What to Think of the New Pope

Darryl G. Hart and John R. Muether

Ordained Servant: January 2014

What to Think about the Pope

Also in this issue

Democracy and the Denigration of Office, Part 1

Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation

The New-yeeres Gift

With All My Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind?


Papal watching has been a popular spectator sport among American evangelicals for thirty-five years now. In 1978, when the 455-year Italian monopoly was broken by a Polish priest who became an instant celebrity, Protestants began to warm in their attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church. The thaw continued when the respected biblical scholar Joseph Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II in a 2005 election that overcame rivals from the liberal wing of the church. Now the word on his successor, the first non-European Pope since the eighth century, is that if you liked John Paul II and Benedict XVI, you are going to love Francis.

What’s not to love about this humble priest from Buenos Aires? We are not sure whether to classify him as a liberal or a traditionalist, and his Jesuit background may not serve to clarify matters. But under his leadership, the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires was decidedly evangelical-friendly, easing long-standing tensions especially between Roman Catholics and charismatics. And this pope can preach—in fact, he does preach, and that daily, we are told; sermons, moreover that are Scripture-saturated and Christ-centered.

And with Francis, it’s not all talk. If his predecessors maintained the trappings of a haughty and inaccessible Roman Catholicism, Francis is signaling a solidarity with the poor in a lifestyle that seems to be a clear break from the past. Shortly after his election last spring, Francis conducted a Maundy Thursday service in a prison, washing the feet of several prisoners including a Muslim woman. His anti-papal practices, including modest apparel, humble living conditions, and use of public transportation, are rendering him more populist than John Paul II, and he resonates even more strongly with the young. In short, Francis “gets it” in ways that eluded Benedict and even John Paul II.

Indeed Roman Catholicism is sounding like an anachronistic phrase. Months before Francis took office, George Weigel suggested that we are witnessing the dawn of a new evangelical Catholicism. Weigel could scarcely have imagined a better torch-bearer for his vision for the church. With Francis, we are far removed from the clutches of Rome and have broken into leadership from the new world and the global south. Evangelization and conversion are priorities in this magisterium that promise to heal the deep wounds of the church and the turmoil since Vatican II.

Protestants have been reluctant to take issue with assessments like these. Last November, when Sarah Palin voiced her concern over the liberal sounding rhetoric of Francis, she apologized in short order for rushing to judgment against this “sincere and faithful shepherd” of the church. Instead she blamed a more reliable villain—the media.

But best-in-evangelical-fawning award goes to Timothy George,[1] who wrote in Christianity Today that, for evangelicals, the new Pope is “our Francis.” His “Christ-like rhetoric” is more widely accepted than that of any of his predecessors. Whatever doctrinal or moral continuity he represents is second to his profound pastoral instincts. His “servant leadership” is precisely what has connected Francis to our cynical age. “He is breaking the rules in the right places: where they shouldn’t exist.”

Is this truly the dawn of an era of “evangelical Catholicism?” As much as Francis promises to be a pope for the twenty-first century, there are considerations from the past that still haunt the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Here are three that especially confront the new Pope.

Three Considerations

The first concerns Francis’s appropriation of the conciliar impulse that the Second Vatican Council had tapped. Ever since the fifteenth century, popes have been bashful about calling church councils. The reason owes mainly to the papal crisis of the fourteenth century when the Roman Catholic Church experienced its so-called “Western Schism.” Between 1378 and 1417, the papacy had at least two rival claimants to the papal office, one located in Rome, the other in Avignon. When cardinals sought to end the crisis by electing a suitable pope, they wound up with five years (1409–1414) when the Roman Catholic hierarchy had three rival popes. To break the stalemate, the Council of Constance sorted through the rival popes and elected the legitimate successor to the See of Rome, Martin V. To do this, the council’s bishops claimed for councils an authority higher than the pope’s. Conciliarism was a prominent theme of late medieval reformers—that is, the idea that a better way to oversee the church was by a body of bishops than by the rule of a monarchical papacy. The Council of Constance also called for a regular convening of bishops—every ten years, much like the Church of England’s Lambeth Conference which gathers every decade. But Martin V and his successors never reconvened the council of bishops. It fell to Martin Luther in his appeal to the German nobility to call for a council to reform the Western church. It also took John Calvin to propose Presbyterianism—a form of church government that would rely on church councils or assemblies.

