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Tuesday, February 12th 2013


Thoughts on the Papacy and Benedict XVI

  • IN THE BACKDROP: Westminster Dog Show
Please don't take the following comment seriously. A lot of people don't know this, but I also go by the name of "Others" and,

God and Evil(Comments on the papacy follow below the remarks on the new book.

Please don't take the following comment seriously. A lot of people don't know this, but I also go by the name of "Others" and, as I just learned, "More." This silly thought just occurred to me as I received my copy of the new anthology, God and Evil: The Case for God in a World Filled with Pain, edited by Chad Meister and Jamie Dew, published by InterVarsity Press. The front cover lists the some of the authors of the essays: "Paul Copan, Gary Habermas, Charles Taliafero, William Lane Craig and More." Hey! That last one is me! Other anthologies to which I have contributed render my name as "Others." Someone cue "On the Cover of the Rolling Stone," which was written by Shel Silberstein and taken all the way to no. 6 on the pop charts by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show back in 1973.

But seriously, IVP had the foresight to list some other names on the back cover, just in case the earlier ones would not attract some readers. This list, which is still not comprehensive, mentions four names in a row with a connection to Taylor University: Doug Geivett, James Spiegel, Jill Graper Hernandez, and your self-effacing bloggist. Doug was my colleague at Taylor in the early nineties; when he felt called to move to Biola, he was succeeded by Jim. Jill was a student at Taylor not that long ago--it seems like just a few months--and now she holds a Ph.D. and teaches at University of Texas at San Antonio. Great company!

I am grateful to Chad, Jamie and the IVP editors for not cutting the length of my essay, entitled "Evil in Non-Christian Religions." I had mislaid my copy of the contract (no surprise there!), and what I submitted was almost twice as long as the initial assignment (still no surprise). My fault. I don't blame publishers for holding authors to the agreed-upon length of a piece, but in this instance I would have been really sad if they had cut out a lot of the material because I included some details that had not yet appeared anywhere else, not even in the new edition of Neighboring Faiths.

Jeff and Jane--whoops! I mean Win and June--will be in concealment again somewhere for a couple of days starting tomorrow. Internet accessibility is, as always, a question mark.


Pope Benedict XVII suspect that some readers expect me to comment on the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, something that hasn't happened in the Roman Catholic Church for about six centuries. Now, I know that some of my readers disagree with my assessment of Benedict fairly vehemently, and you're welcome to register your feelings courteously among the comments. I know that there are also evangelicals and fundamentalists who feel that they would be sinning if they said anything nice about a pope or a Catholic and are somehow promoting the Bible by spewing unwarranted venom. This group is invited to leave their comments on some other person's blog. 

Personally, I believe that this pope's voluntary resignation is one more indication of the integrity that he has displayed for  all of his life. He believes that, due to his age, he is no longer able to carry out all of his duties as pontiff, and rather than hide behind a protective wall of bureaucracy that could keep the fiction of a functioning pope alive (the customary practice) he is conscientiously turning the See of Rome over to a successor.

Every commentary such as this one needs to be taken in context. Cardinal Ratzinger certainly was not an Evangelical by the American usage of the term (reminiscent of the fact that even C. S. Lewis would not have been able to sign the statement of the Evangelical Theological Society). But, without being willing to concede a single point of orthodoxy, we must realize that faith in Christ does not require being correct on all points of theology, and I don't think that there is a legitimate question as to whether Benedict trusted in Christ, though obviously within the edifice erected by Catholic dogmatics. He was passionately committed to the truth of scripture and the historical truth of Jesus, his crucifixion, and resurrection. As Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, he promoted doctrinal conservatism, and he was proactive in working towards stamping out the sex scandals that had plagued the church. Benedict believed that the Church must avail herself of modern technology, and he was the first pope to have an account on Twitter. Before becoming involved in the administrative side of the church, he was a well-respected scholar and theologian, though it is fascinating that one of his most significant books, Jesus von Nazareth (Herder, 2006), did not come out until he had assumed the papacy.

The authors of the few  news articles I have looked at tend to fall all over themselves trying to figure out who Benedict's successor might be without getting too close to making an actual prediction, an exercise that uses up more words than thought. There appear to be two schools of thought this time around, the "thesis-antithesis" approach, and the "legacy" school of thought. The former is purely theoretical and probably not historically verifiable. The idea is that, in making their choices, the College of Cardinals tends to go back and forth between more liberal and more conservative candidates, keeping the Ark of God on course with constant adjustments in leadership. As I said, there probably is little evidence on the whole that this pattern can be documented in the actual succession of prelates. What I'm calling the "legacy" approach bases its expectations on the fact that Benedict had solid support among the cardinals when he was elected and has appointed a majority of the members of the present college. Consequently, one might guess that the next pope will continue the commitments and agenda of Benedict. This opinion seems to be the majority view (though, as I intimated, I dislike superficial prognostications and I have not made a major study of many opinions).

The statement I've come across several times is that Benedict has been a conservative, and that his successor will most likely also be a conservative, just a little younger in age.

