You are on page 1of 8


Click here for audio [REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: On May the 22nd, the global head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, made a statement that reverberated around the world: [CTV TRANSLATOR VOICE OVER]: "The Pope said, 'The Lord redeemed all of us - not just Catholics, with the blood of Christ. Everyone. Even Atheists.'" [WG]: In religious circles, many predicted the Vatican wouldnt let that message stand. And they were right: days later, some of the more provocative headlines blared, quote, Vatican Corrects Infallible Pope: Atheists Will Still Burn In Hell. Theologically, the heaven question is an intriguing one. Even more intriguing is, whats going on in Rome? Many are now wondering if the Church got more than it bargained for when it went far outside its usual pool in electing Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina to lead it. Are we looking at a rogue papacy? With me to discuss these matters is Kevin Eckstrom, Editor-in-Chief of Religion News Service. Kevin, welcome back to State of Belief Radio. Thanks for being here! [KEVIN ECKSTROM, GUEST]: Thank you. [WG]: Is this a big story? [KE]: It is, and it isn't, at the same time. [WG]: That is a Kevin Eckstrom comment. I understand. Okay, explain. [KE]: So, on the "yes, it is a big story" question: you have a pope who comes out and, very informally, says: "Well, actually, yeah, Atheists are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus." And you have to remember here that the Pope had two audiences when he was talking to this: he was primarily taking to Catholics which is what he typically does - but he also has an eye on the wider world. And so what he was telling Catholics is, it's more than just the Church; that Christ did not die for Catholics alone. That Christ died for everyone: he died for Lutherans and Baptists and Muslims and even Atheists - even unbelievers. And he uses sort of a rhetorical tool where he pretended to ask himself: "Well, what about Atheists? Are they saved too?" And he said, "Yes, absolutely." So what he was

really doing there was talking to the Church, and saying, in a way, "Get over yourself. It's not all about you; it's not just about Catholics; that the salvation that God offers is wider than just us." But he was also - any pope who says anything is always talking to the wider world, and what he was doing there was sending a signal to Atheists that there are some things that they can agree on, and there are things that they can work for - and that they should work for - and that God actually demands that they work for together. And in his mind, it's charity. So, doing good works. And so he was telling the wider world that Catholics can and should work with others, including non-believers, in doing good. So, now: is this a revolutionary statement from the Pope? In content, no; but in how he said it, yes. [WG]: Why not in content? Because some of the predecessors have identified the Catholic Church as the only really acceptable people to God. [KE]: Well, that's right. And so in that sense, it is big. What he is saying is, that it's not just Catholics - which is, in the history of the Church, fairly revolutionary. Now, the question is, though, is this authoritative papal teaching, or is this the Pope giving a morning Mass off the cuff? Well, it's more of him speaking extemporaneously off the cuff; it's not an infallible teaching, because that's a certain type of teaching, and this wasn't it. But yeah, it's remarkable not only for what he said, but how he said it, and how casual it was. [WG]: Well, and that's what - I mean, I understand that for this to have authority, it has to go through all the processes that establish a level of "doctrine" for the congregation; but it has - within his statement - it has the seeds of universalism... [KE]: It does. [WG]: ...over against a doctrine that is more exclusive than it is inclusive, and it's what makes me think that even if he was talking off the cuff, we might have gotten a glimpse into his heart and mind that is different from his credal obligations. [KE]: Right, and so the most interesting thing about this pope - well, there's lots of things, but one of the most interesting things, to me, is how he is trying to redirect the Church, redirect the papacy, redirect the clergy from always looking internally, to worrying about priests who want to climb the ladder and become bishops; Catholics who only care about how the Mass is celebrated; Catholics who are obsessed with who gets into heaven and who doesn't - and what he's trying to do is turn the focus of the Church externally, and say, "It's not just about us; it's about all of humanity, and that the salvation that Christ brought into the world isn't just for us; it's not just for us guys in pointy hats, it's not just for clergy, it's for everyone."

