Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1994.
This book by the current Pope consists of a series of questions asked by journalist Vettorio Messori along with the Pope’s answers. Although displaying a learned broad philosophical background, the Pope in this book attempts to speak directly and simply to all people. His basic message is “be not afraid.”
The book is useful in that it gives a brief down to earth summary of the Roman Catholic faith as it exists today. We Reformed young people are accustomed to hearing about the Roman church and doctrines as they came to light in the Reformation. Perhaps we wonder whether Rome has changed since then and our understanding outdated. This book makes it clear that things have not changed and that the gulf between us is not getting any narrower. Even the Pope himself confesses this.
In this review I will summarize the questions and what I understand to be the heart of his somewhat long and drawn out answers, and then give some commentary. The first question asked is “Do you really think you are the Vicar of Jesus Christ i.e. the man on earth who represents the Son of God, who takes the place of the Second Person of the-omnipotent God of the Trinity?” To this weighty matter that would make any man who should bear such a position tremble, the pope says “be not afraid.” He points out that such titles are embedded deep in the tradition of the church and “one must not be afraid of words” (6). He then argues that in a sense “Christ brings about a special presence in every priest,” and that the title serves only to give dignity to each priest and each of the baptized. He says that the idea of the pope as the Vicar of Christ is a mystery and it is expected that this concept be “a sign that will be contradicted” (cf. Lk 2:34) (p. 11).
This response is the classic Roman Catholic response: Don’t worry about it (since you are just one of the laity and not a clergy), the church has always believed it since its hazy early history, and here is a text to prove that such mysteries are hard to swallow.
The next question is “how do you pray for everyone?” To which he responds, “the Holy Spirit helps me.” He explains that he prays for all the church as one community.
Q. Can (and how can) one come to the conclusion that God really exists? A. Basically his simple answer is that the church simply believes in Christ. After some lengthy philosophical discussion, he concludes “Our faith is profoundly anthropological, rooted constitutively in coexistence, in the community of God’s people, and in communion with this eternal THOU” (36). Basically, what he is saying is that one cannot think adequately about man without reference to God. It is an argument for the existence of God from the experience of man.
Q. If God exists, why is He hiding? A. The pope answers that God is a mystery because we are creatures. Nevertheless, God reveals Himself in the man Jesus Christ and is really not hiding. The pope hits on some key points in his answer but says nothing in this context about our fallen state and sin or revelation in the Word of God.
Q. Is Jesus the Son of God, it seems like a very radical claim? A. The pope points out that the wonder of this radical claim was recognized by the apostle Paul. He says that Jesus is indeed unlike Muhammad, Socrates, or Buddha, and points to the Nicene Creed which clearly teaches that Jesus is the Son of God.
Q. Did a God who is a loving Father really need to sacrifice cruelly His own Son? A. This question is raised in the heart of man and expressed by many philosophers but we must remember that only God and nothing in creation can give salvation. The ultimate answer to this question lies in the will of God. I find it surprising that the pope says nothing here about God’s justice.
Q. Why is there so much evil in the world? A. God in His wisdom and love desires to justify Himself to mankind and therefore places Himself before the judgment of man so that man sees his own guilt in all this evil but also knows that Christ suffers with us. This language of God justifying Himself is strange and stands in contrast to the Reformed teaching of God revealing His justice in the punishment of sin.
Q. Why does God tolerate suffering? A. Because God reveals Himself as always being on the side of the suffering and the cross reveals His love.
Q. What is salvation? A. To liberate from the evil of death and bring happiness in union with God. In elaboration on this answer, the pope says, “God has embraced all men by the Cross and the Resurrection of His Son” (74). This doctrine of salvation is at the heart of our condemnation of Rome and comes up again in another question later in the book. The pope also says that the sacraments “create in man the seed of eternal life” (75). This teaching stands in contrast to the Reformed doctrine the God works regeneration in the heart of infants and adults by the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit in close connection with the preaching of the Word of God.
