Pope Francis and the Baptists

I don’t think a day has passed since March 13 without a student, colleague, fellow church member, family member, or friend asking what my perspective is on the election of Pope Francis, especially since they know that I was a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to our recent five-year dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church and have otherwise written on ecumenical themes. Nearly a week of such conversations has helped me have a better idea of what it is that I think!

Much of what I think would merely echo perspectives that have already been widely aired in the media. Here I’ll restrict myself to my initial thoughts regarding what the pontificate of Pope Francis may mean for Baptists.

While I don’t think the pontificate of Benedict XVI should be regarded negatively where Baptist-Catholic relations are concerned, I think Baptists have good reason to be encouraged by the election of Pope Francis.

One encouraging sign is the admiration Pope Francis seems to have for Walter Cardinal Kasper, who played a key role in making possible and encouraging the second series of conversations between the Baptist World Alliance and the Roman Catholic Church from 2006 through 2010, the report of which will be officially published this summer. In his first public “Angelus” address in St. Peter’s Square on March 17, Pope Francis said this:

In these days, I have been able to read a book by a cardinal—Cardinal Kasper, a talented theologian, a good theologian—on mercy. And it did me such good, that book, but don’t think that I’m publicizing the books of my cardinals. That is not the case! But it did me such good, so much good… Cardinal Kasper said that hearing the word mercy changes everything. It is the best thing that we can hear: it changes the world. A bit of mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand God’s mercy well, this merciful Father who has such patience…

Cardinal Kasper was Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the years before and during our conversations. When the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the controversial document Dominus Iesus  in 2000 that seemed to say (though there are other more nuanced ways of reading it) that many non-Catholic churches including Baptist churches should not be really regarded as churches, Cardinal Kasper worked behind the scenes to repair the damage. One thing he did toward that end was to encourage the global leadership of the BWA to respond positively to the invitation for dialogue and to promote its desirability within the Vatican. While having an audience with Pope Benedict XVI was certainly a highlight of our five-year series of conversations, in many ways my most cherished memories of the dialogue will remain the lunch in 2007 that we had with Cardinal Kasper and the afternoon dialogue session in 2009 in which he spoke to us at length about his perspectives on ecclesiology and ecumenical relations and then responded at length to our questions. I am greatly encouraged to know of Pope Francis’ theological admiration for this influential theological friend of Baptists within the leadership of the Catholic Church.

Another reason for Baptists to be optimistic about this papacy is the warm and open relationship Pope Francis seems to have had with evangelicals in Argentina. Baptist-Catholic tensions in Latin America belong to a larger pattern of Evangelical-Catholic tensions there and were evident in some opposition among Latin American Baptists to approval of the report of the first series of conversations between the BWA and the Catholic Church (1984-1988) and in some initial resistance to the prospect of a second series of conversations. Francis may succeed in alleviating some of those tensions, and that can be a good thing for Baptists.

Many Baptists may be hoping that Pope Francis may be able to reform the Catholic Church in certain directions. The fact that Pope Francis belongs to the Jesuit order may be encouraging to those who hope for certain new developments, for historically the Jesuits have sometimes been on the outs with the Vatican and have themselves tended to be critical of the Curia.

Yet Baptists should expect the pope to be Catholic, which means that all the changes they might want to see happen within the Catholic Church may not come about during this papacy. But the history of the Catholic Church is one in which change has happened incrementally and symbolically, and there are good reasons to hope for incremental and symbolic changes during the pontificate of Pope Francis.

Steve Harmon

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About the Author
Steven R. Harmon teaches Christian Theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His most recent book is "Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity" (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010). Dr. Harmon blogs at Ecclesial Theology. He and his family are members of St. John's Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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  • srharmon

    One small correction–Walter Cardinal Kasper’s role with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity during the period referenced in the post was President rather than Secretary.