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Pope Francis: A humble man with a theology of exclusion

This column first appeared in the February edition of the Baptist Studies Bulletin, the online publication of the Baptist History & Heritage Society. Learn more about BHHS here.

By Aaron Weaver

For much of the past year, there has been a tremendous amount of online buzz about Jorge Mario Bergoglio — the man the world now knows as Pope Francis. Week in and week out, Pope Francis is a subject of conversation in virtually every outlet imaginable from cable news to local news, conservative talk radio to NPR, Facebook to Twitter, and the list goes on.

The new pope clearly has captured the attention of millions and millions.

And, Pope Francis has impressed more than a few Baptists. The title of a recent Associated Baptist Press article sums up this sentiment: “For growing numbers of Baptists, Pope Francis is drawing admiration.”

The article quotes Barrett Owen, a Georgia pastor, who penned a blog post titled “#PopeCrush” that listed 10 reasons why the pope is so popular.

“What amazes me about his intrepid faith is that he manages to make Christianity look attractive, hopeful, loving, empathetic and meaningful. His serve-first mentality resonates with Boomers, Xers and Millennials,” Owen wrote.

The ABP article also quoted Jonathan Merritt, a Southern Baptist and columnist for Religion News Service, who has written about Protestants falling in love with Pope Francis.

Like Owen and Merritt and millions more, I too have been impressed.

“Who am I to judge?”

Those five short words from the new Bishop of Rome in response to a reporter’s question about gay priests prompted many to take notice. With his response, one thing was made clear — Francis was definitely no Benedict.

I cannot confess to having had many positive thoughts about Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. His past profession as heresy-hunter while Cardinal Ratzinger was a sure turn off and his connection to pedophile priests scandal did not win him any points with the masses.

Pope Francis’ booting of the “Bishop of Bling,” washing the feet of juvenile offenders, embracing an extremely disfigured man, and his critique of unfettered capitalism as a “new tyranny,” as well as his modest lifestyle are just a few reasons why I’ve been impressed. (Side Note: What does it say about the state of Christianity that we experience authentic admiration for a faith leader who makes the conscious choice not to live like Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar?)

While Pope Francis is certainly deserving of admiration, critique and caution are in order too.

Just eight months into his papacy, Pope Francis released his first apostolic exhortationEvangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) — on November 26, 2013. There are parts of this document, dubbed “the manifesto of Francis,” worthy of praise, including the pope’s attack on capitalism that sent Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives into a tizzy.

But, there is at least one part that should cause egalitarians to take note.

“Demands that the legitimate rights of women be respected on the firm conviction that men and women are equal in dignity, present the Church with profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded,” Pope Francis wrote.

“The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.”

“Not a question open to discussion.”

Those six words should harsh the mellow of many — especially those who have embraced women as pastors.

A theology of exclusion that says women cannot serve as priests is likely not one that resonates much with equality-minded Boomers, Xers and Millennials. I find little intrepid about a faith that is closed even to a discussion about an equal role for women and men alike.

There is nothing courageous or fearless about excluding others.

In the midst of all the buzz, perhaps Baptists and other Protestants ought remember that, to quote a recent article by religion journalist David Gibson, “Yes, the pope is still Catholic” — the head of a massive global religious institution and sovereign city-state, who is more likely to cling to tradition rather than implement meaningful reforms. Pope Francis’ own words in Evangelii Gaudium speak for themselves:

“Not a question open to discussion.”

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