Inaugural Lecture - Center for Classical Theology - REGISTER
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Looking From This Pope to the Next

Chris Castaldo–


The Pope’s Legacy

Now that Pope Benedict XVI has announced his resignation, there is increased discussion about the nature and scope of his legacy. Some have suggested that this pope will go down in history as among the more “evangelical friendly.” I think they’re right. It may seem like an odd prediction given Benedict’s traditional orientation, for which he has been labeled “God’s Rottweiler” during his years as Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this period, for example, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote Dominus Iesus (2000), which asserts that Protestants “are not churches in the proper sense” and that “they suffer from defects.” Then, a few years later (2007), as Pope Benedict XVI, he granted permission for priests to celebrate the Mass in Latin according to old, Tridentine rites. Such positions are hardly consanant with the values of Protestantism. Nevertheless, the legacy of this pope resonates with two particular evangelical convictions: the objectivty of truth and necessity of biblical theology.  

In the face of what he calls a “dictatorship of relativism,” Pope Bendict has stood courageously for the fundamental importance of truth. For instance, he spoke forthrightly to the Islamic world in 2006 while lecturing at the University of Regensburg where he quoted the opinion of Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palailogos: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman….” He also spoke truth to the United Nations concerning the recession of moral substance in world politics and economics. And the pope has addressed truth to the contemporary pantheon of idols, pointing out where libertary has become license and theology has been reduced to hollow sentiment. I for one am not willing to kiss the pope’s ring, but I will gladly tip my hat in appreciation of a man like that.

Such positions, however, have come with a cost. A few years ago, when I wrote my review of Kerry Kennedy’s book, Being Catholic Now—a collection of thirty-seven reflections from Catholic notables such as Nancy Pelosi, Susan Sarandon, and Martin Sheen—it was remarkable to see the portraits of Pope Benedict that emerged. Apart from a few devout voices, the pontiff was generally characterized as an out-of-touch dinasour whose mission was to defend the magisterium at all costs and silence advocates of progress and liberty. This is of course standard fare among left-leaning voices, as many newspapers around the globe have demonsrated over the last week. From such an observation we learn at least one thing: this is not a pope of the staus quo, committed to the maintenance of his own image. In the midst of a spirtually decaying Europe, Benedict has had the intenstinal fortitude to tell the truth.

With regard to biblical theology, Benedict has demonstrated a particular expertise. He is fond of quoting Jerome’s dictum: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” a fact to which his literary output bears witness. Perhaps because he has distinguished himself in so many other areas of theology (especially in exegesis, patristics, ecclesiology, liturgy, Christology, and dognmatics) the pope’s redemptive-historical focus can be overlooked. But anyone who has read his Jesus of Nazareth (in three volumes) or Saint Paul, will possibly have had the experience of pausing for a moment, looking at the cover to see whether you had unwittingly picked up Greg Beale or Herman Ridderbos, and shaking your head in bewilderment that a pope could write such things. Speaking of this Jesus-centered, biblical vision, Benedict writes:

Since my election to the episcopal see of Rome I have used every free moment to make progress on the book. As I do not know how much more time or strength I am still to be given, I have decided to publish the first ten chapters… because it struck me as the most urgent priority to present the figure and message of Jesus in his public ministry, and so to help foster the growh of a living relationship with him.

Please don’t misunerstand me. Like you, I am aware that there are profound differences of method that distinghish Benedict’s exegetical and theological approach from ours, which lead him toward radically different conclusions (particularly with regard to authority and salvation)—conclusions which must not be swept under the rug, but taken very seriously. But after the Marian oriented pontificate of Pope John Paul II, it is refreshing to see an attempt at emphasizing Jesus so as to foster “growth of a living relationship with him.”

The Next Pope

From Pius XII (d. 1958) to John Paul II (d. 2005) the College of Cardinals has sought to internationalize what has historically been a predmoninatly Italian body. The last two popes (the Polish Wojtyła and the German Ratzinger) have been a realization of this movement. The million dollar question is whether the trend will continue. There are some strong Italian options such as the Archbishop of Milan, Angelo Scola (72). A close second might be Angelo Bagnasco (70), president of the Italian Bishops Conference. Scola is regarded as a gifted theologian, while Bagnasco has been recognized as politically savvy. Promising as these men are, however, their prospects will run up against recent scandals which originated in the Roman Curia (e.g. Vatileaks and the Vatican bank’s obloquy).

Some have pointed to the Archbishop of Québec Marc Ouellet (68), who serves as the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. While living in North America, he is no stranger to the working of the Roman Curia. While not a particularly dynamic figure, he has been around long enough to have influence and is respected by his peers. The Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn (68) is known as a bright theologian and has been an outspoken advocate of reform, particularly with regard to the church’s need to confront its moral failures.  Then there is the American Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan (63). It was not long ago when I asked a friend of mine who is an American priest in Rome with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity his thoughts on the prospects of Cardinal Dolan. Despite Dolan’s many gifts of which piety and passion are at the top, it would be surprising, according to my friend, if the Archbishop received enough votes to carry the day.

With most Catholics now living in the global south, many are hoping to see the next pope come from the majority world. According to Leonardo De Chirico, an evangelical theologian teaching in Rome, there are two Cardinals from this background who have a shot. Cardinal Peter Turkson (65), a Ghanean who is President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, would make an African pope. Coming from Asia, the Archbishop of Manila (Philippines), Luis Antonio Tagle (56) is also recognized as a possibility, particularly for his leadership in the church’s New Evangelization movement.  Such men not only promise to continue in the missional direction of Benedict, they also would display the catholic breadth of the church.

Whichever cardinal is chosen to be the next pope will hopefully advance the two aforementioned qualities of Benedict: regard for public truth and for a biblical theology. While such agreement does not amount to gospel solidarity (with regard to religious authority and the doctrine of justification, Catholics and Protestants continue to disagree) the agreement is still meaningful. How, you ask? Simply put, to the extent that our traditions share a common epistemological and biblical vision, we are in a position to speak a similar language, which in turn can serve gospel engagement among Catholics around the world.

Chris Castaldo serves as director of the Ministry of Gospel Renewal for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. He is the author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic and a main contributor to Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism. He blogs at

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