Why the New Pope Isn't Catholic-And Why I Still Am

Article excerpt

The new pope isn't Catholic. Joseph Ratzinger is a Lutheran. And he is not the sort of liberal, tolerant Lutheran we have become accustomed to respecting and engaging in our interfaith dialogues, but rather a dangerous and authoritarian follower of Paul and Augustine who threatens to lead the Catholic world into fascism. As such, Ratzinger has set himself outside the Church and, even if he has taken most of the Church's institutional resources with him, he has left those of us who remain faithful to the historic tradition of the Catholic Church to resist, to guard its message of meaning and hope, and to rebuild.

These are audacious claims that require some justification. There is no way to do this without a bit of church history.

The Emergence of Christianity

Christianity has, historically, been an amalgam of very different socioreligious and political-theological traditions that have all been very much in tension with each other. This tension goes back to the origins of the religion. Most scholars, for example, now regard Jesus as essentially a Hillelschool Pharisee whose teaching focused on ethical conduct, an emphasis still visible in the synoptic Gospels and the Letter of James. Paul, on the other hand, put forward a new theology that broke radically with Judaism, arguing that it is impossible for a sinful humanity to fulfill the Law and that we can be redeemed only by faith in the crucified and risen Christ.

This tension was amplified by the differing ways in which the various cultures that eventually gave birth to Christendom appropriated the Christian tradition. The Celts, whose tradition had always emphasized wisdom and ethical conduct, stressed the message of the synoptics-who regarded Jesus as a wisdom teacher and moral exemplarand developed a spirituality centered on learning, penance, and the struggle for social justice. This was the tradition of Pelagius, the British monk whose work captivated the hearts and minds of Europe during the fourth century. The Germans, on the other hand, who were great warriors, regarded Jesus as a victorious warlord who conquered Satan and bestowed the "booty" of eternal life as a free gift on his faithful followers. North Africans, who lived in one of the most exploited regions of the Empire, regarded Christianity as first and foremost an anti-imperial ideology and gave the Church its tradition of martyrdom. After Christianity was legalized under Constantine, many North Africans (followers of Donatus of Casae Nigrae) refused to recognize the leadership of bishops who had collaborated with the Empire during the last persecution. Rome and what was left of the old Roman aristocracy argued that valid office, not personal sanctity, was the criterion for exercising religious leadership. The Byzantine East fused Christian symbols with Neoplatonic philosophy to craft a sacral monarchic ideology that kept the Roman Empire alive for another thousand years.

These struggles all came to a head in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The pivotal figure in this regard was Augustine, who embraced an essentially Pauline theology and won decisions from major church councils against the Pelagians and the Donatists. North Africa, which would have nothing to do with an imperial church, essentially abandoned Christianity, welcoming the armies of Dar-al-Islam as liberators when they arrived some two centuries later. But the Germanic warlords liked Augustinian theology, because it treated military force and conquest as at least a necessary evil, and because its emphasis on salvation as a free gift from God resonated with their own spontaneous appropriation of the gospel. The Romans, meanwhile, liked Augustinianism because it defended the legitimacy of office against the claims of the Donatists and others who demanded real virtue as the condition of leadership.

What Makes Catholicism Distinct from Other Forms of Christianity

In practice, however, popular Catholicism remained profoundly Pelagian, stressing the essential goodness of humanity and our capacity for wisdom and moral virtue. …