The Frustratingly Refreshing Pope Francis

By Graham Glover

Like many others, I am at a loss in trying to figure out Pope Francis. (For those of you Lutherans reading this that loathe the papacy, move along, there’s nothing to see here…)

Honestly, I can’t figure out if Francis is a theological genius or someone who just might turn the Vatican and its curia upside down – or perhaps even sow the seeds that will ultimately destroy it.

Look, I’m a Pope Benedict XVI guy. I love everything about him. For starters, it probably doesn’t hurt that he’s a German who likes beer and understands and appreciates Lutheranism more than any pope since the Reformation. But I love the former Cardinal Ratzinger because he is a serious dogmatician. He is a theologian’s best friend. His scholarship is simply unmatched, and I can never read enough of it. I also grew up with Pope John Paul the Great. Both of these popes shared a similar theological disposition, even if their styles were different. They were both traditional and conservative in their writings and in their commentary. Of this, no one ever doubted.

But now we’ve got Francis. Like many of my Roman Catholic friends, I find myself pulling what little hair I have left out of my head when trying to understand and explain some of the things Francis says. “He said what?” “You can’t be serious. That has to be a misquote!” “Is he speaking in some type of cryptic Roman code that we Lutherans don’t understand?”

I think it’s safe to say that Francis is not a rigid dogmatician. He doesn’t see the world through black and white lenses. He most assuredly doesn’t give simple answers with clear analyses and applications. Rather, this pontiff seems to like speaking off the cuff. I think he tries to push the envelope on issues and practices that makes the Roman hierarchy go crazy. And to the extent that anyone cares what a Lutheran pastor thinks, I find this approach extraordinarily frustrating. I think Pope Francis, whether he means to or not, causes confusion among the faithful more often than he realizes. This guy is obviously not cut from the same cloth as Benedict or John Paul, and this drives me crazy.

Pope Francis arrives at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, in New York

So why is it that I also find Francis so very refreshing? While I don’t naturally share his pastoral approach and don’t often talk about difficult theological issues like he does, there is something about this Bishop of Rome that fascinates me. I can’t yet put my finger on it, and I highly doubt I will ever think of him as I do Benedict XVI, but Pope Francis has my attention.

I think Francis practices the faith in a messy way. He likes to get dirty with things that are unclear. Nice, tightly packaged theological boxes are not the way Francis categorizes issues and practices. I love this. Even though it is entirely not the way I think or approach theology, I think it’s great.

Strangely, I am drawn to Francis’ easygoing approach. I find myself oddly appreciating the gentle way he discusses things. It’s not that he is abandoning Roman doctrine (at least I don’t think he is, but then again, I’m a Lutheran), it’s that he is practicing it in ways that recent popes have not. He doesn’t care if his comments aren’t the traditional ways popes talk. He likes to reach out to those that are outside the faith and even those inside it that are not the ones typically thought of as model Christians. He really likes these folks. His entire papacy seems directed toward them. And again, I am drawn to this.

Who knows how long Francis will remain pope? His successor may be just as different or even more radically unconventional. For now, though, I will continue to watch and marvel at this pope and, much to my surprise, find myself trying to talk and act like him – which is a most frustratingly refreshing way to practice my vocation.

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19 thoughts on “The Frustratingly Refreshing Pope Francis

  1. Your fondness for Catholicism distorts your understanding of the true character and substance of what is taught and believed by the Popes past and present. You can like someone who is Catholic on a personal level, and you can pray for them, that they will come to the truth about the Grace of God, and turn away from the heresies which remain entrenched in Catholicism. But if you fall into the trap of admiring false teachers because they are personable, refreshingly honest, and non traditional, then you have become vulnerable yourself, and a small chink in the armor of your faith will soon become a spreading crack through which the light of apostasy will gain entrance.

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    1. John, yes, I do have a deep fondness for the Roman Church, probably more than most LCMS clergy. I have a deeper desire for our communions to reconcile, although I know we remain far from that happening.

      As to this post, I tried to stay away from the specifics of Francis’ theology and focus more on his style. As I noted, his style is not like my own, which I find frustrating. But, I increasingly find it appealing and if one can separate where Rome and Lutherans disagree, think we can find some things in Francis that are useful. So

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    2. I too have a fondness for Catholicism & every other Christian faith. This Pope shines with the Light of Love that can only be supplied by the Holy Spirit, no matter how confusing he may be. John you and lots of LCMSers have a corner market on truth, but when you put on your full armor in the morning don’t forget your love necklace.

