Pope Francis’s declaration, Fiducia Supplicans: On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings, a document that endorses the blessing of same-sex couples (whatever that may mean!), represents the latest controversy to roil the Roman church. Like most controversies, it has generated a host of interpretations. Some see it as a diplomatic measure–a middle way, aimed at reducing the likelihood of schism with German and Belgian bishops. Many have rolled their eyes at what looks like another failure on Francis’s part to speak with a clear, orthodox voice. Still others regard it as an outright mess that undercuts Catholic teaching. How should Protestants read it?
It was in late 1517 when Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, wrote to Pope Leo X concerning Martin Luther’s opposition to indulgence preaching. Upon receiving the letter, Leo employed the expertise of his court theologian, Sylvester Mazzolini Prierias, who in turn examined Luther’s Ninety-five Theses as an initial step against one accused of heresy.
The sixty-two-year-old Prierias immediately pulled out the howitzer and, without sympathy or much nuance, launched a stiff rebuke at Luther. Composing his so-called “Opinion” of Luther’s Theses in just three days, Prierias simply repudiated Luther’s Theses, dismissing them as “erroneous,” “false,” and “heretical.”
Luther had no desire to attack the papacy. Statements such as the fiftieth thesis suggest that he believed Leo would curb the church’s indulgence abuses after having them brought to his attention. Unfortunately, this would not be so. From Prierias’ perspective, the infallible character of the universal church subsisted in the Church of Rome and was personified by the pope. Prierias asserted that “the Roman church is representatively the college of cardinals, and moreover is virtually the supreme pontiff,” and that “he who says that the Roman church cannot do what it actually does regarding indulgences is a heretic.”
Evidently eager to demonstrate his superior theological acumen over the previously unknown Wittenberg professor, about whom untold numbers were now talking, Prierias turned his “Opinion” into a polemical tract full of bitter acrimony: his so-called Dialogus, printed in Rome in June 1518. He then drafted the official citation, which commanded Luther to appear in Rome within sixty days.
The Infallible Rule of Faith
It was obvious to Luther that obedience to the papal summons would likely lead to a martyr’s death. But before that dilemma was faced, Luther appeared before the diet of the Holy Roman Empire in Augsburg. Over three days, Luther sought to discuss indulgences with another papal representative, Cardinal Cajetan. Surely now Luther’s concerns would get the consideration they warranted? But no such opportunity was granted. The response was clear: Recant and submit. Faithful ministers of the church do not question the pope.
In his reply to Prierias, Luther asserted that the church and councils are capable of error; Holy Scripture alone, as St. Augustine affirmed, is truly infallible. Therefore, Luther argued, it is surely appropriate to employ Scripture as a basis for theological disputation about a matter such as indulgences, which had yet to be dogmatically defined. But before the ink was dry on these sentences, Rome had already reached the conclusion that Luther was guilty of heresy.
It is important to recognize that the doctrine of papal infallibility was never officially sanctioned during the Middle Ages, even though its champions such as Prierias upheld the idea. In his words, “Whoever does not rest upon the teaching of the Roman church and the supreme pontiff as an infallible rule of faith, from which even Holy Scripture draws its vigor and authority, is a heretic.” In his Epitome—a summary of statements against Luther—Prierias had said, “Even though the pope as an individual [singularis persona] can do wrong and hold a wrong faith, nevertheless as pope he cannot give a wrong decision.”
These statements were disturbing enough, but Prierias pushed Luther over the edge by taking his position a step further: “An undoubtedly legitimate pope cannot be lawfully deposed or judged by either a council or the entire world, even if he be so scandalous as to lead people with him en masse into the possession of the devil in hell” (emphasis added). Such a (literally) diabolical defense of the papacy at all costs led Luther to conclude that Rome had become nothing less than antichrist.
And yet, Prierias had found this statement in the pages of canon law. Upon reading it, Luther concluded that Rome had lost its mind and its soul. He called Prierias’ citation a “hellish manifesto.” In Luther’s view, the villain was not the person of Leo X but the papal office itself, which marginalized Christ’s word in favor of its own power, even to the point of claiming the prerogative to lead God’s people into the netherworld.
Pope Francis and the Blessing of Same-Sex Couples
With this fraught history as prelude, now we come to the highly controversial move of Pope Francis to permit Roman Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples. According to the recently released document, the blessings may be carried out as long as they are not part of regular church rituals or liturgies, nor given during civil unions.
Catholic theologians have emphasized that church teaching about marriage—defined as a covenantal union between a man and a woman with the intention of having children—has not changed. However, critics say Fiducia Supplicans for the first time authorizes blessings for same-sex couples, as couples, and further confuses the faithful about church teaching.
