The Church Undivided

Benedict’s Quest to Bring Christians Back Together

Mass appeal: Pope Benedict with the archbishop of Constantinople, December 2006. Osservatore Romano / Courtesy Reuters

In terms of budget, personnel, and global reach, the Roman Catholic Church rivals the United Nations, and as far as having a track record of promoting tolerance and peace without resorting to force, it has no equal among states. Over Christianity’s 2,000-year history, its message of love, charity, and self-sacrifice has kept the religion popular and influential, even in the face of relentless attacks. The Soviet Union, for example, shut down churches and waged an aggressive antireligion campaign, but Christianity has outlasted communism. 

Christianity is mending a number of internal, long-standing ruptures as well. In the eleventh century, the faith splintered into the Western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation further damaged Christian unity. Today, however, global Christianity is poised to heal these rifts and emerge stronger than ever.

This project was made possible by Pope Benedict XVI, who retired in February, and will now be carried out by his successor, Pope Francis. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict in 2005, few expected him to accomplish much in the way of outreach and bridge building. In his previous position as the designated protector of church doctrine, Ratzinger had proved himself to be a strict traditionalist; in the run-up to his selection as pope, The Washington Post described him as “the guardian of orthodoxy.”

Yet Benedict’s authority as a renowned theologian and the happenstance of his German birth made him an unusually successful advocate for Christian unity. Indeed, Benedict did more during his eight-year reign to overcome the Great Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation, and to promote interfaith dialogue, than any of his predecessors, including Pope John Paul II. In the process, he helped distinguish the Vatican’s worldview from Washington’s in important ways and paved the way for improved cooperation among Christians of various denominations on religious, moral, and political issues worldwide. Francis will undoubtedly continue this effort. In his native Argentina, he championed interfaith cooperation and dialogue.


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