Megachurch Pastor Rick Warren Joins Pope Francis in Support of Common Mission

Founder of Saddleback Church draws ire of fellow Protestants for Rome-leaning views.

Megachurch Pastor Rick Warren Joins Pope Francis in Support of Common Mission

Steve Jurvetson

Pastor Rick Warren has called on non-Catholic Christians to join with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in pursuit of their common goals.

Warren is founder and pastor of California’s well-known Saddleback Church and author of best-selling books including The Purpose-Driven Life, which has sold 36 million copies, and The Purpose-Driven Church.  

Pastor Warren was among the speakers in November 2014 at Humanum, the Vatican’s International Religious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman.  Humanum brought together faith leaders from both Christian and non-Christian religions around the world, to examine and propose anew the beauty of the relationship between man and woman in marriage.  

In an interview with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo which aired after the conference, Warren called for adherents of various Christian denominations to unite with Roman Catholics and Pope Francis to work together on three shared goals, focusing on the sanctity of life, the sanctity of sex, and the sanctity of marriage.  He went on to defend Catholicism and to clarify some of the most common misconceptions about Catholic teaching, pertaining to Marian dogmas and prayer to the saints.  

Warren acknowledged that there are still real differences which separate Catholics from other Christian denominations.  He envisions Catholics and Protestants working together, not with a structural unity, but rather, with a unity of mission.  “If you love Jesus,” he said, “we’re on the same team.”

Pastor Warren’s remarks were polite and well reasoned, and were well received in the Catholic community.  To hear some conservative Christians tell the story, though, you’d think that Warren was devoid of reason and without a moral compass.  Evangelical Reformed apologist James White, director of Alpha and Omega Ministries and an avowed anti-Catholic, called on Warren to repent.  Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (CARM), was openly critical, mistakenly claiming that Catholics had “added seven books” to the Bible.  Brian Houston of Hillsong Church expressed alarm about Warren’s “subtle backslide into Catholicism” and claimed that his concern is shared by Christians nationwide.

But despite the protests from a few corners of the Protestant world, Warren has been an important voice for our shared Christian vision.  He closed his remarks to the attendees gathered for Humanum by reaffirming that Catholics and other Christians serve as co-laborers for the cause of defending life and family.  Speaking about the sanctity of life, sex and marriage, Warren declared, “There’s great commonality, and there’s no division on any of those three.”

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Warren is not the first Protestant pastor to respond with warmth to the words of Pope Francis, encouraging fellow Christians to reexamine old prejudices toward Catholicism.  In January 2014, Bishop Tony Palmer, a charismatic young preacher from the  Communion of Evangelical Episcopal Churches, visited Pope Francis at the Vatican.  During that meeting, Palmer used his iPhone to record an impromptu greeting from the Holy Father to an American Pentecostal conference.  

Bishop Palmer, in introducing the powerful video to the conference organized by Word of Faith founder Kenneth Copeland, offered a message of brotherhood, unity and love.  He told the Pentecostal gathering that the divisions between Catholics and Protestants have had no reason to exist since the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.  In that agreement, both Catholics and Lutherans recognized that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

“We are not,” said Palmer, “protesting the doctrine of salvation [taught] by the Catholic Church any more.  We now preach the same Gospel.  Brothers and sisters, Luther’s protest is over.  Is yours?”

In his pre-recorded video greeting, Pope Francis—speaking in the more familiar Italian, with a translator repeating his message in English—asked the Pentecostals gathered with Copeland to pray to the Lord, that he will unite us all.  He expressed his longing for the day when “this separation would end and there would be communion.”  He urged the Pentecostals listening to “…allow our longing to increase, so that it propels us to find each other, embrace each other and to praise Jesus Christ as the only Lord of history.”

“Let us move forward,” the Holy Father said.  “We are brothers; let us give each other a spiritual embrace and allow the Lord to complete the work he has begun.  Because this is a miracle:  the miracle of unity has begun.”

Bishop Palmer did not live to see his dream of unity realized.  He died in a motorcycle accident in the United Kingdom in July 2014.  But Rick Warren continues his quest for common ground, propelling Catholics and all Christians toward fulfillment of Christ’s priestly prayer “that all may be one, even as I and the Father are one.”

Kathy Schifferis a freelance writer and speaker, and her blog Seasons of Grace can be found on the Catholic Portal at Patheos.