The Pope, The President & Moral Clarity

With his approval numbers hovering in low 40s, President Obama probably hopes that his first visit with Pope Francis will redound to his benefit. It very well may, but perhaps not like the President was expecting. For the first time in person, the Pope and the President met earlier today at the Vatican. In a week where the religious liberty rights of all Americans — both Catholic and non-Catholic — were argued before the United States Supreme Court, Pope Francis took the opportunity to speak truth to power.

I don’t often like to use that phrase, but I believe that Pope Francis, as did Pope Benedict XVI, shared truth with President Obama. Whether or not the President — a confessed admirer of the Pope — actually listens and acts that truth will be anyone’s guess. Personally, I highly doubt that President Obama, whose policies have been described as “progressively more hostile to Christianity,” will make any substantive changes that might make his political rhetoric (“a great admirer”) line up with his actions. It is one thing to say something. It is quite altogether different to actually do it. As the book of James in the New Testament puts it, “Faith without works is dead.”

For Pope Francis, faith takes center stage. And, regardless of the differences that some Protestants might have with certain aspects of the Catholic Church (which is not the subject of this post), when it comes to speaking for Christians in the world, Pope Francis speaks with a moral clarity that cannot be ignored by President Obama. Well, I guess it can be ignored, but it would not be wise. As a Southern Baptist, I recognize that Pope Francis, just as Pope John Paul II before him, can influence world leaders and lay folks alike:

However, as part of the greater Christian community worldwide (and yes, I do believe that Catholics are part of that community while Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not), Pope Francis I is “our Pope.” Now, before some of my Baptist brethren become unhinged, let me explain. I do not believe that any Pope, including this Pope, is infallible. Only Scripture is inerrant and only Jesus Christ was perfect. I also do not believe that Peter was the first Pope. When Jesus told Peter “on this rock I will build My Church,” I believe that Jesus was telling Peter (and us) that the Church would be built upon the rock of Peter’s confession of faith, “You (Jesus) are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” and not upon Peter himself.

That being said, I believe that Pope Francis will be the symbol of Christianity for a watching world. What he says and does will not only affect the Roman Catholic Church, but Pope Francis’ words and actions will speak for all of Christendom, whether we like it or not. Of course, there will be some things that non-Catholics will not like when it comes to certain doctrinal issues that continue to differentiate Catholicism from other Christian groups (i.e., the importance of the Virgin Mary, the veneration of saints, and the ultimate meaning of the Gospel and Salvation to name but a few). But, it seems that on the major moral issues confronting not just American culture, but cultures the world over — abortion, euthanasia, and sexual ethics, including same-sex marriage/gay rights — that Pope Francis will continue to speak Biblical truth. Regardless of what actions the new Pope takes to confront poverty, his Biblical stance on the sanctity of human life (from conception to natural death) and marriage (one man and one woman) will not endear him to the liberal, anti-Catholic elements within the Catholic Church itself, much less to those outside the RCC.” (Pope Francis & non-Catholics: Is He Our Pope, Too?)

While we may never know all that was spoken between Pope Francis and President Obama, we can be fairly confident that the Pope did not neglect to share with President Obama a few things that the Lord requires off all people, including Pontiffs and Presidents:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, ESV)

What does that mean for President Obama and his policies? It means not just being concerned about those issues he thinks that Pope Francis would agree with him on, like immigration and poverty. That’s too politically expedient.. It doesn’t strike me that Pope Francis would let Mr. Obama off the hook that easily. They say imitation is the best form of flattery. If President Obama wants to be a sincere (as opposed to a fake) admirer of Pope Francis, then perhaps he might try making changes when it comes to his Administration’s policies on “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life (i.e., abortion) and conscientious objection (i.e., the contraceptive mandate for Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor).” I don’t think there is much hope for changing President Obama, but meeting with Pope Francis was a good place to start!

4 comments for “The Pope, The President & Moral Clarity

  1. March 27, 2014 at 4:08 PM

    Howell,

    I will come out and say it. I am really struggling with the implications of a couple of things you say here. And I know some of these quotes are from your older post, but since I refrained from commenting then, I will have to say it now.

    You say, “I do believe that Catholics are part of that community while Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not.”

    Also, “there will be some things that non-Catholics will not like when it comes to certain doctrinal issues that continue to differentiate Catholicism from other Christian groups (i.e., the importance of the Virgin Mary, the veneration of saints, and the ultimate meaning of the Gospel and Salvation to name but a few).”

