You’re probably aware that our nation is hosting a special visitor this week. Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, is making his first visit to the United States, with scheduled stops in Washington D.C., New York, and Philadelphia. It’s a momentous occasion, not only for the 70 million (or so) Catholics in this country, but for anyone interested in what the most prominent voice in global religion has to say.
Personally, I have mixed emotions. On the one hand, I respect Pope Francis for many of his convictions. He advocates for the poor, he defends the sanctity of life, he champions environmental stewardship, and he does it all with a humble demeanor that frankly makes it hard not to like him. I am thankful for these things about him. And on top of it all, he seems about as down-to-earth as any man of his office realistically could be, displaying a knack for identifying with the “average person.”
But does this mean that we should celebrate Pope Francis and look to him as a spiritual authority, as many evangelicals are beginning to do? I believe the answer is no. While we can applaud his positive contribution toward a more just and civil society, I do not believe that we should esteem him as a biblical teacher or leader. And the main reason is this: Pope Francis obscures the gospel of grace.
During the last few weeks, we’ve been talking a lot about the “Year of Grace” here at Kossuth. Well recently I was made aware that the Roman Catholic Church is preparing to kick off a special year of its own, something they’re calling a “Year of Mercy.” In anticipation for this celebration, the Pope has made a number of announcements. For example, he has declared that priests can grant forgiveness for sins (such as abortion) that had hitherto required the absolution of a bishop. Additionally, the Pope has declared that anyone “shall surely obtain the Jubilee indulgence” if they make a pilgrimage to Rome—or even just their local cathedral.
On the surface of it, this sounds like good news—grace! But the problem is that this is not the grace of the gospel. And therefore it’s not really grace at all.
To redirect a sinner from a bishop to a priest is hardly a step in the right direction. To dole out special forgiveness for stepping foot in a designated building is hardly an extension of mercy. Martin Luther, don’t put that hammer and nail away just yet.
While Pope Francis has many great things going for him, clarity about the heart of the gospel—the very lifeblood of the Christian faith—is not one of them. What he advocates is simply legalistic works-salvation that has been re-branded to look more appealing. At the end of the day, Pope Francis still expects sinners to jump through hoops. Maybe the “Year of Mercy” lowers the hoops, but the hoops are still there. And the gospel leaves no rooms for hoops.
As Christians, our faith is in a person, not a practice. We rest in the finished work of Christ, not the ongoing works of our own righteousness. In other words, all the hoops have already been jumped through! And as long as any teacher tries to tell us otherwise, our response must echo Paul’s attitude toward the false teachers in Galatia (Gal. 1:8-9).
So while the Pope visits our nation and dominates the attention of the media this week, let’s applaud his positive contributions and pray that his influence will help the world pursue peace and justice. But let’s think twice before embracing him as a trustworthy voice of biblical truth.
[Endnote: For an important and enlightening perspective on Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church, we do well to listen to our evangelical brothers and sisters who live and minister in the Pope’s own backyard. This article about the church in Italy serves as a good introduction.]