With the advent of Wim Wenders’s Pope Francis documentary in theaters, the policies of the current pontiff will no doubt be the subject of considerable and heated discussion in the media. Thanks to the turbulent history of the Roman Catholic Church, historical analogies will surely abound.
One such analogy is frequently proposed between Pope Francis and Martin Luther, and it is strengthened by Francis’s occasional positive comments on the life and work of the Reformer. The resemblance is so close, in the eyes of some, that it provided the basis for a rather amusing April Fool’s joke in 2017—amusing because it had a certain credibility to it.
More recently, L’Espresso carried an article drawing a comparison between Bergoglio and Luther, sounding an alarm about what the author saw as the pope’s genuinely Lutheran tendencies and their implications for the Roman Catholic Church and Western civilization.
As a Protestant by conviction, and a sometimes sympathetic commentator on Luther, I wish L’Espresso were correct in its interpretation of Francis as standing in the tradition of the Wittenberg Reformation. A move, for example, towards justification by grace through faith is much to be desired. But I fear it is not so. Though I do believe the current pope possesses a sixteenth-century analogue, it is not the good Doctor. It is someone much worse: Desiderius Erasmus.
In their famous clash in 1525, Luther and Erasmus crossed swords on the matter of the bondage of the will. The conflict was not only between two different notions of human ability with regard to salvation, but also between two different styles of Christianity. Luther’s Christianity was above all assertive and dogmatic. The gospel was constituted for Luther by doctrinal claims about what God had done in Christ in history for his people.
The burden of Erasmus’s argument, by contrast, was that the Bible is not clear on key theological issues, and so an attitude of epistemological humility (to put it positively) or skepticism (to put it more negatively) was appropriate. The ambiguity of the Bible bolstered the importance of an infallible Church—since somebody had to be able to interpret Scripture authoritatively.
This argument is hardly scandalous to Catholics. John Henry Newman would make a similar case in the nineteenth century. Indeed, it was in part Newman’s epistemological humility that pushed him from Canterbury to Rome. But Newman’s deference to an infallible Church arose from his conviction that Christianity was a religion of dogmas. He required an authority to define those dogmas which, alone with his Bible, he could never establish with certainty.
By contrast, Erasmus’s skepticism formed part of a very different approach to the Christian faith, one that prioritized practical action over dogmatic assertion. This is the vision of Christianity set forth in his Handbook of the Christian Soldier. Articulating an exemplary Christology (stressing Christ as a practical example to be followed), the Handbook scants dogmatic precision and emphasizes works of simple, practical piety. Impatient with the debates of the medieval schoolmen, Erasmus argued that the most powerful and persuasive Christianity was that which Christ pressed upon his followers: humble love of God and neighbor, expressed in simple, practical care for others. Dogma appears to Erasmus as somewhat irrelevant and frequently divisive. If Newman’s logic ran, “Christianity is in essence dogmatic; therefore we need an authority to define dogma for us,” Erasmus considered that “Dogma is of little relevance; so let’s trust the Church and get on with being kind to others.”
There are many ways of dividing up the various traditions that claim the name “Christian.” One is the classic Roman Catholic–Protestant divide over the issue of authority. A more subtle distinction is between those who regard Christianity as fundamentally dogmatic and those who regard it as essentially pragmatic. In view of the latter, we might make the case for setting Martin Luther and Newman in the same stream. They did at least agree that Christian faith was dogmatic and that the issue of authority was of central importance for this reason.
By contrast, Erasmus’s vision seems consonant with that of Pope Francis. The pope has a clear bias in favor of the poor. He has expressed concern for the marginalized and the disenfranchised. His openness to those whom polite society regards as outsiders is evident. These attitudes are what make his papacy both intriguing and attractive. “Pray and do good” seems a good summary of his approach to the Christian faith. But on theological and dogmatic issues, Francis seems uninterested in the fine distinctions and forthright assertions that characterize traditional Catholic thinking. The vagueness of his approach to the Church’s teaching on divorce would seem a case in point. Dogma may be important for him, but probably not as important as love—and that is, of course, a somewhat nebulous concept when detached from dogma.
To put it in the language of the Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen: Christian orthodoxy and Christian liberalism are not two forms of the one religion. One is Christianity, and the other is not. Machen regarded orthodox Roman Catholicism as Christianity, albeit a very imperfect form thereof, whereas he regarded liberal Presbyterianism as paganism. One asserts the supernatural nature of the faith grounded in history and now manifested in doctrinal assertions; the other sees the faith as a psychological or practical thing.
This is why orthodox Roman Catholics should worry less about the current pope’s resemblance to Luther and more about his resemblance to Erasmus. To debate the content of particular dogmas is one thing; to debate the importance of dogma in general is quite another. In the former case, there is hope that the truth will prevail; in the latter, there is a danger that the truth will become irrelevant. And a Christianity to which dogmatic truth is irrelevant is not Christianity, not even in the weakest and most attenuated sense of the word.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.