Some thoughts on Pope Francis

By Russell D. Moore
Oct 1, 2013

It’s another week and thus another interview with Pope Francis. This one, I’m sorry to say, is more than just confusing. It’s a theological wreck.

In an interview with La Repubblica, in response to a question about whether there is a “single vision of good,” the Pope said, “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place,” and “The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood.” When the reporter commented, “Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me,” the Pope also said “Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us.”

From Augustine’s Confessions to “Well, everyone has his own ideas about good and bad…” is a mighty long path.

First of all, I am a Protestant so, of course, I do not accept the church’s claims about the papal chair as Vicar of Christ. But though I protest; I don’t throw rocks (no Petrine pun intended). My mother’s side of the family was and is Roman Catholic, and some of the most significant influences in my life personally and intellectually are Roman Catholics.

Second, I don’t dislike Pope Francis. I think he is quite right about the primacy of the gospel over culture wars. In my much smaller pool and from my much smaller perch, I’ve tried to say that outrage itself isn’t a Christian virtue. Our mission ought to be toward reconciliation, not the vaporization of our perceived enemies.


If Pope Francis wishes to reclaim the primacy of the gospel, he must simultaneously speak with kindness to those outside of its reach and speak of the need for good news. What these interviews seem continually to do is what evangelical theologian Carl Henry warned Protestants of in the 20th century, of severing the love of God from the holiness of God. God is, Henry said against both the liberal Social Gospel and obscurantist and angry fundamentalism, the God of both justice and justification.

Without speaking to the conscience, and addressing what the sinner already knows to be true about the day of giving an account, there is not love, only the consigning of the guilty conscience to accusation and condemnation. If the church is right about the personhood of unborn children (and I think it is), then why would we not be “obsessed” about speaking for them, and for the women and men whose consciences are tyrannized by their past sins?

It is not good news to say to such consciences, “Well, we’re all brothers and sisters,” if what they feel in their psyches and read in their Bibles (and in their Catholic catechisms) is that those who commit such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. We must speak with tenderness and gentleness, but with an authoritative word from God, that there is a means of reconciliation. The burdened conscience doesn’t wish to hear “It’s all okay.” The burdened conscience is freed by “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).

There’s little purpose in refighting the Protestant Reformation here, but we do, in some sense, return to Martin Luther’s problem. With a guilty conscience, he could find no way to reconciliation in himself or by the purported economy of grace. In the church, he saw rules and rituals but felt in that only condemnation.

But opposite a harsh, rule-oriented Christianity is a way that is just as condemning, a way that we’ve seen often in hyper-Protestant communions: the tendency to downplay sin at all. This leaves sinners like us in a kind of earthly purgatory that never purges, and leads us to hide from the face of God because, like our first parents, we know who we are and what we’ve done.

I’m in no position to advise the Bishop of Rome, but I hope we’ll see a fuller-orbed message from him. I’m with Pope Francis on the need for kindness, but I pray it will be a convictional kindness that addresses both the reality of God’s holy justice and his reconciling love.

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1 On Oct 1, 2013, at 11:27am, Tim wrote:

Simultaneously speak with kindness and of the need for good news. Great point, Doc.


2 On Oct 1, 2013, at 11:46am, Matthew wrote:

I agree that what the Pope said sounded a bit odd.  He was however speaking to a non believer.  I must think that his insistence on following ones conscience regarding what is good vs evil is his way to encourage non believers to seek truth.  First step towards God. 


3 On Oct 1, 2013, at 2:13pm, Jack wrote:

Theological train wreck is an accurate assessment of the interview, which is of a piece with previous interviews and published talks the Pope has given.  It will become a spiritual and institutional train wreck if it continues.