Let me clarify a point of terminology. Joseph Ratzinger has, indeed, frequently been described as "conservative." But what does that word actually mean here? In the context of the Roman Catholic Church, there are two dimensions to "conservatism." We must distinguish between ecclesiastical and theological conservatism. By ecclesiastical conservatism I mean retention of the polity and practices of the Roman Church, which focuses primarily on the primacy of the Pope and maintenance of the traditional cultus (worship practices). Theological "conservatism" means remaining true to the Bible and judging tradition by biblical standards, which may mean that it is not really "conservatism" in the most literal sense in the Roman Church and comes closer to "conservatism" in the Protestant sense.

Let me clarify by way of some examples. An almost perennial question in the history of the Church is who actually has the last word on a particular subject. "The pope, of course," you may say, and you would have a lot of theologians on your side, including the first Vatican Council (1870-71), who thought that they had settled the matter with finality. However, there have been three options, which are still not entirely reconciled: the pope, an ecumenical council, or the college of cardinals or bishops. If you remember the history of the Reformation, a number of people were saying that the issues that had been raised by Luther and others should be examined by an international council of learned bishops, an idea to which the pope and his supporters (the "decretalists") were opposed. The pope won out. When a council was finally convened at Trent, the church was already split, and Trent was attended for the most part by uneducated clergy from staunchly Catholic areas of Europe, such as Italy and Spain, who were clueless concerning the issues of the Reformation. In fact, by and large they were clueless in most regards, unfamiliar with the Bible, biblical languages, or the fundamentals of theology. Ecclesiastical conservatism had taken the day, and, based on my definition, theological conservatism had been buried.

The question of ecclesiastical conservatism came up again during the second Vatican Council (1963-65). [See Walter M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966)], this time with a great amount of sophistication. One of the most important documents produced by the council was the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), which discussed numerous issues with regard to the Church, ranging from the question of who will be saved to the role of St. Mary. One of the points touched upon was again that question of the center of authority of the Church. Now, one must understand that virtually every page of these documents consists of compromised formulations based on vigorous discussion among delegates, all of them, I might add, held in Latin. On the issue of governance, the tension was between the college of cardinals who represented the bishops and the pope himself. So, we read a number of statements that, for all practical purposes, make the pope primus inter parens, "the first among equals," but place the ultimate authority on the total assembly of cardinals, a position to which the Pope, Paul VI, objected. To quote from Lumen Gentium

    This sacred Synod teaches that by divine institution bishops have succeeded to the place of the apostles as shepherds of the Church, and that he who hears them, hears Christ, while he who rejects them, rejects Christ and Him who sent Christ (Luke 10:16). ... In the bishops, therefore, for whom priests are assistants, our Lord Jesus Christ, the supreme High Priest, is present in the midst of those who believe (Abbott, p. 40).

You may have heard this language applied to the pope, but I doubt that many people realize that the bishops have claimed this status as direct representatives of Christ for themselves as well on the basis that they are all in the line of succession from the apostles. A little later we read:

    This sacred Synod teaches that by episcopal consecration is conferred the fullness of the sacrament of orders (Abbott, p. 41. Emphasis mine).

The ordination of a priest is called "the sacrament of holy orders." It allows the priest to perform mass and carry out other various ministries. But neither he nor the basic layman are the foundational constituent group of the Church. That status is reserved for the bishops. The rite of becoming a bishop is called "consecration," not "ordination," and is not another sacrament, but it is an extension of the sacrament of holy orders. It completes the integration of the minister into full status in the Church, which neither lay people nor even priests enjoy to that measure. 

    But episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and governing (Abbott, p. 41).

Of course the full exercise of the office of governing on a larger scale  belongs to the entire college, not to an individual bishop. And the pope is included in this group.

    Just as, by the Lord's will, St. Peter and the other apostles constituted one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter, and the bishops as successors of the apostles are joined together (Abbott, p. 42).

The succeeding statements go back and forth between points of view, trying to elevate the pope, but also insisting that the pope must cooperate with the bishops, just as the bishops cannot work without the pope. I'm going to give you a conflated quotation, which is not always the best practice because it can create an artificial inconsistency. You may take my word for it that I'm not engendering the apparent inconsistency of these statements, but, better yet, you might want to read the document itself; the Vatican II documents are reproduced in many places on the web. (I'm using my beat-up copy of Abbott because it's been an old friend and companion over the decades, ever since I took a course in Vatican II from Dr. David Wells.) For that matter, if you are tempted to think that your reliable bloggist has created an artificial problem here, the reaction by the curia, as displayed below, shows that the appropriate formulation was, indeed, of serious consequence to the participants.

    But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is simultaneously conceived of in terms of its head, the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, and without any lessening of his power of primacy over all, pastors as well as the general faithful. For in virtue of his office, that is, as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church. And he can always exercise this power freely. ... Together with its head, the Roman Pontiff, and never without this head, the episcopal order is the subject of supreme power over the universal Church. But this power, can be exercised only with the consent of the Roman Pontiff (Abbott, p. 43).

