I speak to different audiences and at various conferences, the question comes back
over and over again: why should Evangelicals bother engaging Roman
Catholicism? Let me suggest four reasons.
It’s a Global Issue Wherever you go in the world – North and South, East and West – you will find people who call themselves Roman Catholics and with whom all of us will interact in one way or another on matters of faith. You will also encounter the Roman Catholic Church through its institutions and agencies: parishes, schools, hospitals, charities, movements, etc. According to the 2020 edition of the Pontifical Yearbook, Catholics around the world amount to 1.329 billion people, by far the largest religious family within Christendom and the biggest religious organization on the planet. The Pope, though living in Rome, is a global figure who attracts a lot of attention from the media. The Roman Church, through its documents and initiatives, is a world-level player in major debates related to inter-faith relationships, mission, the environment, ecumenism, etc. Whether you live in a majority Roman Catholic region or in an area where Catholics are few, the presence of the Roman Catholic Church is pervasive. Unless you crouch in your little corner, not wanting to engage the world around you (wherever you are), you must deal with Roman Catholicism.
It’s a Theological Issue In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation was a movement of God that recovered and reaffirmed the biblical gospel centered on the authority of the Triune God in biblical revelation (Scripture Alone); the sufficiency of the work of Jesus Christ (Christ Alone); the free gift of salvation for those who believe (Faith Alone); and the call to live for God and worship Him in whatever we do (To God Alone be the Glory). Roman Catholicism stood against these truths and condemned those who embraced them. After Vatican II, Rome has somewhat changed its posture; the tones are friendlier and the lines are blurred. However, Roman Catholicism is still NOT committed to Scripture alone, Christ alone, or faith alone, and its devotions are not dedicated to God alone. The Roman Catholic gospel is different from the biblical one. None of the non-biblical dogmas, practices, and structures have been obliterated, although they may have been reframed or developed. The Reformation is not over, the gospel is still at stake, and all those who want to stand firm in the truth should grasp at least something of what Roman Catholicism stands for.
It’s an Evangelistic Issue Because of the massive number of Roman Catholics around the world, there is a high probability that all of us have neighbours, friends, family members, and colleagues who are such. In majority Roman Catholic contexts, this often means that people identify themselves as Catholics because they were born into a religious family or because the cultural milieu they live in was shaped by Roman Catholicism, but there is no basic gospel awareness. Many Catholics believe and behave like most Western secular people do: without any sense of God being real and true in their lives. In other words, they are not born again, regenerated Christians. Devout Catholics may be religious, yet entangled in traditions and practices that are far from the biblical faith. This brings wide-open evangelistic opportunities. The gospel can and must be taken to them too. We must try to enter the Roman Catholic mindset and gently challenge it with the gospel. In order to do so in a spiritually intelligent way, we must come to terms with what Roman Catholicism is all about.
It’s a Trying Issue Roman Catholicism brings a further challenge to evangelicals today. In the past, Rome considered other forms of Christianity (e.g. Eastern Orthodox and Protestants) as heretical or schismatic; it was Rome that distanced outsiders from itself. After Vatican II (1962-1965) they are thought of as being still defective but “imperfectly united” with Rome. Rome has become very ecumenical, wanting to come alongside other Christians in order to bring them cum Petro (“with Peter”, i.e. in peace with the Catholic Church) and sub Petro (“under Peter”, i.e. somehow embraced by its structures). The same is true with other religions. Prior to Vatican II they were condemned as pagan and heathen; now they are viewed as legitimate ways to God and their followers are called “brothers and sisters”. Rome is working hard to bring all religions together around its leader, the Pope. This is no conspiracy theory: it is the universalist agenda of present-day Roman Catholicism which has been in operation since Vatican II. Evangelicals should be aware of where Rome is going. We don’t want to become part of a “catholic” project that curtails gospel mission aimed at the conversion to Jesus Christ of people who do not believe in Him. The unity we aspire to is the unity of God’s people under the Lord Jesus, not the generic unity of the whole of mankind under Rome.
theological, evangelistic, and strategic reasons, Evangelicals must engage
Roman Catholicism in today’s world.
