111. We Are Not Puritans, Are We?

August 1st, 2015

The Puritans do not generally enjoy good press. For most people the term Puritanism is synonymous with religious bigotry and judgmental moralism. This is especially true in Neo-Latin cultures where the word “Puritan” is normally associated with a derogatory caricature of Puritanism. In these contexts, Puritan is referred to as a kind of cerebral Christianity, overwhelmingly interested in outward and formal purity at the expense of human warmth and personal proximity. Pope Francis is no exception. On a recent occasion he made an impromptu reference to the Puritans. The term slipped out of his mouth as he was telling a story of a priest with a negative attitude.

What Are We, Puritans?

In delivering a meditation on priesthood to thousands of priests from around the world at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome on June 12th, the Pope recalled a priest who found it difficult to baptize the child of a single mother who had asked him to do so. The priest had opposed the idea because the woman was not married and the child had been born outside of marriage. The then Archbishop Bergoglio reacted with outrage and vehemently replied: “What are we, Puritans?” In his mind there was no better description of this hypocritical and arrogant approach than naming it “puritan”! Are we Puritans? Absolutely not! “Please” – the Pope went on in his meditation – “let’s not have a Church without Jesus and without mercy. Don’t scare the faithful people. When this happens, when the priest’s heart is bureaucratic and attached to the letter of the law, the Church, which is Mother, is transformed, for so many faithful into a stepmother. Please, make them feel that the Church is always Mother”.[1]

What does Puritan mean according to Francis? Apparently it means to have a church without Jesus, a church that scares people rather than welcoming them, a bureaucratic church obsessed with the letter of the law, a church that is a rigid stepmother rather than a loving mother. In Francis’ vocabulary there was no better term to discredit this merciless form of Christianity than referring to it as “Puritanism”. But is this a fair theological and historical description of Puritanism? Surely not.

There are tons of evidence that support a very different portrait. Here is how C.S. Lewis sketches it: “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotallers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion” (C.S. Lewis,  Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature [On Edmund Spenser], pp. 121-122). Instead of being cold and detached Christians, they were “worldly saints” (L. Ryken), combining a radical biblical faith with a down-to-earth interest in the whole of life.[2] Again C.S. Lewis is helpful here: “To be sure, there are standards by which the early Protestants could be called ‘puritanical’; they held adultery, fornication, and perversion for deadly sins. But then so did the Pope. If that is puritanism, all Christendom was then puritanical together. So far as there was any difference about sexual morality, the Old Religion was the more austere. The exaltation of virginity is a Roman, that of marriage, a Protestant, trait” (C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the 16th Century, p. 35).[3]

An Unsettled Relationship with Historic Protestantism

Against the term Puritan, Francis encouraged the priests to “be merciful, be merciful” – “mercy” being the key word with which to understand the Pope and the program of the fast approaching Jubilee of Mercy – as if Puritanism was opposed to a biblically-defined mercy.

Pope Francis is not new in showing profound uneasiness – even repulsion – towards what historic Protestantism stood for. In his 1985 lecture on the history of the Jesuit order he wrote severe evaluations of Luther (a “heretic”), and especially of Calvin (a “heretic” and “schismatic”) bringing about the “Calvinist squalor” in society, in the church, and in man’s heart.[4] According to that lecture, Protestantism lies at the root of all evils in the modern West. The fact that this lecture was republished unchanged in 2013 in Spanish and translated in 2014 in Italian with his permission, but without a mitigating word of explanation, indicates that this assessment still lingers in the Pope’s heart and mind.

In spite of the much applauded, yet inconsequential “words of apology” recently extended to Pentecostals and Waldensians, Pope Francis still demonstrates he has mixed feelings about the whole of the Protestant Reformation, its main architects (e.g. Luther and Calvin), and some of its historical representatives (e.g. the Puritans). In his impromptu reaction Francis echoed widespread prejudices. Surely the Puritans deserve a much fairer treatment than what the Pope gave his audience. They were not merciless Christians. In J.I. Packer’s words, the Puritans were “God’s giants” who embraced whole-heartedly a version of Christianity that paraded a particular blend of biblicist, pietist, churchly and worldly concerns.[5] The Pope is among those who instead of caricaturing Puritanism should take the opportunity to better grasp it historically, theologically, and pastorally.



[2] Leland Ryken, Wordly Saints. The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986).

[3] Other interesting quotes by C.S. Lewis on the Puritans can be found at https://tidesandturning.wordpress.com/2012/12/26/c-s-lewis-defining-and-defending-the-english-puritans/. I wish to thank Greg Pritchard for pointing this website to me.

[4] See my Vatican File (n. 83) “What Francis Really Thinks of the Reformation and of Calvin in particular”: http://vaticanfiles.org/2014/06/83-what-francis-really-thinks-of-the-reformation-and-of-calvin-in-particular/.

[5] J.I. Packer, Among God’s Giants. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Eastbourne, UK: Kingsway Publ. 1991) p. 433.