We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pope Francis and Protestant "Ecclesial Communities"

Francis I kissing feet of male & female prisoners
Source: CBC News
A recent AP article carries the headline, "Pope's Foot-Washing a Final Straw for Traditionalists" and provides a laundry list of the various things Pope Francis I has done that conservative and high church liturgical Catholics find "disturbing."  Benedict XVI restored some of the pomp of the papacy including the use of rich vestments and Latin in the mass, which gave the traditionalists hope of a 21st century counter-reformation of the reforms carried out in previous papacies.  The traditionalists attribute the decline of the Catholic Church in various regions of the world to the loss of traditional practices.  Francis evidently is bringing the traditionalist counter-reformation to an end.

From a liberal, low church Protestant perspective, thus, Pope Francis has made a good start.  He wears simpler garb and deports himself in a humbler manner.  On Maundy Thursday, he kissed the feet of two women, one of whom is Muslim.  He seems interested in reaching out to Islam, which evidently is especially worrisome for the traditionalists who fear that it suggests religious "relativism."  So, this is all to the good.

One can't help but continue to wonder, however, what the new pope's simple and humble approach means in other areas of church life.  In an earlier posting (here), I raised the question of his views on homosexuality, which are evidently less enlightened.  Protestants may well wonder, moreover, if he is going to affirm or change the Catholic Church's demeaning attitude toward Protestant local congregations, which in Catholic nomenclature are "ecclesial communities."  At present the official Catholic position is that Protestant congregations are not churches because Protestants have forfeited Apostolic succession and the sacraments as understood by the Catholic Church.  Pope Benedict reaffirmed this judgment on Protestant churches in 2007 (here).  If Francis does intend to open new avenues of dialogue with Islam, will he also bring a less demeaning attitude toward other Christians as well?  One wonders.

The point is not that we Protestants attain some kind of new status by having the pope recognize our churches as churches.  Our churches are churches in any event.  The point is that by changing the Catholic stance on the status of other sisters and brothers in Christ, he would further signal his intention to use every means at his disposal to reach the world with the good news of Christ.  He would open the door to greater ecumenical cooperation in facing the challenges facing our faith in the 21st century.  He would promote greater peace, understanding, and fellowship in intra-faith relations among Christians, which can only be a good thing.  But will he?  One wonders.