106. Should Evangelicals Love Pope Francis?

April 13th, 2015

(This Vatican File was written together with Reid Karr, a dear friend and a colleague in Gospel ministry in Rome)

On the day before Easter Peter Wehner, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote an interesting and thought provoking article titled “Why Evangelicals Should Love the Pope.”[1] Three main concerns about it can be raised and briefly presented.

The Straw Man

Pitting Franklin Graham against Pope Francis on how to address the moral crisis of our time is very easy but totally arbitrary. With his seemingly harsh language and judgmental arguments against homosexuality, Franklin Graham represents a still significant portion of US Evangelicals, yet a minority of Evangelicals globally considered. In speaking to the US context, Graham may have right-wing political overtones that do not fit  the whole Evangelical family. North American socio-political categories are not useful to account for its complexity. Lots of Evangelicals, both inside and outside of the US, deal with the same issues with a different attitude and language. On the other hand, Pope Francis speaks on the same issues in more pastoral terms and in doing so he is able to overlook specific situations. When he does address concrete cases, he does so using strong language. For instance, in his recent visit to the Philippines (Jan 16, 2015), he spoke about the prospect of introducing same-sex marriage as an “ideological colonization” of family life to resist and fight against. Not exactly the tender tone that Wehner wants us to believe. Francis may seem softer and milder only because he speaks about these issues “in general” and in a more pastoral tone. Before contrasting Graham and Pope Francis, Wehner should wait until the Pope visits the US this coming September when he will speak at the World Meeting of Families. Is he so sure that Francis will speak merciful words only? Until then, he should have instead compared Franklin Graham and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the staunch Archbishop of New York. Perhaps the difference between the two is not so sharp as it appears to be between Graham and the Pope. In the article Graham is depicted as the Shakespearean fool and Francis as the wise man of the story: a much too simplistic picture of reality to be true.

The Tip of the Iceberg

In calling Evangelicals to love the Pope, the NYT article has a sentimentalized view of the Pope. It focuses on some aspects of the papal language, but fails to give readers the fuller picture. In the same period in which Francis met with prisoners and social outcasts, he also presided over pompous Easter celebrations in St Peter’s basilica with all the richness and power of the Roman Catholic church on full display. Where was Francis’ humility in all these splendorous liturgies and costly events? Moreover, about the same time in which Francis spoke about the church being a “field hospital”, he confirmed and reinforced the existence and necessity of the Vatican bank which is a world-wide power structure that deals with all sorts of financial activity. Wehner highlighted the “loving” words of the Pope and overlooked the rest. This is a common practice in the religious analysis of the papacy: a carefully selected picture of the Pope becomes his full representation, thus failing to provide an accurate account of the whole. The humble and frugal aspects of the Pope as a person have little to do with the political and imperial aspects of his role. Below the surface and the tip of the iceberg is the iceberg itself, which in this case is the last absolutist monarchy that can be found on earth. Serious reflection should be devoted to the reality of the iceberg rather than focusing on the tip only.

What About the Gospel?

“Welcoming all”, “showing compassion”, “all inclusive” seem to be the mainstream and politically correct expressions of the “gospel of the day.” Pope Francis is a champion of this kind of gospel presentation. Many secular people, as well as many Evangelicals, are fascinated by the seemingly generous scope of his message. In his article Wehner quotes Pope Francis as saying, “Without mercy, we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness and love.” Truer words could not be spoken. But this statement represents the tip of the iceberg. We should be responsible and look below the surface and identify what is giving form to and supporting the Pope’s words and actions.

Where does sin fit into the Pope’s view? What about repentance and faith in Christ alone? What about turning back from idolatry and following Christ wholeheartedly? What about putting the Word of God first? After visiting the prisoners in Naples and speaking words of mercy and forgiveness, the Pope went to the city cathedral to kiss the liquefied blood of St. Gennaro, a medieval practice related to the beseeching of a blessing of the patron saint upon the city. Where is the biblical gospel in this?

What should concern every Christian above all else is the salvation of those who don’t know Christ as Savior. We can talk about mercy and forgiveness and love and taking Christ to the farthest and darkest places of the earth all we want, but what really matters is the message we proclaim and embody to the lost and hurting we encounter. What then is the message of salvation? If asked how one is forgiven and saved from his or her sins, how would Pope Francis respond? The article does not delve into these controversial waters. He and other Evangelicals who share his sentiments would do well to examine what’s below the tip of the iceberg.

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