Rome, 6th December 2010
If you were given the opportunity to meet the Pope in person, what would you ask him? In a video on Youtube John Piper tells us that if he were to have a two minute conversation with the Pope, he would ask him: What’s your view on justification? That question would speak volumes for him and perhaps for many Evangelicals. Not so for Peter Seewald, the German journalist who just released his new interview with Benedict XVI. Seewald spoke six hours with the Pope but the topic of justification never came up. This suggests that people’s agendas in dealing with the highest RC authority may be very different. Yet the interview is an interesting piece of conversation that deserves our attention.
The book is entitled Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times and is published in English by Ignatius Press. Seewald is not new to the task of interviewing Ratzinger, having done so twice when the latter was Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Salt of the Earth (1996; English edition 1997) and God and the World (2000; English edition 2002). Many commentators have underlined the parts of the interview in which Benedict XVI addresses controversial issues on human sexuality and the recent sexual scandals within the RC Church. In spite of rumors and fancy titles, there is nothing new in the Vatican’s approach to these issues and many others. In the Vatican’s perspective an interview is a tool towards consolidating something that is already part of the ethos of the Church, perhaps using conversation and a warm, personal tone. So Light of the World does not break any new ground in doctrinal or moral matters. Benedict XVI confirms his confident, sapiential and assertive posture in defending the dynamic stability of Rome’s magisterium, as well as his worried analysis of Western cultural trends away from past settlements between church and society. The present-day turmoil of the world, though perplexing and troublesome, is seen within the hopeful context of the long-term mission of the Church that will eventually succeed.
The pope addresses many important matters, but perhaps three are more worthy of mention for Evangelicals.
The first has to do with Benedict’s personal prayer life. In shedding light on his daily spiritual disciplines, the Pope says that he prays to God and also invokes a selected group of saints. His special list mirrors his theological program: Augustine, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas. To them he cries for help as well as to the Mother of God. In another section, Seewald echoes widespread comments even in Evangelical circles that Ratzinger is more Christocentric than Marian. Yet Benedict XVI tells the interviewer that he is very close to Our Lady of Fatima (believing her alleged revelations) and deeply involved in Mary’s hyper-veneration. This is his way of living out the communio sanctorum. So, having Christ at the center means having an inclusive, wider center that hosts Mary and the saints. Do we really understand what the centrality of Jesus Christ means for RC doctrine and spirituality, even in its apparently more Christocentric forms?
The second comment touches on the Pope’s perception of Evangelicalism as a player in the realm of Christianity. Of course the book is not an academic treatise on ecumenical theology and one does not have to read too closely between the lines. Yet a distinct picture does in fact emerge. In this respect Benedict XVI distinguishes in Protestantism the “classic confessions” and the “new Protestantism”. The latter is growing and represents a “sign of the times”. This expression is a catchword for present-day Roman Catholicism. John XXIII used it to launch the Second Vatican Council and since then it has been employed to refer to providential, kairos-types of events. Evangelicals are modifying the religious landscape of the Third World. The Pope goes on to say that this movement is not the church, nor can it be on the account that it lacks some defining features of the Church (i.e. the rightly transmitted sacrament of Order, the Episcopal hierarchy under the papacy, the properly administered Eucharist). According to Ratzinger, the Evangelical understanding of the church is a “new concept” whereby the church is no longer an institution but a community summoned by the Word. The Pope appears to think that in Evangelicalism there is life but it is defective and insufficient since it is outside of the full fellowship with Rome. Later, recalling his visit to Brazil, he comes back to the topic of Evangelicalism and makes some very telling comments. He associates the word “Evangelical” with “sects” thus going back to derogatory language and also failing to make an important distinction between mainstream Evangelicalism and fringe groups that are awkward for Evangelicals as well. The other comment refers to the inner “instability” of the Evangelical movement and the fact that it does not produce a “long-standing sense of belonging”. The Pope looks at Evangelicals with a mixture of spiritual curiosity and Roman perplexity. Compared with the stability of the RC institution, Evangelicalism seems to be a frail vessel floating aimlessly. Compared with the deep sense of belonging that RC is able to nurture in most of its adherents, Evangelicalism seems to produce individual outbursts of spiritual life, yet is detached from historical, cultural and community awareness. The picture that Evangelicalism presents of itself to the observing world should cause all of us to ponder. Benedict XVI seems to think Evangelicalism can be an inspiring spirituality for our age (a “sign of the times”), yet in itself it lacks ecclesial structure and identity markers to be the Church and to survive for long.
A final comment is in place regarding global scenarios. Seewald wants to know what the Pope thinks of his petrine ministry that causes troubles for non-Catholic Christians. Well, the agreement about the papal ministry with Orthodox churches is not so far, says Ratzinger. Yet there is another facet to it. More and more, he says, religious leaders are realizing that in the global world a global voice is needed to address the importance of “religious values” and the disruptive claims of secularism. Being the ‚Äúsingle voice on great themes‚Äù is what the Pope envisages for his ministry: for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, as well as for Muslims, Hindus, etc. The Pope offers his ministry to serve as the spokesperson for all religious-minded peoples of the world. This is the vast frontier development of the papacy that embraces both ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. Of course this is not the full scope of the RC understanding of the papal office, but it will pave the way to achieving it.
In summary, Light of the World contains nothing new but instead underlines the standing claims of the present Pope with some intriguing nuances. Filled with awe for the great tradition of the Church, Benedict XVI is fully persuaded that the RC Church will manage to fulfill her mission, i.e. being a sign and instrument for the unity of mankind.
Leonardo De Chirico