The Pietist Pope

I was at first dismissive of the lead singer of Jason and the Callers’ invocation of categories I developed in Lost Soul of American Protestantism to explain the current statements from Pope Francis. Not to say I wasn’t flattered or surprised that an arch-Roman Catholic would lean on Protestant categories to defend an institution and person who is so superior to Protestantism. But after reading Francis’ interview, I believe Jason is more astute than he realizes (but not so much here). (He should also realize that he belongs to a flock of interpreters, the members of which seem to have forgotten that it was the papacy itself that was supposed to end the Protestant craze of various interpretations.)

Several commentators have been concerned about the mainstream media’s highlighting the pope’s apparently lackadaisical views about homosexuality and abortion, such as:

In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

A confessionalist, that is, a churchly Christian who values ecclesial forms and ordinances (preaching, sacraments, prayer) as the means by which the Spirit works, as opposed to a pietist who generally disregards forms and elevates the Spirit over all religious externals or man-made doctrines or liturgies, might have responded to the predicament of homosexuality or abortion by pointing a person struggling with these matters to the regular ministry of the church. For someone like Francis — “is the Pope ecclesial?” could be a new taunt — you would expect him to uphold Rome’s sacramental system of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance. Say what you will about the flaws in those teaching and practices from a Reformed Protestant perspective, Rome’s ministry as outlined, for instance, in Trent’s Catechism is as thorough a way of addressing the plight of sinners as someone could imagine.

But instead of upholding the gracious character of the sacramental system, or the mercy that Rome shows in recommending that a person wrestling with sin seek forgiveness and repentance through the ministry of her priests, Francis went in a pietistic direction. That is, he spoke of ways to make the church seem more responsive and charitable.

How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbour. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organisational reforms are secondary­ – that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

I mention to Pope Francis that there are Christians who live in situations that are irregular for the church or in complex situations that represent open wounds. I mention the divorced and remarried, same-sex couples and other difficult situations. What kind of pastoral work can we do in these cases? What kinds of tools can we use?

“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

To be sure, Francis does mention briefly the role of the confessor in the life of a woman who has had an abortion:

This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament: evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace. The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord’s mercy motivates us to do better. I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?

But the pope’s presentation of the issue is open ended. What should the confessor do? No answer. A woman with a guilty conscience? She needs to work it out with a confessor, but not in a way that would involve the pain of repentance or the acts of contrition, confession, and satisfaction. What happened to the words of Trent which defined contrition as “a sorrow and detestation for sin committed, with a purpose of sinning no more . . . joined with a confidence in the mercy of God and an earnest desire of performing whatever is necessary to the proper reception of the Sacrament”?

In other words, Francis appears to be confused like many pietists, who mistake experience for authenticity. He apparently wants to offer forgiveness to a broken world but does not value highly the very means that his own communion has (and has had for six hundred years) for reaching out to a broken world. It is as if he had read too much Gilbert Tennent and believed that new circumstances required new ministry measures. It is a Roman Catholic instance of pietism’s promotion of feelings and experience at the expense of the outward and ordinary means of grace.

By the way, it is also breathtaking since it is supposed to be either the low church Protestants or the Roman Catholic mystics who are so indifferent to sacraments and ordinances.

Postscript: in a related story, the Vatican press reported on Francis’ efforts to avoid taking a hard line with couples who are cohabiting:

The Pope told priests they should welcome couples that live together and championed the courageous and creative choices involved in going out to the “existential peripheries”, RomaSette says in its article. But the truth factor is crucial here. “The truth must always be told,” not just in the dogmatic sense of the world but in the sense of “love and God’s fullness”. The priest must “accompany” people.

Francis referred to some experience he had in Buenos Aires as examples of creativity. For example, when some churches were kept open around the clock, with confessors or “personal courses” available for couples who want to marry but can’t attend a prenuptial course because they work till late. The “existential peripheries” are the priority. These also refer to the kinds of family contexts Benedict XVI often talked about, for example second marriages. Our task is to “find another way, the just way,” Francis said. . . .

“The problem cannot be reduced to whether” these couples “are allowed to take communion or not because whoever thinks of the problem in these terms doesn’t understand the real issue at hand,” Francis said. “This is a serious problem regarding the Church’s responsibility towards families that are in this situation.” Francis reiterated what he said on the return flight from Rio to Rome after World Youth Day, saying he will be discussing the issue with the group of eight cardinals who will be meeting in the Vatican in early October. Francis added that the issue will also be discussed at the next Synod of Bishops on the Gospel’s anthropological relationship with individual people and the family, so that the whole Synod can look into this problem. “This,” Francis said “is a real existential periphery”.

