John Stonestreet and Ed Stetzer discuss Pope Francis's visit to America, and what it means for cooperation between Evangelicals and Catholics, something Chuck Colson believed in deeply.
This week’s big news was Pope Francis’ trip to the United States and speech before Congress. In light of all the headlines this pontiff has generated during his brief time in office, his visit was all but guaranteed to get both secular and Christian crowds talking. But it’s also an occasion to look back on the progress evangelicals and Catholics have made toward harmony and comraderie, as well as a moment to reflect on the differences that still divide us. It was Chuck Colson’s conviction that these differences need not keep us from learning from each other, or from engaging culture for the glory of our Lord and Savior.
This pope offers one major lesson to religious leaders everywhere, says Ed Stetzer. Ed recalls a reporter asking him, ‘What’s the lesson of the Francis effect?’ referring to the Pope’s almost magnetic influence on non-Catholics, particularly in the mainstream media. Ed replied jokingly, “Well, if you don’t act like a jerk, people are more likely to listen to you. And I think that’s a good lesson for a lot of religious leaders who get on radio and television and sound like Darth Vader rather than a kind, winsome individual.”
Ed explains that Pope Francis’s obvious concern for the poor and his consistent desire to deconstruct the platform and accouterments that come with religious leadership have won him a lot of good will since he was elected pope in 2013. And Christian leaders have been inspired by his approach to shake things up.
But Pope Francis has done more than lead by example. He’s also sparked controversies among his flock and among journalists about where he intends to lead his church. John Stonestreet calls the mainstream media’s outlook on Francis a “love-hate relationship.” On the one hand, they’re eating up his emphasis on social justice, climate change, and religious cooperation. But on the other hand, Francis has dutifully reaffirmed his church’s most unpopular teachings on marriage, sex, and human life—things liberals would prefer he leave in the past.
It’s not just liberals who find themselves uncomfortable whenever Francis steps behind a podium. Conservatives, too, have found themselves bewildered and often angry by things the pope has said.
“Obviously, he’s made statements about economics, about global warming…and I think the excesses of capitalism,” says John. “And a lot of conservatives, even somebody on the Federalist, basically said, ‘Hey Pope, you’re not supposed to talk about these things. You’re only supposed to talk about religious stuff.’”
Agree or disagree with Francis’s views on economics, such a reaction is exactly the opposite of what Christians ought to have. If Jesus is Lord of all, explains John, then nothing is outside the purview of His sovereignty. That doesn’t make clergy experts on everything, but it does mean that cordoning off areas of life where Christianity has nothing to say is a dangerous line of thought. Such a sacred-secular dichotomy, John says, implicitly limits Christ—something no Christian should do.
At the same time, though, Francis has said things many conservative Roman Catholics find hasty and even untrue. His concern for helping the poor has spilled over into criticisms of capitalism and the free market—features of an economic system many Catholic economists point out have lifted millions out of poverty.
“I’m thinking especially of my friends at the Acton Institute,” says John. “How do they respect the leader of their church and at the same time not give up things that they know to be true about poverty, and about the power of markets and about the limits of socialistic practices?"
Ed Stetzer jokingly describes Francis as a Mike Huckabee on social issues and a Bernie Sanders on economic ones.
But the pope’s visit has also highlighted how relations between Catholics and evangelicals, America’s two largest religious groups, have warmed tremendously in recent years. Protestants once popularly referred to the pope as Antichrist. But Stetzer says polling by his organization, Lifeway, shows that over sixty percent of Protestant leaders in America now see Pope Francis as a Christian and a brother in Christ.
Much of this change in attitude, contends John, goes back to Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the joint statement penned over twenty years ago by Chuck Colson, Father Richard John Neauhaus, and Dr. Timothy George. Their call to America’s largest religious traditions to find common ground and work together generated ripples that have changed the tone of conversation to this day.
