Time for Reformation in Rome?

An open letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, has connected the coverup of child sexual abuse to the highest offices in the Roman Catholic Church:

A former Vatican ambassador to the United States alleges in a 7,000 word letter that top Catholic Church officials, including Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, were long aware of sexual misconduct allegations against former D.C. archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. (NPR)

For years it has been apparent that there is a culture of abuse among many Roman Catholic priests, and that church hierarchy has been quietly suppressing the stories for many decades. But this week’s allegations demand, even more, the need for Rome to reform. At this point, Pope Francis’ only response has been to say, “I will not say one word on this. I think the statement speaks for itself and you have sufficient journalistic capacity to reach your own conclusions.”

At this point, Pope Francis’ only response has been to say, ‘I will not say one word on this…’

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenburg Cathedral door in 1517, he was not calling for schism within the Roman Catholic Church, but for her reform. Luther rightly observed that reform begins with repentance. The first of the 95 theses reads:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the Gospel call had an almost immediate effect. As the Reformation swept across Europe in the 16th Century, Rome sent out counter punches in the hope of quelling the tide. In the centuries since, there have indeed been moments of change made inside the Vatican, but these revisions have been primarily cosmetic and cultural, rather than ripping out the rotted foundations and replacing them with “what accords with sound doctrine,” (Tit 2:1).

Abuses Old and New

It is interesting to note that the events which led to Martin Luther’s clarion call concerned an issue of abuse: Rome’s teaching of and reliance upon indulgences. The practice of indulgences is nowhere taught or encouraged in the Christian Bible. Indulgences contradict the most basic of Christian teachings—that justification before God is by God’s grace alone, received by faith alone, because of Jesus Christ’s atoning death alone:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Roman Catholicism has taught indulgences since Medieval times, believing that they are a means by which people can receive remission for sins, and therefore reduce the time they would otherwise spend in purgatory. Leaving aside the fact that purgatory is another Roman concept which finds no warrant in the Bible, indulgences take on multifarious forms; from saying a prayer, to completing a sacred pilgrimage, to helping the poor. Indulgences regularly contained a monetary aspect, paying a financial sum to the church to gain an indulgence, and thus time exemption from purgatory. The stunning St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, enjoyed by tourists and pilgrims to this day, was built in the 16th Century by this spiritual exploitation.

In case we make the mistake of thinking that indulgences were left behind 500 years ago, they remain in vogue, with the current Pope publicly encouraging the practice of indulgences on at least two occasions since taking the seat in the Vatican in 2013. More odd, the ABC reported this week that the Anglican Church in Yea, Victoria, has recently taken up the practice in order to raise money to repair their dilapidated building.

Indulgences remain in vogue. The ABC reported this week that the Anglican Church in Yea, Victoria, has recently taken up the practice in order to raise money to repair their dilapidated building.

Revelations made in recent years have, once again, made it clear that the problems inside Roman Catholicism are deeply rooted. When Martin Luther exposed the abuses made in the 16th Century, he rightly called for repentance and sought reform in the Church. Once again, Rome has been caught abusing the vulnerable, this time, sexually abusing young children and repeatedly covering up the crimes. Despite voices within and without calling for reform, Rome shows little inclination to change. The allegations made this week by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò suggest that change needs to extend to the very top. Indeed, if the Archbishop’s revelations are accurate, Rome is facing her greatest scandal in centuries.

In criticising Rome, please don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting that Protestant Churches automatically make the cut. Children have been abused inside Anglican, Baptist, and Pentecostal Churches, and even one example is one more than should ever be. Churches that have once embraced the principles of the Reformation also need to reaffirm them with every new generation. Europe, the United Kingdom, and Australia are littered with churches that once joyful upheld the 5 Solas, but today are little more than crumbling buildings sitting on prime real estate supporting the retirement funds of heterodox clergy.

Of course there is a vast difference between these two forms of church failure—between the systematic coverup of abuse and slow decline. But the causes and remedies are the same. The Apostle Paul insisted that we must keep an eye on both God’s word and our own conduct—“watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). The two principles are connected: if we won’t let the Word reform our actions, those sins we protect will further corrupt our ability to receive God’s good and holy commands.

Reformation Now?

Is this Rome’s time for Reformation? Will the leaders of Rome finally wake up and realise that they need to do more than move around the furniture or cover up the walls with a new coat of paint? 500 years ago, abusive practices were called out and thousands of clergy and churches across Europe heeded God’s gracious call to repent, but Rome ignored the opportunity. How will Rome respond this time?

In the 16th Century, rediscovering of the gospel and giving the Bible to the masses produced massive change. Unhelpful and grossly evil practices within the church were exposed, denounced and (in many cases) removed.

But today, we still need reformation. Reformation needs to come from within, and reformation requires the dismantling of all the teachings, practices, and traditions that confuse, cloud or contradict the gospel of Jesus Christ. This kind of foundational change will be confronting and difficult. Christians can pray that a movement of repentance will take over Rome. We can pray that both among Rome’s clergy and congregations there will be a rediscovery of the gospel—the good news that the Apostle Paul first shared with the Romans almost 2000 years ago:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24)

For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Romans 3:28)


Photo: unsplash.com

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