172. Can the Roman Catholic Church survive two Popes? — one Catholic and one Roman

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 nobody could have imagined what has been happening since: the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope (Francis), but also a former yet living pope (Benedict) who still speaks, acts, and intervenes in ecclesiastical matters. There were hints that the prospect of having two living popes would cause some confusion, if not controversy. The fact that Benedict wanted to keep his title as Pope (only adding “Emeritus” to it), as well as his white papal robe (a symbol of the papal office) and his residence inside of the Vatican walls (the home of popes), indicated that, in spite of his pledge to remain silent for the rest of his days, the cohabitation between two popes would easily result in misunderstandings, even conflicts. The outcome has been an increasing polarization between Francis’ fans over against Benedict’s supporters and vice versa, certainly beyond the intentions of both.

One Pope, Two Popes?
In 2019 we had a preview of the present-day turmoil. The two popes spoke on the same subject, the sexual abuses committed in the Roman Church, but with clearly different positions: Francis blamed “clericalism”, an abuse of ecclesiastical power by the priests and religious people involved, whereas Benedict pointed to the collapse of Catholic doctrine and morality since the Sixties and after the Second Vatican Council, a theological decay that according to him was at the root of the scandals. The two popes interpreted the malaise of their church and the possible solutions in radically different ways.

More recently, a power struggle rallying around Pope Francis and Pope Benedict erupted, with the “Francis party” pushing for changes in areas such as the re-admission of the divorced to the Eucharist and the extension of the priesthood to married men, and the “Benedict party” resisting those changes, denouncing them as heresies, confusions and failures. It was indeed an Annus Horribilis (terrible year) for the Roman Church. Last but not least, we have now a popular movie entitled The Two Popes telling a made-up story (with some truth in it) and making fun of the two characters and their unusual cohabitation in the Vatican. All of this was unthinkable seven years ago.

Pope Emeritus, yet Outspokenly Concerned
The last episode in the tale of the two Popes only happened a few days ago. Cardinal Robert Sarah, a prominent member of the traditionalist front, announced the imminent publication of a book written with Pope Benedict. The title of the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, is indicative of the highly emotional tone of its authors. The book itself is a heartfelt cry seasoned with theological acumen to maintain the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of the celibacy of the priests. It arises out of fears that after the 2019 Synod for the Pan-Amazon region, Pope Francis will allow some married men (viri probati, “proved men”) to access the priesthood, thereby breaking a millennial rule of the Roman Catholic Church which prescribes her priests to be celibate. Sarah and Benedict staunchly defend the permanent validity of the celibacy of the priests and denounce any attempts at breaking it, even those painted as “exceptions” in extraordinary circumstances. It is true that after the press release by Cardinal Sarah there has been a backlash against Benedict appearing as co-author of the book, even though it looks like the Pope Emeritus had given at least tacit prior approval for the full manuscript. You can read the full story here.

The theological arguments of the book deserve attention on their own merits because they show that traditional Roman Catholic theology is against progressive and liberal trends, not out of biblical concerns or standing under the authority of the Bible, but in order to preserve traditional Roman Catholic teaching on the basis of the weight of church tradition and extra-biblical arguments (i.e. the “ontological” and “sacramental” nature of the priestly office). Because of its importance for gaining an insight into the traditional Roman Catholic way of theologizing, the book by Sarah and Benedict will be reviewed in a future Vatican File. What is of interest now are the standing questions that it brings.

An Unsettled Tension
One of the roles of the pope has always been the maintenance of the balance between the Roman and the Catholic dimensions. Roman Catholicism is the ongoing tension between two fundamental aspects of the whole: the Roman side, with its emphasis on centralized authority, pyramidal structure, binding teaching and the rigidity of canon law; and the Catholic side, with its emphasis on the universal outlook, the absorption of ideas and cultures and the inclusive embrace of practices into the Catholic whole. The resulting system is Roman Catholicism, at the same time Roman and Catholic. The human genius of Roman Catholicism and one of the reasons for its survival across the centuries has been its ability to be both, though not without tensions and risks of disruption.

