Thursday, November 11, 2010

Benedict XVI: Commander of the Faith by Rupert Shortt

Benedict XVI: Commander of the Faith,
by Rupert Shortt, Hodder and Stoughton, 2006, 164pp

Back in September the news agenda in the UK was dominated by the state visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Millions of Roman Catholics consider that this man "has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Para. 882). I reflected on that claim as I saw the diminutive German formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger make his way into Westminster Abbey on the Friday of the Papal Visit. "Unhindered power over the whole Church", that's really something. No wonder, when the arcane process by which popes are appointed seemed to indicate that Ratzinger was in for the top job, did the Cardinal tell the Lord, "Don't do this to me." He didn't. The Lord Jesus alone has unhindered power over the whole Church, and he has not delegated his absolute authority to anyone else. Nevertheless, on becoming Pope Benedict XVI, in his own mind, as well as in the minds of the Roman Catholic faithful, Joseph Ratzinger became the Vicar of Christ and head of the Church. Power to pronounce infallibly on matters of Christian faith and practice  was suddenly in his hands.

Rupert Shortt isn't interested in the biblical legitimacy of papal power. Or if he is, he doesn't say so in this book. His aim rather is to give an account of the life and ecclesiastical career of the man who would be pope. Ratzinger is a fascinating figure. He rose to prominence as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, slapping down pinko liberals and silencing liberation theologians. But during the 1960's he was allied with radicals like Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. Together with these men Ratzinger was an advocate for change  in the Roman Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council (1962). However, as the 60's drew on, Ratzinger's thinking began to alter. He became more attracted to the Augustinian vision of Hans Urs van Balthazar over and against Kung and Rahner's Thomist synthesis. Also, changes in the modern world signalled by student unrest at Tubingen, where Ratzinger was a member of the Catholic theology faculty, suggested that perhaps Rome's post Vatican II openness to the world wasn't such a good idea after all.

The die was cast. Ratzinger distanced himself from his old radical friends and looked on in horror at what had become of the Roman Catholic Church since the heady days of the early 1960's. After a succession of academic posts, in 1977 he was appointed Archbishop of Munich, before Pope John Paul II made him the Rome's heresy hunter-in-chief as Prefect for the Doctrine of the Congregation of the Faith (1981-2005). As Prefect Ratzinger would arise to defend the teachings of the Church in a rapidly changing world. It has to be said that Evangelical Protestants will have some sympathy with Ratzinger in a number of the battles he fought to maintain Rome's historic teachings. A cause celebre was that of Charles Curran, who taught at an American Catholic University. He openly questioned the Church's line on contraception and pre-marital sex. While Evangelicals don't have a problem with non-abortifacient birth control, on biblical grounds, we certainly don't believe in sex before marriage. Ratzinger had Curran's licence to teach in a Catholic University removed. He silenced those who wanted to see the Church take a more accommodating stance towards homosexuality. The Prefect also fought against the synthesis of Marx and the Bible that is liberation theology. Good on him. Although it is clear from his tone that Shortt doesn't approve of Ratzinger's hard line stance on these issues.

Protestants welcome the Roman Catholic Church's move towards worship in the vernacular since Vatican II. But attempts to render the the old Latin liturgy into English in the 1970's were viewed as disastrous by Ratzinger. Both in terms of excellence of language and theological emphasis, the new English translations left a lot to be desired. For example, one prayer ran "Lord, as we make this offering, may our worship in Spirit and truth bring us to salvation". Such Pelagian sounding sentiments rankled against the Cardinal's Augustinian theology and he insisted that the liturgy be revised to take these concerns into account.

But hang on a minute, before we get too excited, there is the matter of how Ratzinger attempted to undermine the Joint Declaration on Justification by the Holy See and the World Lutheran Federation. Central to the Declaration are the words,
By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts while equipping...and calling us to good works.
The Cardinal didn't like the sound of that. The CDF published a response to the accord arguing that the Lutheran doctrine of justification is incompatible with the Roman Catholic teaching on the consequences of baptism. Ratzinger was right. The Joint Declaration was a classic ecumenical fudge. Look again at the excerpt just quoted. The words, "By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God" are a fine statement of traditional Protestant teaching. However, in the next bit the waters are muddied considerably, "and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts while equipping...and calling us to good works." [emphasis added]. It is true that on being united to Christ the believer is declared right with God (justified) and inwardly transformed (regenerated). But in Roman teaching justification involves not only a forensic declaration, but also inward transformation. Justification so defined is received at baptism and is capable of being enhanced and improved by the meritorious good works of the faithful. That is plain  contrary to the Protestant and I would say biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, Galatians 2:16. In the end, the accord was ratified. But the controversy highlights the fact that the differences between Rome and the Reformation teaching on justification by faith alone have yet to be satisfactorily resolved. It is the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone,  in Christ alone that safeguards the Augustinian insistence that salvation is by grace alone.

When Pope John II, whom Ratzinger had served so loyally died in 2005, the issue of who would succeed him was brought before the red hatted cardinals. After several rounds of voting, white smoke emerged from the Vatican signaling that Joseph Ratzinger had been appointed Pope Benedict XVI. And so it was that one Friday back in September I witnessed the 'German Shepherd' enter Westminster Abbey, the papal ensign fluttering incongruously on the Abbey's flag pole. It might be questioned whether it was right for the pope to be accorded the high honour of a state visit to this constitutionally Protestant nation. But his repeated message on the importance of faith-based values in public life was surely to be welcomed. As an Evangelical Protestant I have more in common with the current pope, than with Liberal Protestants such as John Selby Spong and his ilk. Benedict, an able theologian, boldly refuses to allow the Church over which he presides to conform to the relativistic spirit of the age.

However, nothing changes the fact that on becoming pope this man abrogated to himself "unhindered power over the whole Church", an authority that belongs to Jesus Christ alone (Matthew 28:18-20, Ephesians 1:22-23). His title "Holy Father" is an affront to God the Holy Father (John 17:11) and his title "Vicar of Christ" detracts from the unique ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7, 13-14). Rome's anathemas continue to ring out against justification by faith alone. Right at the heart of the Roman system is the blasphemy of the Mass which denies the saving sufficiency of the once and for all sacrificial death of Christ. Where biblical Protestantism says "alone" - Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, Rome still says "and", Scripture and tradition, grace and merit, faith and works, Christ and Mary. God must share his glory with idols as Roman Catholics bow in worship before their sacred images. This is the anti-Christian system over which Benedict XVI rules as Supreme Pontiff. Shortt describes him as "Commander of the Faith". But the faith he commands isn't that which is revealed in Holy Scripture which is able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the one and only Mediator between God and men.

Oh, and talking of Popes and Vatican Coincils, have a look at Charles Hodge's letter to Pope Pius IX, declining an invitation to attend Vatican I - here.

* Thanks to blog reader Adrian Sargent for kindly sending me a copy of this book.

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