To confirm you in your own understanding of God’s mercy and justice, I offer you this passage from the staunch 20th Century Thomist, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange:

“What is the sublimity of the cross, if not the harmony of perfections seemingly in opposition, the union of the supreme demands of justice and love? ... In proportion as love is purified of all imperfection, it becomes identical with mercy and justice. It is as absolute, imperative and strong as it is sweet and compassionate. This sweetness and mercy would be false and would no longer have anything divine about them, if they were not identical in God with the holy demands expressed by justice. We are far from believing in that good-natured God whom the world delights in creating for itself.”

4 On Oct 1, 2013, at 3:10pm, Andy Rowell wrote:

Yes, I too cringed at the same things. But (1) many theologians distinguish between proselytism and evangelism—maybe Pope Francis still supports the latter (see quotes from Newbigin below); and (2) he was speaking with a non-Christian who has major baggage against Christianity and he draws him into a conversation about what is God to him—quite successful pre-evangelism I thought.

Newbigin: “Evangelism” is not “proselytism”: “the attempt to enlarge itself by manipulating those unable to resist.”

Newbigin: “Proselytism” is “drawing people into conformity.” “Evangelism” is “freedom of the Holy Spirit… doing a new thing.” Signs, p.82.

5 On Oct 1, 2013, at 8:52pm, John Smith wrote:

I think in very simple language, if you try to covert a non-believer, you are going to get backlash. So as the leader of a church, what do you do? You appeal to that persons sense of right and wrong, and try to get that person to listen to their conscience. In listening to one’s conscience you are taking the first step towards belief. I can’t see it any other way. The Pope is smart, but his words can be misinterpreted.

6 On Oct 1, 2013, at 9:18pm, tom z wrote:

Yet, Luther allowed divorce, and recently contraception is seen as a blessing, not as abomination.  Do you help the poor, sick, or suffering or refer them to Obama?

You stand on the far side of a bridge burned by your progenitors.  Criticize, but disunity itself is the more serious scandal.

7 On Oct 1, 2013, at 9:38pm, mike wrote:

When we want comments the baptists’ take on Catholics, we’ll let you know.  Honest!  But don’t wait up.

8 On Oct 1, 2013, at 10:11pm, David wrote:

Making disciples who live and love like Jesus is a basic building block of Christianity. Faith cannot be achieved by force or condemnation, nor can it be achieved by relativism and denial.

This pope seems to be taking everyone even farther off the path (1) instead of the “faith and good works” pillars of Catholicism, now only “good works” is required—and at that, maybe, possibly—based on these recent interviews; and (2) he compromised (and denied) basic principles of faith, apparently to curry favor with a potentially hostile audience.

I am not Catholic and have been concerned for years about the path that church has been on with many of their teachings. This new suggestion that faith in Jesus is not needed, nor should a Christian reach out to others gently, compassionately, and with love, is a very concerning development.

9 On Oct 1, 2013, at 10:38pm, Susan wrote:

We should wait for the corrected translations. What the media is telling us is wrong. For proof compare the original article to the English translations, everyone so far has been wrong.

10 On Oct 2, 2013, at 12:23am, Timothy Fradenburg wrote:

No, I’m not Catholic. I’m Christian, but almost wouldn’t have been if I didn’t have a rudimentary understanding of Christ’s love and Christ’s teachings (along with a God given intellect of my own) that I found outside the church.
I’m not bashing churches, just overly inflated egotists who believe us lowly folk need them to understand salvation. I like what the pope said somewhat, nothing heretic here.

11 On Oct 2, 2013, at 1:25am, A Rigsby wrote:

Before coming to any conclusions,I would like to hear from someone who has read the original Italian and can comment on the quality of the translation.  Less than ideal English translations is an old problem at the Vatican because of the rush to get them out.

Not being familiar with Carl Henry, I would appreciate some amplification of what he said.

12 On Oct 2, 2013, at 2:47am, A Rigsby wrote:

Note article about this article at

13 On Oct 2, 2013, at 6:34am, Father Louis Melahn, L.C. wrote:

The point has been made elsewhere on the Web, but reading the Italian original might make of the Pope’s comments more understandable.