For his part, the Rev. James Martin, an American Jesuit, hails the document as a “major step forward” for LGBTQ people in the church. “The new declaration opens the door to non-liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, something that had been previously off limits for all bishops, priests, and deacons,” he told CNN. “Along with many Catholic priests, I will now be delighted to bless my friends in same-sex marriages.” Progressive LGBTQ Catholics wasted no time in lining up for their blessings.
However, conservative Catholics are earnestly protesting. Their indignation is illustrated by a friend who texted me shortly after the document was made public. She expressed her outrage over the declaration, suggesting that Bergoglio (Francis’s given name before he ascended to the papacy) is an illegitimate pope with a malevolent agenda. Nevertheless, she concluded, the truth will prevail, even if it takes a while.
Devout Catholics, like my friend, are starting to face a conflict of conscience akin to that of Luther. Despite the expectation that the pope’s latest mess will eventually get cleaned up, the incident puts a sizable dent in the assertion that Rome’s teaching is clear, authoritative, and infallible—or in Peter Kreeft’s words, “the rock of Peter that stands up against the floods of history.” The Roman bulwark never failing seems to be fracturing.
Talking About Pope Francis
Even though, as a Protestant, I see the papal office as a misguided development of doctrine, I nevertheless pray for Pope Francis. To do otherwise, it seems to me, would be disobedient. The Apostle Paul, for example, urges us to pray “for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions…, [which] is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1-4). With Francis, aged 87, drawing ever closer to the threshold of eternity, we should pray for the eyes of his heart to be enlightened.
But frankly, it is also in the best interest of all Christians for the Roman pontiff to be more biblically orthodox rather than less. As Carl Trueman writes, “Whether it is the fight against abortion, intrusive health care mandates, or the imposition of political ideology through regulations governing adoption, the Catholic Church has led, and has had the financial power and cultural presence to do so in a way unavailable to Protestants.”
Simply put, papacy is a symbol that represents Christians everywhere, for better or worse. In the civil arena, which religious voice is most significant? Who serves as the chief ambassador of the Christian tradition, speaking to the world on matters of moral and political concern? As head of the largest community of baptized persons, Francis commands unparalleled attention. Just ask yourself, to what Christian individual does the world look on Christmas Eve and Easter? Perhaps, once, Queen Elizabeth II, but no longer. It’s certainly not Franklin Graham.
Even amid the current controversy in the Roman church, now is no time for Protestant triumphalism. It is a time for honesty, the sort of honesty that Martin Luther exhibited when he received one of his final missives from Pope Leo X in June of 1520, Exsurge Domine, a papal bull condemning his efforts to reform the church. It begins, “Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause … for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard.” The pope then calls upon God, St. Peter, St. Paul, and the entire Catholic Church to defend itself from heretics, that is, from those who would cause doctrinal confusion. Leo concludes with a call for Luther to recant and return to obedience, making it quite clear throughout the edict that if Luther does not comply, he will be excommunicated.
On December 10, after the sixty-day response period, Luther appeared with the bull in hand before a bonfire outside the Elster Gate of Wittenberg on the east end of the city. Precisely because he was a doctor of the church charged with upholding her fidelity and doctrinal integrity, Luther cast the bull into the fire, saying, “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you.”
The Need to Speak Clearly
While I’m not proposing that Protestant leaders set a match to Fiducia Supplicans (though Christian liberty certainly makes such a thing permissible!), we need to speak more clearly to a confused world about marriage, human sexuality, and God’s gracious plan for human flourishing. Where Francis seems content to blur the lines, we need to draw (or redraw) them clearly. Where the pope seems content to sow confusion, we need to speak with clarity. Where Fiducia Supplicans confounds, may we enlighten.
Pope Francis, like Leo before him, seems to have confounded God’s truth. So, let’s pray for God’s blessing upon Bergoglio, that the Lord would sanctify his devotion and that he would dedicate his service to the building up of the Body of Christ. Let us pray with real concern for his soul, because as a teacher of the faithful, he will incur a stricter judgment and greater condemnation.
Chris Castaldo is lead pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois, and author, with Brad Littlejohn, of Why Do Protestants Convert? (Davenant Press, 2023). He blogs at chriscastaldo.com
This description of Prierias’s response to Luther is drawn from my article, “Did Luther Really Split the Church? https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/did-luther-really-split-the-church/. Used with permission. ↑
B. J. Kidd, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Continental Reformation (Oxford, 1911; reprint, 1970), 31-32. ↑
Luther’s Works, volume 44, p. 133. ↑
Timothy J. Wengert. The Annotated Luther. Vol 1. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 386. ↑
Paul R. Waibel. Martin Luther: A Brief Introduction to His Life and Works (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2005), 51. ↑
Peter Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from One Another? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017), 39. ↑
*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons