When the cardinals of the Catholic Church elected a pope to replace retiring Benedict XVI, I commented that I was uninterested and didn’t care.
The reason was simple: Not that I have anything in particular against Catholics or the Catholic Church but that, as a Baptist, the pope does not speak for me.
Some Protestants, including a few Baptists, have begun in the last few years (since they became enamored with John Paul II) to look to the pope as a kind of worldwide spokesman for all Christians.
I know one Baptist, a man I greatly admire and respect, who, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, declared openly, “We have a pope.”
While I respect his right to say that, I wanted to express my personal disagreement. The “we” did not include me. The bishop of Rome is not “my pope.” I don’t have a pope.
However, since Jorge Mario Bergoglio became pope, I have increasingly revised my estimation and sentiment.
Not that I now consider the bishop of Rome my pope or even one who automatically speaks for me in every case.
Rather, I have come to admire him and recognize him as a Christian leader and as someone I often applaud from the sidelines.
First, I admire and applaud his personal lifestyle of simplicity and meeting with ordinary people – sometimes calling people on the phone just to tell them he is praying for them.
He truly seems to be trying to “lower” the elevation of the office of papacy to make it less hierarchical. There is nothing pompous about him.
Second, I admire and applaud his strong criticisms of unfettered capitalism, the corporatism that injures the poor and the environment.
He may not be a liberation theologian per se (and yes, I know he was critical of Marxist-inspired liberation theologians when he was an archbishop in Argentina), but he sounds and acts like a moderate liberation theologian. I cannot believe he is not influenced by the more moderate liberation theologians.
Third, I admire and applaud his ecumenical gestures – especially toward free church Protestants, such as the Waldensians in Italy.
He has gone out of his way to meet with leaders of free churches persecuted by Catholics in the past to apologize for that persecution. He has expressed great regret for the Catholic history of persecution of dissenters.
I hope that someday he will reverse Benedict’s edict that Protestant churches are not true churches but only “ecclesial communities” and embrace what some ecumenists call “reconciled diversity” among Christians of all kinds.
Fourth and finally, I admire and respect his harsh clamping down on Catholic bishops who protected pedophile priests.
Pope Francis seems truly on the path toward reforming the Catholic Church. In my opinion, as I have said many times before, every denomination needs to be “reformed and always reforming.”
I don’t mean reforming it in the sense of changing its crucial doctrines but I mean reforming its image and conduct – toward becoming truly a church of the poor, abused and oppressed.
One trend I have noticed is a definite lessening of enthusiasm for the pope (since Benedict retired and Francis was elected) on the parts of those conservative Protestants who seemed to view the bishop of Rome as a kind of worldwide spokesman for all Christians during Benedict’s papacy.
Benedict was, I think, “their kind of pope” – conservative politically, socially and theologically.
I think they are increasingly wary of Francis who seems to care less about orthodoxy than about the poor, the oppressed, the abused and the environment.
Those concerns smack of liberation theology and progressive social reform – concerns that make conservative Protestants nervous.
Contrary to them, my interest in, if not enthusiasm for, the pope has increased since Francis took office.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.