Christianity's Debt to the Vatican
by Daniel C. Peterson and William J. Hamblin
Meridian Magazine
http://www.ldsmag.com

What should be our attitude toward the Church of Rome? Belonging, as we do, to a movement that we believe to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which ... the Lord [is] well pleased” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:30), what are we to think?

We clearly disagree with important elements in the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. But it should not be forgotten that we also agree, profoundly, with very much in what Rome teaches.

We can agree with our Catholic brothers and sisters that, as St. Augustine wrote, our hearts are restless until they rest in God, that salvation is in Christ, that chastity and fidelity are divine commandments and essential to healthy families and societies, that the destiny of humankind is eternal. We can even agree with them on the importance of divine authority — although, manifestly, we have a different view of where that authority resides.

Amidst all the magnificence of St. Peter’s, it is impossible to miss the omnipresent representations of Peter’s apostolic keys or to overlook the Latin version of Matthew 16:18-19 that runs in giant letters around the interior of Michelangelo’s dome. Like the Catholics, but unlike most Protestants, we understand how significant those keys are.

But, of course, from our perspective, the Catholic bishops of Rome lack those all-important keys. Instead, the authority those keys represent resides far away from the ancient city of Rome, in a relatively young, obscure, and insignificant city in the American Great Basin. This is an unexpected fact when it is considered against the background of Vatican splendor. But it will seem much less odd when we recall that the Vatican is what it is today because, nearly two thousand years ago, a humble Galilean fisherman, called to discipleship in a tiny provincial village backwater and then transformed by experiences with his resurrected Master, was martyred and buried near the Circus of Nero on ancient Rome’s Vatican Hill. (It is virtually certain that the tomb of Peter lies, as tradition has always claimed, beneath the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.)

Our Debt to the Vatican

For Latter-day Saints, this is what it may come down to: The popes may well be, in a very real sense, the successors to the first Christian bishops in Rome. Authentic priesthood authority was lost many centuries ago, doctrines and practices have been deformed over time, and, since bishops do not carry apostolic authority, we cannot recognize the Roman pontiff as the heir to the full authority of the apostle Peter.

But we can respect many of the popes as men who — with certain spectacular but relatively rare exceptions — struggled sincerely and faithfully to keep Christianity alive, as they understood it, under often trying conditions. When the ancient apostles were removed, local bishops and other leaders were left to do the best they could. When the eastern Roman Empire abandoned Italy and the West to the barbarians, the bishop of Rome represented a link to the lost order and civilization of the ancient world, a rallying point for those who yearned for better days. When the prominent bishoprics of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and the other ancient sees fell under the rule of Islam, the bishop of Rome remained as the preeminent symbol of Christendom.

It was the Roman Catholic Church that preserved much of the art and literature of the ancient world, that fostered great art and music and philosophy and education through centuries often wrongly called “dark.” Many terrible things were done in the name of Christianity, but so was untold goodness.

For all this and much more, everyone who values Western civilization, and all, including the Latter-day Saints, who treasure the Bible, Christian faith, and societies that are, at least partially, built upon Christian principles, are indebted to the Church of Rome and to its popes.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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