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  2. Graham, I agree with you on a personal level. I like to see the old liners squirm a little. On the other hand, this guy has no idea what he’s talking about most of the time. That’s even bad for a Catholic guy. On the other hand, there’s a lot of momentum in that church to move a certain way (or not moving at all, perhaps). I don’t see him turning that ship with his tiny rudder of foolishness. I do wonder what he’d be like if he stuck to church stuff. Honestly, I think he’s undermining both his religion and the church’s already marginal credibility. I guess we’ll see.

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    1. Don, time will certainly tell. But don’t underestimate how his pontificate can influence things. It’s not just what he says now, but the Bishops and Cardinals that he appoints who will influence the Roman Church for years to come.

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  3. Hey Graham, as I’m sure you’re aware, the Lutheran Confessions teach that the office of the Pope is the office of Anti-Christ, because the Pope claims for himself an authority that only Christ has.

    Given the teaching of our confessions, shouldn’t all Lutherans “loathe the papacy?” I’m not talking about personally hating the Pope, or being disrespectful of him, but shouldn’t we be clear that he advocates a false gospel?

    You made a reference to Benedict XVI understanding Lutherans. I was curious, so I Googled “Benedict XVI Luther.” Benedict said that Luther was right to advocate justification by faith, because faith is pursuing acts of love toward your neighbor. In other words, he redefined faith to mean works, and then said, “yeah, we’re saved by faith.” Don’t the Lutheran Confessions specifically reject the idea that we’re saved by works of love? It seems that Benedict fundamentally misunderstood Luther when he was quoted as saying, “Luther was right.”

    You were pretty direct in attacking Pietism, saying that it is not even Christian, since it perverts justification by faith. It seems to me that the issue with Pietism is the same with Roman Catholicism. The difference is that Roman Catholics are more conspicuous in their teaching that we’re saved by works, while Pietists will technically affirm justification by faith, and then try to sneak works in the back door while you’re sleeping. Shouldn’t we be just as hard on the Roman Catholics for their stance on justification by works? At least the Pietists affirm justification by faith in some respect.

    This Pope may be a bit more sympathetic with struggling sinners than the Roman Catholic Church has traditionally been (at least according to popular caricatures), however, he’s still a Roman Catholic, right? I’m not sure he’s the example we need for shepherding care.

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    1. Ken, fair enough. And yes, I’m fully aware of what our Confessions state. And you are right to point out that Benedict does not concur with our Lutheran understanding of justification (a large reason I remain Lutheran). Still, I think he understands the reason the Reformation had to occur more than any of his predecessors.

      Excellent point about the connection of pietism and Romanism confusing justification. You are absolutely right.

      As noted above, my point was not to fully support Francis on his theology, rather to point out that his practice of pastoral care is appealing.

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    2. I’d like to submit he’s a great example of an under-shepherd. What did our Lord ask of us? Love, love our neighbors, love our enemies & love each other…oh yeah, one more thing, don’t judge.

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  4. I have been a Roman Catholic all my life. I am a lay person, a woman, an old woman in fact. Personally I feel that Pope Francis has shown the way to salvation to many who thought that they were damned, sinners beyond hope. He definitely shows his belief (at least to me) of Liberation Theology. His humility and mercy towards all mankind is to be admired. Another of my personal convictions is that the Catholic church is more than a century behind the times. Perhaps this newer approach will eventually lead to priests being allowed to marry, and other necessary changes.

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    1. Nancy, I’m no convinced Francis completely buys into Liberation Theology, at least in its purest of forms. But, his South American background clearly shapes his theology in ways European popes have not been.

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  5. There are so many areas in which we can see that no reconciliation between the LCMS and Roman Catholics will ever take place. The idea of Mary as co-redemptress, and the need to say the Rosary…asking for her intervention and Intercessory prayers on our behalf: the worship of deceased saints and the attachment of supernatural powers to their dried bones and relics, and a host of theological issues which (I thought) Luther put to rest long ago. Why are some Lutherans so anxious about reconciling with Rome? Rome will certainly not abandon their doctrines. We hopefully would not discard the Confessions. I think the whole thing is a waste of time.