Q. Why are there so many different religions? A. All religions manifest the working of the Holy Spirit in humanity as God gradually leads humanity to Christ. There is a common fundamental element and root in all religions and “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions,” nevertheless, Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and man that ultimately there is salvation only in Christ. The pope then analyzes some of the major religions and says of Buddhism that it is Gnostic and in conflict with all that is essentially Christian. The Roman church has a high regard for Muhammadanism because of their piety in prayer. However, they view God only in his majesty and never as Emmanuel. The pope expresses a desire for dialogue with the Muslims. The Roman Church experiences cordial relations with Judaism and is drawing closer.
Q. Why is God allowing Catholics to become a minority in the world? (By the year 2000 AD. Moslems will outnumber Catholics.) A. Numbers are not important; “we are speaking of values which are not quantifiable” (102). When Christ says “fear not little flock” he means that success is not easy. The point that the pope is making here is that the world in general is getting better morally and becoming more like Christians and eventually the Roman church will be able to extend its structure over them all.
Q. What is the “New Evangelism” of which you frequently speak? A. The new challenges we face as the church in obedience to the command of God spreads the gospel. “If the world is not Catholic from a denominational point of view, it is nonetheless profoundly permeated by the Gospel. We can say that the mystery of the Church, the body of Christ, is in some way invisibly present in it.” Really this response can also be applied to the, question before this one and reveals that Roman church is trying to fit its doctrine that the structure of the Roman Church is the true church to the pious people who do not claim to be under that structure.
Q. Is there any hope in the youth? A. Yes, as is evident in the “World Youth Days” organizations in which we see that the young are searching for God.
Q. Is only Rome right? A. Yes, though others have truth in so far as they have some relation with Rome: The Church as the Body of Christ is an instrument of salvation. “Man is saved in the Church by being brought into the Mystery of the Divine Trinity, in the mystery of intimate life with God” (131). “Besides a formal membership in the Church, the sphere of salvation can also include other forms of relation to the Church” (140). “Although the Catholic Church knows that it has received the fullness of the means of salvation, it rejoices when other Christian communities join her in preaching the gospel” (141). This is a spiritual mystery and goes beyond our understanding, yet the fact remains that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church (141).
Q. Is Ecumenism possible? A. What unites is greater than what separates. Unity is desired by most and we find our hope in the truth that God will finish His plan. Even so, Rome acknowledges that the gape with the Reformed is serious because “several fundamental elements established by Christ were not respected” (148). I find it interesting that the pope does not directly accuse us of false doctrine which is really the issue.
Q. Why does the Holy Spirit permit division? A. Perhaps to discover in it the wealth of the gospel, though this is no excuse for division.
Q. Did the Council (Second Vatican) open the doors so that people could enter or exit the Church? (N. B. by “doors” is meant the Council’s opening up “dialogue of salvation” with all religions). A. The main emphasis of the Council is “the great synthesis” and a sense of unity in the world (164).
Q. Is the Church failing in light of the fact that the world is not accepting certain teachings on morals? A. The Church’s new focus on the people rather than the institution reveals a need to reexamine the rigid schemata. Yet we must see that those who do follow the teachings are not merely doing it in a superficial way as many did in the past.
Q. Do heaven, purgatory, and hell still exist? A. It is true that there is not much preaching on these matters today. That is due in large part to the secularism which desensitizes the people to eschatology. We are also stumped by the question “If God desires to save all, can He damn?” This is a mystery and perhaps all we can say is that some purification is necessary and at least it is good for man’s conscience while in earth.
In this answer it is plain that Rome denies eternal election and reprobation and is essentially Arminian. There is no comfort for the believer who knows his sin in a theology in which God only desires to save. When a church becomes weak on God’s sovereignty in salvation, then it moves closer to Rome.
Q. What is the use of faith if it is possible to live an honest and upright life without it?
A. “[W]e can say that the essential usefulness of faith consists in the fact that, through faith, man achieves the good of his rational nature. And he achieves it by giving his response to God, as is his duty-a duty not only to God, but also to himself.
“Christ did everything in order to convince us of the importance of this response. Man is called upon to give this response with inner freedom so that it will radiate that veritatis splendor so essential to human dignity” (192).
[I]f a life is truly upright it is because the Gospel, not known and therefore not rejected on a conscious level, is in reality already at work in the depths of the person who searches for the truth with honest effort and who willingly accepts it as soon as it becomes known to him. Such willingness is, in fact, a manifestation of grace at work in the soul. The Spirit blows where He wills and as He wills (cf. Jn 3:8). The freedom of the Spirit meets the freedom of man and fully confirms it.