A version of this article in Italian appeared on Ideaitalia (21st March 2020)
Under pressure, the true and deep commitments of the heart are exposed. When facing hardships, we reveal what is really important for us. In these weeks of the Coronavirus emergency, the message that Roman Catholicism is giving is a disarming detachment from the basic principles of the biblical faith. This should come as no surprise. What is happening belongs to the core of Roman Catholic beliefs and practices, as they are taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and as they are lived out in Roman Catholic parishes. However, given the favor with which even some Evangelicals view the self-styled “renewal” of Roman Catholicism and the action of Pope Francis, it is worth mentioning the spiritual regression we are witnessing in the midst of the pandemic crisis that is severely hitting Italy.
Who Really Cares for the Country? After the outbreak of the Coronavirus, at the peak of it, there has been a flourishing of public dedications of Italy to Mary’s protection (Pope Francis) and of Rome to the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, i.e. the icon of Mary the Pope is deeply committed to. The Archbishop of Milan dedicated the city to the “Madonnina”, the statue of the Virgin on the top of Milan’s Duomo. In Venice, the local bishop, Patriarch Moraglia, dedicated his city to Our Lady of Health. In Naples, Archbishop of the city, Cardinal Sepe, dedicated the city to the care of San Gennaro, the protector and patron saint of the city. During the lockdown, in a deserted Rome, the Pope walked the empty streets to the church of Saint Marcello to pray for the end of the pandemic. He did so in front of the “miraculous crucifix” that is kept there in memory of past miracles that supposedly happened through it.
Examples can be easily multiplied. Throughout the country, with these actions of devotions to Mary and the saints, Roman Catholicism has shown what pillars remain stable and reliable when everything else trembles: the maternal care of Madonna and the intercession of the saints. The explicit message that was communicated is that Mary and the saints are always “near” to those who suffer, always at hand and ready to intervene. The climax of this explosion of Marian devotions culminated in a nationally broadcasted rosary (i.e. a Marian prayer) led by the Pope himself, where the deep unbiblical commitments of Roman Catholicism were again on display.
The question that needs to be asked is: if when in trouble we have to look for help through human mediators, where is Jesus Christ in all this? Is Jesus Christ not alive and powerful to intercede for us (Hebrews 7:25)? Is the Holy Spirit not fully active and interested in being involved in our intercession (Romans 8:26)? Is the Father not attentive to our prayers (e.g. 1 Peter 3:12) and ready to act upon them? With the flurry of all these Roman Catholic devotions it is as if the Triune God is sleeping and in need, like the baal in Elijah’s time (1 Kings 18), to be awakened by human mediators.
Puzzling Interviews The second area of perplexity has to do with two public statements by Pope Francis. He was interviewed by two Italian newspapers on two almost consecutive days. At Repubblica (18th March), he unveiled a concentration of humanism and universalism. Without ever speaking of Christ, of the sin and salvation that is received by repenting and believing in him, he gave voice to something that does not even resemble the biblical gospel. Here is an example:
How can those who do not have faith have hope in days like these? Here is the Pope’s answer: “They are all God’s children and are looked upon by Him. Even those who have not yet met God, those who do not have the gift of faith, can find their way through this, in the good things they believe in: they can find strength in love for their children, for their family, for their brothers and sisters. One can say: ‘I cannot pray because I do not believe.’ But at the same time, however, he can believe in the love of the people around him, and thus find hope”.
“We are all children of God”, “one can believe in the good things he believes in”, these things being love for one’s own dear ones; “one can believe in the love of people around us and find hope in it”. These are not statements stemming from the biblical gospel but from a man-centered message. The Pope had millions of readers and he spread a message that reinforced them in whatever they believed, rather than presenting the gospel.
Then, in an interview with La Stampa (20th March), the Pope once again reiterated that “we are all children of God” and that, after the crisis will be gone, we have to re-start our life by re-appreciating our “roots, memory, brotherhood and hope”. Here too it is a humanist and universalist message devoid of any gospel meaning centered on Jesus Christ and the need for repentance and faith. The reader (millions of them) is left with the conviction that whether or not she believes in whatever she believes, she is all right before God. No one is challenged to face the Coronavirus crisis by repenting and trusting Christ’s alone who saves and heals.