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    1. John, it may never take place, but I don’t think that should mean we don’t try.

      I wouldn’t say I’m anxious, I would say I’m doing what every Christian should do, that is, try. It might be hard, it might be messy, it might not ever happen, but we dialogue, we push, and we debate.

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    2. John, never a waste of time – even if it gets nowhere in our notice. That Word of God thing accomplishes God’s purpose always, even it isn’t what we hoped.

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  6. Graham,

    I hear what you’re saying about Benedict but, in the end, he was not friendly toward Lutheranism. Both he and JPII reaffirmed Trent. If anything, I find Francis the most open to Lutheranism in his approaches toward justification. He says more about free grace and my wife was pointing to some recent remarks which put him in the crosshairs of certain ultra-orthodox Catholics because they hinted at removing free will and participation of the Christian in the work of salvation. I’ll try to get you a reference.

    His Gospel-forward approach reverses the church-first approach that the past couple of pontiffs held to. Yes, this upsets the dogmaticians and the faithful who grew up under leadership which was trying to back out of Vatican II. We wouldn’t consider Martin Luther a great dogmatician. The Reformation left that to others. Now, John Calvin, for all his errors, was a dogmatician. So, this is not a flat good thing at all times unless you are (as you seem to be) a bit of a theology-wonk.

    I think Francis is still discovering things he believes and I think he has a better grip on grace (he uses the term “mercy” as we would grace and keeps “grace” within the confines of RC definitions). He sees and conveys that he sees God working on us without our willful consent. This does leave him in less defined area and does make him an odd choice for pontiff. But the Lord does work in mysterious ways and, if they get a pope or two with a love for Gospel over ecclesiasticism, the whole Church may finally start moving in a better direction.

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    1. HLewis, some excellent points I hadn’t considered, especially with respect to Francis and the article of justification. And yes, the Lord does work in mysterious ways.

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  7. “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail, and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:31-32).

    I dare say that “strengthen your brothers” is essential to the Office of Peter, and that I do-not-feel-strengthened by this Pope, I rather feel disarrayed. Shepherds should say what the mean and mean what they say, measuring their words carefully, otherwise the sheep are confused.
    His Papacy has strengthened my resolve that Christ is within His Church, but that is in spite of this mess, not because of it.

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    1. Good afternoon, David.

      From my perspective, looking is at the RC Church and hearing this pope, I hear one that is pointing to Christ more vehemently than to the hierarchy, the act of going to church, sacramentals (although, the jubilee indulgences were a little much). He has encouraged Catholics to live their vocations in the world serving their neighbors and holds that above saying rosaries. At least, that is what I hear from him.

      Francis is calling sinners to repentance and insisted that sinners not be kept outside the church on the basis of the sins they have committed. specifically, he will not tolerate issue-oriented alienation from the church – abortion and homosexuality. In other words, stop preaching the enumeration of sins and start preaching Gospel, grace as the answer to sin. Again, that is what I, as an outsider, hear from him.

      Based on your post, I assume you are inside the RC Church. What is it that you have an issue with concerning this pontiff? As a Lutheran, all doctrine comes from confession and confession only allows that we say what we’ve been given to say in scripture. That leaves a lot of paradox/ mystery to simply accept and lots of room for discussion that never needs to be resolved in theology. I am interested in specifics because I do hear frustration from Catholics who are accustomed more to the cultivation of a relationship to the church and from many who feel this pope is soft on morals.

      Hope to hear from you.

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  8. Good evening H Lewis, basically I’m tired of having to defend and explain everything this Pope says “off the cuff”. I quit. I’m done. Kaput.
    Pray, work and don’t worry.

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  9. I think that Pope Francis is very much like St. Paul who was inspired by the Holy Spirit and nevertheless prone to make statements which even until now lead to disagreements as the Bible warned us: “our beloved brother Paul … also wrote to you … in all his letters. In them there are some writings hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pt 3:15-16). The Holy Spirit doesn’t use the language of a cookbook that can be understood by any reasonable person who knows how to read and write as is evident from the present state of Christianity. Or, as the Ethiopean eunuch remarked to Philip on the meaning of the text at hand, how can I understand it “unless someone instructs me?”

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