He says, “Ciascuno di noi ha una sua visione del Bene e anche del Male. Noi dobbiamo incitarlo a procedere verso quello che lui pensa sia il Bene” Translated properly, that should say, “Each one of us has his own vision of Good and also of Evil. We have to encourage him [each one] to move towards what he thinks is the Good.” (The phrase in Italian “una sua visione” implies that the “vision” that each one has might not be perfect.) All that the Pope is doing here is affirming the primacy of conscience; he does not, of course, support moral relativism. (He is well aware that, although we must obey our consciences, we also have a grave duty to inform it—to learn what is right and wrong.)

14 On Oct 2, 2013, at 7:18am, Father Louis Melahn, L.C. wrote:

Another phrase that might have given trouble is the one about the Incarnation. The Pope said, “Il Figlio di Dio si è incarnato per infondere nell’anima degli uomini il sentimento della fratellanza.” That should read, “The Son of God became incarnate in order to infuse a sense of brotherhood in the souls of men.” He is not, of course, saying that this is the only reason, or even the principle reason, that the Divine Word became flesh. I have no idea how the Repubblica came up with “The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men….”

15 On Oct 2, 2013, at 9:24am, John wrote:

As a Traditional Catholic and a fan of the Traditional Latin Mass, I’m personally worried about our present pope. However we must also recognize that Satan has had the Church in its sites since our Lord promised us this and instituted the Eucharist in John 6. We know demons also infiltrate the media, so I’m also wary about what I read. This pope seems to be a Relativist which probably isn’t good. But as our Lord Jesus said, the gates of hell will never prevail over the Church.

16 On Oct 2, 2013, at 10:35am, David S. wrote:

I feel funny saying this but I am afraid the Baptist minister who wrote this article is more Catholic than our Pope.

17 On Oct 2, 2013, at 10:41am, Kevin wrote:

I think you have a lot of nerve, as a person of supposed stature, criticizing the Pope, particularly based on a hacked up translation of the man’s actual words. After witnessing what this man accomplishes over the next few years, I hope you will see the light and apologize for this blatant lack of respect.

18 On Oct 2, 2013, at 11:55am, Sam Wood wrote:

I can appreciate your difficulty with what the Pope said in this interview. And yet, I think we need to see this in a proper context. This is not a theological treatise, but a dialogue that is occurring between a Christian and an atheist…a pre-evangelism that is preparatory to the Kerygma. And within this dialogue, we see the basis of love and respect at work. that is vital to any dialogue. It’s a gentle, loving and patient process that is sometimes messy, but is characteristic of the grace and forbearance of Christ. Typically, we’re leery to enter into the messiness that often comes with conversion, except if it’s our own! But this is how the Holy Spirit works. He continues to prompt us, kindly, patiently until we are ready to hear the full message of the Gospel. This is not easy, but it’s what Jesus modeled for us to imitate; and, we have the have grace to do what Jesus did. So…let’s do it, and let the Holy Spirit guide us through the mess!

19 On Oct 2, 2013, at 12:35pm, Daniel McLellan wrote:

The Saviour’s final directive to the Apostles before ascending to Heaven was to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), and this person calls that imperative “solemn nonsense”?

Christ gave Authority to the Apostles as a whole, at the event of Pentecost, at His appearance to them after His Resurrection (John 20), and at His Ascension.  The Orthodox Church has always maintained the understanding that the Church must act in council.  When a single mortal takes on the role of “Christ’s vicar on earth,” it seems just a matter of time before the “vicar” ends up contradicting the Lord.  Christ is with us “until the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).  Although we need, and have, successors on Earth for the Apostles, Christ Himself does not need a singular emissary, and there’s nobody among us fallen mortals fit to fill that divine role.

20 On Oct 2, 2013, at 12:39pm, Simone wrote:

I have many Muslim and other non-believing friends and I cringed when I read this.  Osama bin Laden “had his own idea of good and evil” and he “chose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceived them”.  It’s clear from Scripture and life that people sincerely following their own ideas of good and evil do not make the world a better place.  Rather, learning of God’s ways and following them do.  And inviting people to Christianity - to the real Jesus, to salvation- is not nonsense.  Our Lord tells us to do this.  If the Pope meant something different, it seems he would have made it clear since he knew his words would be reported around the world.