Outpouring of Indulgences The icing on the cake of Roman Catholicism in times of pandemic is the granting of plenary indulgences to “the faithful suffering from COVID-19 disease, commonly known as Coronavirus, as well as to health care workers, family members and all those who in any capacity, including through prayer, and care for them”. An indulgence is a remission of the temporal sin administered by the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of the merits of the saints. Practically it is a “work” that needs to be done in order to receive a benefit from the church. The whole of the indulgence system denies that we are forgiven of our sins by God himself through the sufficient and complete work of Christ. Martin Luther and the whole Protestant Reformation strongly opposed indulgences, rightly seeing in them as a denial of the gospel. The Pope is offering an outpouring of this medieval practice even to those who will listen to a special vigil of prayer (live from TV sets, the internet, etc.) scheduled for 27th March where he will impart a special blessing. What kind of gospel is this?
What future can Italy have with such a message coming out of Rome? For this reason, the need for a robust, biblical witness is as relevant as ever. The “renewal” that Roman Catholicism is going through will not make it change according to the Word of God. It will empower it to inoculate words that may appear as close to the good news but are, instead, nowhere near to the biblical gospel. In addition to the health emergency of the pandemic, we are living in times of a greater spiritual emergency.
Progressives were disappointed. Traditionalists were perplexed. In the end, Querida Amazonia (“Beloved Amazon”), the 2020 Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis following the Synod on the Pan-Amazon region, was neither the revolutionary push that many were fearful of nor the reaffirmation of the well-established Roman Catholic discourse on mission that others could have desired. Querida Amazonia was rather a reinforcement of Pope Francis’ own missiology. Its tenets had been already enshrined in Evangelii Gaudium (2013), with its call to his Church to be “outgoing”, and further affirmed in Laudato Si’ (2015), with its ecological concerns elevated to missiological primary focus. In the latest papal document, these threads are interwoven and more strongly knitted together as they are applied to the Amazon region. Initial reactions to it show the fact that the Pope did not go left or right, but followed his path.
Different Expectations As already mentioned, the Pope did not back up progressive voices expecting his approval for the consecration to the priesthood of the viri probati (married “men of proven virtue”) and for women to join the diaconate. These measures had been foreshadowed in the Final Document of the Synod (The Amazon: New Paths for the Church and for an Integral Ecology) but the Pope kept silent on them. Perhaps the silence was due to awareness of the fact that, if approved, they would have caused further disruption to a Roman Catholic Church already in turmoil. Both the celibacy of priests and the exclusion of women from the diaconate belong to the Latin tradition to which Rome is committed. Progressive sectors of the Roman Church (i.e. some Latin American bishops and the majority of the German bishops) supported the relaxation of the vetoes and the eventual admission of married men to the priesthood and of women to the diaconate. Pope Francis did not mention these points, although the Final Document of the Synod makes reference to them. In this respect, Francis wrote that he did not want his Exhortation to replace or duplicate the Final Document (n. 2) – indeed, he called the “entire Church” to apply it (n. 4). So, even though he does not treat the two critical points explicitly, the Final document does and his Exhortation somehow validates it. Francis’ silence is, at best, an ambiguous silence.
While breathing a sigh of relief for not seeing the intentional
undoing of well-established traditions, Catholic conservatives were disturbed
to find in the papal document a powerful reaffirmation of some idiosyncratic
elements of the “outgoing” missiology of the reigning Pope. Apparently weak in doctrinal
emphases and overflowing with a “merciful” tone, the Exhortation insists on
globalist and nativist themes and focusses on the practice of theological and
liturgical inculturation: twenty-five paragraphs are dedicated to
inculturation, one fourth of the whole document. The kind of inculturation that
is envisaged is basically open to syncretism with indigenous cultures. Querida Amazonia tends to have a very
positive view of indigenous cultures – at times somewhat naïve – and in so
doing it lacks biblical realism. According to the Bible, cultures are not to be
idealized nor demonized: they are mixed bags of idolatry and common grace in
need of redemption. Pope Francis tends to idealize native cultures, seeing them
as already infused by the grace of God.
The Pope’s “Dreams” Querida Amazonia presents four dreams that the Pope has for the region. Talking about dreams is very evocative and emotionally engaging. First, Francis has a “social dream” in which he deals with themes such as injustice and crime, a sense of community, broken institutions, and social dialogue. Second, there is a reference to a “cultural dream” whereby the Pope talks about caring for roots, intercultural encounters, endangered cultures, and peoples at risk. Third, reference is made to an “ecological dream” in which the preservation of water reservoirs and the contemplation of the environment are treated together with the need for ecological education and habits. More than half of the document is dedicated to the first three dreams.
