Pope wants more time for ecumenism in Germany visit

Pope Benedict XVI, right, meets Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the head of the German Episcopal Conference and other German bishops AP

The Holy Father has surprised German Vatican watchers by writing a letter to leader of the German Protestant church in which he said he wished for a greater focus on ecumenism during his September visit to Germany.

Unhappy with the fact that the carefully prepared programme for the visit included only one hour for ecumenical dialogue, Pope Benedict wrote to Nikolaus Schneider, the chairman of the council of the German Evangelical Church (EKD), the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported today.

“In the meantime, the responsible bodies have prepared a provisional program, in which the meeting with the EKD takes a relatively modest spot,” the Pope wrote to Schneider in a letter dated February 28—20 days after the Pope met the German Protestant chairman in the Vatican.

“I have now told those responsible that in the land where the Reformation has its source, a stronger ecumenical accent is necessary,” the Pope wrote. He asked Schneider for understanding if, with “a very overfilled programme not everything that I myself would wish for which would give the matter appropriate weight, will be able to be realised”.

In the past German Protestants have been wary of the Pope for being the author of the controversial Declaration Dominus Jesus in 2000 when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The document said the churches of the Reformation were not Churches in an actual sense. The Protestants were in uproar. To understand the controversy, here is an interview of Cardinal Ratzinger the FAZ ran in 2000. Relations between the Catholic Church and the EKD have since been tense. (For some background on recent EKD Catholic spats see here)

But recently the Holy Father has reached out to the different Christian denominations and Churches to the Orthodox Church and to conservative Anglicans with Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus. He has sounded a more generally conciliatory tone toward mainstream Protestant groups. In his interview with Peter Seewald last year, he still spoke of Protestant churches as “ecclesial communities” but explained what this meant in a gentler way.

In Light of the World he said: “The word was intended to indicate that such communities embody a different mode of being a church. As they themselves insist, it is precisely not the same mode in which the Churches of the great tradition of antiquity are Churches, but is based on a new understanding, according to which a church consists, not in the institution, but in the dynamism of the Word that gathers people into a congregation.”

“This term, then, is an attempt to capture what is distinctive about Protestant Christianity and to give it a positive expression. We can always keep trying to find better terms, but the basic distinction is legitimate, indeed, it is a fact even from a purely historical point of view.”

All eyes are on the Holy Father’s visit to Germany in September. The Church there has suffered from an enormous crisis of confidence when hundreds of sexual abuse allegations came to light last year and members of the German hierarchy were implicated in the cover-up. In Catholic Bavaria alone, 60,000 Catholics officially left the Church last year, double the number of the previous year when the Williamson Scandal rocked the country.

In the last few months, a group of German theologians signed a document calling for the Pope to end compulsory celibacy. This week, his erstwhile Tuebingen colleague Hans Kueng said the Pope should reform the Church instead of writing books.

Already there has been evidence of careful planning—the Pope has been meeting regularly with members of the German hierarchy since December—and the visit is provisionally due to start on Thursday September 22 in Berlin and end with a Mass and “A speech to Germany” in Freiburg on September 25.

This is sure to develop.