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Why Pope Francis Excites (Most) Evangelical Leaders
Image: Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
Why Pope Francis Excites (Most) Evangelical Leaders

Editor's note: CT has also gathered reactions from Argentine evangelical leaders (who describe Bergoglio as an "answer to our prayers") and evangelist Luis Palau, who has a personal friendship with Bergoglio.

Pope Francis has drawn much attention for being the first pope to come from the ranks of the Americas and the Jesuits, as well as take the name Francis. But evangelical observers highlight other reasons for enthusiasm for yesterday's precedent-setting election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, to replace Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI after his surprising resignation.

Though the pope doesn't speak for Protestant Christians, he holds an important role as one of the most public faces of Christianity, said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

"Around the world, there are millions of people who don't grasp the differences between Protestants and Catholics," he said. "To them, Christians are Christians and the pope speaks for Christians."

However, American evangelicals will benefit from Francis's conservative stance on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, said Anderson. Meanwhile, the new pope's focus on poverty and his ascetic personal habits could also start a needed discussion about the global poor.

"There's been a lot of talk [in America] about the middle class and the rich, but little about the poor," said Anderson. "Perhaps Pope Francis can bring us back to the biblical and Christian care for the poor and vulnerable."

Because Protestantism is common in Argentina and the rest of South America, Francis is situated to better understand Protestantism than his predecessor, Benedict, who often referred to Protestantism as a "sect" of Christianity, said Chris Castaldo, a director at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center and author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic. Francis could set the tone for more compassionate conversations among families about the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, he said.

"There are countless numbers of families for whom this is an important issue, where the fault line runs right through [them]," Castaldo said. "They don't know how to talk to one another."

By electing a non-European pope, the Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged the shifting balance of world Christianity, said Thomas Schirrmacher, chair of the theological commission of the World Evangelical Alliance. Schirrmacher met Bergoglio last year at Catholic synod meetings and said he is humble and friendly.

Francis is known for simple living; he lived in a small, plain apartment and took public transportation while serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Schirrmacher said he expects Francis to focus on financial reform within the church and to promote simple living and care for the poor.

"It is astonishing that a bishop of the poor has been selected, " he said. "We have to expect that the new pope … will get more strongly involved in social questions."

According to the Vatican, Bergoglio's choice to take the name Francis refers to 13th-century friar St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan order and known for living in poverty. However, it also connotes Francis Xavier, a founder of the Jesuit order known for scholarship and outreach work.

Francis has a good track record of living among the poor and caring for social outcasts, said Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

"I pray that his example spurs evangelicals like me to remember our mandate to love the least of these, the hurting and the vulnerable, the brothers and sisters of our Lord," he said.

In his first homily as pope, Francis emphasized the importance of living out the Christian faith, which could be a focus of his papacy, said Francis Beckwith, a philosophy professor at Baylor University who returned to Catholicism while serving as president of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007.

"He may bring to the conversation a way of thinking that's different from his predecessors," Beckwith said. "He's somebody who emphasizes more of the practical aspects of the Catholic life and the importance of living in holiness."

Cecil Robek, professor of church history and ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary, said his Argentine friends have described Francis as a Bible-oriented man who holds to literal interpretation of much of the Bible, so he'll likely affirm much evangelical theology.

The liberation theology movement, which ties the gospel to a message of political and social justice for the oppressed, has its roots in Latin America. However, Francis is not likely to adopt the theology, which takes a top-down approach and is often linked to Marxism, Robek said.

"He's very much in line with social justice but not necessarily from the liberationist perspective, and I think that's probably a good thing," Robek said. "But he will certainly be looking at marginalized and poor people."

Francis is also committed to evangelism, said Robek, who serves as a consultant to the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization on long-term relations with the Vatican.

Though Francis is not a prolific writer, his past writings and speeches have emphasized the "New Evangelization," a term coined by John Paul II, which seeks to promote evangelism in the contemporary world, said Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School.

"[Francis] has been very outspoken in saying the church can no longer sit back and absorb the cultural milieu and depend on that to take it forward," George said. "We must take seriously the message of Jesus Christ."

Jesuits tend to be critical of Vatican operations, so Francis could well take a stance on internal corruption in the Catholic Church, said Carl Trueman, professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary. However, Francis likely will not address key theological differences between Protestants and Catholics, such as veneration of Mary, the nature of sacraments, and the theology of justification.

"I have no great hope that will be done," said Trueman. "I'm thankful for Rome's social stances but ambivalent toward their theology, given the differences that still remain."

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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Why Pope Francis Excites (Most) Evangelical Leaders