April 19, 2005


Inside the Vatican: The pope's chief doctrinal officer has always been in dialogue with the Reformation traditions. Now he reveals his vision for Christianity in the new millennium. A review of Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium, by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Richard John Neuhaus, Christianity Today)

He is not above addressing the issues that preoccupy the popular press. He refers, for instance, 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." He sympathetically cites another theologian, Johannes Metz, who says that it was actually a good thing the Protestant experiment was made. Ratzinger observes, "It shows that being a Christian today does not stand or fall on these questions."

In conversations with evangelical thinkers, I am impressed by how many have been influenced by Ratzinger's much earlier book, Introduction to Christianity, published in English in 1970. For some, that encounter was the first dawning of an awareness that Catholics and evangelicals can affirm core beliefs about "the gift of salvation," to employ the title of the recent statement issuing from the project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. As off-putting as it is to Protestants, for many Catholic theologians the Reformation is not a formative event. In the worlds of Catholic faith and life, they believe, other things of equal or greater importance were happening in the sixteenth century. That is not the case with Cardinal Ratzinger. In part, no doubt, because he was born and reared in Germany, his theology has always been in intense conversation with the Reformation traditions.

He is not, of course, a "minimalist" theologian who is inclined to tailor Catholic teaching to fit Protestant tastes. But he has intimate understanding and appreciation of the religious and theological genius of figures such as Luther. He believes that what is true in the Protestant critique can and should be embraced by what he calls "the structure of faith." At the same time, he does not seem to expect too much in the healing of the breach between Rome and the Reformation. Speaking of the prospects for Christian unity, he says at one point that perhaps the most we should hope for is that there will be no new schisms. At another point, however, he speaks of Catholic "responsibility for the unity of the Church, her faith, and her morals," and he envisions the ways in which the exercise of the office of the papacy will change "when hitherto separated communities enter into unity with the Pope."

As might be expected, Salt of the Earth pays extensive attention to the office of the papacy. It is assumed that the New Testament intends a continuing "Petrine Ministry" in the church. The question is the relationship, if any, between that ministry and the ministry of the bishop of Rome, who, it is claimed, is the successor of Peter. Some Protestants, Ratzinger notes, "are ready to acknowledge providential guidance in tying the tradition of primacy to Rome, without wanting to refer the promise to Peter directly to the Pope." Many others, he says, recognize that Christianity ought to have a spokesman who can personally and authoritatively articulate the faith both to the world and to the Christian community.

In 1995, John Paul II issued the encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). In an unprecedented way that astonished many (including many Catholics), he invited non-Catholics to join in rethinking the exercise of the papal office so that it might become an instrument of, rather than an obstacle to, Christian unity. As Ratzinger notes, the invitation is addressed first of all to the Orthodox East, but it also has large ramifications for the separated communities of the West. It is a source of considerable disappointment in Rome, a disappointment reflected in this book, that other Christians have not taken up that invitation. But, as it is said, Rome thinks in terms of centuries—and, as is evident in this book, in terms of millennia.

When the cardinal turns his attention to the next millennium, now only months away, the tone is sober, even somber. He envisions a largely post-Christian world in which the church will be on the defensive, smaller in numbers, but, he hopes, more coherent and committed in its faith. This is in contrast with John Paul II's frequently expressed vision of the third millennium as a "springtime"—a springtime of world evangelization, a springtime of Christian unity, a springtime of the renewal of human dignity.

The difference in expectations is undoubtedly related in part to personal disposition and experience. Ratzinger's world is chiefly that of a dismally secularized Western Europe. The pope's experience is that of Central and Eastern Europe, where a vibrant, if often contentious, Christianity has risen from beneath the rubble of Nazism and communism's evil empire.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 19, 2005 7:44 PM

Sounds like the new guy, like Bush, will force the contradictions. Within and without the Catholic Church. Smells like intra-Christian realignment.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 19, 2005 9:47 PM