Of course, Paul III convened a council in 1545—the Council of Trent—to respond to the challenges made by Protestants. Paul was ambivalent since he wanted to repudiate Luther and other Protestants, but Charles V, the Emperor, hoped for reconciliation between Protestants and Rome. The awkward nature of Trent meant that participation by bishops was weak. Only thirty-one were present for the opening session. The council met on and off for almost twenty years and only swelled to 270 bishops by the end. Four popes held office during the Council, and none of them attended. Instead, they orchestrated the proceedings through legates. Some bishops believed the papacy placed restrictions on open discussion. Even though papal supremacy was a major Protestant objection to Rome, Trent delicately avoided discussion of the contested matter of papal or conciliar authority.

From 1563 until 1870, the Roman Catholic Church never witnessed another council. (To put this in some perspective, the national synod of the Dutch Reformed churches did not convene after the Synod of Dort for two centuries—1618–1818.) But at the First Vatican Council, the chief item of business was to underscore papal authority and supremacy, and the bishops did so by making papal infallibility a matter of church dogma. The specific context was a Europe in which political revolutions like the one in France in 1789 or calls for democratic reform in 1848 challenged the pope’s temporal and spiritual authority. In reaction, the First Vatican Council highlighted papal supremacy: “We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses ... that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.”

But when John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the mood in the church at large was less about how to resist changes in European society than about how the church needed to embrace and affirm the contemporary world. Along with this transformation were the Second Vatican Council’s explicit calls for a more conciliar arrangement between the Bishop of Rome and the church’s bishops. The word used to describe this aspect of church life was collegial. The Second Vatican Council described the pope and the bishops as being “joined together,” and in communion “with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered.” These were signs of the “collegial character” of the episcopate and of the “hierarchical communion with the head and members of the body.” At the same time, the Council was quick to affirm the pope’s primacy: “The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head.” The reason was that the “pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact.”[2] In effect, the Second Vatican Council wanted to involve the bishops and the laity in church life but could not challenge the standard of papal supremacy.

 What ensued after the Second Vatican Council was dramatic. Traditionalists complained that everyone did what was right in his own eyes. For that reason, John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to correct some of the excesses that developed after Vatican II by resurrecting the teaching office of the papacy and by restoring coherence with the liturgy and church discipline. But Pope Francis’s initial moves suggest that he is following the conciliar spirit that animated Vatican II by abandoning a model of pope as monarch over the church. Some reporters have commented that unlike Benedict XVI who preferred a “smaller, doctrinally purer church,” Francis stresses the Vatican II notion of “the church as the people of God.” The pope has also signaled an interest in promoting a more conciliar approach to day-to-day affairs. He has formed the so-called “Council of Eight,” a group of cardinals who will assist in reorganizing of the Vatican bureaucracy and, in Francis’s own words, “help me with governance of the universal church.”[3] These tendencies dovetail with Francis’s “common man” approach and his refusal to use the privileged trappings of the papacy. What this means for the Roman Catholic Church in the long run is impossible to tell, but it does suggest that the spirit of Vatican II is alive and possibly well.

A second consideration for evaluating Francis is his own attitude toward the doctrinal and disciplinary ambiguity that Vatican II introduced. Prior to 1960, papal teaching had not only stressed the supremacy of the papal office but also the danger of departing from Rome’s doctrinal formulations. In reaction to the social and political forces that disrupted nineteenth-century Europe, Pius IX issued a “Syllabus of Errors” which condemned all modern developments that threatened the church. Canon 80 summarized the tenor of the syllabus: it condemned the idea that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” This opposition to modern life led later popes to issue sharp condemnations of liberalism in society and the church. Leo XIII, for instance, in 1898 issued an encyclical that judged Americanism to be a heresy—this was the idea that the church needed to adapt to the democratic setting of the United States. Leo’s successor, Pius X, followed up in 1907 with an encyclical that condemned theological modernism—that is, theological efforts to adapt Christian teaching to evolution, biblical criticism, and modern philosophy.

