Benedict XVI’s Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today

Benedict XVI is a pope worth reading.  To be sure, any Baptist who is a Baptist by conviction will have fundamental disagreements with Benedict on more than a few points, but there is wisdom here that any believer in Jesus Christ can not only appreciate but also grow from.  In truth, I found Benedict’s Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today to be one of the more thought-provoking works on ecclesiology I’ve ever read, even as I disagreed with many of its basic points.

A good bit of this material was delivered by Benedict when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger in July of 1990 to a theological seminar in Rio de Janeiro.  As such the work is essentially a primer on Catholic ecclesiology.  For the Protestant reader, this book will offer some of the more seasoned reflections on Catholic ecclesiology that you are likely to find on the market today.  So this book will certainly help Baptists and others understand Roman Catholics better.  And yet it would be a shame to read this work only to understand what “they” think, for surely even Baptist believers share (in ways poignant and undeniable) in what Benedict calls here “the crisis of ecclesial consciousness through which we are now living” (p.11).

Benedict bemoans the liberal ideology within the Church “which regards Jesus according to the liberal world picture as the great individualist who liberates religion from cultic institutions and reduces it to ethics, which for its part is founded entirely upon the individual responsibility of conscience.  Such a Jesus, who repudiates cultic worship, transforms religion into morality and then defines it as the business of the individual, obviously cannot found a church.  He is the foe of all institutions and, therefore, cannot turn around and establish one himself” (p.15).

Here is one of the many places where we can benefit from Benedict’s wisdom.  His definition and diagnosis of liberalism is helpful and wise.  As Protestants have been bound in the same struggle against this same liberal impulse, we may rightly say that Benedict is speaking no less to us than he is to the Roman Catholic Church.

Benedicts understanding of the Church is profoundly Christological.  The Kingdom proclaimed by Christ is found in Christ Himself and the Church is likewise defined by and embodied in Christ who is present in the Church’s central act of worship:  the eucharist.  “It follows, then,” Benedict tells us, “that it is entirely impossible to conceive of the New Testament’s notion of the people of God apart from Christology, which in turn is no abstract theory but a concrete event taking place in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist” (p.33).

As a Baptist, I do not want to distance myself from the idea of Christ’s presence in the sacraments (even as, obviously, how I would understand Christ’s “presence” would differ markedly from Benedict’s), but I badly want to add this:  “and in the proclaimed, heard, and lived Word.”

Benedict next moves to a discussion and explanation of apostolic succession.  To be perfectly honest, I remain unconvinced.  I do appreciate Benedict’s attempt to ground the idea in exegesis of the text, but as I wrote “non-sequitur” in the margin a couple of times as I read, I was impressed once again by the seriousness and severity of the divide between the Protestant and Catholic ideas of “the Church.”

I do not deny what Benedict explains very persuasively:  the presence of apostolic authority in the New Testament Church and even some evidence of Petrine primacy in the New Testament.  I do not see, however, the implicit evidence for (especially) Petrine succession that Ratzinger finds in the text (he readily admits that “there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament”).  Furthermore, I regret that Benedict did not give serious consideration (in this work) to the fact that the Apostles are present in the Church as it proclaims and heeds “the apostles’ teaching.”

Obviously Benedict has misgivings about the idea of ecclesial autonomy:  “The Church must constantly become what she is through unitive love and resist the temptation to fall from her vocation into the infidelity of self-willed autonomy” (39-40).  Speaking of local churches and the Church catholic, Benedict writes:  “In this respect it can be said that we find here a preliminary sketch of a Church that lives in manifold and multiform particular Churches but that precisely in this way is the one Church.  At the same time, Luke expresses with this image the fact that at the moment of her birth, the Church was already catholic, already a world Church.  Luke thus rules out a conception in which a local Church first arose in Jerusalem and then became the base for the gradual establishment of other local Churches that eventually grew into a federation.  Luke tells us that the reverse is true:  what first exists is the one Church, the Church that speaks in all tongues – the ecclesia universalis; she then generates Church in the most diverse locales, which nonetheless are all always embodiments of the one and only Church.  The temporal and ontological priority lies with the universal Church; a Church that was not catholic would not even have ecclesial reality…” (44).

Earlier Baptists, and many modern ones, will want to stress the priority of the local church and the future coming of the church catholic.  That being said, there is a growing trend of Baptist catholicity that feels that the radical “autonomy” which is often championed in some quarters is derived more from American individualism than from New Testament exegesis, even while it affirms the basic principle of “local church autonomy.”  There is, to be sure, fascinating and occasionally tendentious cross-currents in Baptist life today over the issue of the church local and the church catholic and how these realities are to be understood.  Regardless, all Baptists would reject that which the Pope is clearly moving towards in this selection:  the unity of the catholic Church under the supposed modern successor of Peter (“Nevertheless, there is also a positive tendency today.  Many non-Catholics affirm the necessity of a common center of Christianity.”).

Benedict has some interesting discussion of apostolic primacy in the N.T.  He does not deny the evidence for the primacy of James, but argues that James had primacy over Jewish believers and it disappeared with the collapse of Jewish Christianity.  He then argues for Petrine primacy and succession, even while acknowledging that “we must first of all note that there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament” (65).

But Benedict’s argument for Petrine primacy and succession seems unconvincing to me.  His argument that “it was with this Church that every community had to agree; Rome was the standard of the authentic apostolic tradition as a whole” (69) seems to me a serious oversimplification that does not account for evidence that Rome ascended to its primacy over time and that its primacy was not always assumed by other communions.  Furthermore, his contention that “the Roman primacy, or, rather, the acknowledgement of Rome as the criterion of the right apostolic faith, is older than the canon of the New Testament, than ‘Scripture’” (70) strikes me as pandering to the choir.  The statement is quite different from an acknowledgement that Rome had ascended to ecclesial power before the formal recognition of the canon by the church.  Finally, Benedict argues that “the essential point, in my opinion, has already become plain: the martyrdom of Peter in Rome fixes the place where his function continues” (72).  This strikes me as an amazing non-sequitur that is utterly unconvincing.

All of this being said, I am quite happy with Benedict’s definition of the Church itself, even as  I would undoubtedly understand certain phrases of this definition in a different light than he intends:  “The Church is accordingly the gathering of men from the four corners of the earth and their purification for God.  Together, the two answers describe the essence of the Church and thus introduce us into her practical dimension; both answers can be summed up in the one statement that the Church is the dynamic process of horizontal and vertical unification” (76).

On we could go, but suffice to say that this is a thought-provoking work that will, at the very least, give the Protestant reader an interesting insight into Catholic ecclesiology and theology as it is articulated by one of the Catholic church’s brightest minds.

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