The election of Pope Francis was surely God-inspired. He is the right man in the fullness of time – a doctrinal conservative and a social progressive.
Early news reports disclose a man of humor and humility. Upon his election, he joked with the cardinals about their decision. He said, “May God forgive you,” which led to much laughter. The next day, he checked himself out of his hotel room and paid his bill.
Having chosen the name Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi, the new pope signaled his commitment to rebuilding the church, living simply, caring for the environment, being a peacemaker.
“Francis of Assisi for me is a man of poverty, a man of peace, a man who loved and protected creation. Right now our relations with creation are not going very well,” said Pope Francis.
He urged his fellow Argentinean believers to give to charity rather than to spend money to travel to Italy for his inauguration.
As an Argentinean Baptist said when the words were uttered “Habemus Papam” or “We have a pope,” Argentineans felt that one of their own had been chosen. They underscored the “we” as “we Argentineans” have a pope.
As a deep-water Baptist, I think we, Baptists, too, have a pope – a Christian leader who can represent the best of Christianity. Baptists would do well to applaud the election of Pope Francis.
Yet other Baptists lack such an appreciation based on the thundering silence from the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) about the election of the new pope. One seminary president even spoke ill – yet again – of the Catholic faith.
“Evangelical Christians simply can’t accept the legitimacy of the papacy and must resist and reject claims of papal authority. To do otherwise would be to compromise biblical truth,” said Al Mohler.
He made similarly harsh remarks on CNN in 2000.
“I believe that the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel,” he said. “And indeed, I believe that the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.”
Mohler leads the anti-everything wing of the SBC. His anti-women and anti-public school statements parallel his anti-Catholicism.
Lest one think that I’m picking on fundamentalists, my own wing of the Southern Baptist tradition had its own anti-Catholicism. Some opposed the election of John Kennedy, fearing papal control of the White House. Others supported abortion-rights in the 1970s and 1980s more out of opposition to the Catholic bishops than from a moral perspective.
Today, goodwill Baptists favor a more collaborative approach, including the president of the Baptist World Alliance, who will attend the pope’s inauguration.
I, for one, am grateful for the many rewarding hours that I’ve spent with Anthony Taylor, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.
We spent several days interviewing him for our immigration documentary – “Gospel Without Borders.” We later worked together on a documentary screening for delegates of faith at the Democratic National Convention, which was held at St. Peter’s Catholic Church. We continue to collaborate on immigration reform.
In a historic first for Baptist-Catholic cooperation, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mailed a copy of our Baptist-produced documentary to every bishop in the country urging them to order it for use in their churches. A number of dioceses ordered the DVD in bulk.
Documentary screenings in Atlanta included Bishop Zarama. Screenings in Raleigh and Charlotte included Catholic priests on panels. When screened in Austin at the annual meeting of Christian Churches Together, bishops and Catholic leaders spoke positively about the documentary.
We have also done a Skype interview with Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby.
Celebrating the election of Pope Francis and collaborating with Catholics require neither theological nor ecclesiastical compromise.
When the Hebrew prophet Micah said that God wanted his people to do justice, no word was mentioned about the prerequisite to dot the “i” or cross the “t” in doctrine. Absolute agreement is not a precondition for advancing the common good.
Best wishes, Pope Francis.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.