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Should Evangelicals Care About the New Pope?

Last week, people around the world were waiting to see white smoke curling from a tiny chimney. Black smoke meant a group of men were still trying to make a decision. But white smoke meant a new pope, the spiritual leader of Roman Catholics all over the world.

Once everyone saw the white smoke, it didn’t take long for the news to break: the new pope would be Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit from Argentina and the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio chose the name “Francis” as his papal name and greeted the faithful gathered below the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica with a simple Italian greeting: “Buona sera.”

As with the election of any modern pope, Christians of all strains have watched the proceedings with interest. Evangelical Christians are no exception — evangelical websites, churches, pastors and church leaders weighed in on the election of Pope Francis. While some leaders have highlighted the ways a papal election showcases the differences between Catholicism and evangelicalism, other evangelical voices have praised the election of Pope Francis as a positive step toward evangelical-Catholic dialogue.

So how should evangelicals respond to the election of Pope Francis? Should they be suspicious or excited? And, more to the point, should evangelicals even care?

A rocky relationship

American evangelicals have long had a complicated relationship with Roman Catholicism, even in recent memory. In 1994, evangelical and Catholic leaders, like Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus respectively, signed a landmark ecumenical document called Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), which sought to find common ground in both basic doctrine and social causes. Despite the high profile of many of the evangelical supporters, significant evangelical voices like John MacArthur, D. James Kennedy and R.C. Sproul criticized the statement for de-emphasizing the theological differences between Catholics and evangelicals. In a 1995 radio broadcast discussing the ECT statement, MacArthur said “In all honesty, [Catholicism] is not a group of wayward brothers but is an apostate form of Christianity. It is a false religion; it is another religion.” Those aren’t the only evangelicals who are leery of Catholicism: a 2000 Gallup poll found that 29% of people claiming to be “born again” or “evangelical” had an unfavorable view of Catholics — certainly not a majority but also not an easily dismissible percentage.

So if evangelicals have had a tenuous relationship with Catholicism in the past, why should they care about the election of a new pope? 

Evangelicals and Catholics, mostly together

While there are some notable examples of Catholics and evangelical disagreement — and there are some serious doctrinal differences — those tend to be less comprehensive than the doctrinal matters agreed upon by Catholics and evangelicals. These include some of the basic tenets spelled out in the ancient creeds, like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed. Additionally, some of the evangelical suspicion of Catholic doctrine stems from misunderstanding of the doctrine, or at least the ways that Catholic doctrine is expressed at a local (as opposed to actual doctrinal) level.

Consider, for instance, the common misconception that Catholics pray to saints as if they were mini-deities. In reality, Catholic doctrine states that Christians can ask the departed saints to intercede — pray for them — to God on their behalf. It’s sort of like asking your friends to pray for you, except your friend lived in the 13th century and you never actually met them. But many times, the way that’s expressed on a local, personal level resembles more charm-laden superstition rather than the Christian faith — like burying St. Joseph in your yard to sell your house.

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Ryan E.C. Hamm is a writer and editor. Much of his work has been in the areas of music, technology, religion, and contemporary culture. He's primarily interested in the ways technology and culture are changing faith, relationships, and communication. Twitter: @RyanECHamm.