The death of Pope John Paul II leaves the Christian community with both lament and apprehension—lament over the loss of the world’s conscience and worry about who will speak with corresponding moral clarity.

Baptists, however, have had a split-screen reaction about the pope.

Southern Baptist fundamentalists hold the pope in low regard.

“I believe the Roman church is a false church and teaches a false gospel,” said a Baptist seminary president, appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” He added, “I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office.”

Two years later, the Southern Baptist Convention terminated its 30-year doctrinal conversation with Catholics. At that time, another seminary president said that Southern Baptists were “suspicious of these discussions.”

The accusation of a false church and the rupture in dialogue shoved the SBC back to its heritage of anti-Catholicism, which burst onto the national scene when Texas Baptist ministers opposed John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

Southern Baptist anti-Catholicism surfaced for years, thereafter, although often indirectly. The initial position of limited opposition to abortion, for example, was shaped more by opposition to Catholic theology and public policy than support for women’s rights.

Vatican II (1962-1965) changed not only the Catholic Church, but blew fresh winds into some quarters of Southern Baptist life, where professors and ministers began reading the writings of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and a host of Catholic scholars. These Baptists sought understanding through dialogue, instead of confrontational evangelism and doctrinal assault.

Always a minority, ecumenical Baptists hold John Paul II in high regard. They recognize his death as a loss for all of Christendom.

For these Baptists, sorrow may be the seeds for renewal—renewal of meaningful engagement with Catholics. John Paul II’s death could afford Baptist ecumenists an opportunity for confession, acknowledgement and dedication.

First, we should confess that our relationship with the largest Christian body has been neglected. Regrettably, the unkind years of denominational conflict distracted thoughtful Baptists from meaningful engagement with Catholics.

Second, we should acknowledge the greatness of John Paul II. He was both an agent of social change and an ambassador of reconciliation

John Paul II was the “detonator” of the bomb that ended communist rule of Poland and contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire. But he was not a monotone opponent of communism. He saw and warned continuously about the danger of capitalism which feeds materialism, narcissism and secularism.

He modeled personal forgiveness, when he visited the assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in his prison cell, and sought corporate reconciliation, when he led the Church to change its relationship with Jews.

While John Paul II held fast to the conservative Catholic tradition on contraception and women’s ordination, he was a staunch advocate for human rights and supporter the removal of Third World debt.

Third, we should dedicate ourselves to greater ecumenical dialogue and finding common ground upon which to work. Baptists and Catholics need not agree on every theological and ecclesiastic point. But we can advance the Christian witness through a shared commitment to mutual respect, Bible study and proactive cultural engagement.

We have loss a great moral light and gained a new opportunity for an era of goodwill between Baptists and Catholics.

Robert Parham is executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.

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