Steve Lehmann isn’t Catholic, but as a grad student at the University of Notre Dame and self-described “armchair theologian,” he watches the Catholic Church closely. Nearly six months after the beginning of Pope Francis’ leading that church, here is what the new pontiff has meant from one evangelical’s perspective.
Busted Halo: Tell us about yourself and your religious background.
Steve Lehmann: I was born and raised on Lake Michigan, in a little town called Ogden Dunes. I went to undergrad at a little liberal arts college, Valparaiso [University]. I studied engineering and the humanities. After the recession, I ended up in Oxford doing a postgraduate course in Christian Apologetics. I studied with Alister McGrath and John Lennox, famous for his debates with atheists. I’m a big fan of existential questions.
I was raised Lutheran, in the Missouri Synod. Right now I’m a member of the Christian Reformed Church, one of the standard evangelical churches. I attend South Bend Christian Reformed Church, which I love.
BH: Regardless of who is pope, what’s your perception of the Catholic Church in this day and age?
SL: I think the Catholic Church can mean a lot of things depending on where you go. You see different incarnations around the world, even within the United States. The idea of a universal church is to me very sexy.
I have been a student of all the Catholic social teaching that has come through the papal encyclicals. The reason I’m not Catholic is probably the reason most evangelicals are not — the feeling that the day-to-day content of the Catholic Church can get in the way of Jesus unless you are a master’s student of theology. I feel like friends miss the core message of the gospels. And then the Roman Curia.
BH: What did you think of our previous recent popes, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict?
SL: Like most of the world, I liked JP2. I liked Benedict, too. I am a systematic theology geek, so that sort of pope would appeal to me. But I’m with most people in loving Pope Francis.
“I am waiting for when he starts his encyclicals in the line of encyclicals. The follow-up to Humanae Vitae? I will buy it the second it comes out.” — Lehmann
BH: What did you think when you heard the announcement that a new pope had been chosen?
SL: When they announced it, they said, “Bergoglio.” I flipped over to his Wikipedia page, and within five seconds they changed his name to Pope Francis, which I found hilarious.
Right from the start his focus seemed to be more Christo-centric. That to me was palpable and appreciated. He started out with a long, very Marian speech, and I was rubbing my chin wondering which way he was going to take it.
BH: Early on he refused to live in palatial settings — chose a simple room instead, and got out of the Popemobile to walk among the people. What did you make of all that?
SL: I am all about the preferential option for the poor, solidarity with the poor. Simplifying the altar space, the papal throne, and even his papal apartments — what a wonderful statement to make.
BH: A subsequent attention-getter was his washing the feet of a woman on Holy Thursday –the first time a pope had done so
SL: I didn’t even hear about that, but I can’t even believe the pope hadn’t washed the feet of a woman before.
BH: Another huge headline-grabber was his comment on gay priests — “Who am I to judge?”.
SL: The way he responded to questions about homosexuality, I was really impressed with. The first, second and third things he said were all about love — expressing God’s love, how God loves us, and how the cross needs to come first. There needs to be a counterbalance to the way the religious right has screwed up the perception of Christianity in the United States.
BH: What else has made you take notice?
SL: His recent trip to World Youth Day in Brazil. He went to a juvenile detention center. Kissing the feet of the inmates as the pope? It was incredible.
I am waiting for when he starts his encyclicals in the line of encyclicals. The follow-up to Humanae Vitae? I will buy it the second it comes out.
BH: And at the same time as all these significant moves, Pope Francis has made no secret of being a soccer fan and has made it a point to meet several players. Does it make him more a member of “celebrity” culture and undermine his moral seriousness?
SL: Part of me wants to say the message he’s trying to send is, “I’m leading this church, but I’m just a normal dude. By virtue of this office, I’m not a quasi-angelic being. I’m representing this office, and I’m representing Christ, but I’m human.” You can imagine how that resonates with Protestants, where a main difference is believing in the essential priesthood of all believers.
BH: Are Catholics too dependent on an earthly leader?
SL: Yes. There is a danger there. What happens when he dies? Certainly people are looking to him as a centerpiece of the Catholic faith, and I think he’s got to be redirecting and pointing that attention to Christ, which I believe he’s trying to do. I hope it continues the way it has.
The Church is called on to be a balm for the world, and the pomp and circumstance that separates the Church from the world needs to be removed. So walking through the streets of the favela — God bless you. Think about it; Christ and his disciples moved through the world with less pomp and circumstance than pretty much every previous pope.
BH: Do you see any other downsides to Pope Francis, symbolically or theologically?
SL: At most I’m an armchair theologian. The only thing that gave me pause was what seemed to be a more Marian approach than Pope Benedict, putting Mary on center stage. Benedict was very Christo-centric. I had flags come up that maybe Pope Francis was going in the other direction. At most it’s given me pause; nothing more than that.
BH: Being an outside observer, has Pope Francis changed the way you see the Catholic Church?
SL: Not explicitly. None of the systematic theology has changed. It’s just a new guy leading. For me, the person leading the Church is an important thing, but I think that he would also say that him being in the papal throne shouldn’t change anything — it’s rooted in Jesus, and the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But if he cleans out the Curia, the Catholic Church will probably change, and to me that’s much needed.
BH: Does he in any way affect the way you see or experience your own faith tradition?
SL: Yes. Both many Protestants and I see Pope Francis as a leader of the Church universal. We would all look to him as a leader in the worldwide Church that we all belong to.
Just the way he has approached so many clashes between the Church and the liberal culture that puts the individual at the center — with love — has been inspiring. There are a lot of leaders in the Evangelical Church who are paying attention. And a lot of the standard evangelical magazines are writing about it. There haven’t been any formal dialogues between Catholics and evangelicals set up, like in the 80s, but there is more listening.