A call for Protestant intellectual leadership
Benedict and a passing moment of Catholic influence
The recent passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, even more than his nearly unprecedented resignation from the papacy nine years ago, may mark the end of an era in the modern Roman Catholic Church. In the midst of technological and cultural changes more rapid than any other in human history over the past half-century, Rome has managed to present itself as a rock of tradition and orthodoxy. Not entirely, to be sure. Underneath its veneer of stability have simmered any number of counter-currents of doctrinal discontent and liturgical innovation, not to mention the sickening moral rot of seemingly endless sexual abuse scandals.
Compared to the fractured and fractious landscape of American Protestantism, with our fog machines and self-help spirituality that plays right into the expressive individualism of modern culture, Rome has often looked like an unchanging refuge, whatever its warts. Accordingly, the phenomenon of “swimming the Tiber” has become something of an epidemic among evangelical elites since the 1990s, as dozens of notable intellectuals, disenchanted with the sorry state of Protestantism, have decided to give Rome a go.
The list includes prominent journalists like Mark Galli of Christianity Today, Richard John Neuhaus and Rusty Reno of First Things, and famed conservative pundits Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher. (Dreher has since left Catholicism.) It includes scholars like Francis Beckwith and Christian Smith, and political leaders like Sam Brownback and J.D. Vance. And the same pattern is almost as strong across the pond in Britain, where key Protestants such as Oxford scholar Michael Ward and the former Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali have converted to Rome in recent years. Where it is almost entirely lacking, of course, is outside of elite intellectual circles. Among rank-and-file Christians, you are far more likely to encounter an evangelical who grew up Catholic than a Catholic who grew up evangelical.
The recent intellectual allure of Roman Catholicism is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that Benedict’s passing may greatly dampen. While Rome has always sported a powerful tradition of scholarly depth and rigor, not merely in academic theology but in many arts and sciences, it hardly earned a reputation for intellectual dynamism in the centuries after the Reformation, as key advances in law, philosophy, biblical studies, literature, science, and more were liable to spring from Protestant universities. Nor were popes necessarily chosen for their pre-eminent intellectual gifts. To be sure, after the chastening events of the Reformation, Rome stopped choosing popes purely for their political connections to prominent Italian families. But as a deeply political institution, the Roman Church was generally more interested in shrewd institutional managers than in great scholars and teachers.
That changed in 1978, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II, bringing one of the leading intellectual lights of 20th-century Catholicism into the Vatican. Over the next 25 years, John Paul II would bring his deep philosophical training to bear in articulating a “theology of the body” that would help arm contemporary Catholics against the onslaught of relativism and sexual re-invention that has wreaked havoc on the Western world. In this, he was aided perhaps more than many realized at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who served for almost John Paul’s entire pontificate as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—effectively, Rome’s bureau for theological orthodoxy.
By the time he was elected pope in 2003, Ratzinger had enjoyed an illustrious academic career spanning nearly five decades and was arguably Rome’s greatest living theologian—at least in his ability to combine extremely high-level scholarship with pastoral popular-level expositions of basic Christian teachings. This combination was on full display in his classic Introduction to Christianity, which I vividly recall reading as an undergraduate in 2007. Like many of my generation, I felt the powerful pull of Rome as seemingly more serious and more historically rooted than the Protestantism in which I had been raised. Thankfully, for me the pull was short-lived, but I’ve retained a deep respect for the Rome that John Paul II and Benedict represented.
Needless to say, it is hard to feel a similar respect for the Rome represented by Pope Francis, whose mealy-mouthed revisionism on key moral orthodoxies has embarrassed conservative Catholics while endearing him to progressive elites. Since Francis ascended the papal throne in 2013, the tide of high-level Protestant conversions to Rome has slowed somewhat, but the mere continued presence of Benedict, lurking in the shadows as pope emeritus, has enabled many to look past Francis’s foibles and imagine a Rome that was still steadfast. No longer.
To be sure, Francis himself is in declining health, and it is possible that a more conservative successor will be waiting in the wings. However, one scans the horizon in vain for a conservative Roman Catholic with the sheer intellectual firepower of Benedict XVI. As Rome’s luster dims in the years ahead, Protestants must seize their opportunity to once again assert intellectual leadership of Western Christianity, defending creedal and moral orthodoxy with scholarly rigor, rhetorical clarity, and pastoral grace in the midst of a confused and darkening world.
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