I would like to offer some thoughts on the recent response of Pope Francis to a question regarding Martin Luther during an in-flight press conference from Armenia on June 26. In keeping with the pope’s usual ecumenical tone, he stated:
I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct. But in that time…the Church was not exactly a model to imitate. There was corruption in the Church, there was worldliness, attachment to money, to power…and this he protested…And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he did not err.
At first glance, Pope Francis seems to be giving a fairly charitable reading of Luther. Perhaps not everything he did was right, but nevertheless his intentions were good and he was right to object to certain medieval corruptions. What I find interesting about this, and what I think is lost on many American evangelicals, is the way that these kinds of comments are fully in keeping with the pope’s Jesuit background. When listening to what Francis says, especially when he is speaking about ecumenical issues, it is important to keep this fact in mind.
Why is this so? The answer can be found in a book authored by Francis that was published in Italy in 2014 under the title Chi sono i Gesuiti? (Who are the Jesuits?). Though consisting in a series of discourses that date originally from the time prior to Francis’ election as pope the book was published only two years ago in Italy with the purpose of explaining, in Francis’ own words, his still-current understanding of his vocation. In the book, Francis describes his sense of identity and mission in terms of the efforts of the early Jesuits, and in particular of Ignatius of Loyola, to stem the tide of the Reformation (pp.20-21). Francis is unabashedly severe in his criticisms of the Reformers and, in particular, of John Calvin. While he only calls Luther a “heretic”, he identifies Calvin as both a “heretic” and a “schismatic” that “decapitate[d]” the church, and he blames him for inflicting the majority of the psychological, social, political, economic, and religious ills that still plague the modern world (pp.21–35). By contrast, Francis views himself as perpetuating the Jesuit legacy out of “fidelity to the holy Mother Church hierarchical”, struggling to reunite what the Reformers tore asunder (p.49). As he asserted during a general audience in November 2014:
No Church is healthy if the faithful, the deacons and the priests are not united to the bishop [understood as the bishop in communion with the Roman Pontiff]. This Church, that is not united to the bishop, is a sick Church. Jesus wanted this union of all the faithful with the bishop, including the deacons and priests. And this they do aware that it is precisely in the bishop that the bond is made visible with each Church, with the Apostles and with all other communities, united to their bishops and the Pope in the one Church of the Lord Jesus, that is our Hierarchical Holy Mother Church.
In other words, Francis’ ultimate goal (as was that of John Paul II according to his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, sec.97), is unashamedly that of drawing separated Protestant churches back under the governance of the Roman papacy. This is definitely not the warm and welcoming Francis that most American evangelicals are accustomed to hearing. What is to account for this discrepancy?
Francis himself provides the answer in his book on the Jesuits. He explains that his affectionate tone and humble demeanor have always been key stratagems of the Jesuits’ mode of engagement; according to Francis, it is characteristic of Jesuits to disarm their adversaries with humility and compassion, to cultivate familial bonds with those that they hope to win back to Rome, and to overcome any remaining divisions by reformulating dissonant beliefs into a harmonic synthesis (pp.35–89). For this reason, the Italian journalist Giuliano Ferrara speaks of Francis as the consummate “Jesuit of the sixteenth century” whose apparent “relativism” and “rejection of doctrinal rigour” actually constitute “an essential, Machiavellian component” of his mission; by emphasising what unites rather than what divides, by affirming rather than negating, and by welcoming rather than condemning, he endeavours, like his Jesuit forebears, to “‘conquer’ the heretics of today” by gaining not so much their assent but their admiration and love (Questo papa ci peace troppo, pp.21–22, 216). Based on the ways in which many American evangelicals have welcomed the pope with open arms, saying, like Timothy George, that he is “our Francis too”, it seems that Francis’ Jesuit strategies are working like a charm.
Let me be clear: I am not against ecumenical dialogue per se. On the contrary, I think that the worst thing that Protestants and Catholics can do is not talk to each other. Personally I have worked very hard to establish good relationships with many Roman Catholics in my community in Italy and engage in mutually edifying dialogue with them. My colleagues and I have even partnered with some of our Roman Catholic friends to serve the poor in our community together. I believe in co-belligerence. I do not endorse a return to the fiery invectives and spiteful divisions of the past. It is my prayer that one day Protestants and Catholics will together “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). But I do not think, despite the various joint declarations and contrary to the pope’s claim, that there is true accord on the doctrine of justification (another post for another day). And I do not think that the way forward will be found in allowing ourselves as evangelicals to be allured by the Jesuit tactics of the current pope into surrendering the historic commitments of the Protestant tradition or blunting the necessary critiques that must still be made of Roman Catholicism as it currently stands. As Karl Barth observed in his little book The Church and the Churches (pp.12-15), true unity will result not as we move towards each other, but only as we move closer to Jesus Christ who is the head of the body and the only true source of unity in the church. “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7).