Wednesday, April 20, 2005

What to make of Benedict XVI?

So, as the day was drawing to a close in Rome yesterday the smoke went up the chimney and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI in one of the shortest conclaves in centuries. I was driving away from a lunch engagement when I heard the news on the radio in my car, listened all the way home, watched some stuff on television yesterday evening after getting home from a meeting, and pondered it considerably as I took my early morning walk with Freddy, our dog.

I had bet a colleague here in Tennessee a lunch that it would be a Latin American, he insisted they would go with a tried and true Italian. We were both wrong! I guess that I did not expect Ratzinger because it was so obvious -- but clearly the cardinals were not in a mood for imaginative elections, as one distraught liberal Catholic complained last night on Larry King. True, but it seems that continuity and organizational efficiency were the name of the game -- would it have been fair on anyone who had flair to follow in the footsteps of such a charismatic figures of Karol Wojtyla? He would never have measured up.

Here is my take on the election as a mere Anglican who never expects to be part of an ecclesial entity that is headed up by the Bishop of Rome.

1. This is a long interim. That isn't to say that Benedict XVI will do nothing significant, to the contrary. Well-led interims can often be some of the most productive times in a congregation's life, somewhat like the wilderness journey in the Christian life individually lived. However, at seventy-eight BXVI is not going to be gracing us with his presence for as long as his predecessor. This, perhaps, was a wise move.

2. This is a time of consolidation. JPII did a lot, but he really didn't look after the organization, now that organization has a clear-minded German tending the store. Whether this is good or not, I do not know, not being of the Roman persuasion, and not being an expert on what goes on behind the walls of the Vatican, or any Roman bishop's offices for that matter.

3. BXVI's election is evidence that orthodox doctrine is important. Ratzinger's career has been one systematically rejecting the innovations that popped up in the Sixties in favor of something much more grounded in the church's history and tradition. Liberal Christians everywhere in the world, Catholic and non-Catholic, cannot get much comfort from this.

Alister McGrath wrote a number of years ago that, "Much radical theological writing of the 1960s seems to have been based on the assumption that the new cultural trends of the period were actually permanent changes in Western culture. Yet, looking back, it can be seen that this period merely witnessed a temporary change of cultural mood, which some were foolish enough to treat as a fixed and lasting change in the condition of humanity" (Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, 1994, page 90).

While I think that Alister is being a little optimistic about the wider culture, certainly I think he has the measure of theological scholarship and thought. BXVI's election is further evidence that the general drift is away from the theological craziness that has dogged us.

BXVI is a bastion of trinitarian Christianity rooted in the uniqueness of the incarnation as the way to salvation. That he has little time for trendiness is not going to make for comfortable years for Roman Catholics who are more comfortable with the revisionist left of the mainline denominations rather than the faith once delivered to the saints. The question is whether orthodox Christians outside of Rome are going to find BXVI a comfortable bedfellow -- and that remains to be seen.

4. The election of a German to this high office is evidence that Rome is deeply concerned about the spiritual future of Europe. The decline of the faith in the whole of western Europe has been breathtaking. In last week's Economist there was an article on the comparative situations of the RCs and the Anglicans in Britain. What was fascinating was that despite trumpeting that the Romans are doing better numbers-wise, the graph of the decline in Average Sunday Attendance in the last dozen years was horrifying for both denominations.

Europe is the sick man of the Christian world, and by electing a German rather than someone from the Global South the cardinals were reaching out in some way to the masses of Europe caught in the flow of radical secularism.

5. BXVI's election is evidence to me that conciliar ecumenicalism is dead. That the scrabble to find the lowest common denominator around which Christians can unite is over, and the misdirected efforts of what passed for Christian unity will be finding another way forward. I happen to believe that a far greater level of cooperation is necessary for Christians, particularly where there backs are against the wall in places like Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many parts of the USA. However, it will not be around those morsels that we can find in common, but around a red-blooded, creedal, theologically rich understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

Ratzinger sent a letter of encouragement to the first Plano gathering of orthodox Anglicans in an unfaithful ECUSA in the fall of 2003, I suspect we might see more reaching out of this kind. Could it be that this will be the beginning of a new ecumenism that will work better in the 21st Century? Again, only time will tell.

So, there are my thoughts on Benedict XVI. May the Lord guide him so that the church around the world, Catholic and otherwise, is strengthened. Could this unlikely figure be a Bishop of Rome who can build on the legacy of JPII and organizationally provide a measure of networked leadership to those of us who walk in the historic way of the faith? We will see.

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