Pope Francis smiles and waves at his inaugural mass. (Photo courtesy of the Catholic Church, England and Wales - http://bit.ly/1dLE0m3)

Pope Francis smiles and waves at his inaugural mass. (Photo courtesy of the Catholic Church, England and Wales – http://bit.ly/1dLE0m3)

When it was reported that Pope Francis chose public transportation over limo service as a cardinal, the world smiled. When he spent Maundy Thursday washing the feet of incarcerated women at a local prison, it touched our hearts. When he embraced a disfigured man, it left us flat-out speechless.  Francis is not your father’s Pope.

But among the most surprising fans of the Pope are Protestants, a group that has often had a less-than-amenable relationship with Catholics historically. But somehow Francis–who some have called the “evangelical Pope”–has begun prying open their arms and sneaking into their hearts. Protestant evangelist Luis Palau has prayed with Francis  and even defended his faith. Timothy George, a respected Baptist theologian, has written an article claiming the Pope is “Our Francis, Too.” And a writer for “The Catholic Herald” opined that the Argentine Jesuit is “stirring the hearts of evangelicals all over the world.”

>>RELATED: “Is Francis the first Protestant Pope?”<<

There are many reasons one might give for Francis’ increasing acceptance among Protestants. His humility and concern for the poor are certainly factors. And the Pope often uses language that is meaningful to Protestants–for example, he said Christians must recover their enthusiasm for evangelism and remember that preaching the gospel should be “first and foremost.” But I wanted to dig deeper into the matter by speaking to a Catholic leader who is “in the know.”

Raymond Arroyo is news director and lead anchor for EWTN, a Catholic television network that can be seen in more than 200 million homes across six continents and heard on SiriusXM satellite radio. He’s author of several books, including “Of Thee I Zing: America’s Cultural Decline from Muffin Tops to Body Shots” and a biography of Mother Angelica, both of which were New York Times bestsellers. Here we discuss the state of Catholic-Protestant relations and why Protestants are falling in love with Francis.

JM: I see a lot of comments on prominent Christian leaders’ Facebook feeds and Twitter threads about how much they love Pope Francis. Why you think that is? Why do so many Protestants seem to love Francis?

"The World Over with Raymond Arroyo" is broadcast in

“The World Over with Raymond Arroyo” is broadcast to more than 200 million households via EWTN.

RA: In my conversations with friends who are not Catholic but are leaders in their own faith communities, the thing they constantly point to is that he is a beautiful witness of the gospel, at every moment. In many ways you see Pope Francis following in that model Pope John Paul II, who represented a seismic shift in the relationship between evangelicals, the Jewish community, and even the Muslim community, and the Catholic Church. He, too, sort of had that human touch. He was warm, he was real, and one felt the witness of Christ in his actions and in his words. And I think that was compelling. And it did sort of arrest people of all communities. Francis is very accessible, he goes out to the people, he spends time with people who are poor and picks up the phone to call people in need.

JM: When we look at Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, it seems that Protestants didn’t connect so well with him. Certainly not to this level. In your opinion, why were they so detached from Benedict compared to Francis?

RA: That’s very interesting. If you talk to Protestant theologians like Timothy George or if you talk to Rick Warren, or if you talk to people who are very attentive to theology, they’ll tell you that Benedict was very biblically-based. So evangelical leaders found his theology riveting. They were very impressed by the theological mind and the biblical bent of Benedict’s mind, the Christological bent of his mind. Everything was Christ-centered in Benedict’s conception, and no one over the last three papacies articulated the faith with more clarity than Benedict the 16th. I think the evangelical community was very thankful for that.

But Benedict didn’t have this public persona we see with Francis. He couldn’t take it to the popular culture, and sort of cut through the noise. So when a scandal befell him, there was not quite the public persona to soften the blow. He was a very shy, bookish professor at heart. And though I think Benedict believed everything that Francis and John Paul did, and do, he was not always the best pop-cultural witness to that. But I knew him personally—on a personal level he was one of the holiest people I’ve ever met.

JM: You mentioned Timothy George, a respected Protestant theologian. He published an article in “Christianity Today,” an opinion piece, where he called the new Pope “Our Francis, Too.” Do you think that it’s fair, in some sense, to let evangelicals hold onto a piece of the Pope? Would it be fair, for example, to call Francis “the first Protestant Pope?”

RA: I think what Timothy is speaking of there is the warmth and the simpatico that he senses in this Pope, and that many evangelicals feel. Let’s face it: two decades ago this would have been unheard of, for a Protestant of any derivation to claim a Pope as their own. I mean it just was unheard of.

