Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A (Rare) Protestant Defense of a Catholic Pope

On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would be stepping down as pope on February 28. This, of course, caused quite the stir as papal resignations are few and far between. Many have, and many more will, comment on Pope Benedict—both in terms of his resignation and his legacy as pope. One of the early commentators in the Toronto Star was columnist Rosie DiManno. In terms of the pronounced verdicts on Pope Benedict XVI, DiManno’s opinion is in the critical camp. In her article “Pope Benedict XVI Pushed the Catholic Church Backward”, DiManno says that Pope Benedict XVI did a poor job as pope because, under his leadership, the Roman Catholic Church “regressed into a monk’s cellar of orthodoxy, bluntly conservative and reactionary” and “made [faith] too hard” for moderns. DiManno’s column is worth commenting because it exhibits a fundamental worldview difference that will make all the difference in assessing Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy. 

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DiManno gives several reasons for why Pope Benedict ought to have been given the ol’ heave-ho. The one of particular interest is that Benedict made the Roman Catholic church more theological conservative, “[reversing] every hint of theological liberalism.” To this effect, Benedict continued to “alienate women” (DiManno doesn’t give her reasons for this assertion) and continued to uphold the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on homosexuals in the priesthood. Another reason why Benedict ought to be scolded, according to DiManno, was his behavior on the religious playground. The Bishop of Rome didn’t exhibit a sufficiently ecumenical spirit when he made it possible for Episcopalian clergy to defect from their sinking ship and he didn’t act nice towards the other major monotheistic religions. 

Benedict’s leadership in these areas, according to DiManno, returned the church to the 19th century and made it too difficult to be a Catholic. DiManno’s point is that Benedict failed to lead the Catholic Church in a manner that will make it successful and relevant in the 21st century; rather, Benedict’s failed ecumenism, his treatment of women, and upholding the ban on homosexual clergy actually made the Catholic Church even more irrelevant. 

DiManno and Benedict represent opposite understandings of the theological enterprise. DiManno bemoans defeats of liberal theology during Benedict’s papacy. Theological liberalism is religion made by human beings that is about human beings and is for human beings. Theological liberalism is not about God—either what God has done or is doing, neither about who he is or what he commands—but is about the experience located within human beings (I can think of no better work to commend on the subject than J. Gresham Machen’s masterful book, Christianity and Liberalism). DiManno’s problem with Benedict’s papacy is fundamentally an issue of worldview. At the root of DiManno’s worldview, as indicated by her article, is a results-driven, people-centered understanding of Christianity. The Catholic Church ought to accommodate itself to persons who are well intentioned, regardless of what they might believe, so that they can be part of this larger community; besides, most people who claim to be Catholic are “at best cafeteria-tray practitioners, selecting only those tenets deemed digestible.” If no one, DiManno says, is going to sign off on all the doctrines that the Church teaches, why be as rigorous as Benedict was? 

By contrast, Pope Benedict saw theology as a subject that begins with God first. Theology, and the ministry of church leadership, is to seek to be obedient to the God who speaks through his Son and through his divinely inspired Scriptures, the Bible. This is why Benedict upheld his ban on women clergy and maintained the stance that homosexual behavior is wrong—not because he wanted to preserve the Church of a previous century, but because the unchanging, eternal God has spoken. Thisis why Benedict made it possible for Episcopal clergy to become Catholic andwhy some Episcopal clergy did! They were leaving an Episcopal church that had no sense that their doctrine must conform to the apostolic teaching of God’s divinely inspired and inerrant word. Pope Benedict is correct in believing the Church’s doctrine is not to be determined by what makes faith easier, more rigorous, or more popular, but by what God has spoken. This is something that DiManno clearly does not see. 

Also worth noting is what DiManno sees as integral to Catholic identity. She writes, “And I do understand, truly, that the Church can’t ever cave to a sweeping liberalism. There are absolutes it is unable to sacrifice—abortion, an all-male clergy—because then it wouldn’t be the Catholic Church; it would be nothing, it would lose its soul.” Do you understand, Rosie? Really? Truly? Catholics don’t fight against abortion because their identity is at risk. Catholics fight against abortion because abortion is the murder of a human being and they believe, quite rightly, and in accordance with biblical teaching, that God loathes such murderous activity. Catholic theology does not reserve the clerical office for men because they’d lose their identity otherwise. They argue for that position, and with good grounds, because Scripture provides warrant for it. I’m not Roman Catholic, but I know enough about Roman Catholic theology to know they don’t uphold certain beliefs out of fear they might devolve into some lost and confused adolescence without any identity to speak of!
There is no mention, nor hint of understanding, in DiManno’s article that Christianity is informed and motivated by divine revelation. Popes do not teach unpopular things because they’ve become a necessary part of their identity. The absence of divine revelation in her framework for understanding religion is again part of the fundamental worldview clash between a theologically liberal understanding of religion and historic Christianity. The recognition that God had spoken clearly in the Scriptures and through the person and work of Jesus Christ is essential to the Christian faith—both Catholic and Protestant—and so long as this is overlooked there will be very different rubrics for assessing the work of Church leaders. Theological liberals and those who think as Rosie DiManno does in her article will judge Pope Benedict’s papal administration by any number of things—his charisma, decisions that brought or didn’t bring Catholic teaching more in line with contemporary thought, etc. Christians, however, have a different criterion that they must judge their leaders by: how well have they guarded the good deposit of the gospel message about Jesus Christ, which was entrusted to them? And in the end, when Christian leaders face the Lord Jesus as judge, that will be all that matters.

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