Pope Francis was back in international headlines last week after responding to a letter addressed to him by a large Italian newspaper. The pope was responding to one of the former editors of La Repubblica and in so doing continued his practice of reaching out to those who are skeptics and those who have questions regarding the church.
In his response to the paper, Francis continued to show his conciliatory and peacemaking tone towards those outside the church and stated that “without a doubt it would seem to be positive, not only for each one of us, but also for the society in which we live, to stop and speak about a matter as important as faith and which refers to the teachings and the figure of Jesus.”
In the beginning of his open letter, the pope lays out what can be described as some of the basic truths of orthodox Christianity. The pope affirmed that Jesus Christ being the very incarnation of God was central to the Christian faith and articulated a helpful argument to the former editor not to look at the unfortunate sins of church, which is composed of fallible people, but to look at the perfect life of Jesus who is infallible.
However, mixed in among the helpful statements the pope made, there were many statements which once again show the major differences in the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Christianity.
The first of these differences had to do with Israel. Pope Francis begins by answering a question the editor had in regards to God’s promise originally made to the Jews. Here the pope states, “At the end of your first article, you also ask me what to say to our Jewish brothers about the promise God made to them: Has this been forgotten? And this – believe me – is a question that radically involves us as Christians because, with the help of God, starting from the Second Vatican Council, we have discovered that the Jewish people are still, for us, the holy root from which Jesus originated.”
The Pope responds by referring back to the Second Vatican Council where the church fundamentally changed its position regarding this question. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church taught that all those who were saved are those who are purely and self consciously members of the catholic church and under the teaching and discipline of the church and teachings and discipline of the pope. At the 2nd Vatican Council, the church adopted what is now known as a two covenant theology which teaches that the covenant God made with the Jews is still in full sanding, and the covenant God made with the Gentiles is not binding on the Jewish people. In adopting a two covenant theology the Church abdicated any responsibility to bring the truth of the Gospel and the New Covenant to the Jews.
There have even been some liberal protestants who have adopted this theological position and in so doing compromise and deny fundamental truths of the Gospel found in Scripture. In the Bible we see in Romans 1:16 that Paul says he is not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and also the Greek. Nowhere in the New Testament can one find a separate enduring covenant which leads to salvation apart from the covenant which includes the redeeming work of Christ.
Perhaps though, it is the pope’s following statements which more dramatically show the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The pope wrote:
“As for the three questions you asked me in the article of August 7th. It would seem to me that in the first two, what you are most interested in is understanding the Church’s attitude towards those who do not share faith in Jesus. First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that – and this is fundamental – God’s mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience. In fact, listening and obeying it, means deciding about what is perceived to be good or to be evil. The goodness or the wickedness of our behavior depends on this decision.”
This statement, and this statement alone, shows the fundamental difference in the belief that Roman Catholics and Protestants have in terms of the Gospel. Namely, that this is a clear pronouncement made by the pope, which is consistent with the documents of the Second Vatican Council, that salvation can be granted to those who in this life never come to saving knowledge of Christ and place their faith in Him.
According the Second Vatican Council in the document entitled “Lumen Gentium” the council stated, “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind…those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”
Therefore, according to Pope Francis and the Second Vatican Council, there are many who can be saved based upon whatever revelation they have and whatever revelation they will receive based on their own conscience. The pope, and the church’s official teaching, make clear that the key issue in salvation is the individual conscience. However, no affirmation of this can be found in Scripture. In Romans 2 Paul flatly denies that the conscience is a good guide to follow when attaining salvation, and even goes on to continue such arguments in other epistles (1 Cor. 8:7, 10:29, 1 Tim. 4:2, Titus 1:15).
Furthermore, Paul goes on to say in Romans 10 that salvation can only come through confessing a genuine belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and continues by laying out the logic and necessity of the Gospel in Romans 10:14 when he says, “How then will they call Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?”
Perhaps it is a good step in the right direction, and one we can all follow when the pope writes directly to a skeptic in order to speak openly and genuinely with a non believer. However, what purpose does it serve if the true Gospel is not proclaimed?