Monday, July 23, 2007

The Theology of Benedict XVI

I've had a number of people ask me about my thoughts regarding Pope Benedict XVI's (do you put an apostrophe on Roman numerals to show possession???) statement last week about churches that do not happen to be Roman Catholic. My reply has been one of boredom, really. Back before Benedict was Benedict he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and when he went by his former name he was Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (I think I got that name right). Essentially he was a leading Roman Catholic theologian, and as such, he published works that were conservative--many times extremely so--on issues of sexuality, birth control and the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church over other churches, denominations and religions. Despite Pope John Paul II's (there goes that apostrophe with the Roman numerals) gestures of openness and tolerance, Ratzinger was behind the scenes being quite intolerant, sexist and other unfriendly things. So, frankly, I was not surprised to see him making official as pope what he had already done as a cardinal and theologian.

I try to be cautious when speaking critically about another faith. I am an outsider and there are more than a few nuances that I do not understand and cannot understand unless I am on the inside. However, the Roman Catholic acquaintances I have tend to view Benedict with a mixture of grief and exasperation. They just feel the Vatican is less and less relevant to their own faith and connection to the church and its rituals.

I'm saddened whenever a faith group, especially a Christian one, speaks without humility and declares that it alone possesses the true or right path to God. Jesus had more than a few things to say about people who use their faith to exclude and judge. I'm much more interested in religious leaders that are able to stick to their own principles and beliefs while having the courage to listen and learn from people who believe differently.

James Carrol, author of Constantine's Sword and other works, had a nice column in the Boston Globe last week in response to Benedict's pronouncement. He's more of an insider than I am, so I'll recommend his words as a more careful and personal critique than my own. Here's the part I liked best:

Once we realize that doctrines of orthodoxy evolved over time, we stop treating them as timeless. Indeed, once we understand ourselves as belonging to one religious tradition among many, we lose the innocent ability to regard it as absolute. Once our internal geography recognizes that, however much we are a center, we are not the only one, we have no choice but to affirm the positions of others not as "marginal to our centers," in a phrase of theologian David Tracy, "but as centers of their own."

Faced with such difficult recognitions, religious people can retreat into fundamentalism or throw out religious faith altogether. Or we can quite deliberately embrace what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a "second naiveté." This implies a movement through criticism to a renewed appetite for the sacred tradition out of which we come, even while implying that we are alive to its meaning in a radically different way. Pope Benedict is attempting to restore, by fiat, the first naiveté of "one true church." In an age of global pluralism, this is simply not tenable.

I've read many commentators on Benedict's views that describe his efforts as rolling back the reforms of Vatican II. According to Carrol, Benedict is rolling them all the way back to the Council of Trent which was held in 1545. What? You're not up on your councils and decrees? Trent was essentially a response to the Protestant Reformation and as you might guess they weren't too keen on it. To find out more, here's a summary courtesy of Wikipedia.

Grace and Peace,


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