There are a couple of reasons for that. One is the great warmth, affection and magnetism of this man—Francis—and his willingness to allow the gospel to shape his ministry in a very profound and visual way. Additionally, the pressures of the culture we find ourselves in has, in a way, forced Catholics and Protestants together in a new way, where they realize that what divides them is far less than what unites them. And I think that’s probably what Timothy is pointing to. And when you hear a Pope stand up and talk about mercy, and forgiveness, and the broken hearts we all endure, and the need to push gossip aside and how destructive that can be in our lives, he’s getting down to the very granule level of faith that I think is appealing to the evangelical and Protestant mind.

The thing that has always impressed me about my evangelical friends—my in-laws are evangelicals, by the way—is their deep concern for the people in the pews next to them. And their willingness to go out of their own comfort zones to help those in their own community. And if the mainline churches and Catholicism have a problem, it’s that at times we can get very isolated. And though we check the boxes, we’re going to mass, we’re living our lives and we’re trying to be good people, extending that into our everyday lives can be a problem. Francis is calling people to allow that message to go deeper and to have personal reverberations in their own lives. I think that’s what they’re finding most appealing.

It’s also a very simple message. It’s a very blunt gospel, in some ways, which startles some people in the Catholic church. They go, “Wait a minute. What happened to the high theology? Where’s the graduate level exegesis here?” Francis isn’t that. I would argue that he’s boiling down the last two papacies with their the great messages and the intellectual heights that were scaled into a digestible message that the masses can absorb. And when I say “masses” I mean 99% of the people in the pews, whether they be Catholic or evangelical.

JM: When you look back at the 1960s, a Catholic marrying a Protestant in the United States was basically an inter-religious marriage. But today it would not even raise a brow in many evangelical communities. What are the events in the United States that you think have changed this?

RA: If we go back to the 1960s, certainly abortion has been a major contributor to this relationship. The Catholic church, in it’s open-throated defense of human life—from long before Roe v. Wade, but certainly since Roe v. Wade—has been a consistent voice saying we must protect every human life. Whether that life is at its end, beginning, or somewhere in the middle. And I think that message has been very attractive to so many evangelicals who felt there was no one speaking the truth beyond the confines of their particular church. When John Paul came to the papacy in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision in 1978, he articulated that defense of life, what he called “the gospel of life.” I think people like my in-laws and many evangelicals leaders I’ve spoken to found that very alluring and attractive. And then you get deeper into religious persecution, in the United States. In the last few years we’ve seen religious rights, in the opinion of some, being trounced, or at least curtailed.

All of this, I think, has brought these communities together around a core message that they all agree on. We believe in the same gospel, we have the same Savior. And aside from drinking wine and your vestments, we have so much in common. Today the temperature has come way down because I think the communities together realized the great commonality and that they’re brothers and sisters in Christ.

JM: You talk about the gospel as a unifier, but the gospel is also something that divides these two communities. Among many Protestants–particularly evangelicals–the center of their theology is inhabited by the concept of the gospel as “justification by grace through faith.” And a lot of Protestants present a caricature that Catholics believe in justification by works. They would say that something that divides the two communities is that Catholics don’t understand the gospel as the Bible teaches it. How would you respond to this?

RA: In the Catholic conception, it is both faith and works. They go hand in hand. But the works are nothing more than the exemplification, the reflection of our faith. And I think it goes to the heart of what we’ve been talking about. Actually, Francis is, in some ways, a great example of the idea that faith and works go hand in hand. You had Popes for centuries who’ve been wholly good men but they’ve been up in the confines of the Vatican. You didn’t see them. Now you have a man who blazes across the cultural landscape not because of his faith, I would argue, but because of what you see of his faith: his works. So they’re not mutually exclusive. And I think to try to make them mutually exclusive is to do a disservice to the gospel. I mean, you know, faith without works is dead. That’s in the Bible too, and I think that we can’t selectively read these things and write people out of Christianity.

On the other hand, I think this caricature is dying. And it is dying through human witness and the power of the Holy Spirit in time. Christ, and his vision and his goal, was that all might be one. I think slowly you see that coming together in its own way.

There are always going to be people, Jonathan, who have their own take on the gospel. One of the advantages of the Catholic Church is that each church does not reflect their own theology. They reflect the corporate theology, a theology of what Catholics believe the apostles taught and a theology that has been tested over time. You are going, at times, to have an individual take on the gospel from church to church in the evangelical and the Protestant world. That is something that you won’t find, by and large, in the Catholic church.

But I think this faith and works thing is like the Orthodox and the Catholics parting over the filioque. I think some of these things are arcane excuses for staying apart. And I think that, increasingly, we’re seeing that there aren’t so many excuses for remaining apart. Again, I think the human witness and the everyday lived faith of these two communities are inevitably demonstrating that they’re much closer than even isolated Bible verses, or people’s takes on those verses.

