george hancock stefanThis past week, there was a tug of war between Pope Francis and Donald Trump over who is a Christian. I must confess that before he started to be involved in politics, I was not aware that Trump was a Christian. His life did not show that to me. However, he made a statement that he is Presbyterian and attends Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, so the issue was settled for me. (I must also add that I was not aware that Mitt Romney was considered by many people to be a Christian when he became the front runner for the Republican ticket. Many evangelicals did not consider Mormons to be Christians.) It is also of importance to me that Chelsea Clinton made a statement this week that she has chosen to be a Methodist (the denomination of her mother) since the Baptists (the denomination of her father) questioned her positions on abortion and her marriage to a non-Christian.

Who gets to define who is a Christian? When does it start? What must a person do in order to maintain this definition?  I agree with the Pope on many occasions. Even in this conflict I agree with him on two points, although I think he needs to take a trip to see Pope Benedict and learn from him how to talk less. Benedict spoke with assurance and precision, and he almost never had to later clarify or revise what he said. Pope Benedict spoke less but, when he spoke like an old G.F. Hutton commercial, everyone listened. Catholics and Protestants knew where he stood. Protestants did not always like what he said, but it was clear, concise and well thought-out.

Most of the problems that Francis has are because of many languages that he speaks. When one listens to the whole dialogue, you can see that he did not say, “I think that Donald Trump is not a Christian.”  He was presented with a scenario that was similar to Trump’s and then said that a person like that is not a Christian.  The journalists who are in love with the Pope and cannot stand Trump (unless he makes easy news for them) jumped at the possible statement that the Pope thought that Trump is not a Christian. It didn’t help that on the same trip, the Pope talked about contraception in view of the Zika virus.

Pope Francis likes to be with regular folk. He wants to mingle, he wants to kiss babies, to hug, and to be in contact with the parishioners. He is very pastoral. In that context, he likes impromptu responses. These impromptu answers, what I call bantering, gets him in trouble. It seems that the Vatican is spending a fair deal of time clarifying what the Pope meant when he makes these quick responses. As much as the Pope wants to be one of us, one of the regular folk, he is not.

A couple of years ago, when he asked, “Who am I to judge?” all of the historical precedents that I knew shouted loudly in opposition. From the time that Leo the Great pushed for the recognition that he is primus inter pares (the first among the equals), from the conclusion of the popes in the 15th century who decided that no one can judge a pope, to those who have experienced the judgment of the Rota Romana and were forbidden to teach in Roman schools and seminaries, everything shouted that the pope is always a judge. The pope judges in matters of faith and doctrine. The whole confessional ritual is a matter of judgment and prescribed penance.


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Pope Francis thinks that building walls instead of bridges and deporting immigrants instead of welcoming them is awful. But those two positions would not disqualify a Catholic from being a Christian. The Catholics and Presbyterians define Christians similarly: a Christian is a person who was baptized as an infant and confirmed in their teen years. These two actions make a person a follower of Christ.

As a Protestant pastor and a church historian, I continue to enjoy listening to Pope Francis. But I often wait for the corrections that appear the second day – the better translation, the settled answer. I love his spontaneity, but I know they are not his complete answers.

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Rev. Dr. George Hancock-Stefan

George Hancock-Stefan

Pastor George Hancock-Stefan completed 30 years as the pastor of the great congregation at Central Baptist Church in Atlantic Highlands in 2020. Those 30 years have been a blessed time for him, his wife...