In response to a question which expects an answer of “Yes”, people sometimes say “Is the Pope Catholic?” Today that might be a good question to ask all by itself. Just how Catholic is this Pope?
In March, Jorge Mario Bergoglio quietly assumed the papal seat of Peter, refusing some of the luxuries which come with the office. As all Popes do, he chose a papal name to reflect his vision of his future role in the Catholic Church—Francis, after Saint Francis of Assisi, who tried to live a different, simpler life than others.
In the months since assuming office, Francis has clearly established that he will be different than his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict, who were fairly conservative theologically.
Francis is the first Jesuit pope and the first pope from South America, a region where liberation theology is still popular. Francis has shrewdly emphasized issues which he knows are popular with many Catholics and many non-Catholics, including atheists. For example, he has criticized the excessive spending and materialism of some priests. He has publicly associated with those in the lower social classes, going out of his way to touch them, hug them, and talk with them. He has given interviews with secular journalists where he has suggested that atheists may be in heaven if they are sincere and are following their conscience. He has also played down the importance of social/moral issues such as homosexuality and abortion.
Issues like these are always popular with the secular establishment. But they are not popular with the more conservative groups in Catholicism, who are uncomfortable with Pope Francis’ apparent minimizing of important social issues such as homosexuality and abortion and his opening the door to heaven for atheists without the atheist converting.
The problem conservative Catholics have is simple: What can you do with a Pope who seems to be changing the beliefs and practices of the Church? The answer: Not much. He is the Pope, supposedly chosen by God to lead the Church. How can you resist that?
And this brings up an interesting and intriguing point: The prophecies of Saint Malachy. These alleged prophecies, written in 1595, are supposed to predict the popes over the last few centuries, ending with the man who is to be the last and greatest pope, sometimes called Peter the Roman. Strangely enough, the name of the pope who probably comes before this last pope is called “Benedict”. And that is the name of the pope who suddenly resigned his papal position earlier this year.
What makes this interesting for me is that I first came across these “prophecies” during the days when the Catholic Church was trying to find a successor to John Paul II. The Cardinals were still debating when I read that the name of the next Pope would be Benedict, based on these prophecies. Imagine my amazement when, two days later, the name of the new Pope was announced: Benedict. Combine this with the sudden resignation of Benedict earlier this year, the first in centuries, and with the changes the current Pope is making, and you have the beginnings of speculation about what this Pope is doing and just exactly who this man is.
Pope Francis is continuing the salvation universalism of his predecessors, broadening the scope and appeal of the Catholic Church. Any religious system during the Tribulation would have to include the Catholic Church in some form. Are the changes we see today the beginning of the changes necessary for that to happen? Is this Pope Catholic, or is he the beginning of something bigger?
Wally Morris is the pastor of Charity Baptist Church, Huntington, IN, and blogs at A Moment of Charity.