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.”
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?
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.