Is Pope Francis an Evangelical, Charismatic Catholic?

Experts in Evangelical Christianity and the Charismatic Movement discuss the roots and focus of the Holy Father’s ecumenical dialogue and interaction

Labels are most often used not only to define a person, but to deny the person. Once we slap a label on them it is easy to limit them to that label. That’s why I used to tease people by describing myself as an “Evangelical, Charismatic, Catholic.”

I used the label to defy labels. I also used the description because I genuinely valued all three streams of Christian tradition. I wanted to affirm the Evangelical’s missionary zeal and love of the Scriptures, the Charismatic’s warmth and personal experience of the Holy Spirit, and the strong rootedness of the Catholic tradition.

Not long ago a priest friend admitted to to me that Pope Francis was “an enigma”. Now, a year and half into his papacy, after watching and listening to the pope carefully I’m convinced that he is, at heart, an Evangelical, Charismatic Catholic. Breaking out of common Catholic categories, Francis has reached out to Evangelicals and Charismatics both within the Catholic Church and beyond.

His friendship with bishop Tony Palmer is a good example. Before his untimely death, Palmer was a leader in a new church movement which weaves together the zealous missionary spirit of the Evangelicals, active use of the charismatic gifts, a love for liturgy, and the apostolic succession. Through Palmer, Pope Francis reached out to charismatic evangelist Kenneth Copeland, preached in a Pentecostal church in Rome and welcomed Evangelical leaders for a breakfast time visit.

To assess my hunch that Pope Francis is an Evangelical, Charismatic Catholic, I spoke to two Catholic leaders in the Church who are experts in Evangelical Christianity and the charismatic movement.

Catholic Charismatics

Dr. Ralph Martin is a well-known author, theologian, and teacher. He holds degrees in theology from Notre Dame, Princeton and a the Angelicum. He is associate professor of Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and is the director of Catholic Renewal Ministries. Ralph worked with Pope Francis in this year’s world meeting of charismatic Catholics in Rome. I asked Ralph for the inside story on Pope Francis and the charismatic movement.

Fr. Longenecker: Pope Francis seems open to the Renewal Movement in the Catholic Church. What do you think he sees as the movements strengths and weaknesses? By reaching out to charismatics is he simply trying to stem the tide of Catholics converting to the Pentecostal/Charismatic Protestant churches?

Martin: The Pope’s most comprehensive statement was in connection with the international Catholic charismatic conference held in Rome’s Olympic Stadium in June. When the organizers approached him about possibly sending a message to the conference or greeting them in St. Peter’s Square the Pope said he would like to come to the Stadium and participate.

He arrived in his Ford Focus and walked into the Stadium. When he got to the stage he asked the music ministry to play his favorite song from when he was the bishop in charge of the Catholic charismatic renewal in Argentina. I was in the front row and I can attest that he knew the words by heart and sang wholeheartedly with hands raised and eyes frequently closed in deep prayer and worship. It was also very moving when he asked for everyone to pray for him and he knelt down and for a long time was deep in prayer as 52,000 people from 55 countries prayed fervently for him.

The pope said, “I thank you so much for your welcome. When I celebrated holy Mass in Buenos Aires with the Charismatic Renewal, after the consecration and after a few seconds of adoration in tongues, we sang this song with so much joy and force, as you did today. Thank you! I felt at home!”

Pope Francis isn’t supporting the charismatic renewal for any other reason other than he sees in it a gift for the whole Church.

Fr. Longenecker: Considering Pope Francis’ friendship with bishop Tony Palmer of the Charismatic Evangelical Episcopal Church, how might the renewal movement influence future ecumenism?

Martin: It is quite extraordinary how Pope Francis is reaching out to this very significant and often neglected segment of Christianity, in terms of its place in ecumenical dialogues. His video to Kenneth Copeland, his invitation to well known leaders from this segment, including well-known figures such as Joel Osteen and James Robison, to visit with him in the Vatican. His visit to the Italian evangelical pastor where he asked forgiveness for ways in which Catholics haven’t understood them and even disdained and discriminated against them has done immense good.

What is particularly encouraging is that this “personal diplomacy” of the Pope will now take an institutional and structured form as these encounters will now begin to happen on a regular basis under the guidance of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

Fr. Longenecker: The Pope has said, “Proselytism is solemn nonsense”. How does this square with his enthusiasm for the Charismatic Movement with its strong emphasis on conversion?

Martin: Proselytism is using inappropriate means to induce someone to become a Christian—whether it be financial inducement, psychological pressure, or whatever. Evangelization is giving witness to the truth and beauty of the Christian faith while respecting the freedom of those we are witnessing to. Proselytism is bad; evangelization, inviting people to conversion is good!

Fr. Longenecker: Does Pope Francis envision any kind of formal re-union with Protestant Charismatic groups? What might that look like?

