Sometimes even I, Protestant though my bones be, wish for a pope—someone to solve all our hermeneutical difficulties and differences. In my favor, of course. But in exchange for the perfect unity a magisterial teaching authority would give us all, I would be willing to be found wrong a few times.
Unity, however, is not what a pope actually provides. Conservative Catholics have all the problems conservative evangelicals do—worldliness, ignorance, and nominalism among themselves and liberalism and heterodoxy on their left wing. They also have another problem: a pope. Now in addition to disagreements over what the Bible says (if they read it—not all Catholics [or evangelicals] do), they have disagreements over what the pope and church tradition say.
Excellent conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is now in an argument with a liberal Catholic, an argument which puts on display what I mean:
Part of the point of being Catholic, I would have thought, is that we don’t have to keep having these arguments anew in every generation, like a megachurch in the midst of a succession crisis or coping with a superstar pastor’s theological drift; rather, we can treat past teaching as essentially reliable, and indeed treating past teaching as reliable is essential to what being Catholic means.
Douthat makes some telling points against evangelicalism here; but the second part of his paragraph suggests to me that the grass is not any greener across the Tiber.
I admit to broad-brushing—though I’m dipping my brush into many years of experience and observation, but one of the reasons I’m not Catholic is that Protestants do genuinely do a better job of teaching the Bible to their people. I just said that evangelicals have all the problems Catholics do, but those problems don’t come in the same amounts and proportions. There are many nominal evangelicals in the South (I’ve met them here in the PNW, too), but the stats in, for example, Roman Catholic sociologist Christian Smith’s book Soul-Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, demonstrate that biblical literacy and retention of youth really are higher in churches which place an emphasis on preaching the Bible. Go to a Catholic church service and the high point and climax, the real focus and weight, will be placed on the eucharist. Go to a Protestant service, even the worst of them, and the high point is the sermon—a sermon that at least professes to be from the Bible. Praise and Worship time may be threatening to take over the sermon in many Protestant churches, especially the really big ones, but it hasn’t done so yet. All in all, I feel safest in a tradition which stubbornly holds on to the Bible, a culture in which “The Bible says” is the ultimate trump card, even if arguments about the exact significance of that card never quite go away.
The Bible does give teaching authority to pastors (Heb 13:17, etc.). But given its warnings about wolves—and Paul’s warning in Acts 20 that wolves will arise from among the very elders of the church—Christians will always bear a responsibility to read the Bible for themselves. I say, don’t risk your soul by going to a church (Catholic or Protestant) which undermines that responsibility, a church where tradition is an authority rather than a resource.