Finally, the Pope also has an “ecclesial dream”. In
this section he talks about the “message” that the Amazon region needs to hear.
The gospel is summarized in this sentence:
who infinitely loves every man and woman and has revealed this love fully in
Jesus Christ, crucified for us and risen in our lives” (n. 64).
This is the papal kerygma. It is a message of love manifested in Jesus Christ who
died and rose and lives in us. This is all biblically right, though selective
at best, flawed at worst. There is no reference to sin, the need for repentance
and faith, salvation in Christ alone, God’s holiness and righteousness in
salvation and judgement, and the biblical framework of the Christian faith.
Francis’ gospel is a proclamation of a divine love that falls on all and is
already in all. While it contains elements of the gospel, it is not the
biblical gospel. Jesus’s kerygma was
“The kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the gospel” (e.g. Mark
1:15). Here God’s action (i.e. his Kingdom) and man’s lostness (i.e. our need
to repent) are explicitly stated and interwoven. The need to believe in the
gospel is also essential and that implies a transition, a conversion on our
part. Without it we are lost and continue to be lost. Unlike the Pope’s truncated
message, this is the biblical kerygma.
It is true that the Pope encourages readers of Querida Amazonia to refer to “the brief summary of this great message found in Chapter Four of the Exhortation Christus Vivit“, i.e. the 2019 document issued after the Vatican Synod on the young people. Even there, the gospel is summarized under three headings: “God is love; Christ saves you; the Spirit gives life”. The outlook is Trinitarian, but the content misses the reference to our sinful condition and our responsibility to respond in repentance and faith to God’s love. Again, the papal gospel looks like an objective and historical message, although void of covenantal premises and consequences, i.e. God’s righteous judgement on sinners. It seems that all have already received God’s love and are saved by Christ and live in the Spirit. Is this universalist message what the biblical gospel teaches? Given the fact that Querida Amazonia is addressed to “all persons of good will”, therefore Christians and non Christians alike, the ambiguity of the account of the gospel contained in the Exhortation is even more striking. The non-Christian reader of the document is not challenged to repent and believe, but is assured that God is love inspite of what she/he believes and stands for.
A Word to Evangelicals: “All this unites us”? In the final paragraphs, Querida Amazonia makes reference to “ecumenical co-existence”, i.e. a word to Evangelicals and Pentecostals who have become a strong presence in the Amazon region, subtracting people and influence from the Roman Catholic Church. After having summarized his account of the kerygma, Francis writes:
“All this unites us. How
can we not struggle together? How can we not pray and work together, side by
side, to defend the poor of the Amazon region, to show the sacred countenance
of the Lord, and to care for his work of creation?” (n. 109)
Does all this unite us? If “all this” refers to the
papal gospel as it is presented earlier, the answer is no. Many words and
themes are the same, but they are understood and lived out differently, and
what is missing is as important as what is said. Then, the Pope invites
Evangelicals and Catholics to “pray and work” together. These two activities do
not overlap and need to be distinguished. Certainly there is room for “co-belligerence”, i.e. common action in advocating for the poor and
caring for creation. This is both possible and necessary, open to all peoples
sharing these concerns. However, common prayer is a spiritual activity
requiring unity in the biblical gospel and involvement from born-again Christians.
Does all this unite us? What comes after adds further
reasons to answer in the negative. The following paragraph is a heartfelt
invocation to Mary (n. 110) by Pope Francis:
Mother whose heart is pierced,
who yourself suffer in your mistreated sons and daughters,
and in the wounds inflicted on nature,
reign in the Amazon,
together with your Son.
Reign so that no one else can claim lordship
over the handiwork of God.
We trust in you, Mother of life.
Do not abandon us
in this dark hour.
Why is the Pope so selective and ambiguous in
the presentation of the biblical gospel and why does he spend so many words in
the invocation to Mary? Does all this unite Evangelicals and Roman Catholics? No.
Is a truncated kerygma and an
invocation to Mary (who is said to reign and in whom we are called to trust) the
foundation for being united in the gospel? No. After all, Querida Amazonia consolidates the
blurred and confusing missiology of Pope Francis.
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.
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”
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?
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 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