a right to be wrong

Rod Dreher has written an essay which should be read by anyone who is offended by Pope Benedict’s statement earlier this month (MSNBC story here). That statement reaffirmed ancient Roman Catholic teaching: that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true and complete Christian church.

Dreher’s central thesis? It’s far better for denominations to make forthright truth claims while still respecting the rights of others, rather than going along with the current “I’m OK, you’re OK” pap that passes for ecumenicism. Or, in sound-bite terms, “people have a right to be wrong about God.” From his essay:

Good relations among believers must be built, but only on a foundation of honesty. It does not follow that acknowledging theological differences – particularly the exclusive correctness of one church or religion – therefore requires a program enacting political or social superiority. In fact, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed that religious freedom is a fundamental human right. Acknowledging that people have a right to be wrong about God is a moral breakthrough for humanity, an idea that should be spread.

This is both powerful, and a little troubling. If I am wrong about what God expects of me on this earth, am I not in danger of eternal damnation? My gut reaction is, “yes, I am.” And therein lies the problems of this two-edged sword.

On the one side, we must accept that human beings have free will, and will choose how, or even if, to worship God (ignoring, for the moment, some elements of Calvinism dealing with God’s predestination of who, precisely, among us shall use their free will to choose correctly).

On the other side, we are all sinners, and often use our free will wrongly. What’s wrong with a church making exclusive truth claims? Doesn’t this help us to decide? It certainly can, and, with Rod Dreher, I respect a man, or a church, that stands up and forthrightly tells us what he or it believes to be true.

With the Catholic Church, however, its triumphalism has to be measured against its past, during which the same claim was made. And during which many, many “heretics” were tortured, punished, and put to death for the alleged sin of disbelief. Sorry, Benedict. We’ve heard this song before, and I won’t dance to it.

Now, I don’t believe that Benedict, or most other leaders of the Roman Church would bring back those bad old days. And I can’t make any statement about whether a Catholic will be damned for his beliefs. Some things are just beyond a mortal man’s reach.

So I won’t repeat the error of the Catholic church’s triumphalism. Let me just say that my statement to the Pope must be, “thanks for the tip, il papa, but I think I’ll just go my own Protestant way.”


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