Pope Francis: From “Yay!” to “Uh..” in Record Time

Russell Moore writes, “It’s another week and thus another interview with Pope Francis.” Indeed, we are unaccustomed to hearing so very much from the Bishop of Rome, least of all from media sources. Normally we hear lots of words in Italian or Latin uttered from Vatican balconies, homilies and declarations of a head of state and supreme pontiff, and we move on to something else. Not so with Francis. From the moment the white smoke plumed from the sacred chimney, he’s been cutting a different path.

At first it was refreshing. Benedict was seen as a stern (though often warm) theologian who emphasized God’s truth and justice as correctives for a fallen world. Francis eschews signs of wealth and randomly returns letters and phone calls from parishioners. More splashily, he frankly acknowledged the hurt that Christians often cause when insisting on truth and called for love first. It seemed like he was a public relations genius: this is basic Christian orthodoxy (truth not apart from love) and he was careful to avoid slipping into that common heterodoxy of our age (love alone is truth).

This was complicated by the fact that secular media make Francis out to be some kind of Marxist class warrior. Christian churches – not just Catholic ones – have always believed and taught that a lack of charity is the paradigm sin. So it was fun to watch the New York Times and their ilk act like this was some kind of revolutionary teaching.

Alas, the novelty seems to be wearing off. Dr. Moore is a charitable fellow, but even he concludes that this latest interview is “a theological wreck.” Francis calls proselytism “sacred nonsense” insists that the world will be better off if everyone strives toward the good as they conceive it. This echoes his previous call for atheists to “do good” and “we will meet you there.”

Francis’s statements are not merely a difference in emphasis, but of genuine substance. For most Protestants, orthodoxy involves (among other things) the doctrine that God saves only those who believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. We disagree on how that belief can come into being and who gets credit for it, but even the expressly Arminian denominations will affirm its necessity.

The long Catholic traditions surrounding extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church there is no salvation“) offer little hope. Observe the careful qualification in statements like this one, from Lumen Gentium (emphasis mine): “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” Protestants make salvation and confession a one-to-one correspondence, or argue that faith in Christ is both necessary and sufficient for salvation. Within Catholic tradition, salvation begins and ends at the steps of the church.

I remind myself that I very likely do not know as much about another’s faith as he does. I have had enough long conversations with Catholic friends to know that they aren’t just flakes on this topic, and so has Dr. Moore. The Pope’s ability to capture the public imagination while speaking orthodox Christian truth is, it turns out, more complicated than we wanted to admit. After dealing with the institutional prejudices wrought by selective reporting and journalist bias, we ourselves will tend to hear Francis with Protestant ears. For those of us weary of being labeled as hateful, or accused of bare animus, we latched on to the relief of having a world-prominent Christian leader quoted more accurately vis-a-vis our beliefs. That may have been appropriate, but we must guard against the competing forces of theological nicey-niceyism (a byproduct of our subjectivist culture) and Protestant provincialism.

As the dust settles from the election of this Argentinian Jesuit, some things are certain. For one, we were right to be wary of popular media accounts of the Pope’s statements. The man was a cardinal and is not a dissident in his communion; he is not at odds with his tradition’s anthropology, sexual ethics, or political theology. It is also true that there is much to admire in Francis’s life and work, experiences that foretell his canny leadership style.

But let us not give in to dew-eyed optimism. The divisions that existed before the Council of Trent will not somehow evaporate in a new spirit of ecumenism. We have much in common with our Catholic friends – not the least of which is Trinitarian theism, an unusual creed. And in 2013, after generations of secularization and the culmination of individualism, we stand shoulder to shoulder with Roman Catholics on some of the most important social and political issues of the day. Nevertheless, as the Pope’s high profile remarks teach us, there is a reason we remain a reformation people.

photo credit: JeffyBruno via photopin cc

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.

  • Anci

    Here’s more on Catholism and the Pope from an informed Protestant point of view yet with irenic tone: http://vaticanfiles.org/

  • JMC

    I value your commentary brother. As you probably know many Catholics are struggling to understand the Pope’s words themselves. I am one of them, though I am personally more optimistic about what he is doing than a lot of us seem to be. Additionally, I take comfort in the fact that Jesus said a lot of things that still make me scratch my head (and I was a Reformed Protestant for a lot longer than I have been Catholic).

    If you are attempting to understand how the Pope can say the things he does about atheism, I encourage you to read “Dominus Iesus”.

    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html

    It was produced by the CDF when Benedict XVI (then Ratzinger) was prefect. It covers most of the ground you mention here, and essentially connects the dots between “No Salvation Outside the Church” and “Atheists can be saved too” and many of the points in between. It speaks to how one must not be religiously indifferent but at the same time holds out hope for those who have died without explicitly accepting Christ or joining the Church.

    Yes, the Pope’s statements demand qualifications, but so did St. John’s when he said “God is Love.” It’s up to us to look for those qualifications in good faith, just as it is up to me to seek the heart of anyone with whom I dialogue. I trust that the Pope is steering the ship in the right direction, with his eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, the Logos that every human being is searching for.

    As for the proselytism thing, I really don’t think it’s that hard to see what the Pope is getting at if you read his follow-on words. What’s so troubling about it, taken in context?

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. The proselytism comment is only a problem because the context as I describe it makes us wary that he is saying a few too many universalist/no worries things. I am aware of a recent technical difference between proselytism and evangelism, and of course of Francis’s emphasis on the importance of the latter.

  • JMC

    While I can see why one might characterize certain statements in isolation as “universalist,” I really don’t think it’s fair to do so. I believe he is being theologically imprecise in order to avoid weighing down the good news with a thousand qualifications. One might take issue with that, but he certainly doesn’t indicate that all men will be saved regardless of how they live their lives.

    As regards “no worries” (which the Catholic Church condemns as “indifferentism”), I think the very fact of the dialogue shows that Francis is anything but indifferent. “Follow your conscience.” Cf. Romans 2:15. That’s no easy feat, and it encourages me that the Catholic Church leaves that salvific door open to those outside of her formal boundaries. And in a Christo-centric way. Again, Dominus Iesus lays this all out explicitly. I think it sheds some light on Francis’ words here and elsewhere.

    I do enjoy your commentaries on Francis, so I hope you keep it up! God bless!


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