This article is from Issue 68: March/April 2014

A Pope for Protestants?

How Pope Francis is bridging one of the world's most ancient divides

With its gold-trimmed white fabric, the chair in the middle of the crowded room was even more noticeable. It had an unobstructed view of the orchestra and was slightly elevated over the masses, but on this evening, the throne sat empty.

The official reason Pope Francis gave for missing the opulent Beethoven concert—organized to celebrate the Vatican’s “Year of Faith”—was to attend an unspecified “urgent commitment that could not be delayed.” But the awkward image of a room full of Cardinals surrounding an empty chair meant for their leader sent a different message: Pope Francis was making changes.

It would seem Francis, who had been elected a month before the event, was a different kind of pope.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large for America Magazine, says it’s exactly this trait—the disdain for the decadence of the papacy and a willingness to shake up the status quo—that has endeared Francis to a new group of followers: Protestants.

“If you think about the Protestant Reformation, you think of the reaction against the things that were seen as excesses in the Vatican,” Martin says. “I think Martin Luther would be delighted.”

A Deep Divide

Before you can understand the significance of Pope Francis’ influence on modern evangelicals and non-Catholics, it’s important to remember the history of the Church’s split.

In 1517, a disgruntled priest named Martin Luther penned a 95-point list of grievances dismantling a variety of controversial Catholic Church teachings of the day. His “95 Theses” spoke against papal corruption and embraced the theological idea of salvation through grace alone. Luther’s move sparked a schism in Christianity, and the Protestant Reformation ensued. The Vatican—which once held nearly universal authority over Western Christian churches—soon inhabited a theologically divided new world.

In the modern Church, Protestants (named for Luther’s act of protest against the pope), make up a massive contingent of non-Catholic, mainline Christians. Even today, theological differences—such as papal infallibility, the veneration of Mary and the nature of the sacraments, to name a few—still create a theological gulf between Protestant and Catholic cultures.

But where some see a gulf, Pope Francis seems to see an opportunity to build a bridge.