by Stephen Ferguson, July 5, 2017:   

As I write this article, every newspaper and television news station in my country of Australia is leading with some variation of the same story: “Cardinal George Pell charged with historic sex offences” (Sydney Morning Herald); “George Pell charged on summons with multiple sex offences” (The Australian); “George Pell charges push sex abuse scandal into heart of Vatican” (The Guardian); “Sydney Catholic Archdiocese won’t pay Pell’s legal bills” (ABC News).

If you are unaware of the story, let me quote Melbourne’s Deputy Police Commissioner Shane Patton: “Today Victoria Police have charged Cardinal George Pell with historical sexual assault offences. Cardinal Pell is facing multiple charges in respect of historic sexual offences and there are multiple complainants relating to those charges.”[1]

This isn’t just Australian news, as it was a leading story on Fox News, in the New York Times and Washington Post. Cardinal George Pell is Australia’s top-ranking Catholic and the third-highest official in the Vatican, responsible for the papacy’s finances.

Disclaimer and Scope

I will start this discussion with an extremely important disclaimer: This article in no way suggests Cardinal Pell is guilty. It is both an important legal and Christian principle of due process that an accused be considered innocent until proven otherwise.

Nonetheless, even presuming Pell is innocent, his charges represent the high-water mark of a worldwide sexual abuse scandal affecting the Roman Catholic Church. So can other Christians discuss this? This leads to the first of a number of lessons I think relevant to the rest of Christianity.  

Lesson #1: We need to stop being so timid or politically correct about discussing the Roman Catholic Church

What readers may not know is the charges against Cardinal Pell arose within the context of the Australian Government’s Royal Commission into Institutionalised Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.[2] The Commission has in turn asked some pretty hard-hitting questions about the Catholic Church, its traditions and institutions, including the role of celibacy, clericalism, women, holy orders, the laity and the confessional box.[3]

Both in Australia and around the world, journalists are in turn furiously writing hard-hitting opinion pieces on what “George Pell’s charging means for the Catholic Church” (ABC News). We also have filmmakers producing Academy Award-winning documentaries, such as Spotlight and Unholy Silence. We even have progressive human rights lawyers, such as Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose book The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability and Human Rights Abuse unprecedentedly advocates the indictment of Pope Benedict XVI for crimes against humanity.[4]  

Yet while the rest of the world is openly discussing the Roman Catholic Church, it seems we Protestants are now too timid to even mention it. This is curious, given our history. For example, the Protestant reformers routinely identified the Roman Catholic Church (or more specifically, the papacy in Rome) as the “whore of Babylon” from the book of Revelation.[5] Both the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and Lutheran Smalcald Articles (1537) explicitly call the pope Antichrist – strong words indeed![6]

We need to stop being so timid or politically correct about discussing the Roman Catholic Church

When I studied for a theology degree at an Anglican-Episcopalian seminary (that is another story in itself) it was acknowledged that this is what Protestants historically believed;[7] it just wasn’t politically correct to say so publicly today.

By contrast, you won’t actually find the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Statement of Fundamental Beliefs saying anything about the pope or the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Adventists have traditionally been more willing to voice parallels between Vatican Rome and Spiritual Babylon, emphasising the message of Revelation 18, that “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great… Come out of her, my people.”[8] Our willingness to talk is a good thing, especially at a time when the broader community is itself discussing Roman Catholicism. However, what is not good is the appalling way we have often framed this conversation, which leads to my next point.

Lesson #2: We need to get better at distinguishing ordinary Catholic people from the Catholic system

While Adventists are more inclined to talk about the Catholic Church, we often do it in an unappealing way. Nothing illustrates this better than the tendency to mix up ordinary Catholic worshippers with their ecclesiastic institutions.

What the worldwide abuse scandal illustrates is that, in most cases, victims of Catholic institutional power are ordinary Catholics themselves. I therefore think what we need is to recalibrate our language.

The best counsel ironically comes from Henry Newman (1833-1890), an Anglican bishop who eventually became a Roman Catholic cardinal, but who nonetheless remained an anti-authoritarian outsider who questioned papal authority.[9] It was Newman who “tried to distinguish between the Roman C. system which he detested and Catholicism to which he was more attached than ever.”[10] Many Protestants would be shocked or pleased that Newman himself recognised: “Rome was a doomed city as one of the 4 monsters of Daniel’s vision, and began to think that it was sin, as such, in the Church’s uniting itself with that enemy of God, who from the beginning sat on her 7 hills, with an enchantress’s cup, as the representative and instrument of the Evil principle.”[11]

In accordance with historic Protestantism and the views of Cardinal Newman himself, Adventists have traditionally identified prophetic Babylon, in some way, with papal Rome. Yet note God is not asking individuals to leave to become His people, but to come out because they already are His people. The problem is the Catholic system – not the Catholic people.

