King’s/Papal Revival and the Cross’ Denial

Nathanael Somanathan
8 min readFeb 13, 2021

In a recent press conference, His Eminence Ranjith Malcolm, the Cardinal for the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, read out a striking memorandum written by the same. His suspicion and renouncement of the so-called “pastors,” who deceive the desperate and rob the poor was the subject matter. In his sharp rebuke, he calls for the government to step in and mitigate the damage that is being done in the name of Christ (like conversions, exploitations etc.). The point of contention for many, however, is if in his desire to disown and disavow any narrative that merges the spirituality of the controversial “pastors” and their followings with Catholic Christianity, did the Cardinal go too far as to delegitimize non-Catholic Christianity entirely?

Even though the Cardinal did not overtly denounce “Protestantism,” his speech makes one fear of regress in Catholic-Protestant relations in Sri Lanka. It may clear some of the muddied waters if the Cardinal clarifies if he was referring to particular groups/denominations/networks of “pastors” or if he was advocating for a wholesale rejection of protestant clergy (typically called pastors). If the latter is the case, then the Cardinal has added oil to the fire and one can anticipate imminent political and social animosity toward all non-Catholic (especially the Charismatic and Independent) churches as a result. The Cardinal has displayed an active antipathy towards any Christian expression that is not Roman Catholic even though it runs counter to his ongoing advocacy for justice and anti-violence (especially post Easter attacks where both Catholics and Protestant Pentecostals were victimised). On the other hand, if the former is the case, then the Cardinal joins an already existing resistance within the non-Catholic Christian community against this growing stream of self-acclaimed “pastors” and “prophets.” Albeit, the resistance is somewhat faint. But more on that later.

The Cardinal has gained much popularity and admiration among the masses in the last two years for his unwavering commitment to acquiring justice for the victims of the Easter attacks. He was also heroized for averting a potential violent retaliation toward the Muslim community in the aftermath. Challenging the government in a recent press interview, he even told the media, “I hope I would not have to seek the assistance of any international institutions but would be compelled to call for such assistance if justice is not meted out to us.” Therefore, it came as a disappointment to many that the Cardinal would resort to broad characterisation, disparagement and vilification of all “pastors” in his response to the mischaracterizations of the Catholic church.

It is entirely possible that the Cardinal, in his speech against “pastors,” is speaking out of some level of self-interest for the sake of his constituents. As first and foremost an ambassador for the Catholics in Sri Lanka, he may want to preserve his people from the distant storm brewing against the Christian community provoked by certain hyper-charismatic preachers and their antics online. Even the Apostle Peter asks, “If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval” (1 Peter 2:20). It feels as though the impending persecution is somewhat evoked while persecution itself is not entirely avoidable for the Christian. Christian leaders, churches, denominations, and organizations ought to come out and renounce the madness characterized by these fringe charismatic figures and groups or we will all suffer needlessly by association. In that sense, the Cardinal seems to exercise far more pastoral concern and foresight than most Protestant counterparts.

Another curious observation is the emergence of several social issues at this cultural moment in Sri Lankan history. The government is under pressure from the Catholic church to prosecute those responsible for the Easter attacks, international organizations probing into human-rights violations and war crimes as well as other local socio-political movements like the P2P. There is a distinct flavour of social concern fueling various discussions and activism both online and offline. This could be the outworking of the recent outbursts in America against racial injustice and global conversations on socio-economic disparities amplified by the pandemic. Yet, the aforementioned Charismatic leaders with the large followings are preoccupied with entertaining the elite and conning the desperate in their congregation. These folk champion an out-of-touch, individualistic religion that favours the upper class. It runs contrary to the spirit of collectivism driving the discussions of justice, racial reconciliation and radical social change that have even transcended individual religious commitments in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, with their loud online presence, and endless self-promotion and advertising, they have stereotyped Christianity as a threat to Buddhist nationalism; Hence the Cardinal’s repudiation.

The greatest irony of all is that the Protestant church that historically protested the hegemony of the Catholic church has made way for certain subsects to reinstate a form of papal authority — in these quarters, the heterodox leaders are autonomous popes. Papal infallibility is another feature that is configured into this brand of “pastor/prophet” authority. For instance, in a recent interview, one such leader, “prophet” Jerome Fernando, implied that all those who follow him, his spiritual sons and daughters, must see eye-to-eye with him on every one of his teachings. If this is the kind of spirituality, leadership and Christianity that will persist and dominate Protestantism in Sri Lanka, then what we find is a form of “Babylonian captivity of the Church” (Martin Luther’s characterization of the Catholic church during the Reformation) and what is required is nothing short of a Reformation and a recovery of Luther’s spirit.

