Popes are fascinating. They have both historical significance and a foundational role in shaping Roman Catholicism globally. But if a pope is also referred to as the “greatest theologian ever to sit on the chair of St. Peter” (1:xi) and the German figure who has made the biggest impact on the Catholic Church since Martin Luther (2:194), the intrigue is even greater, at least for theologically astute Protestant readers.
Benedict XVI’s Opera Omnia consists of 16 volumes translated in multiple languages and covers virtually all aspects of theology and church life with scholarly rigor and pastoral depth. One cannot deal seriously with present-day Roman Catholicism without coming to terms with his person and work.
Peter Seewald’s biography Benedict XVI: A Life is a massive (more than 1,000 pages over two volumes) and engaging invitation into the personality of Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger). It’s not so much a theological biography as it is a well-informed, journalistic account of the life of a shy and introverted person—with “an almost girlish softness” (2:55) and his childhood teddy bear in his bedroom (2:105)—who found himself at the center of a whirlwind of events.
Seewald had already published long interviews with Cardinal Ratzinger (Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, 1997) and Pope Benedict (Last Testament in His Own Words, 2016), thus establishing a record of sustained engagement and respectful familiarity. This two-volume biography is the result of extensive research: speaking to 100 contemporary witnesses and conducting further interviews with Ratzinger. Seewald has sought to maintain “a critical distance” (1:x) while never asking embarrassing questions.
Pope Benedict XVI, born in 1927, is one of the towering figures in 20th-century Roman Catholic theology. His impressive biography includes: theological expert at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), various professorships in Munich, Bonn, Münster, and Regensburg (1957–77), archbishop of Munich (1977–81) and cardinal, then prefect, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1981–2005), pope (2005–13), and, since 2013, pope emeritus after his somewhat tragic resignation. Benedict was the first German pope in 500 years.
This biography is especially welcome because it describes the context of the final years of Benedict, those preceding his resignation. The tragic outcomes of the sexual abuses, financial scandals of the Vatican bank, and Vatileaks all undermined Ratzinger’s strength, causing this very traditional pope to make a very untraditional decision.
The Presidential Address at the Evangelical Theological Society is a helpful barometer to measure where the wind blows in North American evangelical theology. This year (on November 16), President Al Mohler dedicated his address at the 73rd annual convention in Fort Worth, Texas, to the four temptations for contemporary evangelical theology. In Mohler’s view, present-day evangelical theology faces these temptations: Fundamentalism, Atheism, Roman Catholicism, and Liberalism. These words are not to be taken lightly; the trajectory of evangelical theology has not always been peaceful. What is interesting is to understand the main dangers surrounding it. Let me briefly comment on three temptations and then focus on Roman Catholicism.
Fundamentalism, Atheism and Protestant Liberalism As far as Fundamentalism is concerned, Mohler acknowledged that evangelicals are in some sense fundamentalists because they “hold to fundamental Christian doctrines such as the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the person and work of Christ, and the Trinity.” Fundamentalism becomes a threat when it creates a tendency to withdraw from culture and to focus on “theological eccentricities” rather than the gospel.
As for Atheism, Mohler observed that “evangelicalism is not a mediating position between belief and unbelief.” Either God is or He isn’t. Having said that, while evangelical theology may not flirt with a form of hard atheism, it may the tempted “to make room for some kind of middle ground on the question to court respect from secular universities.”
A third temptation is Protestant liberalism. According to Mohler, it “arises when Christians believe they must try to salvage the Christian faith to make it palpable to the culture. Over the past few decades, Protestant liberalism has rejected virtually all the central doctrines of Christianity in an attempt to make the faith more appealing to a secularized society.” In our present-day context, the danger is to see evangelical theology sacrifice gospel integrity on the altar of the cultural idols of our generation.
The Temptation of Roman Catholicism Mohler’s analysis deserves to be discussed in evangelical theological circles. The issues raised are of crucial importance. However, what is most interesting in his address is the reference to Roman Catholicism as one of the main temptations facing evangelical theology. It is an unexpected and welcome acknowledgment.
For centuries, Roman Catholicism was considered the theological antagonist of evangelical theology par excellence. In recent decades, however, this perception has gradually diminished and the lines have become blurred. Today many evangelicals hold a very “sentimental” perception of Roman Catholicism. Some mistake it for one of the many Christian denominations (perhaps a little “stranger” than others); others, frightened by the increasing challenges of secularization, see Rome as a bulwark for defending Christian “values;” still others, wanting to be legitimized at the ecumenical and interreligious table, overlook the theological differences in order to highlight what appears to unite all.
The fact that Mohler says that Roman Catholicism is a “temptation” (and therefore a danger to beware of) is a welcomed sign of spiritual vigilance. It indicates that even in the USA – where the (at best) confused initiative “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” has been underway since 1994 and where the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals are increasingly seen as a question of nuance rather than substance – it is still possible to find evangelical voices calling for theological discernment.
Here are some of Mohler’s statements on Roman Catholicism:
1. “To be evangelical is to understand that one of the questions we’ll always have to answer is why we’re not Catholic.”
Mohler rightly argues that being evangelicals means not being Roman Catholics. The two identities are mutually exclusive. Either we are one or the other. Evangelical and Catholic theologies and practices arise from different basic convictions about God, the Bible, sin, salvation, the Christian life, etc. and, while using the same words, they refer to distant, sometimes opposite meanings. In recent years, on the Catholic side, some have wanted to argue that it is possible to be “evangelical Catholics” (e.g. George Weigel), combining the two identities and making them compatible. Mohler says no. Either we are one or the other, and if we are one we are not the other. The evangelical temptation is to mess with the evangelical identity, but the result is denying it.
2.“I believe to go to Rome is to abandon the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe it is to join a false church based on false and idolatrous presuppositions.”
Roman Catholicism is not one of the many possible options for a born-again believer in Jesus Christ who wants to remain faithful to the Word of God and to grow in the church. On the contrary, to follow Roman Catholicism is to go against the gospel in some sense. Rome’s system is theologically flawed and its “church” is spiritually misleading. These are strong words by Mohler, in contrast to the “ecumenically correct” language so common today. Yet, they are true words that must be said and repeated to avoid the temptation to go astray and lead others astray, too.
3. “To be an evangelical is to recognize that we don’t have a backstop. We have no alternative. We’re left with the Bible alone and the Bible in its entirety as the Word of God.”
For some evangelicals, the authority structure of Rome is a temptation in which they can find refuge. In a world where the traditional institutions are shaking (e.g. family, nations, religions) and in which everything is in constant disruption, knowing that there is a magisterium, a pope, a stable center can be a reason for attraction. The evangelical faith, Mohler says, while feeling totally part of the history of the faithful church and while cultivating a sense of belonging to the global church, is ultimately submitted to Scripture alone. Unwavering trust in the God of the Word and, therefore, in the Word of God is constitutive for the evangelical faith. Rome is no replacement for a lack of confidence in the Word of God and should not be a temptation for those whose faith is grounded in Christ alone on the basis of Scripture alone.