161. Are there two Popes of the Roman Catholic Church?

April 19th, 2019

Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus) has spoken, and his voice is loud in the confusion that reigns in the Roman Catholic Church. His 5,000 word text, which is entitled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”, was released on April 11th, taking Vatican officials and the outside world by surprise. Although he writes that he had informed Pope Francis and the Secretary of the Vatican State beforehand, the procedure was totally unconventional, bypassing institutional channels and distributing the text through a minor German magazine (Klerusblatt). It soon appeared on websites that are often vocally critical of Pope Francis.

When Pope Francis was elected to office in March 2013, Benedict XVI, who had abruptly resigned from office, pledged to remain publicly silent for the rest of his life, dedicating his time to prayer and indicating a willingness not to interfere in the affairs of the Roman Church. With the publication of this long article, this silence is broken. The Pope Emeritus certainly prays, but he also speaks out and does so loudly. The topic of his article is hot in that it deals with the sexual abuses that are ruining the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and causing internal debates in this “annus horribilis” (terrible year).

“A Post-Retirement Encyclical”?
Commenting on the text, the New York Times has labeled it “a post-retirement encyclical”, as if the Pope Emeritus had resumed his ordinary teaching in this turbulent time. Perhaps this is an overstatement. Content-wise, the article is more of a historical, theological, and autobiographical reflection on the present-day crisis. It is written in the style of a personal testimony coming from a life-long prominent theologian, influential Cardinal, and lately the retired Pontiff of the Roman Church.

Ratzinger traces the present-day sexual abuse scandal back to the sexual revolution of the Sixties (particularly the year 1968), the “collapse” of Catholic doctrine and morality between the 1960s and 1980s, the downfall of the distinction between good and evil and between truth and lies, the proliferation of tolerated “homosexual clubs” in Catholic seminaries, and the imposition of a “so-called due process” that rendered untouchable those who justified these novelties, including pedophilia itself. In the final analysis, Ratzinger points to the ultimate reason for the crisis being a departure from God in society as a whole and in the Church as well. He then calls his Church to recover the mystery of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as the way to let God become central again.

In a sense there is nothing new under the sun in what Benedict writes now. These broad historical and theological assessments have already been presented in his 1985 Ratzinger Report, a book interview on the state of the world and the church published when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in his “Letter to the Catholics in Ireland”, written in 2010 when he was Pope, which dealt with the abuses there. This new article breaks no fresh ground regarding Ratzinger’s views on the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution on the world and how it has impacted the Roman Church at all levels.

The Unsettled Legacy of Vatican II
What is significant about the article is the difference in analysis and tone from what the reigning Pope has been saying about the abuses. Unlike Ratzinger, Francis has been quick to blame “clericalism” (i.e. the abuse of clerical power) as the root of the scandals. He has never touched on the relaxation of the Church’s moral standards on sexuality and the gradual acceptance of the presence of homosexuals amongst the clergy. For Francis, homosexuality seems to be a non-issue in the overall explanation of what has gone wrong, i.e. a topic that cannot be dealt with publicly and honestly. The other main difference is that, unlike Ratzinger, who severely criticizes the philosophical trajectory and moral results of Western relativism both within and outside of the Church, Francis speaks more of the political allures of careerism within the Church, which has resulted in unscrupulous people making prey of vulnerable subjects. The difference between the two is evident.

There is something deeper, though. The main thesis of the article is that the Sixties were the decade of the sexual revolution and the Roman Church was devastated by it. So far so good. But the Sixties were also the decade of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which updated Rome’s posture, gesture, and language to make it more friendly to the modern world. Indirectly, Ratzinger underlines the fact that in the Sixties (therefore after Vatican II), Roman Catholic moral theology ceased to argue from the objective basis of “natural law” and began to play with the idea that “morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action”, making therefore all judgements “relative”. The Pope Emeritus denounces a “new, modern Catholicity” that overturned the traditional moral fabric of Catholic theology and opened the door to the justification of homosexuality and other sexual promiscuities in seminaries and among the clergy. Without Ratzinger saying it explicitly, it was as if Vatican II lowered the bar and relaxed the standards of Roman Catholic theology and ethics to the point of eroding the moral consistency of the Church from within.

While Francis often uses Vatican II to bang conservatives on their heads, Ratzinger’s analysis of the effects of the Council is much more nuanced, if not critical. It is as if Francis stresses the genius of the “catholicity” of Vatican II (i.e. openness, renewal, inclusion, accommodation), whereas the old Ratzinger sees problematic outcomes that have plagued the Church. The tension between the “catholic” and the “roman” elements of the Roman Catholic Church is now embodied in the dialectic between the two Popes. Francis tends to the “catholic” Pope in line with the elasticity of Vatican II whereas Benedicit looks like more of the “roman” Pope calling his Church to its doctrinal identity shaped around its sacramental system. Beyond the different opinions on the current crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, the legacy of Vatican II is also a disputed matter between the two Popes!