Martin: I haven’t heard him say anything along those lines. Indeed, he tends to tell people that he simply wants to get to know them, not pressure them to convert. I think he knows the limitations and is just trying to remove deep hurts, misunderstandings, and unnecessary alienations so that we can truly love each other and respect each other and support each other in witnessing to an international pagan culture that is increasingly hostile to Christ and Christians.

Evangelical Catholics

Dr. Francis Beckwith is an apologist, philosopher, and academic. Born into a Catholic home, he became an Evangelical and spent most of his adult life working within Evangelical Christian colleges. In 2007 he made public his reversion to Catholicism and resigned his posts in Evangelical theological organizations. He is now Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University.

I asked Francis his opinions about Pope Francis and the Evangelicals.

Fr. Longenecker: Pope Francis seems happy to be surrounded by Evangelical Protestants. He doesn’t view them as “the enemy”. Why do you think this is?

Beckwith: I think it’s because of his experience in South America, where Evangelicalism has drawn away many Catholics from the Church. He sees in these Evangelicals a living and active faith that the Church can incorporate without compromising its ecclesial or doctrinal integrity. So, he views Evangelical practice as an integral part of the Catholic heritage that, if allowed to flourish, can reinvigorate the Church.

Fr. Longenecker: In your experience, how do most American Evangelicals regard Pope Francis?

Beckwith: It’s mixed. In the crowds in which I travel, Benedict was far more liked that Francis. I think it has to do with the perception of Benedict as a conservative with intellectual and spiritual gravitas. With Francis, some of my Evangelical friends are suspicious of what some of his off-the-cuff comments may mean for Catholicism’s reputation as the most important protector and defender of traditional values.

Fr. Longenecker: Do you feel the historic animus to the Catholic Church among Evangelicals is eroding?

Beckwith: Yes. I think it is largely the result of working together on cultural questions, which has led to more careful and charitable reading of each others’ beliefs. So, for example, it is rare today to a find a serious Evangelical accusing the Catholic Church of believing in “works righteousness.” Sure, the more flamboyant voices say such things, but most sophisticated Evangelicals do not take them seriously.

Fr. Longenecker: Could you envision any kind of visible unity with any group of Evangelicals or Protestants or will ecumenism only consist of being nice to one another?

Beckwith: I do. But I think it’s going to take a bold move on the part of Rome. Perhaps creating a special “Evangelical apostolate” that focuses on Evangelical modes of worship, prayer, devotion, and Scripture reading without treating those modes as contrary to traditional Catholic practices. 

Another option, in order to try facilitate clergy conversions from “low church traditions,” would be create a means by which these former Protestant ministers, who are married, can more easily apply for the diaconate. This would be a kind of Low Church pastoral provision—they process enabling convert clergy to be ordained.

Fr. Longenecker: Do Evangelicals trust the pope?

Beckwith: I think the jury’s still out on Francis for some Evangelicals. One reason for this is that Evangelicals—especially the American ones—read Francis through the lens of the American culture wars. I think if they set that aside, and just read him in light the Church’s unassailable doctrinal commitments, they would realize that there may be a good strategic reason for his approach. Only time will tell.

Pope Francis: “ECC”

As a former Evangelical who has been influenced positively by the renewal movement, and was once an Anglican priest, I am interested in the contrast between Pope Francis’ reception of Evangelical and Charismatic Christians and his meetings with leaders like the Archbishop of Canterbury. He invites the Evangelicals and Charismatics to jolly meals in the St Martha Hostel, but greets the Archbishop of Canterbury with cordial formality. Is this a sign that Francis’ heart is more with the Evangelicals and Charismatics?

Does he sense that the ecumenical current is moving away from talks with the established mainline Protestant denominations and toward the edgy, spirit-filled, informal Charismatic-Evangelical contingent? Does he sense that the old Protestant denominations are going down fast while the Evangelical-Charismatics are on the up? One doesn’t need the supernatural gift of prophecy to see in what direction the larger Protestant world is headed. Considering the strength of Evangelical Charismatic worship in the developing world, Pope Francis is right to have an eye on the future.

Is Pope Francis an Evangelical, Charismatic Catholic?

Three other signs indicate that this is the best way to understand him. First is his repeated discussion of the reality of Satan and the need for spiritual warfare. This is Evangelical-Charismatic talk. Secondly, his desire for a simple, down-to-earth, people-centered ministry. This too reflects the strengths of the Evangelical-Charismatic movement. Finally, Francis’ willingness to take risks, overturn the more staid aspects of Catholic tradition and sit lightly to the legalities feels like the same “bottom line back to basics” Christianity of the Evangelicals and Charismatics.

Those who find Francis enigmatic may come to understand the man as they learn to see him as the Evangelical Charismatic Catholic Pope.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker 0 Articles
Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. He blogs at Standing on My Head on Patheos and is the author of several books, including Slubgrip Instructs: Fifty Days with the Devil. Browse his other books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.