I would therefore plead with my brethren to reconsider how they engage with ordinary Catholics. Please be like the shrewd manager of Luke 16:1-15. Please think twice about erecting billboards declaring the pope as Antichrist.[12] Ask yourself about the usefulness of mass-mailing The Great Controversy, with no personal introduction.[13] These inflammatory tactics only infuriate many Catholics. This leads to our third lesson.

Lesson #3: We need to recognise that some of the most anti-papal forces are found within Catholicism

The real hero of the Australian Royal Commission is Vince Nguyen, a lesser-known Catholic bishop of Vietnamese origin. Bishop Nguyen, who himself was sexually abused as a child by a Catholic priest, broke ranks with his colleagues by openly telling the Commission, “Ordained ministers have too much power in the Catholic church and too little accountability.”[14] He also controversially said the lack of lay people and women in official Church leadership created a “culture of clericalism that contributes not insignificantly to the abuse, sexual abuse crisis.”[15]

Bishop Nguyen’s stance isn’t new, but can be traced to a strong minor tradition within Catholicism going back at least to the 16th century, if not before. At that time, there remained strong anti-papal forces within Catholicism seeking reform, especially amongst the Spirituali faction, who opposed papal supremacy and sympathised with the fledging Protestant movement. In fact, the Society of Jesus (also known as the Jesuits – the boogeymen of folklore), were originally leaders of the Spirituali.[16] Think about that weird fact the next time you think there is a Jesuit lurking in your church bushes.

Finally, looking to the papacy today, there is an argument that Pope Francis – the person – as opposed to the trappings associated with the broader papal title – the office – is one of the world’s foremost anti-papal activists alive today! It is not unlike when President Ronald Reagan, who despite being elected the chief officer of US government, stated in his inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.”

By analogy, Adventists also recognise the United States as a “beast power” of Revelation, but I hardly condemn all American citizens. I might even like George Bush, Barack Obama or Donald Trump as men, even if I see a diabolical eschatological role behind their office.

This is not to say Francis is succeeding. With further irony, George Pell was himself a member of the pope’s “C9”, an inner group of non-Italian cardinals tasked with challenging the entrenched might of the Holy See’s bureaucracy, the Curia.[17] Nonetheless, even as we need to be careful about confusing Catholic people with the Catholic system, we need to acknowledge that good Christian men and women do exist within Catholic leadership.

Lesson #4: We need to recognise the Catholic system is not static, so our eschatological (end time) views of that institution might also need to adapt

Moreover, don’t simply assume that the abuse scandal indicates what the Roman Catholic system will always be, especially in its purported eschatological (end-time) role. As the official SDA statement on Catholicism recognises, “While we remain aware of the historical record and continue to hold our views regarding end-time events, we recognize some positive changes in recent Catholicism.”[18]

Readers might be surprised to learn just how much the Roman Catholic system has already changed over time. For example, tradition did not displace scripture as the source of dogmatic authority until the Council of Trent in 1545.[19] Celibacy was first regulated by the Council of Elvira in 309, which bizarrely did not forbid marriage but only prohibited men from having sex with their wives, and it was not until the First Lateran Council in 1123 that priests were forbidden from getting married.[20] Papal infallibility only became an official doctrine during the First Vatican Council in 1869.[21] One of the key causes for the Protestant Reformation was the fact that after 1415 only priests were allowed to drink communion wine, but in 1956 the Church back-flipped, as once again lay Catholics were permitted to have both the wine and wafer.[22] In 2007, Pope Benedict overturned longstanding tradition that said unbaptised babies who died did not go to heaven but merely limbo.[23]

The Papacy’s views on liturgy, dogma and structure have also changed in an innumerable number of other ways. The point being, while there is historic continuity, we also need to be careful of assuming the eschatological Catholic system is the same version we have today. What you might most want to criticise in Catholicism today may not even exist in the end-time version. This leads to our final lesson.

Lesson #5: We should ask ourselves what elements of Roman Catholicism do we still “protest” about – but without hysteria or hypocrisy

Finally, to be a Protestant literally means to “protest” the Roman Catholic system – that is the very origin of the name.[24] The above lessons taken from the charging of George Pell, within the broader context of the worldwide Catholic abuse scandal, allow us to think deeply about what is wrong with, and what we continue to “protest” about, that system. If governments, journalists, progressive human rights lawyers and even Catholic bishops themselves are doing this, we certainly can. However, we should do so sensibly, without hysteria or hypocrisy.