Popes embody the Roman Catholic synthesis by holding together the Roman apparatus and the Catholic vision. Of course, they each do it differently, especially after the Second Vatican Council. John Paul II, for example, was a very Roman pope but at the same time a very Catholic one. For example, he strongly defended traditional Roman Catholic teaching (e.g. by launching the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church), but was second to none in promoting the universality of this Church around the world (e.g. inter-religious dialogue, traveling globally). Unlike John Paul II, who was both Roman and Catholic, Benedict XVI made the pendulum swing over the Roman pole. With his staunch conservativism in areas such as liturgy, morality and the critical relationship with the secular world, Benedict appeared to be more Roman than Catholic. He seemed to be a rigid, centripetal, doctrinaire pope. A Roman pope. Many felt that his papacy, while strong in its Roman centredness and boundaries, was weak in its Catholic breadth and warmth.

This criticism helps explain why a pope like Francis was chosen to succeed him. With the election of Pope Francis, Rome seemed to be wanting the pendulum to move in the opposite direction in order to re-address the balance. Distancing himself from many Roman features of the office (e.g. his refusal of the pomp of the Vatican Curia, his blurred teaching that leans away from official teachings), Francis has embodied the role of a very Catholic pope. His stress on “Who are we to judge?”, universal brotherhood with Muslims and other religions, ecological concerns, etc. made his papacy significantly shaped by the Catholic elements. The open-endedness of his teaching, coupled with the ambiguity of his language, has created some interest in the secular West, which resonates with much of what he says on social issues. This is to say that he is a very Catholic pope. Perhaps too Catholic and too little Roman for a growing number of Roman Catholics!

A Struggle to Re-Fix the Balance
Admitting the divorced to the Eucharist, fudging the traditional opposition to homosexuality and extending the priesthood to married men have been perceived as the latest, dangerous “Catholic” moves of the pope which run contrary to the Roman tradition, risking its whole collapse! This is the highly emotional background behind the From the Depths of Our Hearts book, part of which was written by Benedict himself in order to reinforce the “Roman” teaching on the celibacy of priests over against possible “Catholic” openings towards married men, which Francis seems to be in favor of.

The tension between the “Roman” Benedict and the “Catholic” Francis helps explain the present-day crisis. Past popes reigned without a Pope Emeritus around and therefore embodied in their own way the Roman Catholic synthesis. The next pope would have fixed the synthesis differently. But now, with two very different popes living next to each other (with only one reigning, but the other still lucid and active), the situation is very different. The overly Catholic attitude of Francis is compared and contrasted with the Roman outlook of Benedict to the point of creating an unprecedented struggle between opposite parties. For some, Francis has become too Catholic to maintain a proper Roman Catholic synthesis. He is incapable of being the Roman Catholic (at the same time) Pontifex. Therefore, he needs the correction of a Roman pope.

And yet, if this situation goes on unresolved it will undermine the institution of the papacy as it was cleverly crafted throughout the ages. The “progressive” pope will be counter-balanced by the “traditional” pope and the disruption of the system will be achieved. The papacy will be transformed into a two-party political system, as if it were an ordinary parliamentary monarchy. It will be the end of Roman Catholicism as it stands now.

This tension at the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church is not tenable in the long run. This is why it is highly probable that the status of Pope Emeritus (the one which Benedict enjoys now) will be revisited and regulated in order to end the temptation to think of the papacy as a “dual” responsibility, resulting in the on-going confrontation of a Roman and a Catholic party. Roman Catholicism accommodates different positions and tendencies, but the pope is thought of as being the one, living synthesizer of the tension, until the next one takes over and perhaps re-fixes the balance. The tale of two popes will not last long because Roman Catholicism is built on the conviction that its system is capable of keeping together its unchangeable Roman identity and its ever-increasing Catholicity. No biblical reformation is in view; it is only an internal struggle that is causing Rome to go through a stress-test and some chaos until the Roman and the Catholic dimensions find a new, sustainable equilibrium.

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171. The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI: Looking for a Deeper Protestant Evaluation

Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) is one of the towering figures in twentieth-century Roman Catholic theology. Born in 1927, his impressive biography includes having been a theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), holding various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957-1977), being Archbishop of Munich (1977-1981) and Cardinal, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981-2005), to eventually becoming Pope (2005-2013), and since 2013, Pope Emeritus. His Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly depth. Needless to say, one cannot think about seriously dealing with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his work.

