I am a Calvinist and my wife is a Calvinist. We are both descended from a long line of Calvinists. Yet, it is difficult to imagine how our Catholic friends could have been more enthused than we by the witness to hope of Pope John Paul II in Toronto during World Youth Days.
Of course, not all Christians share our admiration for this pope. A small minority are reactionaries bent on perpetuating the animosities generated by the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Others are theological liberals, who have neither eyes to see, nor ears to hear – nor brains to conceive – the greatness of John Paul.
However, the great majority of theologically orthodox Christians – Catholic and Protestant – have a high regard for Pope John Paul II. In an interview with Time, the Rev. Billy Graham, the greatest of modern Protestant evangelists, has aptly lauded John Paul as “the strong conscience of the whole Christian world.”
This esteem is mutual. In a 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (That They Might All Be One), John Paul surely referred to faithful Protestants like Billy Graham when he observed: “The relationships which the members of the Catholic Church have established with other Christians (have) made us aware of the witness which other Christians bear to God and to Christ … The Second Vatican Council made it clear that elements present among other Christians can contribute to the edification of Catholics.”
Today, the Christian church is divided less between Catholics and Protestants than between theological liberals and conservatives. The former are wise in their own conceit, while the latter seek to uphold the truth as revealed in the Bible and affirmed in the common traditions of the Christian church.
This new split can be traced to the debate over contraception. Up to the 1930s, Protestants and Catholics were united in opposing all artificial means of birth control. As recently as 1946, a United Church of Canada commission on Christian marriage headed by former chief Justice J. C. McRuer of the Ontario Supreme Court lamented that “the widespread, illicit use of contraceptives” was fostering sexual promiscuity, while failing to curb rising rates of either venereal disease or illegitimacy.
Despite such evidence, Protestant denominations affiliated with the Canadian Council of Churches soon changed course. In 1964, they called for elimination of a longstanding provision in the Criminal Code that designated the advertising or sale of contraceptives as an indictable offence punishable by up to two years in prison. At the instigation of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a Catholic, Parliament acted upon this request in 1969, by adopting omnibus legislation that legalized not just the advertising and sale of contraceptives, but also abortion, gambling and acts of gross indecency by consenting adults in private. In 1968, Pope Paul VI warned in his prophetic encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that widespread access to contraceptives would “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” Time has proven him right. Instead of effective natural family planning, many couples now routinely rely on the Pill, although it sometimes causes abortions. Together with the calamitous increase in surgical abortions over the past 30 years, abortifacient contraceptives have undermined regard for the sanctity of all human life, inside and outside the womb.
To counter this trend, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada resolved in 1997 to call upon the so-called therapeutic abortion committees that were then in operation “to give priority to the principle that the unborn has the right to life.” Yet this same assembly reaffirmed the novel doctrine it had first propounded in 1967, that “a danger to the mother’s health indicating the likelihood of permanent or prolonged mental or physical impairment” is grounds for abortion.
Jean Calvin would have been appalled by such an incoherent stance. He forthrightly denounced abortion. “The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being,” he held. “And it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.”
As a logical man, Calvin understood that since the unborn have the right to life, the deliberate killing of a baby in the womb can never be justified. He would have agreed completely with the declaration of Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) that “direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”
Underlying the upsurge in abortion, sexual promiscuity and other evils is a disposition to substitute man-made values for the eternal commandments of God. Some theologians even presume to understand the precepts of sexual morality better than Jesus. There is nothing new about such arrogance. In his Commentary on Romans, Calvin noted: “In seeking perfection, the world backslides from the Word of God and goes after new inventions; Paul fixes perfection in the will of God, and shows that anyone who goes beyond it imagines falsehood and falls into delusion.”
Likewise, in Veritatis Splendor, (The Splendour of Truth) John Paul noted: “Some people, disregarding the dependence of human reason on Divine Wisdom and the need, given the present state of fallen nature, for Divine Revelation as an effective means for knowing moral truths, even those of the natural order, have actually posited a complete sovereignty of reason in the domain of moral norms.” He then warned against this folly in terms no less emphatic that Calvin’s. While theologically orthodox Christians still disagree on some important points of doctrine, the great majority recognize in John Paul the pre-eminent witness to Christian truth in our time. And that’s why so many of us – Protestants as well as Catholics – were thrilled to see hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic young pilgrims brave heat, wind and rain in Toronto during World Youth Days to worship Christ and salute Pope John Paul the Great.