, and I don't intend to do that today.
Comment policy for this post: If critical comments are put in a nice way and argued for, it's likely that I won't delete them. I reserve the right to delete any comments that don't treat Catholics with respect, and I'm very likely to delete any negative comments that don't involve real reasons backing them up. If you want to discuss things politely and with a willingness to support your points and listen to those who disagree with you, then I welcome your participation. Otherwise, be prepared not to be part of the conversation that you're not willing to be part of in the first place. This is not a place for Catholic-bashing, particular during the nine days of mourning for Pope John Paul II that we entered today.