    And, “But, it seems that on the major moral issues confronting not just American culture, but cultures the world over — abortion, euthanasia, and sexual ethics, including same-sex marriage/gay rights — that Pope Francis will continue to speak Biblical truth.”

    It seems to me that “the ultimate meaning of the Gospel and Salvation” is not just one more doctrinal issue on the level of other issues that divide Evangelical denominations from each other. It is THE issue.

    And don’t Mormons and JW’s essentially agree with us (and the RCC, and even Muslims, for that matter) on the major moral issues?

    The gospel is not primarily about the moral issues. It is about the blood of Jesus, and justification by faith–and more precisely, from my understanding of the Bible, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, something the RCC does not affirm (and least not meaning the same thing we mean by this).

    So, no, the Pope is not my Pope. I may agree with him on this moral issue or that moral issue. I may even admire some of the ways, in contrast to his predecessors, in which he has approached his job. But in most of this, he is no better than the Mormon, JW, or Muslim, who approaches these issues in much the same way. He just has a bigger platform from which to do so. Ultimately, though, I do not trust in big platforms. I trust in Jesus, and in the power of the gospel.

    • March 27, 2014 at 5:28 PM

      David,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and to share your thoughts. At the outset, let me say that I wholeheartedly agree with your last statement, “I trust in Jesus, and in the power of the gospel.” If I was unclear in my original post or this post about the centrality of the Gospel to salvation and how Catholics and non-Catholic Evangelicals interpret the meaning of faith and the Gospel, then that is entirely my own shortcoming in communicating as clearly as I should.

      There are obviously key, fundamental differences between Catholics and Baptists (and other Evangelicals) when it comes to the Gospel. Neither the previous post nor this post was written to address those differences directly. Despite those differences, I personally would not place Roman Catholics in the same category as Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of the broader Christian witness. There are some that continue to categorize Catholics as apostate, but I am not willing (rightly or wrongly) to take that step. I believe, even with flawed theology, that Catholics (particularly the Pope) would be able to answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” in a way that Mormons and JWs simply would not be able to do. That’s why I am comfortable including Catholics in Christendom whereas I would not so include Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

      Whether we like it or not and whether we agree on all theological and moral issues, I stand by my original assertion that Pope Francis, at least as far as broader Christendom is concerned, does speak for Christians in the world, both Protestant and Catholic. In a political sense, particularly when it comes to engaging President Obama and other world leaders on the moral issues of the day, Pope Francis will be seen as “our Pope.” As I pointed out in my original OP, that does not mean that he is “our Pope” in any ecclesiastical or theological sense of that word, but when Pope Francis speaks, he will be seen to be speaking for Christians in general, not just Catholics.

      Lastly, as I previously shared, it is still my hope and prayer that God will use Pope Francis to share the Biblical Gospel message of salvation by “grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.” To the extent that Pope Francis falls short of that, we should point that out. To the extent that he lifts up Jesus Christ and the Gospel message, I think that should be applauded. Hope that clarifies where I am coming from on this issue. I do appreciate your comment and would welcome any follow-up you might give. Thanks and God bless,

      Howell

  2. March 28, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    While it is true that the RCC gets a lot of things right with regard to the person of Christ (i.e. their Christology), they still get a lot of things very wrong about the way we as humans may relate to Christ (i.e. their soteriology). As I understand the NT gospel, someone who trusts in their baptism and in dying in a state free of unconfessed, unabsolved mortal sin to save them, is not trusting in Christ alone. The RCC may talk, in certain documents, about “grace alone through faith alone,” but when they do, they are referring to the grace that is supposedly transmitted by way of a “faithful” participation in the sacraments, not the grace that comes by way of an internal change of heart wrought by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.

    • March 28, 2014 at 3:36 PM

      David,

      Thanks for the reply. I completely agree with you regarding the errors in RCC soteriology. And, while the RCC and other faith traditions (including some within Protestantism) add/substitute/reinterpret what it means to be saved (i.e., “by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone” in His finished work on the cross), I believe that there are Catholics who are born-again and Biblically saved. It certainly is harder within Catholicism and some other Mainline liturgical churches to hear what you and I might consider a clear presentation of the Gospel, but I think that God can and does work through the power of HIs Holy Spirit to bring conviction, despite the lack of clarity. Thanks again for the dialogue and God bless,

      Howell

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