BERLIN -- When Pope Benedict XVI addressed the German Parliament last year, its president, Norbert Lammert, created a stir among fellow Catholics when he called himself a “Catholic with Protestant leanings.”
Having also criticized the celibacy requirement for Roman Catholic clergy and hinted that reforms in general were long overdue in the Catholic Church, Lammert is seen as an example of Catholics who favor a “Protestantization” agenda – a more liberal approach to sexuality, feminism, bioethics, women in the clergy.
It is a very public example of what German Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller refers to as “the wrong ecumenical track,” one that would lead to “self-secularization.” Müller’s view reflects how uneasy the Roman Catholic hierarchy feels about evangelical counterparts who have everything that Catholic reformers want.
Yet at the same time, Lammert’s personal admission has altered the wider discussion in Germany around ecumenism, ie, the relationship among different Christian faiths. It has also raised the basic question of what Protestantism actually means today. Are the mysteries of Christianity on the way out, leaving in their wake organizations focused on welfare, feel-goodism, psychology and moralizing?
At a meeting of the German Bishops’ Conference, an internationally reputed theologian was quoted as saying that ecumenism – while leading to profound mutual understanding about basic beliefs -- was only interesting for Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians who “shared the basic belief that the manifestation of God in Christ is not a myth.” Ecumenism was useless among liberal Catholics who reduced faith to a cultural phenomenon and liberal evangelicals for whom Protestantism meant being “against the Pope and Rome and authority in general.”
Theologians on both sides of the fence have cleared away a lot of rubble, not least as regards Wittenberg reformer Martin Luther who, for Catholics, has gone from being a heretic and destroyer of Church unity to a teacher for all Christians, a “great figure of renewal” in the words of Cardinal Karl Lehmann.
Still, there are new areas of conflict requiring work. For example: to what extent does the German Evangelical Church (EKD) still support Lutheran positions? Or: what would re-integrating the arch-traditionalist St. Pius X Brotherhood into the Roman Catholic Church mean for the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s?
The most interesting ecumenical developments are the new coalitions forming around ethics, not doctrine. Notable for example is the shift in attitude of biblically fundamentalist Protestants towards Rome; and vice-versa, as these evangelicals are no longer seen as annoying sectarians but as allies who praise the Pope for his warnings about the “dictatorship of relativism.” They agree, furthermore, on issues such as protection of human life, family values, and stem cell research.
But while such a traditionalist alliance is forged, Protestant national churches in Germany are opening their rectories to ministers in same-sex partnerships, and blessing same-sex marriage. This tension inevitably creates serious problems for ecumenical relations within the Protestant community, with an impact on Roman Catholics as well, who actively work so that all Christians might speak with one voice.
But that doesn’t look to be in the cards right now. If the refrain "doctrine divides – service unites" marked the early phases of the ecumenical movement, more suited to today would be something along the lines of “ethics divide – doctrine unites.” Ecumenism remains a rich but complicated challenge.
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