In his noteworthy encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II noted that, “At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed herself irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture” (para. 3). At the start of his own pontificate, Benedict XVI reiterated this sentiment, recognizing the tragic reality of Christian disunity, but also his special role as Pope to shepherd all of God’s children along the path towards the unity Christ has promised (see the homily at Benedict’s inaugural Mass, 24 April 2005). The essays in The Pontificate of Benedict XVI: Its Premises and Promises are a Protestant and Orthodox rejoinder to the Catholic Church’s stated commitment to ecumenism, and together they constitute a kind of barometer of where the task of ecumenism stands now four years into the reign of Benedict XVI.
The overall tenor of the essayists is hopeful, even if a few of them signal reservations—and, in some cases, outright disagreement—with certain elements of Benedict’s vision of the Church. Without a doubt, the most aggressive essay comes from Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, who takes issue with Benedict’s adherence to the traditional Catholic claims about the Bishop of Rome being the sole successor of Peter and of, therefore, possessing universal jurisdiction over Christ’s Church. Metropolitan Maximos especially bristles at the assertion of a 1992 letter released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the Orthodox, along with all Protestant communities, are “wounded brothers” for refusing to accept papal primacy. Before he gets to the end of his essay, Maximos lodges other complaints—most notably, about the shortcomings of another CDF document, Dominus Iesus—but he concludes on a conciliatory note, drawing inspiration from a statement Ratzinger made while still a cardinal to the effect that, in ecumenical discussions, “Rome must not demand from the East more recognition of the doctrine of primacy than was known and practiced in the first millennium.” In Maximos’ view, if Ratzinger still maintains this opinion, then his ascension to the papacy truly does represent a sign of hope for rapprochement between Rome and the Eastern Orthodox.
Maximos’ essay may be the most interesting piece in this collection, simply on account of the passion with which he approaches his subject. Two other essays in particular stand out. The first is by Ephraim Radner of the Episcopal Church who engages Ratzinger’s theology around the matter of Christian division, specifically in regard to the present relationship of the Anglican Communion to the Roman Catholic Church. As the title (“Providential Pluralism: An Ecumenical Gift?”) of his essay implies, Radner seeks to read the pluralistic reality of contemporary Christian experience in a positive light, by attempting to demonstrate how the Anglican Communion in its conciliar polity has a specific, providentially ordained gift to offer the Church Catholic. If this assumption is correct, Radner wonders if there exists the possibility for an exchange of gifts between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, with Rome offering in return its “(right) understanding of the priority of the universal church over particular churches,” a key theological motif throughout Ratzinger’s writings on ecclesiology.
The other essay worth highlighting comes from Geoffrey Wainwright, certainly no stranger to the ecumenical scene. A bit surprisingly, Wainwright does not focus on a specific ecumenical issue, but instead offers an extended treatment of Benedict’s reflections on the Christian response to “the unavoidable question” of human mortality. Wainwright’s piece displays the kind of depth that one would expect from a theologian who has been at the forefront of his field for nearly four decades. As he is known to do, Wainwright incorporates lyrics from one of Charles Wesley’s hymns into his essay, giving the indication that he sees significant resonances between the Wesleyan tradition to which he remains committed and Roman Catholic theology as articulated by Pope Benedict. That Wainwright would see such resonances makes sense, as a much of his life’s work has been dedicated to achieving eucharistic fellowship between Methodists and the Roman Catholic Church.
While the three pieces touched on above especially stand out, the overall quality of all the essays in this collection is quite impressive. Realistically, The Pontificate of Benedict XVI: Its Premises and Promises should appeal to any theologian concerned with the present state of the ecumenical movement. The editor, William G. Rusch, has done a fine job of bringing together voices from a variety of Christian traditions and organizing them into a coherent whole that serves as a critical assessment of the first four years of Benedict XVI’s papacy. Let us pray that as Benedict’s pontificate moves forward Christians everywhere will be filled with the hope so manifest in these essays, so as to work towards the unity that Christ prayed for his followers to have.