It’s a long long time since I wrote a post about the Holy Father, or words he has spoken. I must admit that following Light of the World, which I found to be the least illuminating of the all the Seewald-Ratzinger interviews, I have not been following with as close attention the words of the Pope. I am gradually getting over my confusion at some of the Pope’s words in that book; some I have had explained to me (the perplexing discussion about Bishop Williamson) others I must simply interpret as, perhaps, an overstatement of a case (homosexuality and the priesthood: overstated, in that it seems obvious to me that a person with SSA can take a vow of celibacy without its being empty, in the same way as (say) a poor person can take a vow of poverty; and that the fact that there are chaste and celibate men with SSA in the priesthood is certainly not something which causes many problems – in my experience the heterodox tend, in fact, to be in most cases also the heterosexual) which, in less specific terms, I have some sympathy for.
Anyway, via a discussion at Rorate Caeli (from whose blog list I have been excised for unknown reasons), I have come into contact with the speech given by Benedict as he met with members of the Lutheran Evangelical Church at Luther’s canonry of Erfurt. Many of the commentators at Rorate appear to scandalised by their own interpretation of the Pope’s words, i.e. that he intends to praise that great heresiarch Martin Luther. It might be worth quoting the so-called praise of the Holy Father for Luther:
[Luther] was not simply interested in this or that… the question of God, [was] the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey… For Luther theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God. “How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me… Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture.
As can be seen, even when grabbed out of context, these words are hardly a glowing endorsement. To me they seem much more to be a statement of obvious historical fact. The only really personal “praise” is the Pope’s admission that the central question of Luther’s life “never ceases to make a deep impression” on him. But, why not? For this question is, as Benedict goes on to explain, one that many people and (this is unsaid but implicit) in particular Luther’s successors, fail now to consider with any seriousness. The context of this “praise” of Luther is that his heirs have in fact abandoned the fundamental question of Luther’s theology, of his spiritual struggle:
For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter.
It seems to me that in praising Luther in this context, Benedict is quietly criticising his descendants. In particular he contrasts Luther’s conviction about the centrality of the question of sin, redemption, grace, judgement with the modern tendency to minimalise or even marginalise this aspect of the Christian faith. In asserting the Christocentric aspects of Luther’s thinking, he is doing the same on a sort of theological level. The collapse of belief in sin and judgement is accompanied closely by a collapse in traditional theological orthodoxy. Christ becomes just another world-teacher, just a “good person”, and not at all God the Son, the second person of the Trinity made flesh.
If the Holy Father is “praising” Luther, it is only in so much as he remained closer to the font of the Christian faith. It is certainly true that Protestantism contains within itself the seeds of its current decay, but equally we must admit that were the founders of the Protestant religion to meet their disciples of today, the two would barely recognise one another. Luther sought to genuinely understand the Christian faith in light of the Fathers (particularly, of course, Augustine) and Sacred Scripture. He was, we know, misguided. But the modern Lutherans (at least in Germany, but also in many other places throughout the world) have abandoned this honest but erroneous approach in favour of a somewhat mendacious and totally secularised vision of Christianity as a religion (instead of grace, judgement, sin, salvation, Christ, the Church and ultimately God himself) of the desire to be well-liked, praised by the world, undiscerning, possessed of human goods over divine ones, in which worldly comfort signifies more than the hope of heaven, the historical Jesus is opposed to the Christ of faith, the congregation in its horizontal aspect is the only definition of what it means to gather as Christians, in which God himself is of secondary significance.