Since Joseph Ratzinger's writings on Roman Catholic doctrine have been prominent throughout his term as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now that he's Pope Benedict XVI, he's "a known quantity," says Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
But evangelicals are known to him, too, says Land's denominational cohort, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler: "In his previous writings, this new pope has indicated a clear and genuine understanding of what evangelicals believe. As a matter of fact, he may be the most well-informed pope in history, in terms of evangelical conviction and theological commitments. That is not to say that the pope is in any way sympathetic to those convictions. This much is clearthis papacy is likely to be both interesting and challenging."
Mohler says there's an irony in Benedict's election and the way evangelicals should view it. "The conservatism that leads Ratzinger to defend historic Catholic positions on abortion, euthanasia, and a host of other issues go hand-in-hand with his defense of the papacy, magisterial authority, and the evolving body of Catholic doctrine."
It's common these days to articulate it this way: Evangelicals and Catholics are most united on issues of culture and society, and most divided on matters of ecclesiology.
The view is too simplistic, and ignores the point that evangelicals and Catholics are united on social issues because they share common theological convictions. When articulating arguments against abortion or gay marriage in Western society, it's sometimes more helpful to talk in sociological terms than to quote Scripture. But the tie between doctrine has not been lost on church leaders in either evangelical or Catholic circles. In fact, Ratzinger sees the papacy and magisterial authority as being crucial to preserving those positions on social matters. As Richard John Neuhaus wrote in a 1998 Christianity Todayreview of Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium:
He refers to "the canon of criticism"women's ordination, contraception, celibacy, and the remarriage of divorced persons. On these issues, liberal reformers insist, the Catholic church must change if it is to reach the people of our time effectively. Here the cardinal becomes the skeptic. He notes an obvious factor that is often overlooked: "On these points Protestantism has taken the other path, and it is quite plain that it hasn't thereby solved the problem of being a Christian in today's world and that the problem of Christianity, the effort of being a Christian, remains just as dramatic as before."
Ratzinger is unlikely to change much of his views on any of these points, social or ecclesiological. "Is truth determined by a majority vote, only for a new 'truth' to be 'discovered' by a new majority tomorrow?" Ratzinger asked rhetorically in a 1996 interview.
We are not building Christianity out of our own ideas. The Church is given out of the will of God, and the will of God is in turn a gift to the Church and it determines our will. We must be in communion with the will of the Lord. Decisions of the Lord can at first seem inexplicable to us. We must follow his way before we can begin to understand. The pope is obliged to obey the Lord's will. The Lord's will is visible in the New Testament and in the tradition of the Christian life and he has shown that men and women have different gifts which are shown in different ways but are equal in dignity. We have to reflect more on why the Lord decided so, but we cannot simply treat the Church as a sociological construct and change it according to our will.
As such, Ratzinger says that even if he did disagree with church teachings, he couldn't change them as pope. "The pope is thus not the chief ruler but he ought, this is the way I usually put it, to be the guarantor of obedience, so that the church cannot simply do as she likes," he wrote in God and the World. "The pope is thus not the instrument through which one could, so to speak, call a new church into existence, but is a protective barrier against arbitrary action."
Ratzinger believes that it's the office, not the person, that makes the papacy so marvelous. "Many [earlier popes] have done everything possible to run the thing into the ground." This echoes a "confession of sins committed in the service of truth" Ratzinger offered at a major ceremony in 2000. With Pope John Paul II offering a more expansive confession of the sins of the members of the church, it fell to the defender of doctrine to confess "that even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth."
But it's not just human effort that powers the papacy, Ratzinger said in God and the World. "There is another kind of power at work behind this. In fact, exactly the kind of power that was promised to Peter."
Ratzinger agreed with journalist Peter Seewald that the papacy is an "impossible job." It's "almost unlivable," he said. "On the other hand, it is also one that has to be doneand which can, then, with the help of the Lord, nonetheless be lived after all."
That's not to say that Ratzinger might not reform aspects of the papacy. "The question remains whether it is not all far too much" he wrote. "The sheer quantity of personal contacts imposed on him by his relationship with the universal Church; the decisions that have to be made; and the necessity, amidst all this, of not losing his own contemplative footing, being rooted in prayerall this poses an enormous dilemma. We are indeed thinking about the extent to which further relief might be found through decentralization."
But don't expect Ratzinger to convert to Protestantism. "It is becoming ever more clear today, even on the basis of rational and practical considerations, that a point of reference for unity, as offered by the pope, is truly necessary," he wrote. "Meanwhile even Protestants have said they agree there needs to be that kind of spokesman for Christianity, just such a symbol of unity."
In point of fact, Neuhaus quotes Ratzinger as saying in Salt of the Earth, the papacy will change dramatically. But only "when hitherto separated communities [e.g. Protestants] enter into unity with the pope."
That noise you hear is Al Mohler and other Protestants practicing the language of Ratzingerand an earlier German: "Hier stehe ich! Ich kann nicht anders!" It will indeed be an interesting papacy.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Our collection of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II articles includes more reflections on the relationship between Catholics and evangelicals.