One Pope, Two Popes?
There are other standing questions on the whole initiative by the Pope Emeritus. The paper wanted to be a contribution to the summit on the protection of minors that was held in the Vatican in February 2019, but instead it has been made public two months after. Why? Is it because Benedict was not happy with the rather poor and inconsequential results of the meeting? Why did he decide to break his vow of silent prayer now, and on this issue?

After six years of co-habitation between a reigning Pope and the Pope Emeritus (an unusual situation for the Roman Church!), what prompted the latter to speak out on this controversial issue? Why did he feel the need to regain a public voice, outside of institutional Vatican channels? Roman Catholic conservative circles – the same circles that have become very critical of Pope Francis – have always referred to Benedict XVI as the “real” and “true” Pope over and against the troublesome and confusing activity of today’s Pontiff. This article gives them evidence that their criticism has reached Ratzinger’s ears. The Pope Emeritus continues to pray, but is also willing to speak again. He is Emeritus, but he is still Pope.

The article may not be a “post-retirement encyclical”, but it is a stone thrown into Rome’s pond. Its waves will continue to question how is it possible for a pyramidical structure to have two Popes with very different opinions on what happened to a Church marred by horrific sexual scandals and on what needs to be done to recover from the damage caused by them.

Share Button

160. Is the Nicene Faith the Basis for Ecumenism?

April 1st, 2019

This article is adapted from La fede nicena è la base teologica dell’ecumenismo?, “Studi di teologia” 61 (2019) pp. 65-69.

The Council of Nicaea (325 AD) is often studied by church historians who are interested in coming to terms with the affirmation of orthodox Christology founded on the consubstantiality between the Father and the Son (i.e. the Son having the same divine nature as the Father). Not just a historical event, Nicaea evokes a doctrinal symbol, hinged on the Trinitarian faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Its explicitly trinitarian framework has become the normative reference point for orthodox Christianity.

Nicene Christianity
The terms “Nicene faith” or “Nicene Christianity” are considered synonyms of Christianity. They are sufficiently defined in the essentials, but still free from the subsequent confessional incrustations that “divided” Christianity between the Eastern and Western Churches in the 11th century and the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in the 16th century.

Wanting to commend the plausibility of the Christian faith, in 1952 the British intellectual C.S. Lewis coined the expression “mere Christianity.” He did so precisely to indicate those essential contours of the Christian faith that are enucleated in the Nicene creed, which all Christians, whatever tradition they belong to (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, etc.), make their own. In contemporary ecumenical theology, the “Nicene faith”, often referred to as the “Great Tradition”, is considered the theological platform on which all traditional Christian families must recognize each other since they all stem from the historical tree of Nicene Christianity. In this perspective, Nicaea is a symbol of the undivided past that becomes the hope of a unity to be rediscovered[1].

The Appeal to Nicene Christianity in Evangelicalism
The strong appeal to the “Nicene faith” goes beyond ecumenical circles. Wanting to overcome the fundamentalist tendency that has downplayed the historical heritage of the faith, important sectors of the evangelical world have loudly called on evangelicalism to “reclaim” the apostolic testimony that finds its dogmatic symbol par excellence in the Nicene faith[2]. This pressing invitation has set in motion a certain dynamism in the study of the Church Fathers in the last few decades, even among evangelical scholars[3].  The idea has gained popularity amongst evangelicals that the Nicene faith (centered on the profession of the Trinity and on an orthodox Christology) is the common ground between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, while differences would lie in doctrines such as soteriology, ecclesiology, Mariology, etc[4]. The Nicene faith apparently shared by all is the common basis that would reflect “a deeper agreement” between all the expressions of Christianity, “despite profound disagreements” between them that have occurred later[5].  In the words of Craig Carter, “The Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy begins with the Old and New Testaments, crystalizes in the fourth-century trinitarian debates, and then continues through Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, the leading Protestant Reformers, post-Reformation scholasticism, and contemporary conservative Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant confessional theology”[6]. Here is the “Nicene” ecumenism of the great tradition: a transversal front that embraces the conservatives of all the families of Christendom and that incorporates all those who refer to Nicaea as their theological platform.

The question to ask is whether or not the Nicene faith can play the role that is assigned to it. One needs to verify the plausibility of the idea that contemporary ecumenism can find in Nicaea a meeting point that historically precedes the confessional controversies, theologically welcomes all the confessions developed after Nicaea, and provides an ecumenical common basis for rebuilding the lost unity.

So, is the Nicene faith (or can it be) the theological basis for contemporary ecumenism? The answer is negative for at least three reasons. Let’s look at them in order.

