We Have a (Latin American) Pope. What Does This Mean for U.S. Lutherans?
So many thoughts about the election of Pope Francis I. I will share five reflections as a Lutheran theologian born and raised in Latin America and suggest lessons Lutherans in the U.S. might gather from this event.
First, let’s restate the obvious. This is the first Pope ever elected from Latin America. As a Latino with Panamanian and Chilean roots, I would lie if I did not tell you I had a little smile in my face when the name of the new Pope was revealed to the world. Jorge Mario. Habemos Hispanicum Papam. It is no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church, and the church catholic in general, is growing in the Global South. In its election of a Latin American Pope, the College of Cardinals signaled a heightened sense of the church’s own catholicity and her geographic shift southward.
Lutherans suffer from the perception that they are essentially an ethnic church with European roots, either a German or Scandinavian church. This is, for the most part, the perception in Latin America of Lutherans. The election of a Pope by the name of Jorge Mario poses a challenge for all Christians to embrace a broader catholicity and take stock of Christianity’s move southward in its life and mission.
Second, I am a little ashamed to admit that I was waiting for something like a Latin American Pope with a non-Hispanic last name. We got a Bergoglio, an Argentinian with an Italian last name, the son of an Italian immigrant father and an Argentinian mother born to a family from Italy. That also says something. One could note, for instance, that though Argentinian, the Pope also embodies an Italian cultural identity because of his family roots that, in conjunction with his extensive administrative work in the Roman Curia, likely has helped him to work collaborative with what is still a Church (and church leadership) that has a central “Roman” identity. Bergoglio is not just any Latin American Pope, but a very special kind, one with a hyphenated identity.
Lutherans too have immigrant stories and hyphenated identities. The descendants of German and Scandinavian Lutherans have now incorporated English names and, more recently, Spanish ones, in their marriage and children’s birth certificates. In an increasingly globalized world, the election of an Argentinian-Italian Pope challenges Lutherans to see the value of church leadership with a foot in more than one world, and thus of bilingual and bicultural people who can communicate the Lutheran confession across cultural boundaries.
Third, the election of Pope Francis stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI. Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI had his heart in Europe, yearning for a new evangelization of an increasingly atheistic and secularized continent. Yet such evangelization was not to happen through the force and persuasion of European Catholic institutions per se. It appears that the revitalization of the church in Europe is and will continue to be largely the result of diaspora missiology, namely, the force of the Christian witness of the migrant children of the formerly colonized (and evangelized) by Europeans. The evangelized are now the evangelists.
Jorge Bergoglio has a sort of diaspora identity. The one who received the gospel from the Italians now brings the gospel to the Italians, as it were. Or perhaps, and more broadly or suggestively, the one who received the gospel from the Italians now brings the gospel to a Roman Church plagued by problems and in need of repentance, spiritual renewal, and even reform. The force of such evangelization remains to be seen. Fruits of repentance are up to the Holy Spirit. While the migration experience of a Bergoglio is not at all representative of the broader Latin American experience of colonization and evangelization by the Spanish Crown experienced in the rest of the Americas, it is still refreshing to imagine the possibility of a face from the New World bringing new life to an Old Word institution.
Lutherans tend to look back to Europe (say, Wittenberg), German immigrant stories of migration to the U.S., or their old denominational structures for defining and preserving their identity. There is something half-baked about this overall approach to Lutheran identity. Too often it fails to distinguish between the church as the people of God gathered around Word and Sacrament, and the church as a cultural institution. It often takes people from another culture to see this confusion more clearly. This is why the Lutheran church needs to dare to be more catholic, more global, for the sake of its own life and mission. The Catholics are not the only ones with problems. What scandals plague our churches? Where do we need to die to self and be renewed? In what areas does our church and her leaders need to ask for the prayers of the people before it blesses the people? An old church in decline will most likely only survive through the witness of new diaspora Lutherans in other parts of the world and even within the U.S. The election of a diaspora Pope challenges us to look to the new Christians from the global South (including Lutherans) as evangelists in their own right. We need to be called to repentance and hear the gospel from them.
Fourth, it is interesting to note that the new Pope has been described as conservative yet socially conscious. It is characteristic of Global South Christians to be conservative on moral issues like abortion or gay marriage, yet more socially conscious in other areas given the harsh realities of poverty, lack of access to education, etc. experienced by the overwhelming majority of our brothers and sisters in this part of the world. The papal profile fits well where Latin Americans, and U.S. Latinos, in general are at in terms of their moral outlook on life.
It is virtually impossible in the U.S. political landscape to find a candidate that meets this type of profile, given the polarization of issues on either side of the political divide and thus the false division often made between life and justice. The election of this particular Pope reminds socially progressive and morally conservative Catholics in the U.S. that, when taken to extremes, neither approach provides an accurate picture of the church’s moral teaching. It can also remind Lutherans in the U.S. not to become polarized along these political lines. It is possible to do more than two things at once. One can alleviate suffering in many ways. Regardless of what is said of the Pope’s former role in Argentinian politics, sins of commission or omission, the papal profile challenges us to incorporate into our Lutheran identity whatever is lacking to serve the neighbor, and for LCMS Lutherans that will include, in addition to traditional and critical life issues affecting vulnerable neighbors, a bit more of a social conscience to deal with other realities that also affect many Global South Christians (including Lutherans) such as poverty, immigration, freedom of religion, racism, destruction of the environment, and lack of education.
Finally, we must be honest and admit that the election of an Argentinian Pope–or any Pope for that matter–probably means very little to Lutherans in general. This is, in my opinion, problematic because Lutheran identity is hard to conceive at some level apart from its historical link to the Western Church–call it, officially, Catholic or not. Out in the real world, at least from a sociological angle, Lutheran folk struggle explaining to others how we are, or are not, different from (Roman) Catholics, and in the process risk portraying Lutherans as Protestants or Evangelicals. Pulling off this balancing act is an art form when dealing with Latin Americans who are tied to the historic legacy of Roman Catholic evangelization in the Americas and the more recent growing presence of Pentecostals in the continent. Lutheran identity is forever tied to Luther, the Augustinian monk, who left or was left by the Church, and then also tied to other reform movements whose modern day descendants are very “anti-Catholic” (especially so in Latin America). The historical distance is so great now between Luther as a reformer in the Church and our ideas of Luther and his reformation. At a visceral level, however, we no longer feel the pain of being separated from the Catholic Church, the descendants of that Church Luther was excommunicated from. We can care less. We do not grieve our separation, even if it was to be.
The election of a new Pope is therefore a very sad event, for it reminds us once again that we are a divided church (at least visibly so), that once upon a time we Lutherans too were willing to have a Pope (if only the gospel were to have free course). Many of the new Lutherans from Latin America have family members who are Roman Catholic. We experience the separation from our families more closely than those who have been Lutherans from generations will ever know. It’s more personal. We do not go to the Lord’s Supper together. That is painful. Yes, we are one in Christ by faith. And for that we are all thankful. Still, the election of Pope Francis affords Lutherans an opportunity to grieve the divisions among us and yearn for all divisions to come to an end. We are also invited to pray and work for the invisible and visible unity of the church catholic.