“We Have A Pope!” (Who Cares?)

“We Have A Pope!” (Who Cares?) March 14, 2013

Okay, I care–in the sense that I am interested. However, I have lived long enough to know that it’s impossible to predict what a newly elected pope will do. It’s like Supreme Court justices. Everybody gets all in a dizzy tizzy about every newly appointed justice–claiming he or she will do such-and-such. Generally speaking, it doesn’t turn out the way the “experts” predicted.

I’m vicariously excited for my Catholic brothers and sisters. But for myself, no, I’m not excited. The bishop of Rome does not represent me in any way. (I know Protestants, including Baptists, who look to the bishop of Rome as some kind of universal Christian cheerleader and spokesman. I don’t share their view.)

I take a wait and see approach to what this new Latin American pope will do. I hope he will give greater moral support to liberation theology. The last two have not. In fact, in my opinion, they have seriously misunderstood the mainstream liberation theologians and have tended to lump all liberation theologians together as dangerously Marxist. But how can one lump Jose Miranda together with Gustavo Gutierrez–as if they were the same about everything? They shared certain commitments, but their levels of influence by Marx were different.

What I would like to know is why the mass media make so much of the election of a new pope? They say he leads 1.2 billion Catholics. Well, I seriously doubt both “lead” and the number. How do they count Catholics? If it’s anything like the way the Southern Baptist Convention counts Southern Baptists, well, I’m doubtful of the number. (The SBC counts me as a Southern Baptist! I’ve never been one.)

I suspect that millions of Latin Americans are counted as Catholics just because they were baptized into the church even though they attend Pentecostal churches. The same is true, I believe, in places like the Philippines and many other traditionally Catholic  countries.

I am old enough to remember when John Paul I was elected pope. (He served less than a year.) There was no   media hype as there has been since the election of John Paul II. The hype then was because he was Polish. The hype the last time was because Josef Cardinal Ratzinger was controversial. This time some hype is justified because Francis is the first Latin American pope, but I think the media goes overboard– because there is the platform for it based on the previous two elections (and John Paul II’s popularity and death).

I offer my congratulations to my Catholic friends, but please don’t expect me to celebrate. I’m emotionally and spiritually indifferent about it–as I should be. I worry about Protestants who invest tremendous emotional and spiritual interest in the papacy.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David

    If you are indifferent about it, why did you bother posting your thoughts?

    • rogereolson

      Obviously–because I think all Protestants should be emotionally and spiritually indifferent about it (but many aren’t). I thought I made that clear.

  • Christianity is always big news — good or bad. Ask yourself this simple question: “When was the last time billions of world citizens waited in anxious anticipation for the announcement of an emerging leader who represented a non-Christian religious faith?” The answer: NEVER! We who are professing Christians should recognize that the man who is the spiritual leader of an estimated 1.2 billion people has the potential to do a lot of good or a lot of harm. Therefore, even though I am a Protestant, I have put Pope Francis the First on my prayer list. May God use him and guide him to glorify Christ to the masses of humanity and to encourage his flock in the faith, is my prayer.

  • Harvey Stob

    I, too am taking a wait and see approach. I lived in Argentina during the “Dirty War” and while some provincial Catholic Bishops spoke out against human rights abuses the central hierarchy did not. Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1980, said today in his blog that”Bergoglio was not a direct accomplice in the dictatorship, but he didn’t have the courage of other bishops to support our struggle for human rights during the dictatorship.” He added: “There can’t be any doubt that the large part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy was complicit in the dictatorship.”
    I would think that the now Pope Francis reflected deeply on that horrible time, and I await those reflections in a writing or two. His humility and his apparent interest in the poor do give me some hope that he might be a different and a more pastoral leader.

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Dear Dr. Olson,

    I see where you come from and identify with your commitment to Protestantism. However, Francis’ first homily is the best I have heard in a very long time: it is Christocentric and cruciformed. And when he had a chance to place himself in the place of Peter, he rather pointed to Christ as the foundation of the church.
    I think our churches are in desperate need for leaders of this caliber who are willing not only to preach the cross but face the consequences and live a sacrificial life. His humble life shames many of us (I think of myself foremost). I pray God will use this new pope to challenge the church universal to live radical Christian lives in this day of selfish materialism and consumism.

