Once we make peace with the fact that we’re not all Jews like Jesus was, we must ask the next question: Why aren’t we all Catholics? For the first 1,500 years of Christianity, every Christian was Catholic. There were no Baptists. There were only Catholics, Jews and Muslims. Nobody ever heard of Methodists, Presbyterians or Lutherans. If a Christian had a question he sent it to Rome and the pope answered it. They had a Latin phrase: Roma Locuta Est, Causa Finita Est, “Rome has spoken, the case is closed.” That worked until 1517 when a Catholic monk named Martin Luther said: Not on your life!
Monks come in two forms. Cloistered monks, like our Trappists in Conyers, stay inside the monastery walls as librarians or run the monastery farm. Non-cloistered monks, like our Franciscan Friars in Macon, work outside their monastery as teachers or parish priests. But both take the same vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and live a communal life together. Father Martin was a non-cloistered monk and he taught theology in the local university, but he broke his vow of obedience when he said no to the pope.
Father Martin understood his Catholic theology. He believed in purgatory, heaven and hell. When a person died in mortal sin, he went to hell, and when a person died without any sin at all, he went straight to heaven. But when there were some imperfections — not bad enough to go to hell and not good enough to enter heaven — he went to a fiery place called purgatory to burn a while. But that “while” could last for a long time. So, over the years, the popes had instituted the practice of selling indulgences to Catholics so they could get daddy released from purgatory and shot up to heaven.
But Father Martin said “No.” He wrote 95 reasons why the selling of indulgences was nothing but a papal trick to get money. For three years, the pope (who was infallible, remember) sent cardinals to argue with this disobedient monk, but nobody could change his mind. Finally, in 1520, the pope released the document of excommunication, throwing him out of the church. Martin Luther burned the document in Wittenberg’s town square while his students cheered, and the Protestant Reformation was born.
Obviously, the Christian world was ready and waiting for this change. One man could not overthrow a dynasty like the Catholic church in a vacuum. Martin Luther could not create a whole new Christian church after 1,500 years of being the only church in town, unless Christians were ready for it.
Protest was in the air. Men like Erasmus and Melanchthon and Zwingli and Calvin found Catholics eager to listen to new ideas; new ways to follow Christ and not the pope. A talented linguist named William Tyndale translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into readable English and it became the ancestor of the King James version.
The protest worked and Protestantism thrived.
But wait a minute! How could Protestants say that belief in the Trinity is necessary for salvation – but not belief in the infallibility of the pope? Weren’t both just as necessary? Erick Ericson, a good Presbyterian, has written:
“There are religions that consider themselves non-Trinitarian Christians, but 1,900 years of Christian orthodoxy removes this matter from dispute.”
But what about 1,900 years of Christian orthodoxy which has always proclaimed that the pope is infallible when speaking as the representative of Christ? Aren’t Catholics Christians, and wouldn’t their unbroken years of orthodoxy remove this matter from dispute? It ain’t easy to be a Christian.