Guestview: Among U.S. ecumenists, Pope Francis kindles cautious hope

December 20, 2013

(Pope Francis jokes with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby at the Vatican June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Alessandra Tarantino/Pool)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth E. Evans is a freelance writer and columnist in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania

By Elizabeth E. Evans

It’s not the just the media and his follow Catholics who love talking about Pope Francis.

In the United States, the gregarious pontiff with the sensible black shoes and equally plainspoken manner has also gotten the attention of Protestant observers hopeful of healing the wounds of more than 500 years of denominational separation.

These men and women, some of whom have spent years cultivating national and international relationships with their Catholic colleagues, are hopeful for ecumenical progress under the Argentinian incumbent, though they leaven their eagerness with a keen awareness of the challenges of bridging doctrine and history.

Coming out of the Jesuit tradition, says former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, Francis “very much values God at work in human experiences, and looks for traces of God in historical events.” While not undermining the tenets of historical orthodoxy, says Griswold, this type of practical perspective values “the human reality in which ultimately theological perspectives have to be lived on the ground.”

As former co-chair of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, Griswold not only developed close collegial and friendly relationships with Roman Catholic prelates, but learned that many in the Vatican were indeed eager for conversation and rapprochement, he says.

While many clergy in ‘post-Christian’ Europe are eager to make common cause with Anglican colleagues, comments Griswold, “We live more in the United States with a kind of consumer view of organized Christianity, and the brands in this country are a little more self-conscious than they are in Europe.”

As the world’s chief sponsor of ecumenical dialogue, the Roman Catholic Church isn’t likely to change course under Francis, who has also displayed sensitivity to interreligious concerns, said religion scholar Anthea Butler. But unlike prior Pope Benedict, who “kept putting his foot in his mouth, I think he will be a lot more savvy about how he has that conversation,” added Butler, graduate chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Real life situations are often spurs for ecumenical conversations, says Butler, noting the previous pontiff’s concerns about evangelizing Europe, which has both a growing immigrant population and swelling ranks of those who have either left the church or never entered its doors to begin with.

As Francis tries to repair a battered denomination still wracked by money woes and the lingering wounds of multiple sex abuse scandals, the role of women (significant in ecumenical dialogue) may not be the highest priority, says Butler. “This is an old ship that isn’t moving. I’m not saying I don’t want women priests. I want them. But I don’t think this particular infrastructure can handle the question.”

According to Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore, evangelicals and Roman Catholics have friendly relationships and have made common cause on issues important to both denominations. These include the “pro-life” cause and expressing public concerns about the state of religious freedom, he says.

“I count Catholic bishops among my most valued allies in this country” says Moore, adding that he personally would love the opportunity to visit with Pope Francis (though he has expressed some reservations, terming one interview Francis gave a “theological train wreck.”

“I am largely very happy with Pope Frances” says Moore. “I like the energy and vitality that he brings to the papacy. I like his emphasis on mercy and humility. I think these are healthy things.”

A United Methodist Church elder and professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, Edward Phillips says he views Vatican II and the reforms that followed as “watershed moments” in Christian tradition. While he has been concerned about the retrenchment under the popes who followed John XXIII (as a liturgical expert, he’s particularly concerned about changes to the language of the eucharist adopted by Protestant churches and revisited under Benedict), he says he thinks it’s wonderful that the current incumbent is “trying to find a way to be more pastoral. “

Without changing core church doctrines, says Phillips, “he’s now instructing his bishops to lead the church in a different direction” and calling it to heed the needs of the poor and on the margins. “It gives hope to Protestants that most conversations will move from confrontation to hospitality” says Phillips, who has represented his denomination in a dialogue with Roman Catholics on the meaning of the eucharist.

“He’s tracking back to what Vatican II was all about, instead of rolling it back” agrees Butler, calling Francis a “fresh wind.” But it’s also clear that these denominational veterans of ecumenical dialogue are waiting to see what happens next.

“I’m almost beginning to be really hopeful again” says Phillips, then adds: “I hope he doesn’t disappoint me.”

Admitting that he’s a fascinated observer, Griswold says: “Something on the ground has changed. There’s a new openness of spirit. Where it will take us has yet to be revealed.”



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