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Teaching Authority: Is the Pope the Holy Father?

The Papacy is one of the favorite targets of anti-Catholics. I recently read one who contended that calling him “Holy Father” was the equivalent of calling him God. How anyone can give such silliness any credence is beyond me. The title signifies that the Pope functions as a father to God’s family. He is a visible sign of the unity and authority of the Church founded by Christ. Even though Christ’s true father was almighty God in heaven, is it not beyond a doubt that he treated his foster father Joseph with all the respect one would render such a parent? Sure. Similarly, the Pope functions as a kind of foster father over the People of God. He is the successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ. As the term of unity for the Church, the Pope’s fatherhood is modified with the word holy. The Church is holy, not because of the presence of a sinful membership, but because Christ is holy. He sends his Spirit to sanctify the Church and to safeguard the authority he established. Turning to a more mundane level, all our men should function as holy fathers in their families and in the community. It is an element of male identity which can be amplified by the transformative presence of Christ.

While it is true that the overture, “Holy Father,” is noted in the Scriptures in reference to God, it appears in a passage stressing the unity of God’s people who enter into the divine life and love, itself. Christ is the ultimate term of our peace and unity; however, he has given us teachings, sacraments, and authority to manifest and express these sacred realities. We read in John 17:11-12:

“And I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I am coming to thee. Holy Father, keep in thy name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one even as we are. While I was with them, I kept them in thy name. Those whom thou hast given me I guarded; ….”

Note that he who shares in the one priesthood of Christ, from the lowliest clergyman to the greatest of bishops, accepts unto himself the title of father. This is the pattern given by Christ for his family of believers. Our fatherhood is to make real and to point to the one who is the Father of all. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, we still take seriously the charge of guarding those given to us by God. As Christians, we bear the name of our Lord in our identity and address all our prayers to the Father Most Holy– God in heaven. There is no confusion in the affectionate titles of reverence given priests and Popes and the wondrous Fatherhood of almighty God.

This same critic contended that Catholics look upon the Pope as the Holy Spirit. Absolutely crazy! He concludes this wild idea from the fact that the Pope and Bishops are protected by the Holy Spirit in offering authoritative teaching and interpretation of Scripture. However, Protestants also take sides between conflicting ministerial authorities and publish many tracts and books on religion, even on the internet. If we are only to rely on the Bible and personal interpretation, then logically they should have no books at all; indeed, other than quoting Scripture, it would seem that no minister, even an anti-Catholic one, could tell another believer what he can and cannot believe. Of course, such is not the practice. Every anti-Catholic bigot has made himself into his own Pope– and without the universal authority given by God, I should add.

In seeming opposition to the Catholic position of a divinely established authority to help us properly understand the Scriptures, anti-Catholics like to cite 1 John 2:27:

As for you, the anointing that you received from him remains in you, so that you do NOT NEED anyone to teach you. But his anointing teaches you about everything and is true and not false; just as it taught you, remain in him.

The Catholic Church does not deny the value on a personal basis of invoking the Holy Spirit so that we might remain in the truth. Indeed, there is a traditional prayer to this effect often recited by Catholics before reading the Bible. However, this in itself does not negate the presence and/or need for a universal authority to assist us in the truths of God. The words in this quotation were directed toward many in the Church leadership, too. The admonition of this letter is not against the teaching authority of leaders in the Christian community; after all, John himself who writes this letter under the inspiration of the Spirit is also exerting something of his own authority as an apostle. (Remember, the bishops are successors of these apostles!) The warning in John’s words is to remain faithful to the truth given to you (plural), the Church, as opposed to the heretical teachings of the Gnostics who at that time sought to dilute the membership and to alter the Gospel. Gnostics were a false Christian sect who denied the humanity of Christ. They failed to understand how an earthly Jesus could be revelatory of the Father. John’s words are in defense of the incarnation of Christ as one of us. There is nothing here contrary to Catholic faith.

Mean-spirited, anti-Catholics insinuate that the Pope is the beast of Scripture prophecy and that he is an anti-Christ. This maligning of an office and the men who have filled it is quite tragic. If it were not for the strength of the Popes and the Catholic Church, we would be following the superstitions of the Mongul horde or the religion of the Islamic invaders. So much for thanks! The Popes and the Church have preached Christ crucified for two thousand years; and the price we receive in return, is a share in that crucifixion at the hands of people who claim to follow Jesus. Although originally referring to Gnostics, and not Catholic Christians by any standard, the letter reviewed here does offer some wisdom regarding anti-Christs who oppose the true Church and faith (1 John 2:18-19):

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that the antichrist was coming, so now MANY ANTICHRISTS have appeared. Thus we know this is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of our number; if they had been, they would have remained with us. Their desertion shows that none of them was of our number.

This “last hour” is literally the interim between Christ’s death and resurrection and his second coming. These “antichrists” are adversaries of Christ, false teachers, who distort the faith handed down to us in the Catholic community. Apostate teachers prove their faithlessness by abandoning the true Christian community. Was this not what the original Protestant reformers did a number of centuries ago? Is this not what a number of former Catholics have done in our own day? Certainly it is. We are the Mother Church going back to the early apostolic community. Reformers may have taken a few sacraments and our book, the Bible with them, but their breech was an assault upon the Church of Christ. Again, we find that passages ignorantly quoted by the foes of the Church actually vindicate her reality and mission. Charges of apostasy fall back upon the anti-Catholic pseudo-Popes. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten them to the truth before it is too late.

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