Now, here's where the Vatican stepped in and tired to rein him back a little bit, and they said that what he is saying is, in fact, sort of standard Church teaching: that Christ died for all. Now, that does not mean that all are going to get into heaven; it means, basically, that the offer of salvation is there. Whether a person chooses to accept it is ultimately what determines whether or not you get in to heaven. But even broadening the scope like that, by saying that the offer is available to all takers, is, in the history of Rome and of the papacy, pretty revolutionary. [WG]: Well, how unique was it for the Vatican to step in and correct what the Pope said? [KE]: So here's the thing: the Pope does Mass every day at the residence where he lives - he doesn't necessarily do it at St. Peter's Basilica or at the square - he does it every day in this small chapel, and he has been very clear with the Vatican that he wants to say what he wants, how he wants, and he's not going to use a prepared text, and he speaks from the heart, basically. And so when you have a pope who stands up at the pulpit and delivers an address, you can kind of control what he says, because those speeches and sermons are often written for the Pope. This pope has come in and said, "No, I'm going to say what I want." And the Vatican has said, "We will release excerpts of these morning sermons every day to let you know what he's saying," but they're not going to make them official transcripts, because then they would actually have to go and correct these things and what-not. So this is a more free-wheeling pope than they've been used to, but that's exactly what he wants to be. [WG]: In the hierarchy, who gets to correct the Pope? [KE]: Well, technically, nobody! But when it comes to stuff like this, it's the media office, the folks who put together his remarks and release them. [WG]: Well this isn't the only time he's caused some ruffles in what usually are very planned, smooth waters: he's broken with recent, and even ancient, tradition. Are there any of these instances that I'm talking about - I mean, we saw some of them during the Easter season, we saw some during Holy Week - are there others of these incidents that stand out as particularly newsworthy? [KE]: Well, I think, really, it's more a change in style as opposed to substance although this particular address on salvation was pretty substantive - but you know, little things, like he lives in the Vatican hotel, basically, as opposed to the papal apartments, and they actually released a letter that he wrote to a friend in Argentina, and he said, "It helps keep me grounded; it helps keep me not isolated." And that in itself is a fairly revolutionary statement for the papacy, because the papacy was always this elevated office, and the person in the chair could basically do no wrong, and he's really bringing the papacy back down to earth - which, yeah, it's a style thing, but it's also a substance thing, because it's

really about, what is the Church about? What is the Pope about? And what does the Pope have to say to people? So yeah, he wears his old plain cross around his neck that he wore in Argentina; he wears the black shoes instead of the red loafers; all of those sorts fo things. But they point to a larger idea of what the Pope should be - and this is a much more low-key, humble, approachable type of pope than the Church has ever really had. [WG]: Well, and I think the results of that are pretty clear: that both Catholics and non-Catholics who've been critical of the Church are inspired, and feel hope about some change taking place in the whole structure of the Vatican and of the Catholic Church. But really, how much leeway does he have? I mean, here they come back and correct this statement; doesn't he live in a fairly rigid structure? [KE]: He does. And so, yeah, there are some limits as to what he could come out and say. So, the Pope can never speak against the doctrine of the Church, so he could never come out and say, for example, that just being a good person is going to get you into heaven - that's not going to square. He's never going to come out and say, "Well, Jesus wasn't truly divine" - he is constrained by the theological limits of the Church, and he is constrained by the expectations of the papacy. Now, that being said, there are things that he could do that would be completely revolutionary, that he, basically, could make happen. He could open the priesthood to married clergy, for example. He could do any number of things. He could change the rules on who can receive Communion - you know, could divorced Catholics. He could put women in leadership roles in the Church. Now, he's probably not going to be able to come out an say that women can be priests, because that is a theological understanding for the Church. But he can change how the Church operates, which is actually very important, but also more importantly, how the Church understands itself - and that, as we saw with Vatican II in the 1960's - can be a total game-changer. And sometimes it takes Vatican II's or Vatican I's - sometimes all it takes is a fairly charismatic pope. [WG]: Do you see that level of change coming? [KE]: I think the potential is there. Now, he is up against some fairly established forces, historical; he's got a huge bureaucracy underneath him that is very reluctant to change; he's got to come out and explain to 1.2 billion people around the world what a change would be, and why he can make it - but I think the capacity and the kind of character that it would take to bring major change to the Church is what we're seeing with this pope. [WG]: That really is a good segue into the next question, and I want to make it clear that this next question is not mine; it comes from my producer who I trust, and I want to share it: is it too far-fetched to read some significance, now, into Pope Francis' insistence on living among other Vatican cardinals and eating in