Vatican II, however, took an almost opposite stance by following John XXIII’s call for the church to update its teaching and practice. In politics, this meant that the church embraced what it had previously rejected—freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. It also encouraged Roman Catholics to seek what was common with Hindus, Muslims, and Jews, while calling for ecumenical relationships with Protestants, known to the council as “separated brothers.” And as mentioned above, Vatican II explained an ecclesiology that sought to recognize greater collegiality among the bishops and also the gifts of the laity, even asserting that the average believer participated in the prophetic office “by means of a life of faith and charity.” The Council also reformed the liturgy and disciplines that had defined Roman Catholicism since Trent. It was an epoch-making event, one difficult for laity and clergy to comprehend, as Kenneth Woodward, a longtime reporter for Newsweek, explained in an account of Vatican II:

There was a time, not so long ago, when Roman Catholics were very different from other Americans. They belonged not to public school districts, but to parishes named after foreign saints, and each morning parochial-school children would preface their Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag with a prayer for Holy Mother the Church. When they went to Mass—never just a “Sunday service”—they prayed silently with rosaries or read along in Latin as if those ancient syllables were the language Jesus himself spoke. Blood-red vigil candles fluttered under statues and, on special occasions, incense floated heavily about the pews. Kneeling at the altar rail, their mouths pinched dry from fasting, the clean of soul were rewarded with the taste of God on their tongues—mysterious, doughy, and difficult to swallow. “Don’t chew the Baby Jesus,” they were warned as children, and few—even in old age—ever did.

The Catholic Church was a family, then, and if there were few brothers in it, there were lots of sisters—women with milk-white faces of ambiguous age, peering out of long veils and stiff wimples that made the feminine contours of their bodies ambiguous too. Alternately sweet and sour, they glided across polished classroom floors as if on silent rubber wheels, virginal “brides of Christ” who often found a schoolroom of thirty students entrusted to their care. At home, “Sister says” was a sure way to win points in any household argument.

Even so, in both church and home, it was the “fathers” who wielded ultimate authority. First, there was the Holy Father in Rome: aloof, infallible, in touch with God. Then there were the bishops, who condemned movies and sometimes communism; once a year, with a rub from a bishop’s anointing thumb, young men blossomed into priests and Catholic children of twelve became “soldiers of Jesus Christ.” But it was in the confessional box on gloomy Saturday nights that the powers of the paternal hierarchy pressed most closely on the soul. “Bless me Father for I have sinned” the penitent would say, and in that somber intimacy, sins would surface and be forgiven.

There were sins that only Catholics could commit, like eating meat on Friday or missing Sunday Mass. But mostly the priests were there to pardon common failings of the flesh, which the timid liked to list under the general heading of “impure” thoughts, desires, and action. Adolescent boys dreamed of marriage when it would be okay by God and the fathers to “go all the way.” But their parents knew full well that birth control was not included in such freedom. Birth control was against God’s law, all the fathers said, and God’s law—like Holy Mother the Church—could never change.[4]

But everyone could see that Rome had changed. John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to channel that change back into a coherent order. But for some, the damage had been done. In the light of Francis’s recent off-the-cuff interviews, the less demanding and more tolerant character of Vatican II seems to have returned to the papacy. As one reporter on the Vatican recently put it, “Vatican II offered a new way of thinking about doctrine; it presented doctrine as something that always needed to be interpreted and appropriated in a pastoral key.” He sees this same attitude in Francis who insisted that “the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.” Instead, the church's teaching finds its true pastoral significance within a “missionary style [that] focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things.”[5] Conservative Presbyterians who know the history of the controversies over modernism in the Presbyterian Church USA may notice an uncanny resemblance between Francis and the signers of the Auburn Affirmation who also distinguished between the essential and non-essential aspects of Christian teaching to avoid being charged with departing from ordination vows. In other words, if Vatican II represented Rome’s backing away from its previous condemnations of liberal theology, and if Francis represents the spirit of Vatican II, he may create a setting where theological innovation (read: liberalism) can blossom.

Questions surrounding the place of modernism in contemporary Roman Catholicism lead naturally to the third consideration relevant to evaluating Francis, namely, the social teaching of the church. In the case of Protestant modernism, the decline of fidelity to orthodox teaching was bound up with efforts to apply Christianity to all of life. In the late nineteenth century, this meant trying to give the churches resources to respond to the social crises arising from industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. The Social Gospel—an application of the gospel to social and political “sins”—led churches to downplay the historic gospel which for progressives looked too otherworldly and individualistic to be of much good.