It must be noted that Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic church was not based on abstract doctrinal issues. As a pastor, he was deeply troubled by the exploitation of the poor, the selling of indulgences and the practice of “Simony” by the Catholic church’s leadership and elite. For Luther, the socio-economic issue revealed a deeper theological issue. More precisely, it revealed a Christological issue. Luther and the other reformers identified the Christological assertion of the triumphant Jesus and the authorial dominance of the Church paterfamilias as contrary to the Christ and Church of the New Testament. Luther contrasted this theologically between the “theology of the Cross” and the “theology of Glory.” The ostentatiousness of the Pope, the vicar of Christ (Christ’s representative), in Luther’s eyes at the time could not be reconciled with the true God-man who was crucified in weakness.

For Luther, however, as it appears in the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, the “theology of the Cross”’ was central to theology. As opposed to the “theology of glory,” which characterized much of scholastic theology, Luther found that at the heart of the Christian faith lies a radical vision and imitation of the cross as it not only displays victory but also weakness and humility. This understanding of Luther’s theology is essential to make sense of his nailing of the 95 theses that eventually led to the departure of Protestants from the Catholic church that was under the monocratic papal authority.

In describing the impact of Luther’s insight into the cross, Graham Tomlin writes,

[Luther] conducted a polemic against the scholastic theological hegemony which had become the monopoly of experts and remote from the realities of everyday Christian life, and the power, prestige and wealth of the papal church. In this church, the wise and the powerful fed off one another, and the Indulgence controversy of 1517 was a prime example of false theology being used to legitimate an oppressive practice which only served to increase the papal wealth. If God’s action in the present is continuous with his action in Christ, then the papacy and the church needed to model itself upon the weakness and poverty of the cross, rather than on images of imperial power. It needed to seek sufferings and the cross, not the false peace of Indulgences. The papacy’s failure to do that simply betrayed not just its moral deficiency, but its theological misunderstanding. As in Corinth, so in Wittenberg theology which began at the cross had served to critique the abuse of power. [1]

What the Sri Lankan Christians favouring the provocative “pastors” fail to understand is that the while the supposed miracles, prophecies and spiritual manifestations are quite fascinating and even inspiring, the cross is “being emptied of its power.” The words of Paul to the Corinthian church rings true for us today: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). This power cannot be defined by secular means or worldly models but by Christ alone, who was crucified in weakness. The power of the cross is strength that comes through weakness. The currency in such an economy are virtues like humility, selflessness, love, self-sacrifice, generosity etc. In contrast, a community that is boastful about worldly treasures and pursuits, snobbish towards other faiths, arrogant in speech and conduct, and unconcerned about socio-economic issues inadvertently betrays the message of the cross which is the gospel. Paul calls such people enemies of the cross:

Philippians 3:18–21 (NIV) For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

If the Cardinal by “pastors” refers to the fringe Pentecostal leaders and churches, also a major concern to orthodox Pentecostals and Protestants like myself, by all means, let us stand together against the profaning of Christ’s name and clarify what we mean by Christian. However, Protestants know all too well that delusions and abuses of power have haunted and continue to haunt the Catholic church too. To avoid a superficial or an authoritarian response, let’s heed the Cardinal’s concern (while challenging his unhelpful characterisation) but recover the Protestant spirit of Luther by reasserting the “Theology of the Cross.” What we are dealing with is a perversion of the Gospel that is based on externally imposed, worldly models of success and prosperity. The Christian symbol is not a polished, glamorous cross but a rugged one. The Resurrection (theology of glory) does not replace the crucifixion, instead, it is its vindication that strength in weakness is the way of Christ and the Christian in the world! This in turn radically reforms every form of spirituality, leadership and being in the world that is not self-giving, other-centred, cross-shaped and resurrection-focused. In the words of Francis of Assisi, the medieval Catholic priest, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.”

[1] Graham Tomlin, Christ the One and Only: A Global Affirmation of the Uniqueness of Jesus Christ, ed. Sung Chung (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2005), 55.

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Nathanael Somanathan

I spend my time reading up on hot topics in theology and culture. I enjoy a cold drink and a good book.