Father R.J. Neuhaus' Outlook on Benedict XVI

“Remarkable Gentleness, Combined With a Keen Intellectual Curiosity”

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NEW YORK, JUNE 6, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI has modest expectations for ecumenism and expects the path to unity to involve an unforeseen initiative of the Holy Spirit, says Father Richard John Neuhaus.

The editor in chief of First Things shared with ZENIT his views about the new Pope and what could be expected in his pontificate.

Q: Would you share some of your personal experiences with Cardinal Ratzinger, and what special gifts you think he brings to the papacy?

Father Neuhaus: I have known Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, for more than 20 years, and we have been in conversation about many things.

As everybody knows, he is a master theologian and, I think, might have been recognized as one of the theological giants of the last 100 years if he had not offered the prime of his life to serving John Paul the Great as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As everybody should know, he is a person of remarkable gentleness and serenity, combined with a keen intellectual curiosity in engaging alternative viewpoints.

As for personal experiences, in 1988 I invited him to deliver our annual Erasmus Lecture here in New York, which was followed by a conference of several days with Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox theologians.

The public lecture, held in midtown Manhattan, was rudely disrupted by gay activists who waved their pink triangles while screaming pleasantries such as “Sieg Heil!” “Nazi Ratzy!” and “Inquisitor Go Home!” I finally had to call the police to clear the protesters and restore order.

Throughout, the cardinal was the very picture of tranquility. When he got a chance to speak he prefaced his lecture, which was on the subject of biblical interpretation, with a moving reflection on the 1968 student rebellion in Europe that helped him to understand more deeply the indispensability of civility in human relations.

On this and other occasions, it was obvious to me that his tranquility is rooted in a tried and tested faith. The next day the tabloid headlines blazoned, “Gays Protest Vatican Biggy.” He chuckled at his new title of Vatican Biggy.

Q: Benedict XVI has emphasized ecumenism as a priority. Does that surprise you at all?

Father Neuhaus: No, not at all. This has been among his constant concerns and interests, and he has written extensively on the subject of ecumenism. As a German he has had extensive experience with the traditions coming out of the 16th-century divisions, especially Lutheranism and Reformed, or Calvinist, Christianity.

He has a sympathetic appreciation of what Martin Luther got right, and an incisive but non-polemical analysis of what he got wrong, and why. As head of CDF, he was responsible for the doctrinal aspects of all the ecumenical dialogues in which the Church is engaged, and will continue to exercise that responsibility.

Although he would of course admit nothing, I see clear evidence of his hand in key passages of the 1995 encyclical on Christian unity, “Ut Unum Sint.” In this pontificate we will, I expect, see a very clear line of authority as the Pope, the chief doctrinal officer of the Church, employs CDF to coordinate other offices dealing with matters of doctrine. CDF was, for instance, intensely involved in the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic declaration on justification.

Q: What does the emphasis on ecumenism say at a time when there are so many concerns about pro-life issues?

Father Neuhaus: There is a strong connection. The Baptist theologian Timothy George speaks about “the ecumenism of the trenches,” referring to the ways in which Catholics and evangelical Protestants in this country have come to know and trust one another in the pro-life cause.

This was also critically important to the continuing project called Evangelicals and Catholics Together, ECT, which Charles Colson and I launched in 1994. I have over the years been in contact with Cardinal Ratzinger on developments in ECT, and he has been entirely supportive. To be sure, as a European he has had relatively little firsthand experience with American evangelicalism, which is very different from what “evangelical” means in Germany.

But he is very much aware of the explosive growth of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, and that is undoubtedly comprehended in his ecumenical vision. The Church’s oft-repeated understanding is that the commitment to ecumenism is “irrevocable,” and the goal of ecumenism is the establishment of “full communion.”

