I am a Protestant. Not only a Protestant, but an evangelical. And not only an evangelical, but a Calvinist. In short, I have no love for the Papacy. I do not believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, nor is he in any meaningful sense the successor of the Apostle Peter. When it comes to Christian doctrine, especially the gospel, the Papacy obscures rather than illuminating the truth of Scripture.
Having established my Reformation bona fides, however, I do believe the Pope serves a different kind of role in modern Western culture, an important role that he is uniquely suited for.
Due to all the papal fervor in the news after Benedict XVI’s resignation I started reading one of his many books, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. In it, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger carefully lays out a cultural and philosophical critique of the Enlightenment and her children, modernity and secularism. He makes a persuasive case for Christianity as both a philosophical grounding for science and ethics and a cultural powerhouse, enabling creativity and promoting a freedom that is not self-destructive.
This is the sort of apologetics that many Christians, especially evangelicals, are becoming accustomed to. Events and programs geared toward “defending the faith” are on the rise, spearheaded by institutions such as Biola. The difficulty that such programs are encountering today is that fewer people are listening. Increasingly people inhabit niche entertainment bubbles that are difficult to break through. Between Netflix and RSS feeds, daily media consumption is made to order. Major news outlets such as the New York Times or NBC, which still have some residual power to cut into these bubbles, are not likely to cover the latest William Lane Craig debate. And yet one thing these same outlets cannot seem to get enough of is the Roman Catholic church. This isn’t surprising. Left leaning news organizations love to hate Christianity, and Catholics provide the easiest target. The Catholic church is the largest and most visible single organization that claims to represent Christianity. Moreover they are monolithic, such that a reporter can reasonably expect to get “the Catholic answer” to some question. In contrast, you can speak to 100 different Protestant pastors and reasonably expect 100 different answers.
In short, the unique standing of Roman Catholicism on the world stage provides its leader, the Pope, with a unique platform; the true bully pulpit.
Again, I would not actively promote Catholic dogma, but when the Pope is addressing the entire world, especially non-Christians, he tends to speak more broadly and philosophically, and not dogmatically. In Crisis of Cultures, Ratzinger does not address at length the bodily assumption of Mary, as that would be counter productive. He instead focuses on the common heritage of the West against modern secularism and Islam, which includes some ancient Greek and Roman thought as well as “Judeo-Christianity.”
And this is what I have in mind for the Pope’s unique role. Rather than the actual head of the Christian church, which he is not, I view the Pope as a kind of figurehead of Western civilization. The bar for this position is set decidedly lower than for the head of the church. Just as I don’t worry too much about the specific doctrinal beliefs of the US President, It doesn’t matter much whether the “Head of Western Civilization” is a Calvinist or Arminian, Paedobaptist or Credobaptist. Basically, he only needs to be a Trinitarian and a Platonist (to some extent) in the vein of Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, or C. S. Lewis. Even the Trinity is not strictly necessary, since the broader Western tradition includes Jews and some of the ancients as well as Christians, but I would argue that it was Christianity specifically that produced the art, science and political thought of the modern Western world. Popes also tend to have the benefits of first rate intellects and educations, else they aren’t likely to be elevated to such high positions.
All of this, then, gives us a man who has a solid grounding in the best philosophical aspects of the Western heritage, combined with social and moral teachings that all traditional Christians and Jews agree with, and he has the largest and most visible platform of any public figure in the world. There are obvious drawbacks to a monolithic organization like the Catholic church, as the recent sex abuse scandals make clear. Such problems can be overcome, however, and the moral and intellectual authority of the Pope does not rest on any supposed claim to perfection. Instead, this authority rests upon the power and persuasiveness of the ideas to which the Pope appeals and seeks to defend. The ideas of the West.
Thus, when we consider the cultural battle lines being drawn between the heritage of the West and the forces of postmodern secularism, atheism, radical feminism, etc, I think evangelicals can recognize the important role of the Pope on a cultural and sometimes political level without giving into the error of trying to erase all doctrinal distinctinves (or pretending that they do not matter), undoing the important work of the Reformation. We can join hapily in the public square with Roman Catholics on issues like abortion, just as we would with Orthodox Jews or Muslims, without pretending that we are all one church with an identical gospel. And we do so recognizing that the Pope provides us all with a powerful voice; one that Western culture desperately needs.