Habemus Papam – A Crypto Calvinist Pope?
“HABEMUS PAPAM.” I will never forget hearing over the radio that declaration in Latin from the College of Cardinals in the Vatican in 2005: “Habemus Papam—we have a pope.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had been elected Pope. I was quite thrilled, since I had personally met the cardinal in 1988. Together with three other colleagues from the Seminary in Southern France (Faculté Jean Calvin, where I taught for 18 years), we had an extraordinary two hour meeting in the Vatican with the cardinal. This meeting was arranged for us by a well-connected Catholic priest from Aix-en-Provence, with whom our professors had a good relationship. During the two hours of conversation with the Cardinal, I witnessed a man of great intelligence who, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had for many years sought to guide the church in historical Christian orthodoxy. I listened to a gifted theologian who, in perfect French (I was with my French colleagues) denounced the liberalism of German biblical criticism and affirmed the truths of biblical orthodoxy. Ratzinger was a genuine scholar, and it showed as he addressed us.
During his time in the Vatican he produced three volumes in a series, entitled Jesus of Nazareth, which has been recognized as an astonishing feat of biblical exegesis. Joseph championed the historic teaching of the church that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. And that salvation comes exclusively through him.
“In this sense, one can and must say that Jesus Christ has a significance and a value for the human race and its history, which are unique and singular, proper to him alone, exclusive, universal, and absolute. Jesus is, in fact, the Word of God made man for the salvation of all. It is precisely this uniqueness of Christ which gives him an absolute and universal significance whereby, while belonging to history, he remains history’s centre and goal: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end’ (Rev22:13).”
Millions have read Benedict’s books, and his papacy was marked by efforts at ecclesiastical, intellectual, and spiritual renewal. He confronted relativism and secularism, and worked to combat the scourge of clergy sexual abuse. He stressed that Jesus Christ is “the measure of true humanism,” and mature faith and friendship with God serve as a criterion to distinguish “the true from the false, and deceit from truth.” “Christ is the way that leads to the Father, the truth which gives meaning to human existence, and the source of that life which is eternal joy with all the saints in his heavenly Kingdom.”
This is what he told 60,000 people gathered for Mass at New York City’s Yankee Stadium in April 2008.
Listening to the BBC yesterday I heard another stunning announcement: “Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI passed away Saturday morning at 9:34 a.m. He was 95 years old.”
I felt a touch of sadness hearing of Benedict’s passing. Why would a Protestant theologian like myself be emotionally moved by the life and death of a Catholic pope, especially since in my tradition some have taught that the Church of Rome would fall away, and that the Papacy or some individual pontiff, would become the Antichrist spoken of in Scripture? Maybe one day this could be said of a pro-homosexual and theological liberal Pope like Francis, but not of Benedict, who shortly before becoming Pope, stated: “Very soon it will no longer be possible to affirm that homosexuality, as the Church teaches, is an objective disorder in the structuring of human existence.” Perhaps that may be one of the reasons for which he resigned his papacy, when he saw the compromise of the Vatican and his inability to change it.
Benedict’s Christology is stunning. He states:
Jesus gives us “life” because he gives us God. He can give God because he himself is one with God, because he is the Son. He himself is the gift—he is “life.” For precisely this reason, his whole being consists in communicating, in “pro-existence.” This is exactly what we see in the Cross, which is his true exaltation.
In a statement of his own personal faith he said just a few weeks before his death:
Quite soon I shall find myself before the final judge of my life. Even though, as I look back on my long life, I can have great reason for fear and trembling, I am nonetheless of good cheer, for I trust firmly that the Lord is not only the just judge, but also the friend and brother who himself has already suffered for my shortcomings and is thus also my “Paraclete.” In light of the hour of judgement, the grace of being a Christian becomes all the more clear to me. It grants me knowledge, and indeed friendship with the judge of my life, and thus allows me to pass confidently through the dark door of death.
Ironically, this same weekend, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023 is also the 250th anniversary of this famous hymn, Amazing Grace, written by Rev. John Newton, an Anglican priest and former godless captain of slave ships, who later in life joined William Wilberforce and worked to abolish slavery in the British Empire. Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” for his Anglican congregation —St. Peter and Paul Church in Olney Buckinghamshire, England—to sing on New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 1773. The former wicked seafaring blasphemer, whose life took a dramatic turn when spared from a deadly storm, contemplated with King David, “Who am I, O Lord God…that you have brought me thus far?” Thus he could write:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.
I am not a specialist of the vast thought of Benedict and doubtless there are elements in his writings that are typically Roman Catholic, like the place of Mary and the infallibility of the papacy, but I believe he could sing “Amazing Grace” because he wrote and spoke convincingly of that same divine, underserved grace and forgiveness, which Woke thinking, now taking over our culture, knows nothing about. In our two hours of conversation, Cardinal Ratzinger brilliantly denounced German theological liberalism, and spoke of his love of divine grace. For our part, we described our seminary and its Reformed teaching, for which he showed great interest. Indeed, the next day, by accident, I met his secretary in down-town Rome, and asked him if the cardinal had enjoyed our conversation. He replied: “His excellency said that he wished there was a seminary like that in the Catholic Church.”
Another event took place the previous day in the Vatican during our visit. My French colleagues and I gave Benedict an embossed copy of Calvin’s Institutes. I have it on excellent authority that Benedict read Calvin and really appreciated it! So we can say that somewhere in the Vatican there is a well-fingered copy of Calvin’s Institutes.
On that same day, on a secondary level, I personally gave Ratzinger a copy of my article, “1 Corinthians 15:8: Paul the Last Apostle” which contained a critique of papal inspiration. The Cardinal dutifully tucked my article away in his briefcase (see the photograph) promising to read it on his forthcoming plane trip. I certainly won’t claim that my interpretation of Paul was the reason he retired from the papacy! But I can’t help but wonder if Benedict may have been a crypto-Calvinist, having read the Institutes. We will know this in heaven, where I believe I will have the occasion to ask him.