A warning from Rome: The funeral of Pope Benedict XVI holds big lessons for evangelical Christians

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
February 5, 2023

Today’s funeral mass for the Roman Catholic’s Church’s first “pope emeritus,” formerly Pope Benedict XVI, marks yet another first in church history—the first funeral of a pope presided over by a pope. For good reason, evangelical Protestants do not recognize the papacy, seeing it as an institution without biblical warrant. Nevertheless, evangelicals had better understand the power of the papacy and come to terms with the fact that the foremost teaching office of the Catholic Church exerts a massive theological influence. That was especially true with the back-to-back papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

In the case of Benedict, his greatest influence came before he was elected pope in 2005. Born in 1927 in Bavaria, Germany’s Catholic heartland, Joseph Ratzinger emerged as one of the most powerful Catholic theologians. The 1960s became a crucial decade for Father Ratzinger as he saw himself as a son of Vatican II, the transformative council of the church that was to reshape Catholicism for the modern age. But the affirming response of his faculty colleagues to the student revolts of 1968, the rise of the New Left, and open calls for dispensing with historic Catholic teachings, led Ratzinger to adopt a far more conservative stance. A towering theological figure, Ratzinger would be named Archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977. The same year he was made a cardinal of the church. Just five years later, he was named Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome by Pope John Paul II—the Catholic Church’s chief doctrinal enforcer.

I first encountered Cardinal Ratzinger through his writings. As a young evangelical doctoral student majoring in systematic and historical theology, I needed to understand Catholic theological method. An ardent Protestant, I decided to do part of my doctoral studies at a Catholic graduate school under a Catholic faculty. It turned out to be a liberal Catholic faculty. One thing quickly became clear: They were entirely opposed to Cardinal Ratzinger, often referred to by his enemies as “God’s Rottweiler.” The closer I looked at Ratzinger, the more accurate I saw his indictment of the Catholic left to be—accurate, urgent, and prophetic. At the same time, Ratzinger, who understood the mentality of the Catholic ideological left, helped me to see that the same pattern was fully evident on the Protestant left. Forewarned is forearmed, as we should know.

Ratzinger was a great defender of Western Civilization, shaped by historic Christian presuppositions. His defense of the sanctity of human life and the integrity of marriage and the family were grounded in two great assertions. First, the positive assertion that truth exists and is evident in revelation. Second, that a powerful “dictatorship of relativism” threatens to unravel civilization, truth, and moral authority. He wrote with enormous moral clarity, as in this passage from 2004, as Europe was rapidly secularizing: “Monogamous marriage, as a fundamental structure of the relation between man and woman and at the same time as the basic cell in the formation of the larger community, was modeled on the basis of biblical faith. … Europe would no longer be Europe if this fundamental cell of is social edifice were to disappear or if its nature were to be changed.”

It mattered then that the pope of the Roman Catholic Church said such things out loud. It matters now that the genial Pope Francis, Benedict’s successor, does not speak with such courage or clarity. Benedict’s indictment of secularism and his analysis of the post-Christian condition were unprecedented and prophetic. He was never subtle. Francis is subtle to a fault, undermining historic Christian understandings of marriage and sexual ethics with surrender in the form of a shrug, asking “Who am I to judge?”

The most important years of Benedict’s influence came long before he was Benedict, in the years when he was known as Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal of the church and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In that role Ratzinger reinvigorated and lent massive intellectual credibility to the conservative resurgence that dared to defy theological liberalism and, most specifically, Marxist-infused liberation theology.

The most significant question that remains is whether Benedict, mostly in his years before the papacy, changed the doctrinal direction of his church or will be seen as a temporary (but formidable) obstruction to an inevitable progressive victory within Catholicism.

In terms of his legacy, contemporary developments in Catholicism, including the liberalizing influence of his papal successor, raise real doubts about any lasting check on radical developments in the church. A quick glance at recent Catholic developments in Benedict’s own home nation, Germany, reveals the issue. German Catholics have announced what amounts to a doctrinal and moral revolt against Rome, going so far as to demand recognition of same-sex unions and the ordination of women and LGBTQ Catholics.

The occasion of Benedict’s funeral today underlines a central conservative challenge. All the ground regained by conservatives in one generation can be undone in the next, and quickly. The challenge to evangelical Christians, to my own Southern Baptist Convention, and to conservatives everywhere is to prevent this from happening. The fact that Pope Francis is presiding over the funeral of Pope Benedict today is not just an historical anomaly. It is a warning.

This article originally appeared at WORLD Opinions on January 5, 2023.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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