In contrast to Protestant modernists, the post-Vatican I papacy held on to both Roman Catholic teaching about salvation while also beginning to deliver teachings about the social conditions that had provoked the social gospel. Leo XIII, for instance, the same pontiff who condemned Americanism as a heresy, also issued Rerum Novarum (1891), an encyclical that addressed the tensions between industrial laborers and capitalism. He advocated conditions and compensation that would allow workers to avoid poverty. He also insisted on the importance of Christian moral norms for a proper understanding of the dignity of the laboring classes. Many historians regard Leo’s writing as the beginning of the so-called social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. According to Benedict XVI, the church’s social teaching aims “to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.” He added that the church “has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice ... cannot prevail and prosper.”[6] Since Leo XIII, practically all popes have understood their office to have a responsibility to address economic, political, and international well being. Pope Francis has yet to issue any encyclicals that directly fall in the category of social teaching, but many of his off-the-cuff remarks indicate that he is willing to address topics that governments around the world are trying to resolve. In his inaugural homily Francis said, for instance, “I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”[7]

 For Christians who want a church that speaks to all of life, Rome’s tradition of social teaching represents a wholesome effort to extend the blessings of Christianity to the entire world, not just its peoples but its structures. But for conservative Presbyterians who believe that the church can only speak what God’s word reveals, Rome’s extensive comments on society and politics violate the doctrine of the spirituality of the church and show the dangers of churches speaking to matters beyond what Scripture reveals. J. Gresham Machen, in fact, explained this position by saying that the church could not speak to civil or political matters unless God had clearly revealed such laws and policies in the context of Christ’s fulfilling the civil and ceremonial laws of Old Testament Israel. Instead, the church's mission, as exemplified by Christ and the apostles, was to proclaim the good news of eternal life through faith in Christ. This conviction—the idea that the church cannot let worldly affairs compromise her proclamation of otherworldly realities—means that even if many Protestants and Roman Catholics find Francis’s identification with the poor a refreshing shift, conservative Presbyterians will be much more critical. For rather than showing the world God’s love, Francis may actually be obscuring the real love that God displayed in the sacrifice of his beloved son, if he is not proclaiming that to the spiritually poor and needy no matter what their economic or physical condition.


On the three considerations raised here, Protestant skepticism regarding the magisterium of Pope Francis remains reasonable. These matters will do little to diminish his popularity. His recent papal exhortation, Evangelii Guardium (Joy of the Gospel), is being likened to the progressive imagination of Martin Luther King Jr. But saying yes to the gospel is possible only for those who get the gospel right.

The enthusiasm for Francis reveals more about the state of American evangelicalism (not to mention divisions among U.S. Roman Catholics) than the possibilities for his pontificate. His humble lifestyle and preferential option for the poor trump careful considerations of the doctrine that he preaches, because evangelical enthusiasts content themselves with accounts of his orthopraxy (or Roman Catholics on the left and the right can read their own convictions into his teachings). Thus when Timothy George confidently asserts that the first Jesuit Pope embraces Martin Luther’s thesis on the importance of life-long repentance, he is simply engaged in wishful thinking.

Finally, to the three considerations raised above, we add one more: who is next? What happens when the seventy-six-year-old Francis passes from the scene? What will be found attractive in that “breath of fresh air?” If the fortunes of Roman Catholicism rest on the Bishop of Rome, the non-Protestant Western church will continue in its “Babylonian captivity.”

Recommended Reading

Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us, ed. John Armstrong (Moody, 1994). Especially helpful is the chapter by Robert B. Strimple, “Roman Catholicism Today” analyzing the post-Vatican II situation.

John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (Norton, 2004).

Anne Roche Muggeridge, The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church (Harper & Row, 1986).

John O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II? (Belknap Press, 2010).

Russell Shaw, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (Ignatius, 2013).

William M. Shea, The Lion and the Lamb: Evangelicals and Catholics in America (Oxford University Press, 2004).

The Teachings of Modern Roman Catholicism on Law, Politics, and Human Nature, ed. John Witte, Jr., and Frank S. Alexander (Columbia University Press, 2007).


[1] Timothy George, “Our Francis, Too,” [posted 6/4/2013 8:30AM] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/june/our-francis-too.html

[2] Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Solemnly Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.

[3] http://ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/pope-francis-formalizes-cardinal-reform-group-reserves-decision-making

[4] http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/01/reflections-on-the-revolution-in-rome

[5] http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-wishes-release-vatican-iis-bold-vision-captivity

[6] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20051225_deus-caritas-est_en.html

[7] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130319_omelia-inizio-pontificato_en.html

Darryl G. Hart and John R. Muether are coauthors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Both are ruling elders in the OPC: Dr. Hart at Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mr. Muether at Reformation OPC in Oviedo, Florida. Dr. Hart is visiting associate professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. Mr. Muether is the Historian of the OPC. Ordained Servant Online, January 2014.

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Ordained Servant: January 2014

What to Think about the Pope

Also in this issue

Democracy and the Denigration of Office, Part 1

Pierre Viret: The Angel of the Reformation

The New-yeeres Gift

With All My Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind?

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