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2 popes, now saints, reflect doctrinal divide

NASHVILLE (BP) — The Roman Catholic Church’s canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II highlights important doctrinal differences between Catholics and evangelicals, two seminary professors have noted.

With more than 1 million people watching in St. Peter’s Square and on giant screens across Rome, Pope Francis installed two of his predecessors as saints Sunday (April 27). It was the first time the Catholic Church had canonized two popes at once, a move that some observers said was intended to unite rival constituencies within Catholicism — progressives who admire John XXIII and conservatives who celebrate John Paul II.

The ceremony also illustrated the different definitions of “saint” held by Catholics and evangelicals, Rex Butler, professor of church history and patristics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press in written comments. As a resident of Louisiana, where approximately 30 percent of the population is Catholic and Roman Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination, Butler is well acquainted with the differences between evangelicals and Catholics.

For Catholics, “a ‘saint’ is a holy man or woman of extraordinary virtue who died with more merit than was necessary to enter heaven,” Butler said. “Their extra merit then is stored in the Treasury of Merit — also called the Treasury of the Saints — and made available [through papal indulgences] to other, lesser Christians” to decrease their punishments in purgatory. “Also, saints in heaven are asked to pray on behalf of Christians on earth and in purgatory,” he said.

But for evangelicals, “the title ‘saint’ is used appropriately for any person who is made holy through salvation by grace through faith,” Butler said. “Certainly, this is how Paul understood the term ‘saints’ in his letters to the churches (1 Corinthians 1:2; Romans 1:7). Evangelicals disagree that Christians should ask for saints’ prayers because our only mediator is Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).”

For someone to become a saint, the Roman Catholic Church typically must certify that at least two miracles have been performed through their intercession since their death. The process of canonization also involves a lengthy investigation of the saint’s life and taking relics — a vial containing his blood in John Paul II’s case and a piece of skin removed from his body for John XXIII. These relics were presented before the altar at Sunday’s canonization ceremony.

John XXIII, who was pope from 1958-63, is remembered for convening a council of the Catholic Church known as Vatican Council II. Though he did not live to see the council conclude its work in 1965, John XXIII is credited with spearheading reforms initiated at Vatican II. Among them:

— The church began conducting mass in the languages of common Catholics rather than exclusively in Latin.

— The church affirmed that non-Catholics, while not experiencing the fullness of salvation, could be saved through God’s grace as they lived according to the dictates of their consciences or obeyed the tenets of their religions.

— In mass, the altar was brought forward toward the congregation and the priest began facing the people.

— Laypeople were given bread and wine in communion rather than just bread, as was the practice before Vatican II.

— The church began fostering ecumenical relationships with Protestants and non-Christian religions like Judaism and Islam.

“This council was designed to be a … modernization of the church, and indeed it was: its constitutions and decrees touched on a wide variety of doctrines and practices,” Gregg Allison, professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP in written comments.

John Paul II, who was pope from 1978-2005, is known as a champion of life, with his staunch opposition to abortion and euthanasia, and an opponent of communism. Growing up in Poland, he was persecuted by Nazis and later helped end communism in Europe. Despite his conservative reputation, he also pleased progressive Catholics at times with his openness to religious dialogue with the Orthodox, Protestants and non-Christian religions.

“Through his many international travels and his influence on leaders worldwide, [John Paul II] thrust the Catholic Church and its moral-ethical-social framework in front of the entire world and exercised an immense influence on its political, social and economic structures,” said Allison, author of the forthcoming book “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment” (Crossway).

Allison, who served with Campus Crusade for Christ at the University of Notre Dame and in Italy and teaches a Roman Catholic theology course at Southern, said the canonization process illustrates the different conceptions of the Gospel held by Catholics and evangelicals.

Evangelicals believe that “Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, has accomplished salvation for fallen human beings,” Allison said. “This gracious salvation is appropriated by faith alone in Jesus Christ, resulting in justification: God declares these sinful people to be ‘not guilty’ but ‘righteous instead,’ not because of their own righteousness, but because the righteousness of Jesus Christ has been imputed, or credited to their account.”

In contrast, for Catholics the Gospel is “the good news that Jesus Christ, through His death and resurrection, has accomplished salvation for fallen human beings,” Allison said. “Through the sacraments of the church, grace is appropriated by faith and is infused into the faithful, thereby forgiving their sins, transforming their character and enabling them to merit salvation through their works of love.”

Two unbiblical notions in the Catholic doctrine of salvation are that grace is “infused” into people rather than credited to their account and that God transforms people’s character so that they, through their good works, are able to merit salvation, Allison said.

The recent canonization presents an opportunity for evangelicals to share the Gospel with Catholic friends who don’t understand that salvation is a free gift received only by trusting Jesus as Lord and Savior, Allison said.

“We need to engage our Catholic friends with Scripture,” he said. “Invite them to a regular Bible study in which the Gospels are read and discussed, so that they will be helped to understand who Jesus is, what He has done and how they can by faith in the Gospel embrace the salvation He offers.”
David Roach is Baptist Press’ chief national correspondent. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).