Dr. George, one of the original signatories, joins us on BreakPoint This Week to give his impression of Pope Francis, and his thoughts on how Catholics and evangelicals can continue to work together to advance the Christian worldview in the future. Dean of Beeson Divinity School and a longtime friend and theological advisor to Chuck, Dr. George has met all three of Rome’s most recent bishops, and says Francis has his own style.
John Paul II was a true “world statesman,” Dr. George observes —a steely opponent of communist oppression whose moral authority helped rend the Iron Curtain. Benedict XVI was and is a theologian par excellence. But Francis is above all a pastor—someone who prioritizes the outworking of Christian love and humility.
“And that comes through,” says Dr. George, "in his demeanor, his lifestyle, and some of the—you might say—unorthodox ways he has gone about being about being ‘the successor of St. Peter,’ as he understands his job.”
But Dr. George, a Reformed Baptist, freely admits that Francis’ method has its drawbacks.
“His style is to be as inclusive and embracing as possible. And I would say that sometimes he speaks without having carefully thought through the implications of what he’s saying.”
Especially on climate change, economics, and homosexuality, Dr. George thinks Francis’s hasty words have given the media fodder to question established church doctrine. And in light of the pope’s more scathing criticisms of capitalism, Dr. George wonders whether he understands that the free market in the United States isn’t the same as the corporatism rife in Argentina, his home country.
“[H]is trip to America is a chance for him to learn as well as say some things.”
But for evangelicals, all of the talk of Catholicism is bound to reopen old questions, especially among those who received Evangelicals and Catholics Together with dismay two decades ago. Dr. George says there’s still a great deal of animosity, as well as fear in many circles that the emphasis on “co-belligerency” will lead to compromise on Reformational doctrine.
“We’re not always going to agree,” admits Dr. George. “In fact, if you were to ask me what’s the central dividing issue between evangelicals, Catholics, and Protestants, I would say authority. It’s the authority of the Church, the understanding of who the pope is, and his unique office in the world. We’re not together on those issues…So we need to be really clear about where our non-negotiables are, and to stand together on those issues where we clearly are one in the Lord and one in the Spirit.”
In North America in particular, he says these points of unity have been the issues that Chuck Colson cared so much about, and enshrined in The Manhattan Declaration: the sanctity of life, the definition of marriage, and religious liberty.
He also reminds evangelicals that Catholics have maintained a powerful social witness in America, even when Protestants were sleeping on the job. When it comes to abortion in particular, our Catholic neighbors raised the alarm when very few other Christians were speaking against this grave evil, and when some were even defending it. They’ve formed the core of the pro-life movement from the beginning, and that deserves recognition.
“…thank God for the faithfulness of the Catholic Church," when it comes to the sanctity of life, says Dr. George. “And I hope and pray for Pope Francis that he will have, what I believe to be the case—the courage, the integrity, and the deep spiritual piety to remain true to those issues.”
Even more than that, though, Francis’s trip should serve as an occasion for both Catholics and Protestants to dust off our Bibles and let the Spirit remind us of what He’s done.
“The reason that we had a Reformation and the reason why we’re always reforming is because we reform ourselves to the Scriptures,” says Ed.
And while we’re not yet in agreement on issues like the famous Five Solas, John points to the prescient work of Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen, who wrote at the beginning of the 20th century that traditional Catholics and Protestants must unite against theological liberalism. Machen saw already in his day how such compromise led churches and denominations to shrug off the Virgin Birth, the Divinity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and other central Christian doctrines.
“Evangelicals probably have more in common with Catholics today than they do with Mainline Protestants.” That’s why neither he nor John suggests either side take their convictions lightly. The debates of the Reformation are “real and important theological and doctrinal distinctions. We want to talk more about those things. We want people engaging in more theology…But at the same time I think…one of the reasons so many evangelicals are resonating with Pope Francis is, in addition to the humility and leadership he’s exercising, is that he is indeed going to be a co-belligerent, a fellow battler in the midst of some of the cultural challenges.”
"BreakPoint This Week" is hosted by BreakPoint's John Stonestreet, and Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of Lifeway Research.To listen to previous episodes of "BreakPoint This Week," click here. To find a broadcast partner near you, click here.