Three Objections to the Ecumenical Use of the Nicene Faith
First, the vocabulary of Nicaea to which all confessions refer is the same: God the Father, Jesus Christ, salvation, Holy Spirit, virgin Mary, church, a holy apostolic catholic church, baptism, remission of sins. But while the signifiers are the same, inasmuch as the same sounds combine to form the same words linked together in the same order, the same cannot be said of the theological meaning of the words used. When a Roman Catholic refers to the “virgin Mary”, to “salvation”, to “the church”, etc., does he mean the same thing as an evangelical, an orthodox, or a liberal Protestant would mean when using the same words? Of course not. Think of the word “salvation”: a Roman Catholic would understand it as a sacramental journey under the authority of the church and with the help of the intercessions of Mary and the saints; an evangelical understands salvation as being grounded solely on Jesus Christ and received by faith alone; a liberal would tend to understand it as the attempt to be a better person who lives in a better society. The word is the same but the meaning is substantially different. How can the reference to Nicaea bridge the gap? Think of the word “church”: the Roman Catholic has a view of the church as a hierarchical society whose absolute leader is the Pope, who is given the title of vicar of Christ; evangelicals understand the church largely as a fellowship of believers who bear witness to the gospel but who do not prolong the incarnation of Jesus Christ and therefore do not reclaim his prerogatives. The “Great Tradition” speaks of the “church”, but do we believe the same “church”? Examples could be easily multiplied.

There is an area of overlap and an area of differentiation that makes the use of the same terms equivocal. In fact, the words of the Nicene creed are marked by theologically different understandings. In the common recitation, the impression is that they all say the same thing; this is true on a phonetic level, but not at the semantic level. Calling the Nicene faith the common basis can be an emotional appeal, but it is not a responsible action because, while the impression is given that we say the same things, the reality is that we are saying different things.

Second, Nicaea is not a point of arrival, but a step in the history of the church. For example, Nicaea was followed by Ephesus (431 AD), which dogmatized the Marian title of “mother of God”; the Council of Trent (1545-1563) which defined justification as a synergistic process within a sacramental system; the Marian dogmas of the immaculate conception (1854) and bodily assumption (1950); the First Vatican Council (1870) with the dogma of papal infallibility; and by Vatican II (1962-1965) with its inclusive catholicity. The theology of the various traditions is today characterized by a doctrinal and spiritual stratification that is irreversible and no longer that of Nicaea. For example, Roman Catholicism has given dogmatic status to its Mariology and Papacy. These Marian and papal dogmas impinge on Christology, the doctrine of the Spirit, ecclesiology, and salvation. When Nicaea refers to Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and the church, present-day Roman Catholicism also reads Mary into the background. When Nicaea refers to salvation and the forgiveness of sins, Roman Catholicism after Trent reads the sacraments and indulgences. It is not possible to put the clock back as if 1700 years of history had not happened. It is simplistic, as well as antihistoric, to think that the common profession of Nicaea can be extracted from the important additions, which have become the Roman Catholic interpretative keys of creedal Christianity. Nicaea can’t bring people together because Evangelicals and Catholics have developed different dogmas and practices in their histories in all key areas of the Christian faith.

Third and finally, the Nicene faith cannot be the basis of contemporary ecumenism because of the different role that the different Christian traditions ascribe to the profession of a creed. What does it mean to “profess” a creed like that of Nicaea? To learn it by heart and recite it? To believe in the affirmations it contains? To identify oneself in the worldview to which it gives voice? To perform a conventional act linked to a traditional religious practice? To mechanically repeat a “jingle” that evokes our childhood? The range of possibilities for the appropriation of Nicaea is wide. For example, how many liberal Christians (who would have no problem saying that Nicaea is important) believe that God is truly the Creator of the heavens and the earth? How convinced are they that Jesus was really born of the virgin Mary, or that He bodily rose from the dead? If we have even a little acquaintance with contemporary theology, we will realize how many interpretations there are of these and other cornerstones of the Christian faith. So what does it mean to profess the united faith in a united way if, despite reciting the same words, we believe substantially different doctrines?  In addition, for how many nominal Christians does the recitation of the creed make a difference in their life? What does it mean to say “I believe …” for many people who, despite having been baptized and occasionally attending religious services, are not regenerated, and therefore are not believers? Of course they can recite the Nicene creed, but this profession is very often a rhetorical exercise with almost no spiritual value. Reciting it together does not in and of itself bring unity.

Referring to Nicaea as the common basis of ecumenism is wishful thinking rather than theologically responsible hope. In light of these three reasons, among Christian confessions and traditions there is a deeper disagreement, despite some areas of apparent and formal agreement. The way of unity always passes by the biblical truth that the Council of Nicaea tried to honor, even in the complexities of history. In itself, Nicaea is necessary. But it is not sufficient to express the biblical unity for which the Lord Jesus prayed and gave His life in order to achieve.

 


[1] See for example C. Steitz (ed.), Nicene Christianity. The Future of a New Ecumenism (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004).

[2] T. George (ed.), Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith. Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011).

[3] For a survey see K. Stewart, Evangelicalism and Patristic Chrisitianity: 1517 to the present, “The Evangelical Quarterly” 80.4 (2008) pp. 307-321.

[4] This is the approach taken by the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative since 1994. A collection of all the ECT documents can be found in T. George – T.G. Guarino (edd.), Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015).

[5] As it is argued by K. Collins – J. Walls, Roman but not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (Grand Rapids: MI, Baker, 2017) p. 78.

[6] C.A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition: Recovering the Genius of Pre-modern Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2018) p. xi.

Share Button