their dining room? If internal turmoil somehow makes him a target, he's much better off not being isolated in the papal apartments. Is that good thinking? [KE]: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And this is exactly what he wants to do. He doesn't want to live apart; he doesn't want to be isolated; he doesn't want to be an exalted figure on a throne, in part because that's not his character, but also I don't think he believes in it. He does not understand the papacy as this reigning monarch who issues decrees on down; that's not how he operated in Argentina, and I don't think that's how he's going to operate as pope. It's like here in this town, in Washington: deals don't always necessarily get made on the House floor; they get made over coffee and at lunch, and it's a different way of making things happen. And it's not only his style, but I think it's part of his theology as to how the Church operates. So yeah, I think it's one of the most significant things is the fact that he lives in this small suite at a Vatican hotel. And it says a lot about him, but also, I think, a lot about where he wants to take the Church. [WG]: Yeah. Well, I have to ask you the question that I always ask when you're here: are there any important religion news stories that you're covering now that you see the mainstream press dropping the ball on? [KE]: Oh, that's a good question. You get to ask me to critique my peers. You know, I think a big story that we - not that nobody's covering it, but the sort of under-covered story - is on the issue of homosexuality and public life, if you will. On boy scouts; on marriage; on any number of fronts; but, why that change is happening, and why it's happening so fast. One of the most striking things that I saw last week, but I didn't really see it reported very much, was Gallup has a poll every year on asking the moral acceptability of different things: divorce, robbing a bank, cheating on your spouse - all of these things. And homosexuality is one of them. And in the last ten years, people's opinions on homosexuality have shifted more and faster than on any other issue, bar none. 19 point swing in ten years. And that's huge. And I think trying to understand why that's happening, and how it's happening - and it's not just enough to report, you know, the Boy Scouts allowed gay members, or Minnesota voted to allow gay marriage, but what's behind that, and how that change is coming about - I think, it's not that it's not being covered, but there's probably a lot more that we could do to try to understand that. [WG]: Do you think you know the answer? [KE]: Personally? I think we saw a big shift back in the 90's with Will and Grace, and now you have Modern Family, where half the cast is basically openly gay, and people love that show. I was at the movies the other day, and they had a trailer for an upcoming show on ABC Family Network - this is not Playboy TV but ABC Family Network, about a lesbian couple that takes in foster kids. And it was, like, totally normal. And I think that the media portrayals of homosexuality have more to do with how this issue is playing out than anything else.

[WG]: Well, am I too cynical to say that the number of people in Congress that stepped up to affirm gay marriage, now that they're being honest about it, was a political move of the Republican Party, particularly, trying to make friends with people they have isolated themselves from? [KE]: Well, among the Republican Party, there's only two members of the Senate who have come out in favor of it, so I think, in this case, what you're really seeing is politicians following the people. The people are leading on this issue, and politics is catching up; the Church is catching up - in some ways, but not all - and so I don't know that that's an act of political courage to say that, but I think it's an acknowledgement of the reality on the ground. [WG]: I think it also shows the importance of the law. I mean, in the Civil Rights Movement, the law went before the major changes even in churches, and they see something coming, I think, that they don't want to be in the way of. [KE]: Right, and I think in many ways, this train has left the station. And I think people who have religious or moral convictions against it have them for very good reason, but I think the numbers show, and the facts are, that they are not in the majority anymore. Now, they're perfectly entitled to hold those opinions, and I think they should be respected for that. That being said, though, times are changing, I think, faster than most people realize. [WG]: Kevin Eckstrom is Editor-in-chief of the award-winning Religion News Service, an invaluable resource for all of us who are concerned about the role religion plays in our daily lives and in the life of our nation. The website is Kevin, as always, I appreciate your work, I thank you for what you do, I thank you for taking time to be with us on State of Belief Radio, and the conversations are among the best we have. Thank you. [KE]: Well, thank you. I appreciate that. State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America the most religiously diverse country in the world while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes. Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an

understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong wrong for America and bad for religion. Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world. Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizens Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes. Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBCs The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBCs Nightly News and Dateline, PBSs Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPANs Washington Journal, ABCs World News, and CNNs American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets. While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forums Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the conventions Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77. Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.