Under the regime of the late Pope John XXIII the Roman Catholic Church took on a new face. To be a bit more accurate I should perhaps call it a changed face. Reflecting the disposition and character of the genial pontiff, the Church took on a much more friendly face than it was accustomed to manifest.
The face of the Roman Catholic Church has generally seemed to me to be a rather forbidding one. It seemed to bear almost a haughty expression. There is but one true Church, this image said, and there is no hope for men out· side it; all who knowingly reject this true and only Church are lost, are heretics. The face seemed cold and unkind toward all who belonged to some other Christian communion. This cold face was sometimes accompanied by a harsh hand that dealt oppressively and even cruelly with those who witnessed for Christ outside of “the Church.” This image, with its strain of hauteur, suggested arrogant unconcern for the attitudes and opinions of others. After all, the image seemed to say, the Church is the continuing apostolic citadel of truth and grace. Since the truth is of and from Rome, uttered with an infallible voice from the Vatican, why should the Church pay any heed to those who speak only from their own ignorance and vanity?
Today the face is different. It is much less forbidding. We who in the past have been regarded and dealt with as unworthy heretics are now spoken of as “separated brethren.” A cautious air of friendliness appears in many of the utterances from Rome. Protestant observers were welcomed to the Vatican Council II. Here and there Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars are engaging in theological conversations. Yes, there has even been a friendly gesture to· ward those arch-foes of the Church, the Communists.
Not long ago I had an interesting experience with this new friendliness. A Roman Catholic spokesman addressed a group of Protestant young people. The speaker obviously represented this new attitude and ingratiatingly sought to present the Roman Catholic Church, its posture and its teachings, in a most attractive light. He was plainly disturbed when, during the question period, I read to him from a children’s catechism book bearing the Imprimatur of the Bishop of Grand Rapids of the year 1953. The questions and answers that troubled him were these:
Q. Is it right to belong to a Protestant Church?
A. No, not for people who know better.
Q. Is it a sin for us to go to Protestant services?
A. Yes, because we do not belong there. Also because they do not serve God exactly as He wishes to be served.
But this was written before John XXIII and the new face. What does the new face mean? Does it mean a change of heart? What do those think of this new friendliness who have experienced the harsh and cruel oppressiveness of the Church in South America and Spain? What does that missionary in the Orient think who told me that the Roman Catholic Church was a far more troublesome and ruthless foe of their efforts than were the Communists?
Has there been a change of heart? Has there been a change at that very center of Roman Catholic faith where the freedom and finality of God’s grace in Christ is denied? Has there been a basic change at the crucial point where the teaching of God‘s Word becomes subordinate to the tradition of the Church?
Has there been a change of heart? Or is a change of heart slowly developing? Or should another question be asked? Should we ask whether the Roman Catholic Church has caught the spirit of the age and is developing an aware· ness of techniques whereby she may win friends and influence people? Has the Vatican come under the influence of public relations experts?
These are questions that we sons and daughters of the Protestant Reformation must ask as we seek to assess the new face of the Roman Catholic Church. These questions must be asked honestly. These questions must be asked searchingly, for every Christian must love the Church of Jesus Christ. If this new face is even a hint that the Spirit of God is stirring in the ancient and encrusted strongholds of Rome, let every sincere Christian take careful note and pray. Let him pray that God’s Spirit may work mightily in his Church so that his grace and truth may shine with new splendor and freedom and power. Let him also pray for a spirit of understanding and love.
As we thus look at the new face of the Roman Catholic Church, we must above all remain deeply and intelligently loyal to those imperishable principles that made the Reformation the tremendous movement of the Spirit that it was. It must be our conviction that these are imperishable principles because they are the living and abiding voice of that Word of Truth on which and by which the Church is built. It is by this Word of Truth and by it alone that we must test the meaning of this new face. The Roman Catholic Church has a disconcerting record of putting on different faces to meet varying circumstances, with no change of heart involved. Is this just another such mask? Or does it mean that belatedly the light of the Reformation is beginning to dawn on the hills of Rome?
The question is a complex one. And it is as yet too early to hazard an answer. Let the Church of the Reformation keep the question in view and patiently seek an answer as loving servants of Jesus Christ and His abiding Word.