I say this as a former Catholic who is now a Jesus and Bible-loving Protestant!  Christians should speak in love to brothers and sisters when they move away from the Bible.  Thank you, Dr. Moore.

21 On Oct 2, 2013, at 1:04pm, Rick wrote:

As a former Baptist (1999 Convert to Catholicism) and a Traditional Catholic I have to say I cringe every time Pope Francis opens his mouth to share his personal opinion.  I cringe not because I believe he will change Church teaching (we have the guarantee of the Holy Ghost that he can’t), rather because it makes my job as a Catholic all the more difficult when evangelizing non Catholics.  Even when an accurate translation is rendered (which has yet to be done with either of the interviews the pope has given), he still comes across as ambiguous and relativistic (intentional or not) which at the very least is scandalous.  The Remnant Newspaper has a great article on its website titled, “Francis the Awesome, The Consequences of an Off-the-Cuff Papacy” which deals with this in detail; it is well worth the read.
To the author of this piece (Russell Moore) I say take heart; the Catholic Church is not defined by one man’s papacy, rather by Christ Himself.

22 On Oct 2, 2013, at 1:27pm, Robert W. Lannan wrote:

As a Catholic, I appreciate your words.  You ARE in a position to advise the pope; he would agree with that.  The importance of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue has never been more apparent to me.  You can respond to pope in ways that Catholic bishops and priests can’t.  Last night, I attended an event in Washington, DC at which a group of commentators, including the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington and a representative of the U.S. Catholic Bishops, discussed Pope Francis.  The one non-Catholic contributor was David Brooks, who is Jewish.  Brooks was the only panelists who hinted at criticism in his remarks.  He cautioned that the Church cannot devolve into “just a feel-good institution” and that, without doctrines on moral issues, we will slide into “mushiness.”  I suspect most of the other panelists agreed, but none was in a position say so.  You and Brooks are, and I appreciate your doing so.  Our faith communities need one another.

23 On Oct 2, 2013, at 6:44pm, East Side Hunky wrote:

Francis’s thoughts are not just gibberish but smack of liberalism and that synthesis of all heresies, Modernism. That he appeals to fallen away heretical sects only confirms it. Indifferentism and syncretism is not what Christ preached, rather to confess our sins and convert, and to not sin anymore….not some touchy-feely psycho babble.

24 On Oct 2, 2013, at 10:03pm, paul wrote:

Jesus asked Peter to “feed my sheep.”  What was Peter to feed the sheep?  The word of God.  Did Peter hesitate to feed the people the truth of the word?  No, whether the people liked what Jesus had said or not.  God has not given any man the right to water down the word of God to make it more palatable to the mind.  The Pope needs to wield the sword of the word to cut the conscience.  The word needs not a butter knife.  Shall we tell our children that drugs are bad but use your conscience.  And not to take the Gospel throughout the world?  What Jesus is the Pope following?  Not the Jesus that hung on a peice of wood by nails. 

25 On Oct 3, 2013, at 2:28am, A Rigsby wrote:

Note a comment from the UK:

“Millions of Catholics have been waiting for a pope who talks like Francis”

Note another line from the interview quoted in the article:

“I think so-called unrestrained liberalism only makes the strong stronger and the weak weaker and excludes the most excluded. We need great freedom, no discrimination, no demagoguery and a lot of love. We need rules of conduct and also, if necessary, direct intervention from the state to correct the more intolerable inequalities.”

The Pope is talking about “intervention by the state?”  This is a religious challenge that goes to the core of the American free enterprise system. 

I think we have problems.

26 On Oct 3, 2013, at 4:24pm, Lori wrote:

I believe that all of Pope Francis’s interviews and statements to date are wonderful. He is an inspirational man of God who is not caught up in the need to continually assert that his Church is the only way to God. It’s sad that the Pastor feels the need to critique a message of love, tolerance and listening.

