instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Their Francis, too

This article, on why Evangelicals like Pope Francis, has been received by some Catholics as a hopeful sign of bridge-building between the Church and other Christians. (See, because the Pope is the pontifex maximus.)

I'm all for bridge-building between the Church and other Christians, but my enthusiasm for Pope Francis's popularity among Evangelicals is tempered by the actual reasons the author gives. For example:
Through his actions and his profound, visible humility, Pope Francis has demonstrated a Christ-like character, not only Christ-like rhetoric. And this has brought him respect across the spectrum of Christianity.

Every pope in the Catholic Church’s past has had a mastery over Catholic rhetoric—the pope always says the right thing. But Pope Francis has decided to lead with his actions. Before delivering his message at the Holy Thursday Mass (an extremely important mass in Catholic tradition), Pope Francis spent time on his knees, washing the feet of young women incarcerated at a nearby prison. This was the first time the pope has ever washed the feet of women—not to mention that one of them was a Serbian Muslim, which is another break in papal tradition.

This type of servant leadership is precisely what has connected the new pope to our younger, more cynical generation. He is breaking the rules in the right places: where they shouldn’t exist.
If what connects Pope Francis to younger Evangelicals is that they think he confirms them in their ignorance of liturgy and deprecation of tradition, that's not something to celebrate.

Of course, it's not only younger Evangelicals. Plenty of older Catholics think Pope Francis confirms them in their ignorance of liturgy and deprecation of tradition. And it's certainly better for Evangelicals to be favorably disposed toward the Pope than not.

This article, though, makes the reasons for the favorable disposition sound pretty shallow:
As Pope Francis accepts his role, a new generation of evangelicals accepts theirs. As young evangelicals have rejected the megachurch and the televangelist and embraced a more rugged, grassroots Christianity, these actions by the pope fit perfectly. He has refused to live in the massive papal quarters in Rome and has chosen to live in the guesthouse, instead. One of his first actions as pope was to cancel his newspaper subscription at his home in Buenos Aires.
They sound, in short, just like the superficial reasons so many Catholics give for their own favorable disposition.

Yes, I get that you have to start somewhere. I am merely pointing out that if you start at "I understand what this guy is doing," then you are at great risk of remaining there. If Evangelicals like Pope Francis because he seems more like an Evangelical to them than other popes, then they are at great risk of either not really hearing how he is not like an Evangelical or of falling back to disinterest or worse when the honeymoon ends and he turns out to be Catholic. (I've already used the expression "the Spirit of Pope Francis" in connection with the disillusionment Catholics who speak wistfully of the Spirit of Vatican II will come to feel as this papacy continues. And, God help us, the Church is still recovering from a generation of young Catholics who knew which rules shouldn't exist.)

That the author of this article, at least, is looking at Pope Francis through Evangelical lenses -- rather than trying to view him qua Catholic -- is evident:
It is important here to realize that the pope is popular with evangelicals not because he’s doing what they already do, but rather because he is doing what they are not doing but wish to begin doing. As I scour the landscape of evangelical leadership (authors, speakers, mega-church pastors), it is difficult to find a man like Francis. In the age of best-selling books and church auditoriums that rival arenas, we do not see many leaders take the route of Pope Francis. And perhaps this is why we enjoy him so much: He is leading us in a way we are not leading ourselves right now.
I'm not surprised there aren't men like Francis among Evangelical authors, speakers, and mega-church pastors. He is a leader in a way no Evangelical is. And it's because he is a leader -- specifically, because he is the successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome -- that what he does matters to cynical young Evangelicals. "Pope" and "Francis" can't be separated. (Put it this way: How many other men are praised by Evangelicals for wearing black shoes?)

Moreover, he refers several times to Pope Francis's humility as a feature that attracts. But it isn't his humility as such that attracts; otherwise every humble pope would be popular. Anyone who is unaware of Pope Emeritus Benedict's humility wasn't paying attention -- which, yes, is part of the point: Pope Francis's actions draw the attention of Evangelicals in a way Pope Benedict's did not. But the author doesn't merely like that Pope Francis exhibits humility, he likes that Pope Francis exhibits humility in a way that Evangelicals notice. He seems unaware that there are other ways of exhibiting humility, in particular that it can take just as much humility to follow a papal tradition as to break it, or that Christ-like character can be found in leadership styles Evangelicals might not wish for.

Honest, I'm not saying Evangelical attitudes toward Pope Francis don't matter unless they're able to perceive him in a truly Catholic context. I recognize it's early days yet, and without some good feelings ecumenism will get us nowhere.

But if it's too early to complain that Evangelicals aren't thinking like Catholics, it's also too early to celebrate the bonds being forged by this papacy. Pope Francis is building a bridge to the Evangelicals, but there's a lot of construction work yet to be done to finish it. We can, if you like, celebrate the opportunity the Pope has provided us for good, hard work.