ROME (BP) -- As the world reacted to the unexpected news that Pope Benedict XVI would become the first pope in six centuries to resign, evangelicals acknowledged major theological differences while citing Benedict's commitment to human dignity as a key part of his legacy.
Benedict, 85, announced Monday (Feb. 11) that because of his advanced age and infirmity, he will vacate his position as spiritual leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics at the end of the month. He has been pope since 2005.
"Strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me," Benedict said, adding that he is "well aware of the seriousness of this act."
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville Ky., said Benedict "has offered a brave and intelligent defense of truth against a relativist tide, and he has been a stalwart friend of life."
Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, located in a heavily Catholic region, told Baptist Press that Benedict "is a man worthy of our respect and appreciation."
"Although there are profound differences in Baptist and Catholic perspectives on faith, we shared a commitment to the sanctity of life and other biblical values," Kelley said of Benedict.
Daniel Sanchez, associate dean of the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said this is a time to pray for Catholics.
"The news of the resignation of the pope is undoubtedly creating concern and confusion in the minds of many sincere and devoted Roman Catholics," Sanchez told Baptist Press. "While it is true that the Roman Catholic Church has a recognized process for the election of a successor to the current pope, it is also true that this is a time of transition for the church and its adherents."
Sanchez added, "In a time of transition and uncertainty, it is important that we remind ourselves and our Roman Catholic friends that Jesus, through the person of the Holy Spirit, is always with us and never leaves us. It is also important to emphasize the fact that it is through a personal experience of salvation in Jesus Christ that we can have the assurance of His presence with us and the hope of being with Him when we die."
Russell Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, while recognizing theological differences with Catholics, noted that the Vatican in the last generation -- including Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II -- has emphasized the dignity and liberty of the human person.
Benedict, Moore said, has countered the sexual revolution by reminding the world of the meaning of human personhood.
"We are not merely collections of nerve endings that spark with sensation when rubbed together," Moore wrote at RussellMoore.com. "Instead a human person is directed toward a one-flesh union, which is personal and spiritual. Destroying the ecology of marriage and family isn't simply about tearing down old 'moralities,' he has reminded us, but about a revolt against the web of nature in which human beings thrive."
The current pope, Moore said, has stood against those who define human worth in terms of power and usefulness.
"He has constantly spoken for those whose lives are seen as a burden to society: the baby with Down syndrome, the woman with advanced Alzheimer's, the child starving in the desert, the prisoner being tortured," Moore wrote. "These lives aren't things, he has said, but images of God, and for them we will give an account.
"When society wants to dehumanize with language: 'embryo,' 'fetus,' 'anchor baby,' 'illegal alien,' 'collateral damage,' and so on, Benedict has stood firmly to point to the human faces the world is seeking to wipe away," Moore wrote.
Mohler, tweeting his comments from the Dominican Republic -- where he has been speaking -- said Benedict's resignation "will mark a decisive ... generational change" for the Catholic church.
Mohler also said the theological divide between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is "fully evident in an event such as papal transition."
Emphasizing that theology matters, Mohler noted that one of the "many faults" of the papacy "is the idea that a monarchial head can speak for any church" and warned people not to miss the opportunity and responsibility "to ponder the theological issues at stake in this new papal transition."
"Remember that millions of people around the world gain their idea of what Christianity is from the papacy," Mohler said.
Though questions about Benedict's health had surfaced previously, The New York Times said, his announcement "sent shock waves around the world." Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said he expects Benedict's successor to be elected by Easter, which is March 31 this year.
The pope's resignation announcement was made in Latin, but it was translated into seven languages: Italian, French, English, German, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish, The Times reported.
Though some news reports indicated that the conservative Benedict would have no role in choosing the next pope, The Times noted that he "could well influence the choice of a successor because he has molded the College of Cardinals -- the papal electoral body -- by his appointment of kindred spirits during his papacy."
Lombardi said Benedict likely will retire to a monastery in Vatican City and devote himself to a life of reflection and prayer. The spokesman added, "I am sure that many will recognize it to be a decision of great courage and characteristic clarity of mind and action."
The last pope to resign was Gregory XII in 1415.
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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