Pope Francis’ extraordinary address before a joint session of Congress sets a “very, very, dangerous precedent,” said Southern Baptist leader R. Albert Mohler Jr. in a live Sept. 21 interview on CNN.
“No pope of the Roman Catholic Church has ever addressed a joint session of the Congress before, and for good reason,” Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told “Newsroom” anchor Carol Costello.
In addition to the live interview, CNN also noted Mohler’s concerns from a previously recorded interview with Costello in reports that aired on “Newsroom” on Sept. 22 and “AC360” on Sept. 23. The pope addressed Congress on Sept. 24.
Mohler argued the pope was invited to speak before Congress because of his religious leadership, not his political headship over the extremely small Vatican state.
Screenshot of R. Albert Mohler Jr.’s Sept. 23 appearance on the CNN program “AC360.”
“Why would the Congress of the United States join in a joint session to hear one head of one religious group?” Mohler said. “I think it's a very, very dangerous precedent.”
Mohler said the Vatican is not “really recognized because it’s a state. … It’s because he’s the head of the Roman Catholic Church. And when you put it that way, the pretense that this is somehow a diplomatic visit really falls apart.”
Beyond Francis himself, Mohler said his deeper concerns are about the papal office.
“As an evangelical, my problem is not with this pope first and foremost; that’s a Catholic problem,” he said. “My problem is with the papacy, and the evangelical concerns about the papacy, as you know, go all the way back to the Reformation.”
The papal visit to Congress suggests Francis, perhaps the world’s most influential religious leader, carries more political weight than is appropriate, Mohler said.
“As an evangelical I'm very concerned that … the head of a church is being recognized as a head of state and accorded the kind of influence that would normally come from an elected head of government,” he said.
Since Francis’ election in 2013, according to Mohler, “the pope has raised all kinds of expectations” for a “major liberal transformation of the church. And, frankly, I think that’s probably his agenda.”
Concerning the debate within Catholicism, Mohler said, “It's a fascinating discussion inside Catholicism to watch. And any of us looking into that conversation recognize, you've got warring visions of both who Pope Francis is and who many want him to be.”
Although official Catholic teaching has not changed, Mohler said Francis has “sent signals” of change on various political issues.
In Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si, Mohler said the pope “veers far to the left” on economics and climate change in a document that was thoroughly political.
Citing political commentator George Will in a recent Washington Post column, Mohler noted the pope’s leftist solutions may not actually work. If the pope truly wants to help the poor and expand the middle class, Mohler noted, he will have to do it in ways that “lead to human flourishing.”
“The policies that he both implies and calls for in that encyclical are, frankly, not going to head in that direction and they haven't anywhere in the world where they have been tried,” Mohler said.
In a Sept. 25 edition of his podcast, The Briefing, Mohler strongly criticized the substance of Pope Francis’ address to Congress, particularly noting that the pontiff never mentioned Jesus, nor abortion or gay marriage.
Mohler said the pope’s address to Congress “decidedly answered” the question whether he “would lean left.”
“In many ways, the pope’s appearance before Congress yesterday must send a very clear signal to conservative Catholics that they have faced 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,” Mohler said.
Failing to mention explicitly the defense of unborn human life and to define marriage in any specificity, the pope “let his priorities be clearly known and those priorities are the ones that in terms of the political spectrum undeniably lean left.”
The pope’s “signals of leaning left” in his priorities will eventually require a change in the substance of the Catholic Church’s teachings, Mohler said.
Mohler also expressed concern for evangelicals who are attracted to Francis’ apparently more “pietistic than doctrinal” approach to Christian theology.
The attraction in this approach, according to Mohler is that, “It represents an opportunity to avoid having to get to the hard edges of Christian truth. It is an intentional effort to avoid a direct confrontation with the secularizing culture. It is an effort to try to get along in terms of this moral revolution, not so much at this point by changing the teachings of his church, but by soft peddling them or in the case of his address to Congress not even mentioning them.”