    The link for the sermon is here: http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/03/14/pope_francis:_1st_homily_(full_text)/en1-673526

  • James Petticrew

    The Scottish Catholic Church is in meltdown, it’s high profile Cardinal who led the national campaign against Gay Marriage was “outed” by several priests fir homosexual behaviour and had to resign. This has dominated our news with papal election. Despite the notorious sectarianism that characterises areas of Scottish life most people I know have linked the Cardinal’s behaviour as proof of all church’s hypocrisy. This is doing huge damage to the witness of the church here.

    For that reason I must admit I did feel emotionally involved in the selection of the Pope, I prayed for a truly spiritual leader who would lead reform of his church and address it’s most pressing problems. Despite having no great attraction to Catholic theology ( I generally find ecumenical gatherings end up with, what we as Protestants can learn from the RC Church, never found the .catholic church being interested in the reverse) I realise the spiritual state of the Catholic church in a increasingly post Christian context like mine impacts my ministry and missin and how people perceive me. Not sure if that should worry you ?

    • rogereolson

      No, it doesn’t worry me. I agree. My main point was that the bishop of Rome does not represent me. I know some Protestants who look to him as their spiritual leader which I do not. He can be an example and I hope he will be a reformer, but I don’t consider myself somehow part of the Catholic Church–even mystically.

      • James Petticrew

        And of course the last Pope was quite clear that as Protestants our churches are not “churches proper called”

  • Evelyn

    Apparently he distanced himself from Liberation Theology early on in his career. Which is why he’s had a career, presumably.

  • David Hess

    Roger, it doesn’t seem like you to not be able to “rejoice with those who rejoice” if in fact your Catholic friends are celebrating (which I assume many are). Like it or not as Protestants, whoever is elected to the Papacy essentially becomes the most influential Christian on the planet. It doesn’t seem like something any serious-minded Christian should be as you say “indifferent” about. I just felt after reading your post that it lacked the honor that you usually extend to other Christian leaders. Just seems like one of those musings that would have been better kept to yourself.

    • rogereolson

      I consider the Catholic Church a mission field (which is not to say there are no Christians there already). As a historical theologian I’m very interested in Catholic theology and history, but I feel no emotional or spiritual attachment to it. It is simply another denomination even if it is the largest. It’s treatment of evangelicals (including Pentecostals) in much of Latin America is one reason I look with somewhat of a jaundiced eye at it. And I have attended many Protestant-Catholic dialogue events. In every case the Catholic representatives have told the Protestants what they are missing and the Protestants have (generally, with some exceptions) agreed that Protestants have much to learn from Catholics. That has dampened any rising enthusiasm I might have had.

  • Greg Metzger

    Not sure where your headed worth his, Roger, particularly with the last swipe at unnamed Protestants who “worry” you. Do you have an example? What exactly are you worried will happen? You make many valid points and I couldnt agree more with uour characterization of how liberation theology is painted with wide brush, but your conclusion takes those points in an ambiguous direction that could also be seen as unfair. I have seen so much thoughtful, careful Protestant engagement with this process that I view as helpful to Catholics and expressive of a deep biblical yearning for greater unity, so I really do wonder what you are seeing that worries you.

    • rogereolson

      First, yes, I do know Protestants who are Catholic “wannabes.” Even some Baptists. I think they would become Catholics if the pope would just acknowledge he’s not infallible. Some of them will become Catholics anyway. Second, I have met some humble Catholics willing to learn from Protestants, but not many–especially not among the theologians. As I’ve said here many times, I have participated in Protestant-Catholic dialogue events and have always felt that the Catholic participants were telling us Protestants what we are missing by not being Catholics. I have never heard even one say what Catholics are missing by not being Protestants. And usually the organizers of these events are inclined to invite Protestant presenters who will by sympathetic to Catholicism. These dialogue events, in my opinion, have not been true two-way-street events. All that is to say that I feel a certain triumphalism among Catholics that makes me nervous. Of course, I feel the same among many Protestants and I try to stay away from them as much as possible.

