Surprise and shock are an understatement when it comes to Pope Benedict XVI‘s resignation. Only a handful of Popes have called it quits. The Pope’s decision continues to spark speculation about who the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church will be. This decision will have far reaching impact for Catholics around the world… and certainly for Protestants.
As most readers know, I’m not Catholic. I’m an American Baptist clergyman. I come from a tradition that fought to continue the reforms of the Church of England. Baptists were one of the many English separatist groups that wanted to go further than breaking ties with Rome. Separatist movements during the Reformation were, in general, about freedom of religious expression, freedom to interpreted the Scriptures, and to avail themselves from Rome’s hierarchy.
Some 400-500 years later, the Church in Rome and it’s Pope still matter to Protestants. Though we Protestants are free from persecution, this new Pope’s election will impact the way we Protestants interact with our Catholic brothers and sisters. As much as we protestants distance ourselves from the Catholic Church, we are connected common belief and ministry.
In recent years, ecumenical relationships formed between Protestants and Catholics have strengthened. Beyond sharing common basic doctrinal beliefs, (The Trinity, Salvation, etc..) Protestants and Catholics are getting better at how we treat one another. Mostly because of leadership within both traditions. Much of how this new Pope leads the Catholic Church will set a tone throughout Christianity. Protestants will wait to see if this new Pope will begin a period of transformation. Will we see more ecumenical acceptance of marriage, sacraments, membership, and ministry like the Catholic agreement with Reformed churches on Baptism?
If this next Pope leads Catholics to more common ground, we could see a new wave of Catholic and Protestant relationships. Think about it our challenges are the similar: shrinking memberships, public perception, changing church demographics, declining evangelism efforts, and diminishing financial giving. If more could be done together our common challenges, we could share common success. Measurable success could be made globally and nationally with ministry among the poor, basic health care access, developing nation building, fighting injustice, and access to education. The cause for the common good could something that we could work together on.
This is not without problems. There will always be groups within our own traditions that will fight against such “togetherness”. We Baptists are known for our exclusionary behavior when it comes to differences in theology with other Protestants. However, if leadership from our Protestant groups can commit to working with this new Pope and his leadership, our challenges can begin diminish.
This new Papal change is an opportunity for transformation for Catholic and Protestants. If both Catholic and Protestant leadership plan to work together in our common struggles, a new chapter could be written for Christianity. A new Pope could lead his faithful to turn their attention to breaking down our separation instead of seeking to build more doctrinal walls.