27 On Oct 4, 2013, at 4:18am, Catholic at Rome wrote:

Thank you Reverend, so saying what so many Catholics are trying to deny in a fit to disabuse themselves of the reality that Bergoglio is more than confused…

28 On Oct 4, 2013, at 4:58pm, paul wrote:

First off I’m encouraged to see how many there are who recognized Jesus as our Savior. I sometimes think we are few.  Secondly whrn I comes down to it our opinion doesn’t matter but Gods.  Problem seems to be if we don’t know how God feels about certain things we form our own opinions. My father was an evangelist traveling and preaching weekly revival sermons in the Nazarene Church, in Alaska with the eskimos and then in the carribean island where he now lives in trinidad topego. He said to me on day, “son, the problem with our churches as I see is that the church pastors preach their opinion rather than the unadulterated truth.”  Just once I would love to have the audience the pope has.  “Jesus Christ died, rose from the dead so that you may have life and forgiveness of sins.” That’s all that’s necessay and I never hear that from the so called leaders.

29 On Oct 5, 2013, at 8:49am, Mark wrote:

I believe some fraternal correction is needed for the Holy Father.
Likely that will not happen.  We must remain civil but firm with Pope Francis if his Jesuit doublespeak continues.  Pray for him.

30 On Oct 5, 2013, at 2:46pm, Nate wrote:

Moore’s commentary is laced with tropes and misses the point.

“Proselytism” as the Pope terms it, is not evangelism.  You can be firmly evangelistic, Gospel-centered, and hate proselytism. In fact you should.

The Biblical Gospel is not bifurcated into two sections, social justice and personal salvation, which are then ranked according to importance.  It is simply not limited to a Social Gospel.

Classic misappropriation of Luther by a baptist. He felt condemnation by the doctrine of justification by works, not rules and rituals.  The Lutheran Reformation was not the modern evangelical’s dream of “liturgy free” church where forms and physicality are demoted to “just religion” or something. Gotta get over that one, baptists.

You’ll notice that the Pope’s comment concerned individuals’ need to “fight evil.” What does Moore think “evil” means, exactly? Francis isn’t “severing the love of God from the holiness of God,” he’s directing the individual to his conscience. 

31 On Oct 5, 2013, at 6:20pm, Glen Bayly wrote:

It is never kind to affirm a person who may be on his way to hell. Unfortunately, Dr. Moore’s response sounds as wishy-washy as the Pope’s comments. The Gospel is not that complicated. A child can understand Jesus’ message of salvation summarized in John 3:16.

32 On Oct 7, 2013, at 10:31am, Ferrell Foster wrote:

I love both what you said and how you said it. You are blessing us.

33 On Oct 7, 2013, at 4:08pm, JRW wrote:

As a Jesuit, the new Pope is well versed in the teachings of Jesus.  I challenge Dr. Moore to find a single instance where Jesus told, a thief, an adulterer, a heavy drinker, a gambler, a liar or a homosexual that he/she was in danger of Hell’s fire.  On the contrary, He liberally poured his wrath out on the prideful who boasted of their rectitude.  He was most angered at the powerful who took advantage of the poor and profited by a system rife with economic injustice.  If you want to emphasize Jesus as one who warned about God’s judgment, look at those he was warning, and what he was warning them about.

34 On Oct 7, 2013, at 6:17pm, paul wrote:

There won’t be one person in hell that is a sinner, but rather those who refuse to acknowledge their sin.  We are all guilty but those who refuse to accept Jesus as their redeemer-kinsman will be lost.  Oh how the sheep are not being fed. Its so simple a cave man could do it. Jesus said the churches would be lukewarm and He would spit them out of His mouth. I’m so tired of being knee deep in Gods spit. But our love must burn for the souls of others, our souls must be vexed with unrighteousness.  Now I’m rambling. Man I love talking about God.

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