This clarification was necessary in order to avoid any danger of a Pelagian interpretation. This danger already existed in the time of Saint Augustine, and seems to be surfacing again in our time. Pelagius asserted that even without divine grace, man could lead a good and nappy life. Divine grace, therefore, was not necessary for him. But the truth is that man is actually called to salvation; that a good life is the condition of salvation; and that salvation cannot be attained without the help of grace.
Ultimately, only God can save man, but He expects man to cooperate. That fact that man can cooperate with God determines his authentic greatness. The truth according to which man is called to cooperate with God in all things, with a view toward the ultimate purpose of his life-his salvation and divination-found expression in the Eastern tradition in the doctrine of synergism. With God, man “creates” the world; with God, man “creates” his personal salvation. The divinization of man comes from God. But here, too, man must cooperate with God (194-195).
The continual emphasis by Rome on the inherent dignity of man is a denial of total depravity and thus an entirely new life in Christ. A spiritually dead man does not cooperate with God. One who believes such teachings does not know himself, the wonder of salvation, or the great love of God. The idea that man can cooperate with God puts man on God’s level, blurs the distinction between the Creator and the creature, and reflects the desire of Adam to challenge God’s command and seek a salvation in which he has some say.
The pope speaks of a work of grace in the heart of man that makes him willing to seek God. But this grace is not a saving power, but only a helping power that can be rendered ineffectual by the will of man. Only the Reformed doctrine of sovereign grace exalts our God and takes away all boasting in ourselves. All our boasting, rejoicing, and giving of thanks is in Christ. That is true thanksgiving and leads to the knowledge of God’s love and righteousness.
The pope then answers some questions regarding the right to life. If we listen to the news we know that the pope opposes abortion and fights for human rights. In conclusion, the pope answers some interesting questions regarding Mariolotry.
Q. What can you tell us about your devotion to Mary?
A. “[T]rue devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric, indeed, it is very profoundly rooted in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity. …Mary is the new Eve, placed by God in close relation to Christ, the new Adam, beginning with the Annunciation, through the night of His birth in Bethlehem, through the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee, through the Cross at Calvary, and up to the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Mother of Christ the Redeemer is the Mother of the Church.
The Second Vatican Council made great strides forward with regard to both Marian doctrine and devotion (213).
The solemn Marian procession, which takes place before the solemnity of the Assumption, is nothing else but the expression of faith of the Christian people that the Mother of God shares in a unique way in the Resurrection and in the Glory of her own Son (214).
According to Rome, not only does each man have a significant role in his own salvation, Mary does also as something of a partner with Christ. Just as Christ is the new Adam, so Mary is the new Eve. It would be interesting to study the “great strides” made in this doctrine by the Council. Once more we see how Rome takes salvation away from Christ who according to Scripture and the Reformed Creeds is the only Saviour.
Significant also is the statement that Mary is “the Mother of the Church.” The pope elaborates on this idea somewhat when asked why he says “be not afraid.” He says:
Mary’s participation in the victory of Christ became clear to me above all from the experience of my people. Cardinal Stefan Wyszunski told me that his predecessor, Cardinal August Hlond, had spoken these prophetic words as he was dying: “The victory, if it comes, will come through Mary.” During my pastoral ministry in Poland, I saw for myself how those words were coming true.
After my election as Pope, as I became more involved in the problems of the universal Church, I came to have a similar conviction: On this universal level, if victory comes it will be brought by Mary. Christ will conquer through her, because He wants the Church’s victories now and in the future to be linked to her (220- 221).
The pope clearly ties Mary close to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. It seems to me that though the pope speaks of respect for other religions and denominations, his desire is that the instituted Roman church alone will eventually rule in an earthly way.
Rome is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a shepherd who comes into the fold in a way other than the Door. The people of God find no comfort in the words of a pope who must frantically whisper to the scattering sheep “don’t be afraid!” Our only comfort is found in Christ alone. Christ speaks through the pure preaching of His Word directly to the heart of men, women and children who know themselves to be sinners. In Christ alone we come to know the great love of God for His chosen people.
John is a member of Randolph Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin.