Farewell to a "Church and Culture" Pope

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Thursday, February 14, 2013

Farewell to a "Church and Culture" Pope

We’ve all read the headlines about the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the first such resignation in over 600 years.

During what was supposed to be a routine meeting to discuss the canonization of three potential saints, Benedict read a statement that said, in part, that after examining his conscience “before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of leading the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.

He will step down on February 28.

Pope Benedict, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, has appeared in this blog from time to time over the course of his service. And I found a kindred spirit in terms of the twin emphases of this blog.

Namely, church and culture.

First, the “culture” part.

An online poll conducted by AOL soon after the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger to be the next Pope revealed what people perceived to be Pope Benedict XVI’s greatest challenges. 

“Sanctity of life” issues, such as cloning or stem cells, came in first, followed by the priest shortage. Distant on the list was the rise of secularism. 

(No one saw the looming crisis surrounding the scandal of pedophilia.) 

Fortunately, the new Pope didn’t seem driven by polls, exhibiting a sound awareness (as he had for many years) of secularism’s threat, wisely discerning that “sanctity of life” issues, along with the priest shortage, are the symptoms of secularism’s rise.

Benedict XVI had a courtside seat to secularism’s deadly effects in Western Europe, and specifically his German homeland. Fewer than one of every 10 Germans worships even once a month, and a majority of Germans and other northern Europeans confess that God does not matter to them at all. 

Little wonder that in Ratzinger’s pre-election sermon to his fellow cardinals he made the following declaration: “We are moving toward a ‘dictatorship of relativism… that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one’s ego and desires as the final measure.”

John Paul II began his papacy with the cry, “Be not afraid!” Benedict XVI seemed to initiate his pontificate differently: “Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.”

He was right.

But then there was the “church” part.

We’re all familiar with the decline in church attendance and membership around the world. During the heart of Benedict’s tenure I recall an article titled “Many Church Rolls Decline” distributed by the Religion News Service.

Again, not exactly breaking news. To date, most mainline Protestant denominations report continuing decline.

But go back in time with me. While the top two religious groups, the Southern Baptists and Catholics, reported membership losses in the 2009 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, in the 2010 edition, only the Catholics reported a rebound with a 1.5% growth rate to more than 68 million members.

The reason?

I’m not sure of all of the dynamics, but most would argue that integral to any church’s growth is offering your message through contemporary modes of communication.

And during that time, Pope Benedict told priests, “For God’s sake, blog!” The Pope admonished priests that they must use new forms of communication to spread the gospel message. 

In a message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Communications, the then 82-year-old Pope, acknowledged priests must make the most of the “rich menu of options” offered by new technology. 

“Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources – images, videos, animated features, blogs, Web sites – which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.”

Priests, he said, had to respond to the challenge of “today’s cultural shifts” if they wanted to reach young people.

Recently, he even began tweeting.

Props from this Protestant.

Holding these two together – understanding the times, and knowing how to then live for the sake of mission – fuel my life.

Apparently they have fueled his.

I hope he rests well.

James Emery White



“A Statement Rocks Rome, Then Sends Shockwaves Around the World,” Rachel Donadio and Nicholas Kulish, February 11, 2013, The New York Times, read online.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Peter Seewald, Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millenium (Ignatius, 1997).

“Christians must keep God’s rules, new pope reminds us,” David Yount, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington (www.thenewstribune.com), Scripps Howard News Service, originally published April 25, 2005.

“Many Church Rolls Decline,” Kimberlee Hauss, Religion News Service, as carried by the Charlotte Observer, Saturday, March 6, 2010, p. 4E.

“Pope to Priests: For God’s Sake, blog!”, Reuters, updated 10:27 a.m. ET, Sat., Jan. 23, 2010, hosted at msnbc.com.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Farewell to a "Church and Culture" Pope