Foundations Matter

Posted on October 12, 2013 by


Pope Francis continued to make surprising statements recently by suggesting that God would grant forgiveness to atheists as long as they followed their consciences. “Sin,” he said, “even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience.” Pope Francis has not maintained his predecessor’s more conservative stance on issues of faith or the application of church doctrine to social issues. More importantly, the Pope commented, “the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience.” Given the Roman Catholic Church’s historic position that it holds the keys to heaven, these statements certainly must cause some Catholics to scratch their heads. (Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin has certainly attempted to impact how readers interpret the Pope’s comments.) It was the church’s vehemence on this issue that was a major factor in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther and other major reformers took issue with the source (or sources) of authority that the Church relied upon in addressing matters of faith and practice. The Reformers argued for sola scriptura or Scripture as the only authority on matters of faith. The Roman Catholic Church sees Scripture as an authority, but there are others including tradition and the teachings of the Popes. While these recent statements may not be considered official or spoken as Catholic theologians might say, ex cathedra, they certainly raise questions simply because of their source. If applied to another scenario, it would not be hard to arrive at the conclusion that the faithful adherent of another faith, who is following his or her conscience, would receive God’s forgiveness. This might apply to Protestants or Buddhists or Muslims. It is not hard then, to see just how controversial these statements are. This is especially apparent when considered in light of the Church’s past position of requiring forgiveness to be dispensed by priests through confession and the dispersion of grace through the Eucharist.
While this is a significant theological discussion, it may seem oddly out of place for this blog. Let me take this discussion a step further before I make application. The Pope’s comments seem oddly in line with the postmodern milieu in which we live. While many debate exactly what postmodernism is, at the very least it is fair to say that the postmodern milieu is suspicious of exclusive worldviews and questioning of the notion of absolute truth. Interestingly, the Pope shied away from a direct defense of absolute truth in the same interview, preferring instead to refer to truth as “a relationship.” This allusion certainly has a ring of veracity for Christians because of the recognition that forgiveness is found in relationship with Christ, but the absolute truth of Christ’s deity, for example, cannot be ignored in the discussion of relationship. Regardless, my point is that the significance of the Pope’s comments cannot be overemphasized. Either the Church is the purveyor of the truth or it is not. Either the Church has been correct about the nature of salvation historically, or it has not. If the Pope’s words can be taken at face value, then the Church has been wrong historically and salvation, however you define it, is a product of consistency to one’s conscience. If this is the Pope’s position, what has happened to the foundation of the Catholic faith? What kind of god would have no concern for how he was portrayed by men and find all religions, however heinous, acceptable?
So what is the application for this blog? I believe that ultimately, men act on what they believe in most deep down inside. As a result, political action is the result of what voters ultimately believe is most important. Given the machinations of human reason, it seems somehow reasonable to recognize that absolute truth is held as a matter of faith. That truth, then, becomes the foundation for action. Our Founding Fathers understood this element of man and assumed that the republican form of government would only function well if men recognized that the common good was worth pursuing. The various political sides might disagree on how best to achieve it, but there had to be some common sense of what is good to pursue. If the Pope is correct, and truth is found only in one’s conscience, then there is no basis for common religious enterprise. Every man can do what is right in his own eyes. We have seen far too much of this in history to truly believe this is what God intended. In the political arena in our own country, we seem to have a similar problem in our understanding of what politics is designed to achieve. Currently, both parties seem to be comprised of a preponderance of individuals who are simply pursuing what is right in their own eyes. Those who stand up and suggest that truth ought to impact what both parties are doing are somehow seen as ideologues or uncompromising. Someone suggesting that the country simply cannot continue to function without a budget or going further into unlimited debt becomes the infidel because he dared to say there was some standard or absolute to which all sides were beholden. Surely the democratic process our country has thrived on for over 235 years has been predicated on the idea that there was something more than just the individual consciences of men to consider. The chaos and confusion of our current congressional morass seems to suggest a loss of that concept.
While I am not a Catholic, it disturbs me that the leader of this historic religious institution has given up the high ground. I believe that the Protestant Reformers were right when they sought to return the Church to the sole authority of Scripture. That kept men and their consciences out of the equation. It placed truth on the level of an authority to be revered, not molded by individual whims. It seems both the Catholic Church and our democratic system are struggling without foundations.