WASHINGTON – Evangelical leaders expressed mixed reactions to Pope Benedict XVI's first U.S. visit, which ranged from underscoring similar values to highlighting the divide between Catholics and Protestants.
The Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, drew attention to similarities between the pope's view on environmentalism and embryonic stem cell research and the view of some within the evangelical community.
The pope during his U.N. speech last week argued that environmental protection is a moral obligation, and urged global leaders to do more to preserve God's creation, according to National Geographic News.
"Relating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to questions of science and the doctrine of Creation, for example, as well as to issues such as stems cells, is critical for evangelicals," NAE's Cizik reflected to The Christian Post on Saturday.
"Pope Benedict's statement about 'rediscovering the authentic image of creation' are helpful and reflect our own evangelical 'creation care' movement's effort to take responsibility for the world that God created and love," noted the man who has become the face of the growing green evangelical movement.
Under Benedict, the Vatican became the world's only sovereign state that is carbon-neutral – meaning that all greenhouse gas emissions from the Holy See are offset with renewable energy or carbon credits. Last summer, solar panels were installed on the roof of the city's buildings.
As a result of his efforts, Benedict has been dubbed by some as the "green pope."
Besides Creation Care, Cizik also found commonality with the pope on what he described as a possible "veiled reference" to embryonic stem cell research.
The pope said in his U.N. speech that protecting life on earth should never require a choice to be made between science and ethics, but "rather it is a question of adopting a scientific method that is truly respectful of ethical imperatives," according to the New York Times.
Cizik said that if the pope's comment referred to his opposition to embryonic stem cell research – which the Vatican has previously been openly opposed to – then evangelicals "would find agreement with Catholics" on this issue.
Opponents of the research method argue that the human embryo is equal to a human being and the destruction of the embryo to extract the stem cells is equivalent to abortion.
But while Cizik focused on commonalities between evangelicals and Catholics, others chose to remind Americans of the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism during the historic visit of the first pope to visit the White House in nearly 30 years.
Prominent theologian Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reminded people that the pope is a staunch defender of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, and that it is not likely that evangelical Christians and the Catholic Church will bridge differences.
In particular, Mohler pointed to Benedict's speech at Regensburg, Germany, in 2006; his baptism of a prominent Muslim convert; and the Vatican's release of the document reasserting that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church as examples that the pope is not "primarily concerned with ecumenical relations."
"The Roman Catholic Church believes that evangelicals are in spiritual danger for obstinately and disobediently excluding ourselves from submission to its universal claims and its papacy," the well-known theologian wrote.
Meanwhile, he added, "Evangelicals are concerned that Catholics are in spiritual danger for their submission to these very claims."
"We both understand what is at stake," Mohler wrote.
Benedict, who ended his U.S. visit Sunday, concluded his six-day trip with a Mass in Yankee Stadium in New York before a crowd of 60,000 people, and a visit to the Ground Zero site.
At Ground Zero, the pope knelt in silent prayer for peace.