On the latter point, Pope Benedict’s expectations are markedly modest. In his writings he has insisted that the only unity we can seek, the only unity pleasing to God, is unity in the fullness of truth. He has said that our 16th-century Catholic and Protestant forebears who were at one another’s throats were, in an important way, closer to one another than is sometimes the case with contemporary theological dialogues because they both understood that what was at stake was the truth that God intends for all his people.

He has also emphasized that the way toward unity is not a matter of our programs and schedules but of faithful waiting upon a new initiative of the Holy Spirit which we can neither control nor anticipate. This does not mean that there is less urgency in his ecumenical devotion than was the case with, to cite the obvious instance, John Paul the Great. The ecumenical commitment is irrevocable and every possible step is to be carefully nurtured, including increased cooperation with other Christians in contending for the culture of life against the culture of death.

Q: Coming from Germany, does he bring a special viewpoint about ecumenism?

Father Neuhaus: While I have already addressed that in part, it is noteworthy that some of the first statements of Pope Benedict have strongly affirmed the quest for reconciliation with Orthodoxy.

For John Paul, being a Pole, the Orthodox reality was more pressingly immediate, but I have no doubt that Benedict shares his yearning for the time when the Church will once again “breathe with both lungs, East and West.”

I have said that what we share with the Orthodox is such that the only thing lacking for full communion is full communion, and I do not think Pope Benedict would disagree with that. Sometimes being close neighbors makes things more difficult. In that sense, it is possible that the Orthodox will be less uneasy in dealing with a German rather than with a Pole. Admittedly, that is a “non-theological factor,” but God also uses non-theological factors in achieving his purposes.

Q: What has struck you the most about the new Holy Father so far?

Father Neuhaus: There are several things, but perhaps I should mention first his modesty. He has said in several different ways that he does not want to impose his person or his personal views, but to be a faithful servant of the received tradition.

We now have another pope who is a high-powered intellectual. Under John Paul some worried that his distinctive theological-philosophical perspective was making too strong an imprint on magisterial teaching.

Benedict seems to be anticipating the same concern in his case. After all, he has a “paper trail” a mile wide and miles long, having registered his views on so many questions. He seems to be saying that he is well aware that the responsibilities of Joseph Ratzinger the theologian and Joseph Ratzinger the prefect of CDF are significantly different from his responsibilities as Pope Benedict, and that is surely right.

Another subtle signal since his election, which I expect will become more explicit, is that he wants it understood that the Pope is “the servant of the servants of God,” and especially of his fellow bishops.

His earlier strictures regarding national conferences of bishops have, I believe, been seriously misunderstood. He is, in fact, a great champion of episcopal collegiality and
doesn’t want national conferences or other institutions getting in the way of bishops being bishops, which means, above all, being authentic teachers of the faith in their local churches.

Q: How did non-Catholic Christians generally view Cardinal Ratzinger?

Father Neuhaus: The indications are that he is being very well received by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He does not have, and I expect is not likely to develop, what is called the “star quality” surrounding John Paul. That has a lot to do with different personalities. And it has to do with very different life stories.

John Paul’s biography could hardly have been more dramatic: life under Nazism and Communism, the early loss of his mother and brother, the successful challenging of the Soviets’ “evil empire,” and on and on. His life made great material for producers of admiring comic books.

I suppose there will be comic books about Benedict, but they will be less exciting. Compared with John Paul, his has been a life of remarkable step-by-step continuity.

Despite the Hitler years, his was a happy Bavarian childhood, an early discernment and fulfillment of a priestly vocation, a very successful career as theologian, followed by elevation to cardinal archbishop and then on to Rome. And now he is Pope. It is a life within the Church for the Church.

In the quiet warmth of his personality, the excitement is in the vibrancy of his faith and the profundity of his thought. I mentioned at the outset his gentleness of manner and serenity of soul. Those are not bad qualities to have at the center in a time when gentleness and serenity are in short supply.

I need only add that it would be a serious mistake to think gentleness and serenity mean weakness or lack of firm resolve.

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