A colleague of mine tuned into a DC-area sports radio station expecting to hear the usual banter about the Nationals, Wizards and the Redskins. But instead the show led with a discussion of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to abdicate.
To say that everyone is talking about Benedict’s decision and the upcoming conclave that will elect his successor is not an exaggeration. Here at the Colson Center, staff members—all of them evangelicals—were shooting emails back and forth wondering who the next Pope would be.
Why the huge interest?
Well, part of the reason, as Eric Metaxas noted, is that many of us are fascinated by how the Catholic Church works—the hierarchy, the rituals, all of that.
But the bigger reason is, agree with it or not, the Catholic Church matters.
Now, saying that the Catholic Church matters is obviously not the same thing as expressing doctrinal or philosophical agreement. Many of the news outlets covering this story 24/7, such as the New York Times, can hardly be described as fans of the pontiff or his predecessor, John Paul II.
In fact, as the people at Get Religion have pointed out, these same outlets go to often-ridiculous lengths to prop up and promote Catholic “alternatives” to the Vatican. Some of these “alternatives,” as the late Richard John Neuhaus noted, are little more than letterhead and stationery. And people, despite the Times’ best efforts, treat them as such.
If nothing else, the Catholic Church provides people with a Christian ideal to oppose. Or, to put it in biblical language, the Catholic Church, when it’s at its best, serves as a “sign of contradiction” to the dominant worldviews of our age.
As Russell Moore, a Baptist theologian, wrote in First Things, Benedict “stood against the nihilism that defines human worth in terms of power and usefulness.” He did this in his defense of then unborn and elderly life as well as marriage. And he did this by opposing the sexual revolution, religious persecution, and torture of prisoners.
Benedict insisted in each case that, in the words of Russell Moore, “these lives aren’t things . . . but images of God, and for them we will give an account.” While the larger culture sought to “dehumanize them with language — ‘embryo,’ ‘fetus,’ ‘anchor baby,’ ‘illegal alien,’ ‘collateral damage,’ and so on — Benedict has stood firmly to point to the human faces the world is seeking to wipe away.”
Chuck Colson would have agreed with that assessment. And while Evangelicals share these concerns, we often tend to see them as a series of disconnected battles. We’ve missed something that connected them and provided a comprehensive alternative to the nihilism Moore mentions.
That “something” is the belief that human beings are created in the image of God. The culture-wide “dehumanization” that Benedict and his predecessor opposed is, at root, a rejection of God Himself. By putting this rejection in its proper context, we can not only oppose its demonic consequences but offer a life-affirming alternative vision of what it means to be human.
Chuck Colson, while clearly recognizing the significant doctrinal differences he had with Roman Catholics, also acknowledged his debt to thinkers like Benedict and John Paul. He recognized the important role played by the Catholic Church in its opposition to the nihilism of our age. And he understood that its willingness to be the most visible “sign of contradiction” would also make it a target.
Evangelicals and Catholics Together was, in part, an expression of Chuck’s appreciation for that role. It was also a recognition that, our theological differences notwithstanding, what happens over the next few weeks in Rome matters to all of us. As such, we should pray for those choosing Benedict’s successor and be grateful for his willingness to be a “sign of contradiction.”