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  1. stuart
    Posted October 1, 2013 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Where is this wise Elder Hoss that I may go to him and learn from him the ways of Calvin as RC enthusiast?

    I’m sorry this Hoss guy sounds like a cheesy version of Mulder from the X-files. The truth is out there!

  2. Posted October 1, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    The incomparable Glenda Mathes recaps the recent PCA General Assembly:

  3. sean
    Posted October 1, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Doug, me making Irondink is like U2 playing sunken gardens. I still expect the gate however.

  4. Posted October 1, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone read the fiction of Peter DeVries?

  5. Posted October 1, 2013 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Erik, yes. I read Slouching toward Kalamazoo a year or so ago. He’s good. Very mid-twentieth century American culture in sensibility. Calvinism haunts DeVries.

  6. Posted October 2, 2013 at 1:10 am | Permalink


    Any love for the Pirates in the playoffs?

    Iowa’s football coach and former governor are Pennsylvanians so they are rooting them on.

  7. Posted October 2, 2013 at 1:12 am | Permalink


    What happened? If I went there today would I find the same conditions?

  8. Posted October 2, 2013 at 1:15 am | Permalink


    As much pressing on as you do you might have a real future in a Chinese laundry in San Fran.

  9. Posted October 2, 2013 at 1:22 am | Permalink


    Be very wary of Doug’s offers to help you “bone up” if it involves you meeting him at a truck stop.

  10. Posted October 2, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    DGH concedes: “Too often what passes for evidence of the gospel’s transforming influence strikes me as grandstanding.”

    Me: Who cares how it *strikes* you? You probably would have *thought* it was grandstanding when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, and the people cheered. Darryl, you reason like a natural man.

  11. Robert
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Dr. Hart,

    Robert, much of my issue with transformationalism is that it sounds like cheerleading for the home team (like Jason and the Callers). We can cherry pick all the good things of history and chalk them up to Christian or gracious influence. But — not to go all expert on you — historians know better (at least when they are doing their best to understand how societies and persons develop). And even among historians it is very difficult to arrive at criteria that will allow everyone to assess a social setting and tally up the influences of Christians, secularists, government, families, economies, etc. Too often what passes for evidence of the gospel’s transforming influence strikes me as grandstanding. Christians need to be humble. Transformationalism does not nurture it.

    Point taken, and I certainly agree that it is difficult. I guess I’m just talking about painting with the broadest brush possible, and most hardcore transformationalists seem to want to get overly specific. I don’t know. It just seems to me that it is one thing to acknowledge that we need to be humble and careful about how Christianity has influenced culture but another to look at the West in comparison to other societies and say there is no possible way we could ever know that any of the cultural differences between the West and the other parts of the world are attributable to the influence of Christianity/the Bible on the broader cultural understanding. It seems to me that a lot of 2Kers come across as stating the latter even if they don’t mean to necessarily.

    True, a lot of transformationalism comes across as baptizing the things we like in the name of Christ, and that is certainly something all should be concerned about.

    I guess I would be willing to say that the gospel does have transformative effects on society but that one must be exceptionally careful about identifying them and certainly careful never to say what a gospel-transformed society must look like. That’s where I would differ with hardcore transformationalism which does at times seem to come across as the protest of cranky men who despair that the world is changing—and not in their favor.

  12. kent
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    It’s about that time again that Doug comes to his senses and realizes how hurtful and abusive he has been on this board, and then apologizes, and goes away until he goes on another bender and returns with his usual nonsense. (Take #35)

  13. Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Erik, sure, but if the Pirates would change the ‘r’ to an ‘l’, I’d switch from the Phillies.

  14. Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Once again Doug draws the antithesis between those who think like him, and those who don’t. That is where neo-Calvinism leads — all Christians will think alike. You know, a Christian w-w. That’s a lot easier than having to figure out how two regenerate people think differently or how to live with differences.

    But Doug doesn’t flee temptation. He keeps hanging out at blogs with the ungodly.

  15. Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Robert, if we are going to talk about Christianity and the West, then we need to tip our caps to Rome and how the medieval church influenced Europe and its outposts. I am comfortable acknowledging our debt to medieval Rome (thanks in part to reading Francis Oakley — see various posts at Oldlife). But that hardly proves the affects of the Holy Spirit’s application of redemption.

  16. Posted October 2, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Kent, I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. I turn the other comm box.

