Pope Francis has the reputation of being someone who would rather embrace than argue, who would rather feel than think, who would rather love people than theologize, who would rather dialogue than debate. Although I view these as false dichotomies, they certainly do resonate in contemporary culture, not least among many Protestants and evangelicals who have reciprocated the pope’s outstretched hand to them by reaching out their own to him. Indeed, what could be better than having a pope who is willing to dialogue? Maybe we can, as both Catholics and Protestants, finally come to embrace each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and confess together that we all belong Christ’s one church.
While I am not against dialogue between Catholics and Protestants per se (in fact I think it is absolutely essential), it is vitally important that we know who it is with whom we have to do, especially in the person of Pope Francis. In a book published in Italy with the simple title Dialogue between believers and unbelievers (Dialogo tra credenti e non-credenti, Torino: Einaudi, 2013), Pope Francis gives an illuminating look into his understanding of what such dialogue involves. The book reproduces a series of conversations, initially featured in a prominent Italian newspaper, that took place between the pope and journalist Eugenio Scalfari. The conversations were published in both newspaper and book form with the purpose of affording a glimpse at how Francis conducts his ‘dialogues’ with those outside the Catholic Church. In order to grasp the full significance of the excerpts that follow (which I have translated from the original Italian and to which I have added emphasis), it is necessary to realize that Scalfari is both an Italian and an avowed atheist. That is to say, Scalfari, having lived his life in a predominantly Roman Catholic society, is not unfamiliar with the claims of Christ, and yet he has consciously decided to reject them. Keeping this in mind, let’s consider what Pope Francis had to say in his dialogue with Scalfari:
Now I [Scalfari] am here. The pope enters and shakes my hand, we sit down. The pope smiles and says to me: “Someone among my collaborators who knows you told me that you would try to convert me”.
Scalfari: It’s a joke (I tell him). My friends also think that you want to convert me.
Francis: (Still smiling he responds) Proselytism is solemn stupidity, it doesn’t make sense. We need to know each other, listen to each other and increase our knowledge of the world that surrounds us. For me, after a meeting [with people] I want to have another one because new ideas are born and new needs are discovered. This is important: know each other, listen to each other, enlarge the circle of thoughts. The world is crisscrossed by roads that go this way and that, but the important thing is that they lead toward the Good.
Scalfari: Holiness, does there exist a vision of only one Good? And who determines it?
Francis: Every one of us has his or her own vision of Good and Evil. We need to encourage everyone to proceed toward that which each thinks is the Good.
Scalfari: You, Holiness, had already written this in a letter that you sent to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone needs to obey his or her own conscience. I think that this is one of the most courageous things ever said by a pope.
Francis: And here I’ll repeat it. Each one has his or her own idea of Good and Evil and needs to choose to follow the Good and fight the Evil however he or she understands it. This alone would suffice to improve the world…
[Francis speaks to Scalfari of his admiration for St. Augustine]
Francis: Whoever has not been touched by grace can be a person without blemish and without fear, as it is said, but that person will never be like a person that grace has touched. This is Augustine’s intuition.
Scalfari: Do you feel touched by grace?
Francis: No one can know this. Grace isn’t part of our consciousness, it’s the amount of light that we have in our soul, not of knowledge or reason. Even you, though you’re completely unaware of it, could have been touched by grace.
Scalfari: Without faith? As an unbeliever?
Francis: Grace has to do with the soul.
Scalfari: I don’t believe in the soul.
Francis: You don’t believe it but you have one.
Scalfari: Holiness, it was said that you had no intention to convert me and I don’t think you would even be able to…
Francis: Maybe, maybe not, but in any case I don’t have any intention of converting you…
[Francis asks Scalfari about his worldview]
Francis: You no doubt wonder, like everyone, who we are, where we came from, where we’re going. Even a child wonders about these things. And you?
Scalfari: I’m thankful that you asked me this question. The answer is this: I believe in Being, that is in the material from which arise all forms, the Entities.
Francis: And I believe in God. Not in a catholic God, there is no catholic God, just God. And I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my shepherd, but God, the Father, Abbà, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Does it seem to you that we’re very far apart?