44 Comments

  1. good article! it is very important, as Christian brothers and sisters to find common ground through the love for our Lord.
    One thing that I have never understood is how can one, being the “hands and feet of God”, in “loving one another as I have loved you” not perform an action (works) to help one another in need? We are the answers to other people’s Prayers, God uses us to minister to them, working through us to help them. We don’t do these things so we can get into Heaven, we do them with love for our Lord, “for whatever you do for one another, you do for Me” and “whatever you do not do for one another, you do not do for Me”.
    “works of the law” also pertains to the Leviticul Law, which pertains to the rituals in Leviticus, laws that aided people to purify themselves before the Lord. When Jesus came, those laws died and were no longer valid (circumcision for example), hence “works of the law is dead”, but it doesn’t mean we should not help each other or we do not have to obey the Ten Commandments, it just means that the old law was replaced with Baptism and it is why Jesus died for each of us.

  2. The misconception of protestants against that good works does not justify salvation because they (the protestants always think that Catholics do good works for the poor or compassionate ones, or only for oneself. But they do not go beyond or deeper understand of the whole truth. Catholics when do good works for the reasons of oneself are merits by society. But when Catholics do good works as what St. James meant, we do it (FOR) our Lord Jesus Christ. Where nothing benefit or merit in this world for you, lest you may even suffer all through and no acknowledgement or recognitions from high society for your deeds contributed. But the God the Father see how the good works you have done for Him through Christ Jesus his Son. That’s what “Good Works” is. Praise to our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

  3. Definition; A good work in Catholicism means – “To do or help the poor/unfortunate or compassionate ones.
    - “To correct oneself or treat others better.

    Not for ourself, but “For Christ Jesus only”.

  4. The Protestants love him because he has taken 2000 years of Catholic tradition and flushed it down the toilet. Don’t be fooled by this imposter Pope, Catholicism as I knew ended after the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI stated: “The smoke of Satan has entered the Church” and he wasn’t lying!

    • As a newly confirmed Catholic coming from the Baptist, then interdenominational evangelical churches, it seems that Pope Francis has grasped the meaning of showing Christian love. Tradition is important, but it goes hand in hand with scripture in the outward showing of love as Jesus proclaimed in scripture as in:
      James 2:14-26
      What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

    • a bit harsh, but true. The evidence is mounting. I try so hard to stay positive
      about this new Pope & pray for him. He seems like a bit of a wrecking ball to me. The WORLD loves him. It HATED & Despised Our Lord Jesus Christ. Something
      is horribly WRONG with this picture. God Bless

      • The whole world does not love him. I posted a Bill Moyers article on my Facebook and an old schoolmate went absolutely berserk about how horrible Francis is, how he should give away the Vatican Treasures and so-on. Despite feeding him copious information about how misinformed he was (and is) he kept at it, denouncing the Church in that small-town way that college towns corrupt young men and women who are far from their home support systems. I remember on nearly every college campus I studied, the fundamentalists and radicals go after the young. This old classmate never left that college town, and his hate for the Church, including Francis, stays.

        This is just to say, not everyone loves him.

        Harden not thy hearts.

  5. The only thing that I don’t agree is what she says at the end that the differences that separate Catholics and Protestants are similar to what separates Orthodox and Catholics. The theological differences between Protestants and Catholic are deeper and more critical than the disagreement with the Eastern Orthodox about the filioque. One example is the Eucharist, to Catholics it IS the Body of Christ but to Protestants it’s merely a symbol.

    • Jonathan Merritt

      It’s a bit misleading to say that Protestants believe it is “merely a symbol.” If you’re Lutheran or Episcopalian, this is not really accurate. It’s probably true if you are a low church, non-denom evangelical.

  6. It might be interpreted as rather blunt, but I’ve seen evidence in my own faith community among progressive, lapsed Catholics and those from other faith traditions that they see a softening of doctrine. With the help of the media, comments by the Holy Father regarding Catholic “non-negotiables” like abortion and active homosexuality are being interpreted to mean that the Church is finally starting to “wise up.” Many of us are greatly concerned!

    • I agree. We are greatly concerned that our Catholic Faith has been compromised, watered down, distorted since V2. By trying to accommodate
      heretics, we are being led astray. There is a crisis in the Church which the hierarchy seems to whitewash &^ ignore in the name of “ecumenism”. We
      are losing our Faith, which for 2000 years has been rock solid. Perhaps this crisis in vocations, Catholic attendance at Church & sacraments, rampant abuses in the clergy etc. etc. ought to be addressed before this big scramble to embrace heretics.