  17. mark mcculley
    Posted October 2, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Check out the novel The Blood of the Lamb, Peter De Vries’s 1961 novel about an 11-year old girl who dies of leukemia and the anguish of her father. The novel was based on De Vries’s personal experience.

  18. Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:27 am | Permalink

    Doug – Darryl, you reason like a natural man.

    Erik – Just so it doesn’t make him feel like a natural woman.

  19. Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks Mark. Now that I’ve tackled some of Paul Schrader’s films I’m ready to read some DeVries. Any other Dutch Reformed contributions to film & literature?

  20. Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Something tells me I’m not going to find a lot of great screenwriting amongst the Protestant Reformed.

    Speaking of screenwriting, I’m rewatching “Jackie Brown” for about the 3rd or 4th time. It was on IFC last week. Elmore Leonard & Quentin Tarantino. What craftsmanship. Filthy language, though.

  21. kent
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Erik, go to the Dutch for painting, theology, and total football.

    start at 59 seconds

  22. sean
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Total Football is the shiznit. You just need 10 other guys who can pull it off as well as you can.

  23. kent
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Just finished reading Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, also very helpful in learning things about the mind of that wonderful people.

    My ironic and playful Brit mentality has to make adjustments at times…

  24. sean
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Football has never made sense to me apart from a dominant midfield. Everything else is a work around until you find those guys.

  25. kent
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Agreed Sean, Pirlo is my hero currently.

  26. sean
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    I’m still waiting for Zidane’s progeny.

  27. Posted October 4, 2013 at 3:26 am | Permalink


    That’s the best soccer I’ve seen since the Greeks beat the Moderns.

  28. sean
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Erik, Archimedes is tough to stop once properly motivated.

  29. Posted December 28, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I don’t think you can say this and ratify what Trent did.

    Preparing things well is necessary, but don’t fall into the temptation of trying to close or direct the freedom of the Holy Spirit, which is bigger and more generous than any human plan.

    But if you are Gilbert Tenant, makes sense.

  30. Posted April 2, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    But sometimes the pope does judge and stands by his judgment:

    Episcopal installation Masses don’t usually involve teeming protesters, shouting matches, and popping balloons. But Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid’s did. Last Saturday, Barros was installed as bishop of Osorno, Chile, following allegations that he covered up for a sexually abusive priest who had been his mentor. “Barros, get out of the city!” chanted the demonstrators, waving black balloons. The bishop’s supporters tried to drown them out, brandishing white balloons. Some demonstrators attempted to climb the cathedral altar. The service was cut short, and Barros was escorted by police through a side door. Chile’s cardinals, along with most of its bishops, were not in attendance. Familiar with recent history, they knew it was going to be an ugly scene.

    Four years ago, the Holy See found Fr. Fernando Karadima guilty of molesting minors, and ordered him to a life of “prayer and penance.” The Karadima case has been called the worst scandal ever to befall the Chilean Catholic Church. Karadima, now eighty-four, was once one of Chile’s most influential clerics. He ministered to the wealthy, and had strong ties to Chile’s elite. He developed a devoted following, molding the church’s future leaders. Four of his protégées, including Barros, later became bishops. Now, several of Karadima’s victims—once his devotees—say that Barros not only knew about the decades-old accusations and did nothing, but that he witnessed the abuse himself. Barros denies all of it, and refuses to resign.

    After Barros’s appointment was announced in January, about thirteen hundred Chilean laypeople, including dozens of lawmakers, signed a petition seeking Barros’s removal. More than thirty clerics signed a letter asking the pope to reconsider his decision. Two Chilean bishops reportedly met with Francis to brief him on how difficult this has been for the local church. “The pope told me he had analyzed the situation in detail and found no reason” to remove Barros, the archbishop of Concepción, Fernando Chomalí, told the New York Times. Just before Barros’s installation service, the papal envoy to Chile announced that the bishop had his “confidence and support.”

    Some had hoped that pressure brought by members of the pope’s new sexual-abuse commission—several of whom recently expressed grave reservations about the appointment—might persuade Francis to act, or Barros to resign. After all, just last month the pope said that “everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.” He even seemed to chide bishops who had used the excuse of not giving scandal to avoid addressing the issue. But yesterday the Holy See released a terse, curiously worded statement responding to the growing controversy: “Prior to the recent appointment of His Excellency Msgr. Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid as bishop of Osorno, Chile, the Congregation for Bishops carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.” If this is Rome’s last word on Barros, then Francis should know that his decision has imperiled not only the Diocese of Osorno, but also his own reputation as a reformer.

    Maybe the South American curia can be as mysteriously aloof as their Roman counterparts.

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