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Pope Benedict XVI What should we think?
May 02, 2005
By R. Albert Mohler Jr., President, Southern Seminary

The appearance of white smoke from the stack atop the Sistine Chapel signaled the election of a new pope after only four ballots a fact that presumably indicated the election of one of the anticipated four frontrunners. Within the hour, the tolling of the Vatican's bells gave way to the announcement and presentation of the new pope Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ratzinger had been understood to be the frontrunner as the cardinals entered their historic conclave. Labeled by the media as the Vatican's "watchdog" for doctrine, Cardinal Ratzinger had played an important role as an intellectual and theological advisor to Pope John Paul II and as the Roman Catholic Church's theologian charged with protecting the church's authority and doctrine.

Observers quickly offered interpretations of Ratzinger's election as pope. Predictions of a transitional papacy Ratzinger is 78 years of age were common. The long papacy of John Paul II casts an enormous shadow over any successor. Clearly, Pope Benedict XVI is unlikely to serve a term of any comparable length to that of his predecessor.

By all accounts, the theme of this papal election was continuity. Ratzinger was well understood to stand behind many of the most significant encyclicals and declarations of John Paul II. Indeed, Vatican observers routinely identified Ratzinger as the "hidden hand" of the last papacy. It was obvious that John Paul II placed great trust in Ratzinger a fact hardly missed by his fellow cardinals.

Yet, if John Paul II was considered a conservative pope, Ratzinger is seen as a further shift to the right. That screeching sound you hear is the sound of liberal Roman Catholic theologians and activists seared and chastened by the election of the church's most conservative leader as the next pontiff.

What are evangelicals to think of the new pope? By any measure, this is a difficult question, for it raises the entire universe of issues that stand between evangelical theology and the doctrines taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, the papacy itself is a first-order issue of contention. Evangelicals, thankful for the last pope's clear affirmation of human dignity and the objectivity of truth, must be relieved in some sense to see John Paul II followed by an ardent defender of the sacredness of human life, the integrity of marriage and a commitment to truth.

Yet, Ratzinger's doctrinal conservatism will, of course, extend to the very issues most crucial to the evangelical/Roman Catholic divide.

Evangelicals rightly point to the papacy as an unbiblical office that, by its very nature, compromises the integrity of Scripture and invests an unbiblical authority in an earthly ecclesiastical monarch. Claims of papal succession, papal authority and papal infallibility do nothing but widen the breach between evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church. 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.

A theological advisor to the Second Vatican Council (along with the last pope), Ratzinger has written scathing critiques of the liberal proposals put forth by many contemporary Catholic theologians. As the Vatican's doctrinal officer, he has taken disciplinary action against liberation theologians and others who have violated Catholic teaching. He has chastised Asian Catholic theologians for suggesting that Eastern religions may be as valid as Christianity, and he has been quick to defend the magisterium's right to determine, define and protect Catholic teaching.

Yet, there is no reason to believe that the election of Pope Benedict XVI will do anything to breach the divide between evangelicals and Roman Catholics on issues related to biblical authority, the Gospel and a host of other essential theological questions. We hold no expectation that this pope holds views of justification and the Gospel that are any more harmonious with evangelical conviction than those held by his predecessors. Indeed, Ratzinger's theological brilliance may be deployed in ways that will cause evangelicals even greater frustration.

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 clear this papacy is likely to be both interesting and challenging. We should be unashamed and unreluctant to state our agreement with this new pope in his analysis of the dangers of the postmodern challenge and in his defense of the sanctity of human life and the inviolability of marriage.

In this regard, evangelicals, who rightly reject the papacy as an institution, find themselves nonetheless relieved that the vast energies of the Roman Catholic Church are not likely to be redirected in a way that is hostile to those shared convictions.

But the institution of the papacy remains a great stumbling block, and this papacy will present its own challenges. Let's hope that this generation of evangelicals is ready for this task.

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