If others are having honest discussions about Catholic views on celibacy, confession, ordaining women, divorce, abortion, contraception, euthanasia, centralisation of power, papal infallibility, the role of laity in church governance, homosexuality and a whole host of other topics, then we should too. However, there is probably no point in calling people out of “Babylon” and into the “Promised Land” of the “remnant Church” if we too are engaging in “Babylonian practices.”

To state an obvious on-topic example, while abuse has most affected Roman Catholicism, many Protestant churches have had instances of sexual abuse. The SDA Church is sadly not immune.[25] What aspects of Adventist belief and practice, from the role of women, to kingly power, to a culture of guilt-tripping those who ask too many difficult questions, contributes to this problem existing within our own communities?

So I leave readers with three questions. In light of the international abuse scandal, and the worldwide discussion about Catholic beliefs and practices:

  1. What aspects of the Roman Catholic system do we consider “Babylon” in nature – to call God’s people out of?
  2. What aspects of Adventism do we most contrast with the Catholic System, and consider part of the spiritual “Promised Land” – to call God’s people into?
  3. What aspects of Adventism are still part of “Babylon” – where we purport to call people out, only to have them wander in a spiritual wilderness with a modern-day golden calf?

[1] As cited in “Victoria Police’s full statement concerning charges against Cardinal George Pell,” Sydney Morning Herald, June 29, 2017.

[2] A Royal Commission is a major inquiry into a particular subject matter or organisation. The Commissioners are usually independent persons of high public regard, often retired judges. A Commission has extraordinary quasi-judicial powers to subpoena witnesses and documents, and operate independent of Government under letters patent issued by the monarch. A Royal Commission has some similarity to a grand jury, Congressional investigation or special counsel investigation in the United States.

[3] “Royal commission: Catholic archbishops split over reporting of abuse heard in confusion,” ABC News, Feb 24, 2017.

[4] For a good summary of Robertson’s book, see the review by Catherine Pepinster, “The Case of the Pope by Geoffrey Robertson QC: Revew”, The Telegraph, Sep 17, 2010.

[5] For example, see Martin Luther, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520).

[6] See Westminster Confession of Faith at chapter twenty-five and Smalcald Articles at part two, article four, section 10. Also note that some modern reformulations of these documents (observing there are multiple Reformed and Lutheran denominations around the world) often delete these historic statements – those deletions are kind of my point!

[7] If you would like to hear that story, you can find it in my book: Stephen J. D. Ferguson, “Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know…”: A Lawyer’s Defence of Adventist Belief and Practice (2016),


[8] Don Leo M. Garilva, “The Development of Ellen G. White’s Concept of Babylon in The Great Controversy”, Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 18/2 (Autumn 2007): 223–242.

[9] Frank Turner, John Henry Newman, 3-4; Simon Skinner, Jnl of Ecclesiastical History, 765.

[10] Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford Uni. Press, 1998), 69.

[11] LD iii., cited in Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography, 68.

[12] “Catholics to ‘Wage War’ Over Antichrist Sign,” WND, May 24, 2002.

[13] Danielle Apolinar, “Great controversy: What to do with religious books sent to Chicagoans,” Chicago Tribune, March 24, 2016.

[14] Rachel Brown, “Bishop of Parramatta Vincent Long Van Nguyen tells royal commission he was abused,” The Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 21, 2017.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Diarmaid MacCulloch, A History of Christianity (London: Penguin, 2009), 663.

[17] Ellen Whinnett, “Sex offence charges against George Pell have put Pope Francis’ vision for the Church under Pressure”, Herald Sun, June 30, 2017.

[18] “How Seventh-day Adventists View Roman Catholicism”, Official Statement, April 15, 1997, by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Administrative Committee (ADCOM) and released by the Office of the President, Robert S. Folkenberg.

[19] E. A. Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, 595.

[20] Ibid., 108.

[21] Ibid., 294.

[22] Ibid., 136.

[23] “Vatican commission: Limbo reflects ‘less restrictive view of salvation”, Catholic News Service, April 20, 2007.

[24] E. A. Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church, 481.

[25] Consider the well-publicised case of Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, who despite being a leader of the Generation of Youth for Christ movement, was accused of being “a pathological, serial sex offender”: Alita Byrd, “Samuel Koranteng-Pipim Re-baptized,” Spectrum Magazine, June 26, 2014.

Stephen is a 37-year-old lawyer from Perth, Western Australia. He is married to Amy, and has a one infant child, William. Stephen was raised within the Adventist Church and is a member at Livingston SDA Church. Stephen’s legal expertise is in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. His education includes tertiary qualifications in history, political science, anthropology, law, military studies, management, theology and town planning.

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