Friday, March 12, 2010

The Pontificate of Benedict XVI: Its Premises and Promises

Edited by William G. Rusch, Eerdmans, 173 pages.

One of Pope Benedict XVI's hallmark teachings, Dale Irvin rightly points out, is his belief in the importance of the fusion of Greek philosophy with the Hebrew tradition from which Jesus of Nazareth comes. This synthesis, according to the pontiff, is the most perfect version of Christianity we have. Since it came from Europe, for the pontiff, this means that European Christian culture is very important to the nature of the religion.

The authors of The Pontificate of Benedict XVI, who come from a wide spectrum of churches, spend a lot of ink analyzing and critiquing such thinking. One writer challenges this place of Europe, noting the ancient, Middle Eastern Syriac Christians, who spoke a Semitic language very close to Jesus' Aramaic and who were minimally influenced by Greek philosophy. They built thriving Christian communities which lasted for centuries.

Most of the writers from this book call for a global, less Eurocentric, Christianity, even if many agree with Benedict that reason plays an important role in Christianity and its evangelization.

Irving notes that, in the case of European Christianity, the synthesis of faith and reason "was threatened, in Benedict's view, in the modern era by the program of 'dehellenization.'" Dehellenization refers to the reduction of Greek philosophy and culture's influence on Christianity. The Protestant Reformation, with its rejection of tradition and call for "scripture only," was the first stage, followed by liberal developments in the nineteenth and then twentieth century, which challenged dogmatic and biblical truths.

Many writers in The Pontificate of Benedict XVI wrestle with Benedict's signature rejection of pluralism. First, though, they correct media misperceptions. Benedict does not oppose diversity. He believes that the Church itself promotes much diversity, such as the richness found in the Thomistic and Augustinian traditions, which often offer different theological perspectives.

The diversity he opposes, they note, is one that judges everything as an opinion and nothing as truth. Secular pluralism rejects the notion that the truth is knowable or even exists. The various authors agree closely with Benedict on this, showing how Catholics and conservative Protestants can work together to promote an alternative viewpoint to secularism.

The Orthodox contributor, Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, offers interesting thoughts on Benedict's ecumenism, noting that the pope believes that unity between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches should happen according to the unity they had in the first millennium. Here again we see what diversity means for Ratzinger - the respect for each other's tradition, and the sense that the fullness of the other's tradition does not impede on ours.

This applies to the Protestant churches as well. Much is made in The Pontificate of Benedict XVI of the 2000 Vatican document for which the then Cardinal Prefect Ratzinger was responsible, Dominus Iesus, which stated that the Protestant churches had major deficiencies. The various writers are keen to point out that throughout his career Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI has never believed that reconciliation with Protestants should come through a mass return of the Protestants to Rome, re-Catholicizing them. Instead, true reconciliation would lead to a fuller understanding of the various Protestant traditions, such as regarding the Eucharist. Rather than taking something away from these various traditions, through full communion with Rome, these churches would come to their fullness.

The Pontificate of Benedict XVI offers much for the new kind of ecumenism in which Christians should engage. This is a rugged ecumenism that looks at the hard facts of disunity rather than papering them over.

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