So, who's in charge? There's no contradiction, but a dissonance. Are you catching it? The pope "can" exercise his power freely, but the bishops are "the subject [viz. the agents] of supreme power over the universal Church," though with the "consent" of the pope, which, however, he grants in the conjunction with the bishops, emulating Peter and the apostles. This discussion is a good example of strategic ambiguity, which allows both sides to read their beliefs into the text. The Vatican II documents are all in Latin, and in my scribbles in the margin, I note that the word for the pope's ability to use his power is valet, which includes the meanings of "to be strong" and "to be influential," and there don't seem to be any restrictions placed on the word. Yet the college of bishops, in conjunction with the pope, is also said to carry "supreme power."

Deciphering my further marginal notes I find the following attempted resolution, which most likely goes back to Dr. Wells' narrative of the bishops' thinking rather than my own intuition: "The pope has power legally; the episcopate actually." That makes sense, but how much does that help in the real world of Church policy-making? Not enough for Pope Paul VI. In a somewhat unusual move, on the eve of the final vote on Lumen Gentium, the papal office issued an "explanation," making sure that a qualitative distinction between the pope and the bishops was maintained. Among the declarations we read:

    The parallel between Peter and other apostles on the one hand, and the Supreme Pontiff and the bishop on the other, does not imply any transmission of the extraordinary power of the apostles to their successors, nor, as is clear, any equality between the head and the members of the College, but only a proportionality between the first relationship (Peter/apostles) and the second (Pope/bishops) (Abbott, p. 99. Emphasis theirs).

So, the pope, by virtue of his office inherits the "keys" of St. Peter and the gift to speak infallibly ex cathedra, something that has occurred only once since that idea was ratified in 1871, but the other bishops, archbishops, and cardinals receive no transmitted special spiritual endowment that would resemble the pope's power for their ministry, not even in a reduced measure. [Totally off the topic: Is anyone reminded of the debate between Ali and Abu Bakr? Ten extra points for you!] A little further down we read in the same "explanation":

    Therefore, it is significantly stated that hierarchical communion is required with the head of the Church and its members (Abbott, p. 99. Emphasis theirs).

In other words, the reins of power may lead through the fingers of the bishop, but they are firmly held in the grip of the pope's hand.

So, to return to the larger picture, here we have another famous case of an assertion of ecclesiastical conservatism, as represented by the pope's "explanation."  The papacy has almost always been on the side of ecclesiastical conservatism, a likely exception being John XXIII, who had called Vatican II, but died after the first year of the council. We'll never know in which direction the papacy of John Paul I, who died after only 33 days in office, would have gone, but he seemed to be quite independent in his judgments. In my fallible thinking, all the other popes of whom I'm aware in my life time--Peter, Linus, Anacletus, Clement--no wait, that's too early--Pius XII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI--have definitely been ecclesiastical conservatives.

But what about theological conservatism? The Roman Catholic Church has been beset by liberalism and syncretism, as exemplified by "Third World Liberation Theology," among other issues, and in theory, the popes have been opposed to unorthodoxy when it became too vocal, as in the cases of Hans Küng or Edward Schillebeeckx. But in practice the popes have not taken the initiative in trying to promote orthodoxy. It is telling for John Paul II that he entrusted these matters to Archbishop Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his eventual successor, while he himself engaged in cross-religious overtures. Now, there's no question in my mind that Benedict was theologically conservative, given my rough definition and not losing sight of Catholic parameters. But there's another point, of which I'm also fairly sure, one on which I would love to be proven wrong. To the best of my knowledge, Benedict has been the only pope in recent memory, to whom we can attribute theological conservatism. 

I enjoyed the writings of Joseph Ratzinger long before he became Benedict XVI. In contrast to some of his contemporaries and forerunners (e.g., Küng, Rahner, Schillebeeckx), he did not attempt to outdo Protestant liberalism or promote some thin broth of religious humanism, but was unashamed of the gospel of Christ. A major influence on him was the Protestant theologian Oscar Cullman, and I just read a piece by him in which he made his  point with a quote from Martin Luther. I do not believe that say, Pius XII would have done so. He maintained relevance with the contemporary conversation, but adhered to what a Catholic theologian at his best can and should hold to.

So, will Benedict's successor also be conservative? The probability is high that the cardinals will again move in that direction. But such a conservatism is likely to be more ecclesiastical than theological. I would be overjoyed if Catholic Christians could continue to be blessed by the leadership of a biblically committed pope, but I'm afraid that the chance of that happening is relatively small.

Herr Professor Doktor Ratzinger, ich wünsche Ihnen Gottes Segen in Ihrer Pension. Möge das Werk, dass Sie begonnen haben, Früchte tragen, sodass das Evangelium in der Römischen Gemeinde tiefe Wurzeln fassen mag, und dass die Gnade Gottes in Christus in keiner Weise verhüllt sein wird.

 (Back up to comments on the papacy.


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