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Notebook Religion

Papal departure

GRACEFUL EXIT: Pope Benedict XVI (Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Medichini)



Papal departure

After an eventful eight years, Benedict XVI becomes the first pope in over 700 years to resign

Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement, effective Feb. 28, following an eight-year tenure marked by a commitment to traditional Catholic teachings on theology and social issues, as well as a push for a “new evangelization” of nominally Christian countries, especially in Europe. The 85-year-old pope cited his declining health as the chief reason for his resignation.

Even though Benedict had discussed the prospect of resigning before the formal announcement, it came as a surprise. For centuries, popes have stayed in office until their deaths. George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center notes that the last pope to step down this way was Celestine V in 1294. A Vatican spokesman expressed hope that Roman Catholic cardinals would choose a new pope by Easter.

Many evangelical Christians, in spite of important theological differences with Catholics, have viewed Benedict and John Paul favorably because of the leaders’ emphasis on the dignity of human life in all its stages, from the unborn to the sick and elderly. Benedict has also championed religious liberty and has highlighted the threat presented by radical Islam, especially in a controversial 2006 speech in which he favorably quoted a Byzantine emperor who described Muhammad’s endorsement of violence as “evil and inhuman.”

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary commented that while he disagreed with Benedict about a number of issues, he believed that evangelicals should applaud his defense of marriage, human life, and religious freedom, and his opposition to Marxist “liberation theology” within the Catholic Church.

Critics argue that one stain on Benedict’s tenure is the continued presence in the Catholic hierarchy of leaders implicated in covering up of widespread sexual abuse of children by priests. Cardinal Roger Mahony—recently stripped of his administrative duties in Los Angeles over revelations that he had helped cover up clergy sexual abuse—will be among the cardinals who will choose the next pope.

Violent reaction

Recent blog posts by an Old Testament professor at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College have raised questions about the Bible’s authority, and how Christians should view the Bible’s violent passages, such as Israel’s destruction of the Canaanites in Joshua 6-11. While conservative Bible scholars would typically argue that those passages do not endorse religious violence in general, they would not normally deny that the episodes were divinely permitted. But Messiah’s Eric Seibert, writing at the religion website, contends that “not everything in the ‘good book’ is either good, or good for us.” He says that Christians can never condone violence, “even when the Bible suggests otherwise.”

Seibert, author of The Violence of Scripture: Overcoming the Old Testament’s Troubling Legacy, and a minister in the Brethren in Christ denomination, laments that the Bible’s violent passages have “been used to justify warfare, oppress women, condemn gays and lesbians, support slavery, and legitimate colonization, to name just a few of its troubling legacies.” Boyce College professor Owen Strachan calls Seibert’s views “shameful,” especially considering that Seibert teaches at what is generally regarded as an evangelical college. “Whatever God does is right,” Strachan says, and “all that God teaches us in Scripture is right.” Strachan suggested on Twitter that Messiah administrators should fire Seibert, because his views clearly clash with the college’s statement of faith.

The pacifist Brethren in Christ Church, the founding denomination of Messiah College, affirms on its website that the whole Bible is the “authoritative and reliable Word of God,” but it also subordinates the Old Testament to the New, saying that the New Testament must serve “as interpreter of the Old.” The college’s “nonsectarian” statement of faith affirms that the Bible is “the inspired, trustworthy and authoritative Scripture.” —T.K.