His stature makes his reputation spillover from the Roman Catholic world. So a book on The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation, ed. T. Perry (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), is no surprise and is a welcome contribution to approaching the work of Joseph Ratzinger from the outside. The volume contains 15 articles written by Protestant authors who cover various aspects of his work, especially in the areas of dogmatic and liturgical theology, offering an entry point into his theological vision. The overall tone of the articles is generally informative and understandably appreciative, as the subtitle indicates.

Tim Perry, the editor of the book, is not new to initiatives aimed at building an ecumenical bridge between Evangelicals and Catholics. One can think of his editorship of The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment (2007), in which Pope Wojtyła was assessed in extremely generous terms– so generous that the analysis seemed to be selective and forgetful of major critical points of his legacy (e.g. see my review asking questions about John Paul II’s alleged but idiosyncratic “Christ-centered legacy”). Other volumes by Perry (e.g. Mary for Evangelicals, 2006, and with D. Kendall, The Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013) also show his desire to wet the evangelical appetite for Roman Catholic doctrine and spiritualità (e.g. Mariology) while not always indicating what is biblically at stake in them. His chapter on Mary in the book (pp. 118-135) confirms his desire to find ways to “redeem” the Catholic Marian dogmas and practices for evangelical readers, even when they should be simply rejected from a biblical standpoint.

In his introduction, Perry looks at the (ecumenical?) future and singles out four ways in which Ratzinger’s theological wisdom can be useful for tomorrow’s church. Learning from Benedict, the church will:

1. find her strength in holy Scripture;
2. affirm that Christian faith is reasonable;
3. depend much more on the visible holiness of her members; and
4. be humble (pp. 7-9).

These are all important points. However, on either side of the Tiber (Protestant or Roman Catholic), who can be against them? They are so generic that even along the liberal-conservative dividing line within various Christian groups, who could say anything contrary? The problem is: does this list fairly and accurately represent, if not the whole, at least the heart of Ratzinger’s theology? Would Benedict himself summarize his work in these points? Are we sure that his message to the churches can be separated from the sacramental, hierarchical, and institutional nature of the Roman gospel and Rome’s “thick” claims on ecclesiology, soteriology, the papacy, Mariology, etc.?

The intention of “appreciating” Ratzinger’s theology is evident, but what about the ability to penetrate it? The impression of a similar gap is confirmed in other chapters of the book. For example, Ben Meyers and Katherine Sonderegger helpfully discuss the relationship between faith and reason in Ratzinger (11-25 and 28-45). The rationality of faith is certainly a theme dear to him, but as clearly demonstrated in his famous 2006 Regensburg Lecture “Faith, Reason and the University”, Benedict builds this rationality on the “synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit” and firmly rejects what he identifies as the “programme of dehellenization” of the faith. According to him, this programme took place on the 16th century “Scripture Alone” Protestant principle, continued through 19th and 20th century theological liberalism, and eventually resulted in present-day relativistic multi-culturalism. One would have thought that in a book that presents a “Protestant” voice, someone would take issue with Benedict for his totally negative assessment of Sola Scriptura, one of the pillars of classic Protestantism, which he considers to hold the main responsibility for the wreckage of the Christian faith. Instead, the overall “appreciation” for Ratzinger’s defense of the rationality of faith over and against the “Scripture Alone” principle takes precedence over a truly Protestant analysis, thus skipping the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue (which involves biblical critique done in a gracious yet firm way).

Another example of this weakness of the book has to do with Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology. In his chapter on the topic, Fred Sanders commends his “powerful set of Trinitarian commitments” (p. 136), a common theological foundation that is often praised in the book as something that Ratzinger shares with Protestants. Because of his Trinitarianism, Ratzinger is presented as an ecumenical theologian from whom Protestants must learn. Staying on the surface of Trinitarian theology, this might be true, but as soon as one begins to dig deeper, things significantly change. In presenting his liturgical vision, Peter Leithart quotes Ratzinger talking about the Eucharist:

The Eucharistic Prayer is as entering into the prayer of Jesus Christ himself, hence it is the Church’s entering into the Logos, the Father’s Word” (p. 197).