      • Bob

        The RC doesn’t view itself as choosing a flavor of Protestantism that we like. For them the church is the Incarnation or the extension of it. . The choice for them would be RC or atheism. It’s like for us Protestants denying Christ. It is not a matter of personal preference.

        • rogereolson

          Not all Catholics are that extreme, but Catholic doctrine does teach (reinforced by the two most recent popes before Francis) that “churches” other than Roman Catholic (or those recognized by the bishop of Rome) are “ecclesial communities,” not churches. They do not believe (officially) that only Catholics are Christians, but they do believe that IF you are a Christian you are somehow mystically united with the Roman Catholic Church. I grew up with an uncle who believed that about his tiny Protestant denomination–IF you are a Christian you “belong” to them even if you’ve never set foot in one of their churches. I always thought that was kind of funny.

      • Darrin Snyder Belousek

        Dear Roger,

        Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful posts. If you still have any inclination to ecumenical dialogue with Catholics, I would invite you to familiarize yourself with Bridgefolk, the Mennonite-Catholic ecumenical movement based at Saint John’s Abbey (http://www.bridgefolk.net/). This is a grassroots ecumenical movement, not generated by hierarchy and not focused primarily on theological debate. It is not premised on the assumption that Rome is (simply) right or that all roads of unity lead to Rome–no triumphalism here, no expecatation that Protestants should just get on with it and “come home to Rome” for the sake of Christian unity. The basis for Bridgefolk is friendship, understood as a mutual and respectful exchange of gifts between folks of each tradition–and thus the recognition that Mennonites bring gifts that can bless Catholics (esp. the peace ethic and lay ecclesiology) and that Catholics bring gifts that can bless Mennonites (esp. spiritual/liturgical/sacramental practices). The realization we’ve come to over a dozen years of dialogue is that we each cannot imagine the church without the other–that we need each other to be the church that Christ intended.

        A blessed Holy Week to you!

        Darrin W Snyder Belousek
        Executive Director, Bridgefolk

        • rogereolson

          I have visited Saint John’s Abbey (if the one in Collegeville, MN) and taken classes there. My overall conclusion was that this was an unusual place–given the contemporary climate in the RC church.

  • Fred Karlson

    The sexual scandals of the Roman Catholic Church will not likely be resolved in my lifetime. Such a shame! Until they erase the mandatory celibate rule for the clergy and the nuns, I see no real change ever taking place. An NPR interview with an insider of the RC Church offered the advice that a manager rather than a scholar is needed to right the ship, but he surmised that choice would not be likely. As we can see, he was right. I agree with the sentiments of Dr. Olson here, but was more favorable toward Pope Paul John II than he suggests. I was at Calvin Seminary in the 90s when a Greek teacher suggested to the class that we download John Paul II’s latest encyclical. He made the recommendation on the basis of the opinion of the Philosophy Department at Calvin. I took the time to read it [Fides et Ratio] and was greatly blessed, in fact amazed by its quality.

    • rogereolson

      By no means do I mean to denigrate Catholic scholarship (including that of many popes)! I have benefited greatly from Catholic scholars such as von Balthasar. But I do not consider the bishop of Rome my spiritual leader. That’s all I’m sayin’.

  • Sean

    Thanks for posting this, Dr. Olson. It needs to be said.

    I’m an ecumenically oriented protestant, but it’s quite clear to me that the Bishop of Rome is the single greatest barrier to ecumenical progress. The church of Rome and its leader have an extremely high opinion of themselves.

  • Greg Metzger

    Roger, if you are concerned about evangelical treatment by Vatholica in Latin Amerixa then you should NOT be indifferent to the character and vision of the Pope because it makes a difference to that relationship. And from everything I have seen reported at Christianity Today there is widespread rejoicing among Latin American evangocals who are on the front lines of the issue–they are certainly not indifferent.

    • rogereolson

      We will see how that plays out. My indifference is partly due to my lack of knowledge of what Francis will do. I mentioned that. Of course I will be glad if he amends the traditional Catholic treatment of evangelicals in LA. But by “indifferent” I mean that, as a Protestant, I do not regard the bishop of Rome as my spiritual leader. So I am indifferent to the election of a pope in the same way I am indifferent to the election of a new president of a foreign country. I’m interested but not emotionally or spiritually invested.

