The visit Pope Francis wanted to privately pay to the Evangelical Pastor Giovanni Traettino in Caserta (Southern Italy) is not simply a visit the Pope is paying to a friend. Pope Francis wanted this visit to be private and unique and – as the news of his arrival in Caserta spread – he separated the visit from the meeting with the bishop and the people, making the decision to go to Caserta twice in three days. The real Pope Francis’ aim is – according to some reports – that of asking forgiveness to the Evangelical Church for the way the Catholic Church and its structures may have limited its witnessing. This way, Pope Francis want to make even more visible the spiritual ecumenism he deems to be the best way to unity of all the Christian confessions.
The Evangelical world is a big challenge for ecumenism, perhaps one of the most important ones. There is an open dialogue with the Orthodox world. This dialogue is mostly based on theology. It is a difficult path, but Patriarch of Costantinople Bartholomew I proved to be a great interlocutor. In fact, Bartholomew is carrying on the dialogue on the orthodox side. The patriarch backs Pope Francis’ initiatives and at the same time is trying to unite orthodox churches, supporting a Pan-Orthodox council. On the side of the Russian orthodoxy, there are still big hurdles. These are big hurdles for Pope Francis as well, who even tried to break the ice informally, sending signals of ecumenical peace to Patriarch Kirill. But there has been no movement or change.
Nothing is halted on the evangelical side, and Pope Francis surprisingly found some part of the traditionalist world on his side for what concern the dialogue with it. The dialogue with “evangelical” groups, especially pentecostals, has been called “the fourth ecumenism” by several authors, including the prominent Catholic sociologist Massimo Introvigne, an international authority on religious sects. A conservative and a defender of the Catholic faith, Introvigne wrote a long article on the Italian media outlet “La Bussola Quotidiano” to explain the reasons why the fourth ecumenism (that of the new Protestant sects born at the beginning of the 20th century) is perhaps the most fruitful ground for ecumenical dialogue.
This dialogue – Introvigne himself conceded – has some limits. For example, the search for interlocutors. Although the pentecostals are now three quarters of the world protestantism and one third of christianity, they are very fragmented. The big ecumenical organizations and the traditional protestant world look at the evangelical groups with as much suspicion as the evangelicals reciprocally look at them. And the big pentecostal organizations are in any case too diverse for a dialogue to take place smoothly.
This is the reason why – Introvigne underscored – it is easier to dialogue with the small realities, as the community of Giovanni Traettino, who, before his conversion and his baptism of the Holy Spirit, also had a brief stint in the Italian Communist Party.
The symbolic gesture of the meeting with Traettino comes at the end of a series of meetings Pope Francis had with evangelical leaders before beginning a rest leave to prepare him for the much anticipated trip to South Korea. All of the meetings took place in Domus Sanctae Marthae, where Pope Francis resides.
The televangelist Joel Osteel, the pastor Tim Timmons and the president of the Evangelical Westmont College Gayle D. Beebe were the first to come for a visit, on June 4. On June 24, Pope Francis met with the televangelists James Robins and Kenneth Copeland, with the bishop Anthony Palmer of the Communion Evangelical Episcopal Churches, with the spouses John and Carol Arnott from Toronto and – among others – Geoff Tunnicliffe and Brian C. Stiller, respectively general secretary and ambassador of the World Evangelical Alliance.
This latter gave an account of the meeting in a detailed article entitled “Lunch with the Pope,” since the three-hour meeting ended with a convivial lunch. Stiller goes to great lengths to explain to the evangelicals who were against the meeting with the Pope the reason why it was nevertheless appropriate to get personally in touch with the Pope. Always according to Stiller, the Pope reassured them that he had no intention to convert them, and that he had learned from his friendship with pastor Traettino that the Catholic Church, with her heavy presence, excessively hinders the growth and witnessing of these communities. This was also the reason – the Pope reportedly said – for the visit to the pentecostal community of Caserta, to «apologize for the difficulties given to the community.»
Hence, the deep sense of today’s trip to Caserta. The Italian prominent “vaticanista” Sandro Magister stated that Pope Francis wants to turn evangelicals «from rivals to friends,» and this is proven by this series of gestures.
Magister’s analysis is well founded. Pope Francis himself admitted – during his trip back from the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro – that he used to look at charismatic movements with suspicion, and that he later changed his mind, and now he believes that «this movement does much good for the Church overall.»
Why did Pope Francis change his mind? Probably, because he has seen in the charismatic enthusiasm the only way for evangelization. In the press conference on the way back from Rio, he noted that his change of mind toward the evangelicals took place at the beginning of the eighties.
That period coincides with the “obscure biography” of Pope Francis, during which Bergoglio had been sidelined by the Jesuits he had been provincial of during the Seventies.
Intellectual debates, the big dynamics within the Jesuits, probably led Bergoglio to the conclusion that too much intellectualism can drive people away from faith, that there is the need for doing, more than for just thinking. And charismatic movements make things happen, they gather many people, collect money and use it for missionary work.
Bergoglio became aware of this at a time when the clash between the Church of Rome and Liberation Theology reached its climax. In Latin America, Liberation Theology shocked people’s conscience, and created social awareness. But it also ran a risk, and it was paying its consequences: it took out Jesus from the center of the message, and replaced Him with the human person. This choice favored the flourishing of evangelical sects, which took their faithful from the Catholic Church. The Pew Forum in 2006 estimated that 45 per cent of Evangelicals in Brazil were Catholic converts.
