Words of praise ring around the world for Pope John Paul II following his death on April 2. Both secular and religious authorities around the world are celebrating the life of Karol Wojtyla, the birth name of the late Roman Bishop. It is not surprising that all official voices are celebrating his life, since ours is a culture that praises nearly everyone from a safe distance. And there is no safer distance than in the grave. Days before, some of the same sources who decried the Pope's stance on the Terry Schiavo case are even now praising him for a life of peace-making and moral leadership.
Setting that cultural shift aside for a moment, I've noticed another interesting feature of today's religious landscape. Somewhere along the way, the conservative Protestant church began to set aside centuries' long animosity toward the papacy and have been talking in some positive tones about the Roman Catholic church for some time.
This is no small achievement. In seminary, I read about the massive fear and paranoia surrounding the mysterious, powerful, and world-spanning Catholic church. Some of this paranoia was perpetuated and sacramentalized by both liberal and conservative Protestant churches throughout the fledgling United States. By turns, they believed the Catholic church was a secret society a la Da Vinci Code ready to assume power on earth and bring about the apocalypse. Their anti-Catholic propaganda would be amusing to read if it wasn't tied to people's actual fears.
Later in American church history, the liberal mainline churches, having ejected much traditional thought about nearly everything once considered Christian, began to extend open hands toward the Catholic church in hopes of reaching some sort of relative consensus, but eventually could not, since the Catholic church remained rigid on certain things, such as sexual morality and biblical authority. While the liberal mainline continued to lose steam in America, a new consortium of conservative cross-denominational groups was on the rise, the so-called fundamentalists. Arising out of a frontier movement of simple faith and powerful polemical preaching, these fiery preachers typically continued in their anti-Catholic paranoia, putting Roman Catholics in the same category as Hindus and Animists.
Now, in our post-Christian world, things seemed to have changed somewhere along the way. Evangelicals, a somewhat rebirthed fundamentalist movement in American Christianity, have come to appreciate aspects of the Catholic church. There is even an intriguingly titled group called Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In the very Evangelical publication Christianity Today, we find numerous positive statements of Catholicism's traditions, theology, and personality, not least expressed in treatments of the life of Pope John Paul II. It would seem the frontier-descended evangelicals and the medieval papacy have met on the field, and smiled at one another. Not that they have resolved their differences, not by a long shot! But the sneer of suspicion is gone.
I wonder what the future holds for the rift torn in Christendom by the nailing of 95 offenses to the Wittenberg door in 1517. What will become of the seemingly insurmountable differences in theology, practice, and tradition? What counsels will the next Pope have for the Protestant church? What words will be spoken of the Roman Church by the descendants of America's frontier preachers? Only time will tell.
By the way, here is a link to an informative article outlining potential successors to the Roman Throne.