Beliefs Culture Ethics Institutions Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Is Francis the first Protestant Pope?

Image of Pope Francis courtesy of Creative Commons.

In the 16th century, with the help of radicals like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, a horde of Christians waved goodbye to the Catholic Church. Today, there are almost as many Protestants in the world as there are Catholics.

Relations between the two factions hasn’t always been friendly, especially in the so-called melting pot of the New World. In the 19th century, the advent of Irish Catholics created a backlash of anti-Catholic prejudice. As late as the mid-20th Century, a marriage between an American Protestant and an American Catholic was considered inter-religious.

But the dynamic began to shift in the 1980s with the emergence of the Religious Right. Though the movement was spearheaded by evangelical leaders, they opened their arms to Catholics and even Mormons, who were seen as valuable allies in the fight against our nation’s “moral decline.” Animosity between the groups began giving way to cooperation. The election of Pope Francis may be the next step in bridging the divide between Catholics and Protestants. He has been called “a Pope for all Christians,” but could the growing popularity among non-Catholics make him “the first Protestant Pope?”

Francis has already met with Nikolaus Schneider, the head of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany. Dr. Schneider, who is ironically a Lutheran minister, said that Pope Benedict “offended” Protestants when he insisted in 2000 that Protestant communities were not “churches in the proper sense,” but he is hopeful for future Christian unity as a result of his meeting with Francis. This newfound common ground between the two groups, it seems, stems largely from the current Pope’s concern for the poor and marginalized.

“I hope a Pope who shows himself so close to the poor and the suffering also shows his understanding of couples who share everything except Communion,” Schneider told reporters after their meeting.

The Argentine Jesuit is known for simple living, engages in personal evangelism, and has been clear that he wants his papal legacy to be marked by a greater concern for have-nots. He’s already leading by example. He received praise from some for spending Holy Thursday washing the feet of inmates in Casal Del Marmo Jail, and he moved a Rhode Island couple to tears after he stopped the “Popemobile” to embrace, kiss, and bless their handicapped son.

American Protestants–particularly younger ones and evangelicals–have experienced a renewal of concern for social justice issues over the last decade or more. Members of the religious group are now leading conversations on ending human trafficking, providing clean water for those who lack it, and addressing the AIDS/HIV crisis. The combination of the new Pope’s concern for justice issues and his conservative theology seems to be appealing to many of these socially-conscious Protestants.

“There’s been a lot of talk [in America] about the middle class and the rich, but little about the poor,” Leith Anderson, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, told Christianity Today. “Perhaps Pope Francis can bring us back to the biblical and Christian care for the poor and vulnerable.”

“I pray that [Francis’s] example spurs evangelicals like me to remember our mandate to love the least of these, the hurting and the vulnerable, the brothers and sisters of our Lord,” said Russell Moore, President-elect of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

American evangelist Luis Palau says he calls Pope Francis a personal friend who he has prayed with and an ally of charismatic evangelicals. When reporting on Palau’s comments, Charisma News said Francis is being heralded “the evangelical pope.”

“I like Pope Francis,” wrote Taylor Brown of The Daily O’Collegian. “I may even consider myself a fan, and I’m not even Catholic, I’m a Protestant of Baptist decent.”

In the past, some Protestants questioned whether Catholics should even be considered Christians, but if Jesus was right that the litmus test for evaluating another’s faith is “fruit,” then this objection to at least Francis’s faith may become obsolete. Yet one Catholic’s good works will not likely bridge all the theological differences between the two Christian bodies, and we should not expect that Catholics and Protestants will theologically kiss-and-make-up any time in the near future.

At the same time, this newfound affection for the Roman Catholic Pope is going a long way toward mending fences. If Protestants in America and abroad begin seeing Pope Francis as a trusted Christian leader and voice, it could revolutionize relations between two spiritual entities who’ve been estranged for nearly half a millennia.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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