What does it mean for an Evangelical theologian to say that the next pope should be Catholic? Is this a joke? Actually, no.
As one involved in various church dialogues over the past thirty years, I have come to see the crucial role played by the Bishop of Rome in helping all Christians everywhere to work together for Christian unity. Far more than anything in the mainline Protestant world, the Second Vatican Council made possible the springtime of ecumenism among Christians today.
John Paul II invited Christians throughout the divided Church to advise him on how he could best carry out his office in faithfulness to Jesus’ prayer that his disciples “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent me” (John 17:21). Benedict XVI deepened this emphasis. To be truly Catholic, the next pope must continue to build on the work of his two predecessors.
The key difference dividing Catholics from other Christians—Orthodox and Protestants alike—is authority in the Church. Catholics believe that the next pope will be the 265th successor to St. Peter as the unique Vicar of Christ on earth. Evangelicals stress the continuity of apostolic teaching and fidelity to the sacred Scriptures. This is an important but in some ways an intramural discussion. Against relativism and secularism, all committed believers in every Christian tradition share a common quest for truth based on divine revelation.
Before he became pope, Benedict wrote that “our quarrelling ancestors were in reality much closer to each other when in all their disputes they still knew that they could only be servants of one truth which must be acknowledged as being as great and as pure as it has been intended for us by God.” The unity of the Church for which Jesus prayed will only be advanced by an ecumenism of conviction, not one of accommodation.
True catholicity does not consist of historical continuity, numerical quantity, and cultural variety alone. Ignatius of Antioch, an early martyr, gave us the first use of the word: “Where Jesus Christ is,” he wrote, “there is the Catholic Church.” As Christians come closer to Christ, they draw closer to one another. In selecting the next pope, theology and spirituality should count for more than geography and style.
Of the world’s population, 68.5 percent claim no Christian faith of any kind. Christian unity does not exist as an end in itself but in the service of evangelization. Today Christian witness is faced with many obstacles, including the denial of God and the loss of basic values of decency and respect for life.
Through the process of globalization this spiritual virus has spread throughout the world. It affects all Christians everywhere. Meanwhile, religious freedom is under assault both in the West and in the fast-growing global South. Not since the French Revolution has a new pontiff faced so many challenges: Church reform within and both indifference and hostility without.
The new pope will require the wisdom, courage, and humility of Christ himself for such a time as this. May God grant such a pope.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.