      • JoFro

        “So I am indifferent to the election of a pope in the same way I am indifferent to the election of a new president of a foreign country”

        That’s a silly statement. It is in the interests of the free world to know and care about who gets elected President of the United States, irrespective of whether or not, it affects their relationship with the US.

        In the same manner, it is in the interests of Christians world-wide, whether they agree or disagree with Catholicism or are Catholic or not, to know and care who becomes Pope.

        In the same manner the President of the US is regarded as the symbol for democracy and freedom (fairly or unfairly), whether you like it or not, the Pope is the symbol for Christianity. This may not be fair, according to you, but it’s the way it is.

        To claim indifference and have the gaul to compare it to some “election of a new president of a foreign country” is foolish talk.

        • rogereolson

          I assume you meant “gall” rather than “gaul.”

        • Andreas

          Just throwing in a Swedish two cents here: The American president is not regarded as the symbol for democracy and freedom in Sweden. I don’t know any of my kinsmen who would say yes that. And the pope, well ask a Orthodox Christian. I think you are owerplaying the role of the pope and of your president. Important yes. That importatn? No. 😉

  • Jack Harper

    Roger as I look back over the history of the Catholic church, it is inundated with corruption. However we could say the same for a lot of protestant churches as well. I agree with you that the general consensus from the RC is that every other believer needs to come under the shadow of the pope. I think many have forgotten the reformation and why a lot of us have chosen to not come under the leadership of an organization who participates in practices that are not founded on biblical principles.

  • Rob

    I think it is interesting but over-hyped. Fudging the data is one way in which it is over-hyped. 1.2 billion catholics? 40% of catholics live in Latin America? Really? That is 480 millions catholics in Latin America. There are only 495 million people in Latin America. The only way to make the numbers work is to admit that they are counting hundreds of millions of Latin Americans with zero interest and participation in the church who were baptized as infants. The Pope is their spiritual leader? Give me a break.

  • Greg Metzger

    Roger, I appreciate the clarifications. I think they were needed and more reflect the generous spirit of Christian graciousness that your scholarship points to. I still think you are under appreciating what Bergoglio did to alter/improve relations between evangelical and Catholics and LA and I hope you will read the CT articles on it as I seriously think you are missing an opportunity to make a positive contribution to what you rightly say has been a problem. You seem stuck with a perception of what the relationship is and you don’t seem open to the dramtic steps he took in Argentina. Why else would Luis Palau be so pleased? Why else would evangelical leaders in Argentina and LA more broadly be so convinced his election was a sign of the Spirit?

    Your concern over how Vatholica view non-Catholics would to be more convincing if you were more expressive of a conviction that you view them as part of one Christian Church too. In other words, you seem to be grousing that they view Baptists and other Protestants as Christians in ecclesial communities, yet you yourself say you view Catholics as a “mission field”!!!! Which is more demeaning? Which is more expressive of our shared baptism and our shared belief in Christ? Do you see the inconsistency there? They view you as a fellow Christian and you view them as a mission field, yet they are the ones who don’t show enough respect and are prideful?

    • I meant “Catholic” not “Vatholica” as my iphone put it!!

    • rogereolson

      I’m not surprised that you find my statement “prideful,” but do you really think the majority of Catholics are saved? And don’t ask me about mainline Protestant denominations–I consider them a mission field, too. My experience has been that the majority of Catholics and mainline Protestants think they are saved simply because they were baptized as infants and confirmed without ever having had a personal encounter with God through conversion to Jesus Christ by faith and repentance. Of course there are many Catholics who have had that encounter and who do live a vital faith in Jesus Christ, but there are also many, I would say the majority, who are nominally Christian at best. The same is true (IMHO) of most so-called “mainline Protestants.”

