Pope Benedict XVI: Why This Protestant Says Thanks
I was expecting the Big News this morning to be about drama from the Grammy’s, but instead it’s drama from the Pope! News of Pope Benedict’s early retirement abounds and during the next month his papacy will surely be criticized. The dark cloud that looms over Benedict’s legacy will be the child sex abuse scandal. Much more will be said in the weeks to come about Benedict’s response to that tragedy. This Protestant still thinks it’s valid to protest the Church’s exclusion of women and the LBGT community from the priesthood. Of course, when it comes to opening the doors of our churches and the pulpit to women and the LGBT community, many Protestant churches have a long way to go, too. Protestants may rightly criticize the Catholic Church, but only with humility. The sad irony of the Protestant critique is that most of our criticism is mere projection of our own faults upon the Catholic “other.” As Rene Girard pointed out in his brilliant book Deceit, Desire and the Novel, we humans have a tendency “to be indignant at the evil by which [we ourselves are] consumed.” (73)
At its best the Catholic Church points beyond its foibles to the radically inclusive nature of Christianity, and the Pope should be a sign of that inclusive Spirit. Yes, Benedict should have done more in response to the child sex abuse scandal and more to move the Church in the direction of full inclusion, but I’ll leave the criticisms to others. I want to express my appreciation for Benedict. One of the greatest gifts that he gave the Catholic Church, and to this Protestant onlooker, was his first Encyclical titled God is Love. In my view, Benedict is unfairly criticized for excessive dogmatism. He’s even been popularly christened “God’s Rottweiler”! And yet his first message to the world was not based on dogmatism; it was based on love. He began his Encyclical by quoting the famous passage in First John:
“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). The words from the First Letter of John express the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us.” (7)
For Benedict, the Christian axiom that God is love means that you are the object of God’s love. You are loved more than you will ever know. Benedict knew the urgency of this message. “In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant.” Indeed. God is Love leads the Christian world down a specific theological path that claims there is no vengeance, hatred, or violence within God. Vengeance, hatred, and violence belong to humans, not to God.
The really good news is that God’s love is not based on feelings that come and go. It’s not that love is merely an aspect of God that is mitigated by contradicting aspects, such as hatred and wrath. God is love. Period. And once we receive this love we are invited to respond by sharing that love with the world. Because not only are you the object of God’s love, but all of creation is embraced by God’s love, too. The Christian life invites us to share this love with the world, with friends and enemies. This love is entirely possible, not because of a doctrine, but because of a Person. Jesus revealed the very heart of God and makes it possible for us to participate in that love. Benedict’s essential message in God is Love comes down to this:
Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God. To experience love and in this way to cause the light of God to enter into the world—this is the invitation I would like to extend with the present Encyclical. (93)
The radically inclusive nature of Christianity is the message that everyone is embraced by the God who is love, and everyone is created in the image of that God. Participating in this love is not easy, but in a world so often consumed by vengeance, hatred, and violence, this love is not only possible, it’s necessary for our future. That’s the challenge of Benedict. Like all of us, he has not always loved perfectly, but Benedict has pointed beyond his faults to the God who is love.
And for that, this Protestant says thanks.