WASHINGTON (BP) — Pope Francis’ historic address to Congress proved troubling in both its lack of clarity on moral issues and in its church-state impropriety, Southern Baptist leaders and pastors said.
The pope spoke to a joint session of Congress on Thursday (Sept. 24), becoming the first head of the Roman Catholic Church to address the U.S. legislative body. His speech came on the final day of a three-day visit to Washington, D.C., that featured a White House welcoming ceremony, a parade and a mass for the canonization of a Catholic saint.
In his congressional speech, Pope Francis commented on a variety of issues but without being particularly specific on abortion and marriage.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), expressed gratitude the pope spoke to Congress “about the dignity of all human life, whether the unborn, the elderly or the immigrant, as well as the importance of the family in a free and flourishing society.”
He went on to say, however, “I do think that the pope’s address was an opportunity to address urgent moral issues like abortion culture and religious liberty with more clarity and directness than what was delivered.”
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the pope’s reference to abortion and marriage “was a very fuzzy and evasive approach that left many people wondering if he was actually talking about either abortion or marriage at all.”
The invitation by congressional leaders to the head of a religious body to speak to legislators also was problematic, said Mohler and some Southern Baptist pastors.
“I wonder what evangelical religious figure would be accorded such an opportunity,” said Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., in a written statement for Baptist Press.
Bart Barber, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, told BP in written comments, “For Congress to treat a church as though it were a state and the head of a church as though he were the head of a state runs contrary to basic First Amendment principles of disestablishment.”
While he commended the pope’s advocacy for the sanctity of human life, “together with our Baptist forefathers I ask our government not to extend special diplomatic privileges to the Roman Catholic Church that it does not extend to any other religion,” said Barber, a member of the ERLC’s Leadership Network Council.
Mohler described the pope’s address to Congress as a “troubling development.”
Baptists “historically have been very opposed to the United States government recognizing any religion or religious leader in such a way,” Mohler had told BP before the pope’s visit to Washington.
“[I]t is essential to note that almost no one in the media or in the culture referring to the pope’s visit identifies him as a head of state, although that is the legal justification for the fact that he is here on a state visit,” Mohler said in his Sept. 23 podcast, The Briefing.
In addition to being the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope also is head of the Vatican City State
In his Sept. 24 podcast, Mohler referred to an observer on National Public Radio who said it should be acknowledged the pope will address Congress as a pastor, not a political leader.
“Well, let’s just state the obvious: No other pastor in the history of the United States of America has ever addressed a joint session of Congress,” Mohler said.
Southern Baptists have long stood against such government favoritism of a religious body.
The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), the SBC’s statement of faith, includes in its article on religious liberty: “Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others.”
The 1963 version of the BF&M includes identical wording, while the 1925 confession has the same language nearly word for word.
Southern Baptists also have long opposed appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. They did so when President Ronald Reagan named the first ambassador to the Vatican in 1984. The policy was continued by President George H.W. Bush.
The ERLC (then the Christian Life Commission) urged President Bill Clinton to discontinue the practice before he took office in 1993. The entity decried his decision two months after being sworn in to appoint Raymond Flynn as ambassador to the Vatican.
In his speech to Congress, the pope spoke of the “responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” He spoke of the importance of the family but did not explicitly define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
The pope addressed the environment, poverty and immigration in speaking to lawmakers and tens of thousands of people who watched his speech on Jumbotrons on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. He also called for a “global abolition” of capital punishment.
He did not mention Jesus Christ, however, in what Mohler called an “amazing development.”
The pope’s speech, Mohler said in his Friday (Sept. 25) podcast, sent “a very clear signal to conservative Catholics” they are facing “exactly what they feared — a pope who is not only leaning left, but is going to take the Roman Catholic Church to the left with him.”
Though he expressed some disappointment in the pope’s lack of clarity, the ERLC’s Moore told BP in written comments, “Even as we Baptists continue to have theological differences with Pope Francis and with the Roman Catholic Church, we can and should look for opportunities to join our voices to speak to issues of life, liberty and human dignity in the public square.”
The pope endorsed religious freedom in both his words and actions during his time in Washington.
At a welcoming ceremony Sept. 23, he told President Obama and an audience on the White House’s south lawn that American Catholics and others desire respect for their “right to religious liberty.”
“That freedom reminds one of America’s most precious possessions,” the pope said. “[A]ll are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
The pope made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor at their convent in Washington. The stop was a sign of support for the Roman Catholic order in its legal fight against the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate, according to the Vatican.
The Little Sisters of the Poor and GuideStone Financial Resources, the SBC’s health and financial benefits entity, have joined together to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to accept their appeal of a lower-court ruling that would require non-church-related religious organizations to pay for contraceptives for their employees. Among the required drugs are those that potentially can cause early abortions.