New Pope: evangelist to meet evangelist

Interesting column from John Coulter in the Irish Daily Star which looks at the slow change in the Catholic Church’s direction. A change that may be facing evangelic Protestants with something of a dilemma. The next conclave begins on Monday, after the period of offical mourning is complete.By John Coulter

Whilst more than a billion Catholics globally continue to mourn the loss of John Paul the Great, ironically his legacy will have the biggest impact on hardline Ulster Protestant fundamentalists.

Many Protestant missionary groups now work virtually unhindered in former Soviet bloc nations because John Paul was the man credited with breaking the back of atheistic communism throughout Europe.

However, for Biblical Protestantism, John Paul’s greatest achievement was his personal support for the development of the worldwide Evangelical Catholic movement, especially in Ireland and Africa.

These are ‘born again Catholic believers’ as defined by the Biblical New Testament who chose to remain and work within the Catholic Church rather than leave for one of the Protestant sects.

John Paul’s active encouragement of Evangelical Catholicism has left many Protestant fundamentalist groups, such as the Caleb Foundation, the Evangelical Protestant Society, Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church and the Independent Orange Order, in a real theological dilemma.

Such fundamentalists term those who are going to heaven as being ‘saved’ or ‘born again believers’. How can such Protestants say they are ‘saved’, yet condemn Evangelical Catholics who have accepted Christ as their personal Saviour as not being equally ‘saved’?

The most visible clash between Ulster Protestant fundamentalism and the late Pope came in October 1988 when Paisley was ejected from the European Parliament when he interrupted an address by John Paul.

But fundamentalism is now singing from a different hymn sheet in terms of John Paul. Paisley himself and the DUP Mayor of Ballymena Hubert Nicholl expressed sympathy to the Catholic community on his death.

Could it be Protestant fundamentalism now recognises the man it once branded as the Biblical Anti-Christ has been the one Pontiff who has revolutionised the Evangelical Catholic movement?

It is also ironic some sections of Protestant fundamentalism criticise the Catholic Church for having a pope. In 2002, Paisley celebrated the 50th anniversary of the formation of his fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster.

Whilst mainstream Irish Presbyterianism elects a new Moderator each year, Paisley has been the one and only Moderator of the Free Church.

Ironically, in spite of being poles apart theologically on how to get to heaven, conservative Catholicism and fundamentalist Protestantism shared common ground on a number of issues, including stiff opposition to homosexuality, divorce, abortion, and contraception.

Amongst many Ulster Protestants, the Pope has been a figure of crude sectarian songs, especially around the Twelfth. The North’s large flute band fraternity, known officially as Blood and Thunder bands, are referred to as ‘Kick the Pope’ bands in numerous working class loyalist districts.

Many Protestants also seem to conveniently forget that in 1690, after hearing that the Protestant champion King William had defeated the Catholic King James at the Boyne, the then Pope, Alexander the Eighth, held a special Mass to commemorate the Prince of Orange’s victory.

Many pundits believe the next Pope should be an African, where the Evangelical Catholic movement is competing head to head with radical Islam in the numbers game.

Two leading contenders are the supposed favourite, Francis Arinze from Nigera, closely followed by Wilfrid Fox Napier, a black South African.

The election of an African pontiff will see a worldwide expansion of Evangelical Catholicism.

The real dilemma for Protestant fundamentalism – and the main Orange Order in particular – is how its ‘born again believers’ will work and worship with similar ‘born again believers’ within the Evangelical Catholic movement.

First published in the Irish Daily Star on Monday 11th April