Tuesday, April 19, 2005


Discerning the Truth or Just Blowing (White) Smoke?

It’s the End of the World as we know it.

Or at least that is what I’ve gathered after reading Andrew Sullivan’s recent post regarding the selection of the new Pope. Now I wouldn’t expect a leading gay rights advocate such as Sullivan to be a huge supporter of Pope Benedict XVI (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), but this takes it a step further. Andrew portrays “the Grand Inquisitor” as the vessel of impending doom for all of Western Civilization.

I’m not a Catholic, but as a Christian I have much interest in this subject. Without question, the Pope has an enormous influence on cultural issues around the world. I also have quite a bit of respect for the typically thoughtful and articulate (if sometimes erratic) Sullivan. So naturally I am intrigued. What should we think of the new development?

Since Sullivan asserts that “it would be hard to overstate the radicalism of this decision,” I am curious as to the nature of the purported “radicalism” in question. Here is a quote from Ratzinger that Andrew uses to substantiate his critique:

Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and 'swept along by every wind of teaching', looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires.

At the risk of also being labeled a throwback from the Inquisition, I have to say I agree with the rhetorical thrust of the new Pope’s assertion here. I am relieved to notice that the newly elected Pope is concerned with the problem of moral relativism infiltrating our collective worldviews. Indeed, the fact that he does not seem at all anxious to acquiesce to the wishy-washy humanism currently enveloping our culture is a very good sign. (I’ve recently noted my own concerns with a drift toward relativism here.)

Outside of perhaps his invocation of the term ‘fundamentalism’ (and his apparent endorsement of it), I don’t see how this attitude could be considered at all incompatible with the belief system he is now representing. It’s almost as if Sullivan is completely appalled that the new Pope is (gasp!) Catholic. (You can look to Professor Bainbridge for a not-so-charitable view of Sullivan’s appraisal of the papacy.)

Sullivan’s prediction is as follows:

For American Catholics, I foresee an accelerating exodus. But that, remember, is the plan. The Ratzingerians want to empty the pews in America and start over.

First of all, I’m not at all convinced of the existence of such a “plan” or conspiracy if you will. However, even if that is the case, so be it. If Ratzinger’s firm, conservative adherence to doctrine accounts for a mass exodus from the American Catholic church, then that will reveal much more about the sorry state of affairs for Catholicism in this country than it will the new Pope.

“Teach us what we want to hear, what is popular, or politically correct – regardless of consistency with Biblical principles - or we will leave the church.” If that has truly become the mantra of the masses, then by all means empty the pews and start over. Keeping the pews filled with lukewarm believers, pacified by a new doctrine void of any real principle and foundation, will lead to an inevitable collapse.

Christ himself, while not at all judgmental toward any individuals, certainly stood fastidiously against the popular whims of the culture when they strayed from absolute morality. In the words of G. K. Chesterton, “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”

But I just can’t end with a ringing endorsement of the new Pope whom I admittedly know little about. A huge achievement for Pope John Paul II was his successful effort to bridge the historic divide between Catholics and Protestants. I hope that is the case with the new Pope, but this line from Reuters news gives me reason to pause:

In a document in 2000, he branded other Christian churches as deficient -- shocking Anglicans, Lutherans and other Protestants in ecumenical dialogue with Rome for years.

Considering the lack of specifics to back up that claim, I am not inclined to assess much credence to that quote. Unfortunately, a more trusted source echoes that concern. Regarding Ratzinger, Jeremy at Parableman states, "he's the one who insisted to John Paul II that he not sign the Joint Agreement with the Lutherans..." Not a good sign.

In an article in Christianity Today entitled “Pope ‘Broadened the Way” for Evangelicals and Catholics,” Methodist theologian Tom Oden summarized the key reasons for success in bridging the gap within the Christian community.

John Paul II was a strong, moral voice at a time when evangelicals were beginning to wake up to the fact that while we do, indeed, have many differences with Roman Catholics—on Scripture, sacrament, penitential practice, and many other things—we have many common and shared values, and, in some profound ways, shared doctrine. We share the same New Testament, the same canonical Scripture. We share the same confession, the same Nicene Creed, the same Apostle's Creed, and so forth.

Amen. It remains to be seen if his successor will follow the same path. I sure hope so.

UPDATE: Joe at The Moderate Voice has a great round up of opinions regarding Pope Benedict XVI.

Someone who seems to know a lot about Ratzinger says he wasn't opposed to the Joint Declaration, by the way. See the comments on my post.
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