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Father R.J. Neuhaus' Outlook on Benedict XVI

6/7/2005 - 5:00 AM PST

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"Remarkable Gentleness, Combined With a Keen Intellectual Curiosity"

NEW YORK, JUNE 7, 2005 (Zenit) - Benedict XVI has modest expectations for ecumenism and expects the path to unity to involve an unforeseen initiative of the Holy Spirit, says Father Richard John Neuhaus.

The editor in chief of First Things shared with us his views about the new Pope and what could be expected in his pontificate.

Q: Would you share some of your personal experiences with Cardinal Ratzinger, and what special gifts you think he brings to the papacy?

Father Neuhaus: I have known Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, for more than 20 years, and we have been in conversation about many things.

As everybody knows, he is a master theologian and, I think, might have been recognized as one of the theological giants of the last 100 years if he had not offered the prime of his life to serving John Paul the Great as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

As everybody should know, he is a person of remarkable gentleness and serenity, combined with a keen intellectual curiosity in engaging alternative viewpoints.

As for personal experiences, in 1988 I invited him to deliver our annual Erasmus Lecture here in New York, which was followed by a conference of several days with Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox theologians.

The public lecture, held in midtown Manhattan, was rudely disrupted by gay activists who waved their pink triangles while screaming pleasantries such as "Sieg Heil!" "Nazi Ratzy!" and "Inquisitor Go Home!" I finally had to call the police to clear the protesters and restore order.

Throughout, the cardinal was the very picture of tranquility. When he got a chance to speak he prefaced his lecture, which was on the subject of biblical interpretation, with a moving reflection on the 1968 student rebellion in Europe that helped him to understand more deeply the indispensability of civility in human relations.

On this and other occasions, it was obvious to me that his tranquility is rooted in a tried and tested faith. The next day the tabloid headlines blazoned, "Gays Protest Vatican Biggy." He chuckled at his new title of Vatican Biggy.

Q: Benedict XVI has emphasized ecumenism as a priority. Does that surprise you at all?

Father Neuhaus: No, not at all. This has been among his constant concerns and interests, and he has written extensively on the subject of ecumenism. As a German he has had extensive experience with the traditions coming out of the 16th-century divisions, especially Lutheranism and Reformed, or Calvinist, Christianity.

He has a sympathetic appreciation of what Martin Luther got right, and an incisive but non-polemical analysis of what he got wrong, and why. As head of CDF, he was responsible for the doctrinal aspects of all the ecumenical dialogues in which the Church is engaged, and will continue to exercise that responsibility.

Although he would of course admit nothing, I see clear evidence of his hand in key passages of the 1995 encyclical on Christian unity, "Ut Unum Sint." In this pontificate we will, I expect, see a very clear line of authority as the Pope, the chief doctrinal officer of the Church, employs CDF to coordinate other offices dealing with matters of doctrine. CDF was, for instance, intensely involved in the 1999 Lutheran-Catholic declaration on justification.

Q: What does the emphasis on ecumenism say at a time when there are so many concerns about pro-life issues?

Father Neuhaus: There is a strong connection. The Baptist theologian Timothy George speaks about "the ecumenism of the trenches," referring to the ways in which Catholics and evangelical Protestants in this country have come to know and trust one another in the pro-life cause.

This was also critically important to the continuing project called Evangelicals and Catholics Together, ECT, which Charles Colson and I launched in 1994. I have over the years been in contact with Cardinal Ratzinger on developments in ECT, and he has been entirely supportive. To be sure, as a European he has had relatively little firsthand experience with American evangelicalism, which is very different from what "evangelical" means in Germany.

But he is very much aware of the explosive growth of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, and that is undoubtedly comprehended in his ecumenical vision. The Church's oft-repeated understanding is that the commitment to ecumenism is "irrevocable," and the goal of ecumenism is the establishment of "full communion."

On the latter point, Pope Benedict's expectations are markedly modest. In his writings he has insisted that the only unity we can seek, the only unity pleasing to God, is unity in the fullness of ...

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