  • Here is the link for why Luis Palau cares and why his caring is a reflection of what Bergoglio has already done in Argentina to improve relations between evangelicals and Catholics:


    Here are evangelical Argentinian leaders explaining why they think Pope Francis is answer to prayers:

    Here are evangelical leaders in US who specialize in relations between evangelicals and other Christian communities expressing substantive reasons for their caring about and being pleased with the record of Bergoglio:

  • Roger, I have come to appreciate your work so deeply over the years. While I was once a rather strident Baptist Calvinist, and you were a professor at Bethel Seminary, I know that you were troubled by what I wrote for the BGC in those days when I was a young pastor. You were right to be concerned about me and to express that concern. God has mercifully allowed me to see how dismissive I was of other Christians and other Christian traditions, especially the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

    I think it is BECAUSE I have come to read your work with such growing appreciation that I find this new post, and the comments that you’ve made below the post defending it, so profoundly troubling. It simply doesn’t seem to be of one piece with your good work as a writer and teacher. It is true that the pope does not represent me as a Reformed Church minister, not ecclesiastically or personally. But he does represent, as several have said here, a large number of those who are baptized Christians. Since you and I both have no idea who is, or is not, truly united with Christ in mystic sweet communion we are left to accept our brothers and sisters for what they confess and to leave judgment to the Last Day. We can judge teaching, whether good or bad. We should not judge the persons of those who are in our own global Christian family. You admit that there are Catholics in that family and I would guess, regardless of their actual numbers, you would also believe this is to be a significant number of people. You would also, I assume, believe the greatest gift a Christian can give to another is to truly love them. So would it not be better to give the benefit of the doubt, granted because of deep love, to Pope Francis? Let us see if the spirit that we have observed in him so far is indeed the result of the Holy Spirit leading him as a spiritually mature person.

    Pope Francis is not my spiritual leader, since he is not the supreme pastor of my soul. But he is the pastor of scores of my Christians brothers and sisters who love him and he is a man who speaks for Christ before the world. That world finds a myriad of reasons to despise all of us who follow Jesus in grace and truth, Catholic and Protestant. You and I are judged by this secular world in the present age, right or wrong. They will judge all Christians and churches by the actions of this spiritual leader, for better or for worse. This is why I pray that Francis will become a great servant of his people and thus a blessing to us all.

    If the advance of Christ’s kingdom is to be our prayer, and Jesus clearly said that it should be, then the mission of Christ through our oneness (relational unity; cf. John 17:20-23) is clearly the hope of all Christians who love the kingdom of God. I hope you will rethink your stance and humbly listen to what some of your readers are trying to say here in response to this most untimely post. Roger, I believe you are better than this post, far better.

    Luis Palau seems to grasp the significance of this moment far better in his interview with Christianity Today. Palau not only loves the gospel of Christ but he knows Latin America, Argentina and the man Jorge Mario Bergoglio. I believe his counsel can help us right now if the opinions of evangelicals who know the man, and the context of his ministry, truly matter to the well-being of Christ’s mission. May God bless you and your important teaching ministry brother. I hope I have written faithfully and in love. I know that I am not your enemy in any sense of the word.

  • Greg Metzger

    Honestly, the language of determining who among my fellow baptized professing Christians is saved and who is not is something I find unbiblical and uncharitable. Same with declaring a group that professes Christ a “mission field” as distinct from other Christians who aren’t. I will leave those questions for God and I will seek to live and speak for Him to all I know. I will make judgments and analysis of doctrines and actions, and I certainly make them about those that emanate from Rome, but I don’t make judgments about people’s salvation status.

    • rogereolson

      You are over interpreting what I wrote. But, as a Protestant, I admit to believing that the gospel (to I have to say “as I understand it?”) is largely absent in RC churches. There are, of course, exceptions. I also do not make judgments about individuals’ salvation UNLESS I am convinced by something they say or do that they have never made a decision for Christ. I am an evangelical (unapologetically).