  7. Gail Iannarelli

    I was brought back to the faith after decades of non- practicing by the homilies and publications of our beloved Pope Emeritis, Benedict XVI .He was a great teacher of the faith, and in my opinion, the holiest Pope ever. He had a warmth that glowed from within and his words were like pearls of wisdom. He was a born professor, his books are deep and insightful. I think the election of Pope Francis is right for the times; but I do miss Benedict’s intellect. One does not change their religious doctrine to adhere to the present culture or fill the pews on Sunday. It is far better to have a smaller but traditional Church.

    • Keep in mind that Catholic means Universal.

      To my mind, Universal means inclusive, it means big.

      Do you want an exclusive Church or an inclusive Church?

      Are you afraid that God, Jesus and the Holy Host will let some heathen, gasp, even some criminal or violent fascist take up space in God’s House (heaven) after a life of misdeeds? Is there not enough room for everyone?

      I think of a certain thief on a cross and remember what Jesus said.

  8. Wonderful article. Thank you. But just noticed that Arroyo says in the last line of his second response to you that: “I knew him personally—on a personal level he was one of the holiest people I’ve ever met.”. Isn’t he still alive?

  9. I appreciated the article, however, in response to the question: “When you look back at the 1960s, a Catholic marrying a Protestant in the United States was basically an inter-religious marriage. … What are the events in the United States that you think have changed this?”

    The emphasis on Roe v. Wade in Arroyo’s response is far too reductionist. While this did figure largely in the Catholic/Evangelical convergence in the Moral Majority, of far deeper significance was Vatican II. The implications of which took several decades to unfold.

    Also – there was significant breaking down of the ethnic defined religious enclaves in which most Americans lived and understood themselves that took place in the 1960′s. This opening of the world and increased awareness of others who had been strangers (sometimes enemies?) to us was influenced significantly by both the civil rights movement and the increased geographic mobility of many Americans for education and jobs. These increased the familiarity of Roman Catholics and Protestants with one another on a daily basis.

    Finding a common voice in resistance to violence – beginning with the war in Vietnam and increasing with the Nuclear Disarmament movement of the 1980′s brought Roman Catholics and Protestants into common cause. Oscar Romero and the the slain Maryknoll sisters in El Salvador were claimed as brothers and sisters in Christ by many Protestants.

    A shared humility born sexual abuse crises and infidelity scandals that have shamed Roman Catholics and Protestants (of all stripes) made space for deeper listening and shared learning of how do we prevent such behavior among religious leaders.

    I was raised a mainline Protestant, born in the 1950′s. I recall making a friendship with a Roman Catholic classmate late in elementary school when he transferred from a parochial school to our local public school. I seriously asked the question of my parents, “are Catholics Christians?” A question born of our separated worlds AND the habits of repeatedly comparing our (Protestant) best with moments of their (Catholic) worst. The protestant penchant for self-definition by finding our “righteousness” in Luther’s defiance – and freezing the Catholic Church at a moment in history was deeply engrained, as was the neglecting of the significant reformation internal to the Catholic community.

    When I now look at my book shelves, I find that most of my books on devotional life and prayer are by Roman Catholics – Vanier, Nouwen, Merton. And I have been deeply formed by the vision and faithfulness of Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa and the brothers Berrigan.

    I am grateful for this convergence. I – today as a Mennonite – am both challenged and encouraged by the words and witness of Pope Francis – not because he is pope or Catholic – but because he is a witness to Christ. In this he is my teacher and I am grateful.

  10. Yes, most like Francis compared to Benedict. But the majority of Protestants would never accept Francis as a leader of the church (and I write “a”, not “the”) until he corrects many of the heresies taught in the Catholic church.

  11. Protestant & Evangelical bigots continue to persecute Catholics. P & E’s continue to spew the most outrageous lies about Catholics, due to their ignorance. Pope Francis is particularly charming, sincere, sweet and humble…all attributes that are admired & appeal to the TV screen. But all non-Catholics think that every priest lives in luxury & is dressed in red, because they see images of Rome several times a year. The vast, vast majority of priests are honoring their vows & living humbly (some in poor countries). The Church has always looked after the poor and sick. How dare they call Pope Francis the first Protestant Pope? It’s insulting. Also, why do Evangelicals judge & assume that Catholics don’t have Christ in their hearts??? Of course they do…certainly practicing Catholics who embrace their faith…that’s the only kind of genuine Catholic. And where do P & E’s think the New Testament came from?? The Catholic Church presented it to the world & was chosen by God to do so. The Bible was preserved by Monks, protected & honored for 1500 years before the Gutenberg press could copy the one and ONLY Sacred Scripture for the masses. All so-called Christians from Luther-on have altered & mutilated the Sacred Scripture. P & E’s: it’s about time that you study & learn the Truth !!! Also, If you don’t have the intelligence to make the distinction between the terms worship, veneration & honor….I suggest you refer to your dictionary.

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