The Church enters into the Logos! This is a view of the Eucharist that is heavily embedded in a Trinitarian framework and implies that there is an organic “Christ-Church interconnection” (an expression used by Gregg Allison, p. 63), which is biblically disputable. Ratzinger’s Trinitarian theology demands that the Church enters into the Logos, thus becoming one with Him and claiming to prolong (so to speak) His incarnation in her teaching and her sacramental and ruling offices. This view is based on a Trinitarian argument, but runs contrary to the standard Protestant view of the Church and her relationship with Christ.

Or again, in skillfully dealing with Ratzinger’s theology of the Word of God, Kevin Vanhoozer quotes Benedict saying:

As the Word of God becomes flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so Sacred Scripture is born from the womb of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 69).

The theology of Scripture is set in the context of Trinitarian theology, and the Church is embedded in this Trinitarian dynamic as if she were the mother of the Word because the presence of the Spirit is intrinsically tied to her. The link between the Holy Spirit and the Church is so organic that “for Benedict, Scripture, tradition, and the Roman magisterium always coincide because they are guided by the same Spirit” (p. 85). His Trinitarian theology leads Ratzinger to “dismissing” (p. 68) and “explicitly” denying Sola Scriptura (p. 75), which is one of the tenets of the evangelical understanding of the gospel.

The question is: if Catholics and Protestants have the same Trinitarian foundation (as many chapters of the book assume), how is it that they come to very different accounts of Revelation, the Bible, the Church, the sacraments, salvation, … the gospel? If we have this foundational commonality, why does Ratzinger argue in (his) Trinitarian terms that “Scripture Alone” is – for example – the main cause of the departure from the rationality of faith (e.g. in the above mentioned Regensburg Lecture) and is to be rejected in order to embrace a proper view of the Eucharist and Revelation? Are we not dealing with gospel issues that stem from different Trinitarian views, which look similar in language and on the surface but are undergirded by different core commitments and result in ultimately different accounts of the gospel?

The “appreciative” tone of the book shies away from asking the question, let alone responding to it, with exceptions and with some interesting hints. The chapters by Allison and Vanhoozer point to the idea that something deeper than acknowledging generic commonalities runs in the Roman Catholic and Protestant theological basic orientations. As Carl Trueman rightly observes in his chapter “Is the Pope (Roman Catholic)?”,

Roman Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with a different set of doctrines. It is a different way of thinking about Christianity, a way that draws a very tight connection between Scripture, tradition, and the doctrine of the church in a manner alien to Protestantism” (p. 153).

“A different way of thinking”. Finally, someone in the book indicates what is at stake in dealing with Roman Catholicism in general and with Ratzinger in particular. “A different way of thinking” that has some overlap in the use of biblical and theological language but is constructed with a different blueprint and results in a different answer to the ultimate questions about God, the world, and eternity. “A different way of thinking”. This is a clue that helps us to appreciate Benedict’s theology much more than lazily praising what we Protestants have in common with it. I think Ratzinger would agree more with this “different way of thinking” type of appraisal than with words of praise that do not go deep enough in the analysis of his theology. Trueman quotes him saying:

The way one views the structure of Christianity will necessarily affect in some measure, great or small, one’s attitude to various particular matters contained within the whole” (n. 26, p. 163).

The book The Theology of Benedict XVI: A Protestant Appreciation contains several “particulars” of Ratzinger’s theology from a Protestant viewpoint, but the “structure” of his view of Christianity is only touched upon by few of them and is left as a homework that is still to be done. The “appreciation” of the book should be heard, but not at the expense of neglecting the fact that Benedict and Protestants have different views of the “structure of Christianity” that impact the whole of their respective faiths.

P.S. On Ratzinger’s theology I have also written an “appreciative” (I hope) yet evangelically critical article: Progressive, Conservative or Roman Catholic? On the Theology of Joseph Ratzinger in Evangelical Perspective, “Perichoresis” 6.2 (2008) pp. 201-218.

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