  • Wade Brand

    Dr. Olson

    I appreciate that reconciliation and conversation should not be done between Protestants and Catholics as though there is an expectation that we should somehow confess our apostasy. It is refreshing that you are not being politically correct concerning your ecumenicalism. It should not be a surrender of truth and identity for the purpose of a pseudo-peace. I am a little surprised by your position and your hope for a healthy liberation theology. The reason I do care about the papacy is its influence on theology in parts of the world and particularly South America. The direction he decides to press on political issues or to abstain from political issues is important. The president is not in charge of my spiritual life if it is defined in a dualism. The president does greatly influence our spiritual motion by systemic and cultural constructs. Does the papacy direct my doctrine from position of absolute authority, no. His influence is less direct than if I were a Catholic, but it is a powerful position that may have lasting impact on the future of the church and world. If we take an N.T. Wright theology on Paul, these two should converge in some way or another. I recognize that you are not tied to this category or reformed, yet I wonder how this apathy toward the office and not just the officer directs your eschatology (or springs from it). I care about the office of the pope, though I do not know if I care (like) this pope. I care about the office of the pope not knowing if we are going to advance in dialogue or retreat. Since I am not a dispensationalist, I wonder what God is doing with him.

    • rogereolson

      As an Anabaptist-leaning Protestant, I regard the papal office as an error. It should not exist. (I am talking especially about the office as it came to be defined and understood especially at and after Vatican I.) The person who holds it may be a profoundly spiritual Christian, but if that’s the case, I would expect him to amend the office to bring it more into line with the priesthood of every believer. Since there is this papacy I pray that the person holding the office will act wisely and compassionately. My post was meant only to say that I do not look to the person for my own spiritual leadership. What he says or doesn’t say is irrelevant to my spiritual life (and my church’s). As with any world leader I pray that he will promote truth, justice and mercy. But I am not all quivering with excitement at the election of a new pope partly because what they will do in office so unpredictable. Remember John XXIII? Nobody expected him to do anything. He was elected to be a “caretaker” pope. But he revolutionized the church. On the other hand, some of his successors have undone much of what he accomplished (or the council that he called accomplished). I am personally highly suspicious of institutions, hierarchies and offices invested with great power. That goes for evangelical ones, too, not just Catholic ones.

  • Deirdre D.

    Hello fellow Christians:
    I greet you as a Christian (lay) woman in the Roman Catholic tradition. This is the first time that I have ever read Pastor Roger Olson’s blog-site. I came to it indirectly, as a result of reading John Anderson’s ACT 3 website (a link to the Olson blog was provided on one of John Anderson’s posts).
    I decided to take a look at what Pastor Olson had to say because he was mentioned as one of the few evangelicals who was brave enough to admit that he was rather “indifferent” to the election of a new Pope for the Roman Catholic communion. I expected to be “turned off” by what Pastor Olson had to say because I was expecting a generalized hostility to the RC Church, and in particular to the papacy.
    However, when I actually read Pastor Olson’s column, I found myself agreeing with much of what he had to say. Some excerpts that I agreed with (or found valid) are the following:
    1) “It’s impossible to predict what a new Pope will do.” — TRUE
    2) Papacies (like presidencies) often don’t turn out the way the “experts” predict. — TRUE
    Just as it is nearly impossible to predict what a newly elected U.S. President will do — who would have thought that Pres. Reagan and Russian Premier Gorbachev would become close friends? And that would lead, eventually and indirectly, to the downfall of Communism? By the same token, who would have thought that a President from the Deep South — Lyndon Johnson — would be most positively remembered for the passage of two amendments to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing black Americans the right to vote?
    As for the media “hype” — it seems that the world of journalism loves an election and a “celebrity” (and it doesn’t hurt that the whole event takes place in one of the most felicitous cities in the world — i.e. beautiful and charming “Roma”.
    So, I must say that I find myself (happily) agreeing with many of the points that Pastor Olson made in his blog.
    In conclusion, I would like to say that I found all of the comments well thought out, carefully articulated, and quite generous towards members of the R.C. faith (clergy or laity). The only think I was not very happy about was that, among 29 posts, not one was written by a woman — that’s astonishing! And, unfortunately, reminds me all too well of my own Roman Catholic communion. You did notice that NOT ONE WOMAN was allowed to cast a ballot for the Pope — not even the holiest of nuns or any of the scholarly women theologians. Now that’s just plain SINFUL — there’s no other word to describe excluding 50% of the human race from the selection of a new world-wide church leader. One can only hope that by the time the next Pontiff is being elected, there will be a change in the make-up of the Conclave. We women will keep on hoping / praying for such a change, remembering that “Nothing is impossible for God!”