April 11, 2005
Protestants and the Pope
Martin E. Marty
Twenty-five percent of polled Americans "prefer" being Catholic, fifty percent prefer being Protestant/Evangelical, and the rest prefer "other" -- Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Orthodox, or none of the above. How did the Protestant half behave after Pope John Paul II died? I could be blindsided in the time between the early deadline for this column (Wednesday) and its appearance on Monday. It could be that my many, many sources missed something. Help me out if I missed something, too. But among the thousands of column spaces given to the pontiff, I did not find a single inch of print showing Protestants attacking the pope or Catholicism.
Of course, some Protestants may have made incidental generic criticisms of some papal policies, but they were not as severe as Catholic criticisms. Beyond that, of course, you can find some creepy, crawly commentators at the outer edges of cyberspatial blogs. They represent no one and report to no one.
From this I draw a conclusion, one that I hope the past week reinforces. These years, there is very little criticism of Catholicism and the pope from the Protestant half of America. And I formed a resolve: henceforth not to pay much attention to any attention-grabbing Catholic defense leagues. Weigh in -- as I have not -- against vouchers that Catholics might use for parochial education, or join millions of Catholics in criticizing policies that have political implications (such as banning birth control education) and you get tabbed as a Catholic-hater. This past week's responses by grieving Protestants robbed defense leagues of credibility. Americans can resume political debate across denominational lines, and criticize each other without being accused of being "anti-."
Why, you ask those of us with long memories, is the absence of Protestant sniping today not being remarked on? First, for doctrinal reasons: That the pope is the antichrist -- official teaching in historic confessions of many Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, etc. bodies -- remains on the books of some who have not tidied up these old statements. But some Lutherans who still have the pope as antichrist on the books now address him or speak of him as "dear brother in Christ," seeing him as an ally, for example, in opposing laws allowing for abortion.
More on why it is unremarkable: Note that most criticism over the papacy's slowness and lightness in respect to the priestly abuse scandal or any number of other churchly issues comes from Catholics, not Protestants. These issues are seen as in-house Catholic affairs by outsiders who live in glass houses.
Still more on why it is unremarkable that Protestants didn't exploit the moment to go public with attacks on the pope, the papacy, and Catholicism: The combination of good manners and social graces during mourning periods after losses through death evokes natural empathy for the mourning family. Even mild critics hold their fire. There were tears and sympathy and silence.
What is remarkable is the degree to which suspicion of the papacy, criticism of the popes, and attacks on their persons have diminished thanks to ecumenical bonds among mainstream Protestants and Catholics -- and also thanks to political alliances and moral coalitions among Evangelicals and Catholics, who saw the pope at the pinnacle being a favored figure.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.