Scalfari: We far apart in our thoughts, but very similar as human persons, animated unconsciously by our instincts that transform into impulses, feelings, will, thought and reason. In this we are similar.
Francis: But that which you call Being, do you want to define how you understand that?
Scalfari: Being is a material of energy. Chaotic energy but indestructible and in eternal chaos. From that energy emerges the forms when that energy arrives at the point of exploding. The forms have laws, magnetic fields, chemical elements that combine randomly, evolve and finally dissipate, but their energy is never destroyed…
Francis: That’s fine. I didn’t want you to give me a summary of your philosophy and you told me enough. I observe from my side of things that God is the light that illuminates the darkness even though it doesn’t dissolve the darkness, and a spark of that divine light is in each one of us. In the letter that I wrote to you I remember to have said that even our species will come to an end but God’s light won’t come to an end and at that point it will penetrate into every soul and everything will be in all. (Dialogo, pp.55-56, 63, 68-69)
Based on the pope’s words, it is not at all surprising that Scalfari concludes that “the mission [of Pope Francis] includes…scandalous novelties:…a God who does not judge but forgives. There is no damnation, there is no hell” (Dialogo, p.30). Francis, in fact, says as much in another book published in Italian (Il cielo e la terra, Milan: Mondadori, 2013), in which he invites people, regardless of the religious beliefs, to simply seek after the God that they can discover within themselves:
At times people believe that they have the truth in hand, but that’s not the case. To the people of today I would say that in order to know and experience the face of God, they need to enter into contact with themselves…I tell them not to know God on the
basis of what others say. The living God is that which everyone will see with their own eyes within their own hearts. [p.14]
Later in this same book, Francis explains the thinking that undergirds his interactions with atheists such as Scalfari and why he has no desire to convert them to the Christian faith:
When I find myself amon atheists, I share about human problems, but I don’t immediately bring up the problem of God, unless they are the ones to do so. If that happens, I explain why I believe. But there are so many interesting human issues to discuss and share by which we can enrich each other. Because I’m a believer, I know that these riches are a gift of God. I also know that the other, the atheist, doesn’t know this. I don’t approach relationships with atheists to proselytize, I respect them and I show myself for who I am. If there is mutual understanding, then appreciation, affection, and friendship blossom. I am not at all reticent, but I would never tell them that their lives are condemned, because I’m convinced that I do not have the right to judge their honesty. Especially if they show that they have human virtues, those that make a person great and do good to myself as well. [p.22]
From the perspective of historic Protestantism, there are massive problems with what the pope has to say in his conversations with non-Christians. Let me summarize the highlights:
- Pope Francis has no desire to convert anyone to the Christian faith nor will he warn anyone of divine judgment, even atheists who have explicitly rejected Jesus Christ, because…
- Pope Francis asserts that there is no absolute truth, that good and evil are relative to one’s subjective perceptions, and that divine grace and light reside in the soul of all human beings even though they may not be aware.
- Pope Francis thinks that God is just God and not necessarily the God revealed exclusively in Jesus Christ. In fact, God is whoever we discover him to be as we look within our own hearts.
- Thus, Pope Francis believes that his belief in God is reconcilable with atheistic notions of eternally-existent energy, primordial chaos, and random evolution.
To me, these statements seem not simply erroneous but heretical. As far as I can tell, they radically distort the gospel of Jesus Christ preached by the apostles and transmitted in Holy Scripture. Pope Francis thus espouses a false gospel, a false Christ, and indeed a false God. Because of this, I can come to no other conclusion than that of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:8-9:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
So my question, as a Protestant committed to the great solas of the Reformation – sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, and soli Deo gloria – is this: how could I possibly think that I could find any common ground of faith with someone who presents the Christian message as the pope does? How could I even remotely embrace him as a brother in Christ? Not only that, but insofar as this false gospel is being articulated not just by any Roman Catholic but by the authoritative head of Catholicism, the supposed successor of St. Peter and vicar of Christ himself on the earth, how could any committed Protestant concede that the Reformation is over and confess that there now exists, despite some remaining differences, a fundamental unity in Christ between Protestant and Catholic churches?
The answer, in my mind, is obvious.