In Argentina, the situation was however different. Liberation Theology was featured in the form of the Theology of the People (Teología del Pueblo), which was less centered on the social-structural analysis and focused instead heavily on popular piety. That popular piety able to generate enthusiasm and to gather people around the Church’s message. Intellectual things are not important for the Theology of the People, either. Rather more important was to bring people the closest possible to Jesus, fill the churches with enthusiastic believers. This is the model which evangelization must follow.
Of this theology, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a long-term follower, being one of his mentors the “People’s theologian” Juan Carlos Scannone. When, in the mid eighties, Pope Francis moved to Germany to study for a PhD he never completed, he was probably disappointed with the intellectual world. He became absolutely convinced of the need to talk directy to the heart of the people, taking the intellectual framework out in order to target the gift and enthusiasm of faith.
In the meantime, in Rome, another clash was taking place. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published two instructions on Liberation Theology, praising the fundamental option for the poor, which is not questioned, but separating it from marxism. It is a precise work, which included years of education and a re-focus of the theological debate on Jesus. Benedict XVI faced this fundamental issue when he was elected Pope, writing three books on the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
When Benedict XVI goes to Brazil to take part in the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Aparecida in 2007, he chose as its theme “Disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ” and added to the other phrase of the title – “That all may have life” – the words “in Him.”
These may seem to be small details. They are not. They give a specific orientation and a foundation to the faith of the Church. The final document of Aparecida – which Jorge Mario Bergoglio extensively contributed to draft – is very much focused on the missionary push. But the approach on the field is very pragmatic, and in fact some of the ideological limits remain. The advent of a Latin American Pope in 2013 might have led to thinking that Liberation Theology was now legitimate, at least in its practical approach. But this did not happen.
The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is Cardinal Gehrard Ludwig Mueller, very faithful to Benedict XVI. Mueller is a friend of Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of Liberation Theology. Gutierrez developed a better apreciation for classical theology and helped Mueller understand Latin America’s main problems.
Mueller circumscribed the Liberation Theology debate, underscoring that everything must be focused on Christ and at the same time shed light on the fact that Liberation Theology is a «necessary regional theology.»
Perhaps, this last argument is somewhat weak, as noted by Martin Schlag, director of the Research Center on Market, Culture and Ethics at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. Schlag stressed that the question «is rather whether Liberation Theology is the right answer to poverty and the correct path out of it,» and he adds: «Unfortunately, my students who are lay people and clergy in Latin America give testimony of their experience in their parishes: wherever and whenever Liberation Theology has entered, people have lost their faith.»
Schlag concludes that «the quest remains as challenging as ever: to find a convincing way of strengthening the Christian faith in the face of poverty and of stimulating Catholics to use their freedom with responsibility, to create sustainable prosperity for all.»
This problem the evangelical world had overcome with the theology of prosperity (you are rich because you are loved by God. The richer you are, the more loved as well) and seeking an emotional response from people. That is not the way out of the problems, but it may help, as the number of conversions shows (even if some may be motivated by the lure of prospertity).
After the wave of evangelical evangelization of Catholics (it is estimated that 100 million Catholics have converted to evangelical believes), Pope Francis would seemingly like to evangelize the evangelicals. His spiritual ecumenism, his putting prayer at the center, even making it a diplomatic tool, represents the most logic meeting point with the Protestant world.
However, it is perhaps naive to think that enthusiastic witnessing will be followed by embracing the Catholic Church in its entirety. Real conversions are not based on emotions. They must have a structure of thought.
In the end, the Catholic Church is still alive because, despite the many narratives on it and within it, has kept uncorrupted the core of its announcement and belief. Mission has always been based on this. The Italian long-standing missionary Father Gheddo recalled this very well. «Until the Second Vatican Council – he wrote – there was a clear assertion of our identity: going to the encounter of non-Christian people, wherever the Holy See would send us, to announce and witness Christ and His Gospel, which everyone needs. Yes, we also spoke about works of charity, education, health, progress, rights, and justice for the poor and for those under exploitation. But above all was the enthusiasm for being called by Jesus to bring Him to people living unaware of the God of Love and Forgiveness.»
So, the missionary enthusiasm came from a well-defined faith. Missionaries were not thinking about numbers or about consensus with the secular world. The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church is rooted, in its entirety, in the Gospel. This is the reason why the dialogue with the “evangelical world” has been until now founded on the common grounds of religious freedom, defense of life from conception to natural death, defense of family and on other issues of mutual interest.
On any of these issues, the Church kept its peculiar difference, its theology which went beyond the charisms of individuals, beyond the numbers. The message of the Gospel was the core of any initiative.
Benedict XVI himself, in his memorable trip to Germany in 2011, warned about self complacency over the Church’s structures for the poor. He also alerted the Protestant world about the enthusiasm arising from the new evangelical labels.
Benedict XVI’s message was clear: we have to return to the roots of our faith, revive the enthusiasm we have lost, feed our work with our inner message. All of us, Catholics, Protestants, and all the Christian confessions. But if we lose sight of the Gospel, if we seek large numbers, if we seek charisms and not the truth, the risk is not only to evangelizing. We would risk, as well, losing our identity.
This is where the Pope Francis’ paradox lies in: the announcement of the Gospel risks to be set aside by thinking of evangelizing evangelicals, laying bridges in pursuit of that state of permanent mission which should bring new faithful to the Catholic Church. There is no Gospel without charism. Unfortunately, there can be charisms without the Gospel.