Pope Benedict XVI gave a much anticipated address today to representatives of the Protestant EKD (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland) at the former Augustinian Convent in Erfurt, where Martin Luther spent many years before his break with the Catholic Church. He then gave another address at the same location at an ecumencial prayer service.
Although fairly short, the first address is quintessential Ratzinger/Benedict: personal, thoughful, embracing, and challenging, all at once. And is often the case with Benedict, he did not make his points with stark declarations, but with difficult questions. In fact, an entire paragraph of the address was taken up with a series of interrelated questions:
“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make an impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. Insofar as people today believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – this burning question of Martin Luther must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too. In my view, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.
By highlighting such essential questions, Benedict points out that authentic ecumenical dialogue (which he clearly and firmly believes must be at the service of unity and not just an exercise in facile conversation) should be rooted in asking the right questions about fundamental truths: the nature of God, the nature of grace and faith, and what it means to be a Christian, especially in a culture that is essentially post-Christian. And this means, of course, focusing on the person of Jesus Christ, without whom unity is both pointless and unobtainable:
Another important point: God, the one God, creator of heaven and earth, is no mere philosophical hypothesis regarding the origins of the universe. This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.
Throughout his public life as priest, archbishop, cardinal, and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger has not shied away from the fact that real and serious divisions exist between Catholics and Protestants (more on that below). But as Pope, as Vicar of Jesus Christ, he is mindful to emphasize the proper priorities for ecumenism and to indicate the way forward, mindful that union will only be possible through the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Today, for instance, he said that
the first and most important thing for ecumenism is that we keep in view just how much we have in common, not losing sight of it amid the pressure towards secularization – everything that makes us Christian in the first place and continues to be our gift and our task. It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds. The great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground and that we acknowledge it as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our undying foundation.
And then, in his address given later at the Ecumenical Prayer Service he again focused on the need for common witness to the share belief in the Triune God, giver of Life and author of Love:
Our fundamental unity comes from the fact that we believe in God, the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth. And that we confess that he is the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The highest unity is not the solitude of a monad, but rather a unity born of love. We believe in God – the real God. We believe that God spoke to us and became one of us. To bear witness to this living God is our common task at the present time.
Benedict is, I'm confident, very mindful that Christ told Peter, "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren" (Lk 22:32)—and that non-Catholic Christians are indeed brothers, even if separated brothers who are not in perfect and full communion. His words of encouragement are part and parcel of his consistent message, in this trip to Germany and in other such trips to other countries, that choosing life without God is to actually choose death, wittingly or otherwise. So he said today, at the prayer service:
But the more the world withdraws from God, the clearer it becomes that man, in his hubris of power, in his emptiness of heart and in his longing for satisfaction and happiness, increasingly loses his life. A thirst for the infinite is indelibly present in human beings. Man was created to have a relationship with God; we need him. Our primary ecumenical service at this hour must be to bear common witness to the presence of the living God and in this way to give the world the answer which it needs. Naturally, an absolutely central part of this fundamental witness to God is a witness to Jesus Christ, true man and true God, who lived in our midst, suffered and died for us and, in his resurrection, flung open the gates of death.
Christians can easily lose sight of this need to witness, especially when they allow the world to set the agenda, frame the questions, and control the culture. And so Benedict addresses the problem of
the secularized context of the world in which we Christians today have to live and bear witness to our faith. God is increasingly being driven out of our society, and the history of revelation that Scripture recounts to us seems locked into an ever more remote past. Are we to yield to the pressure of secularization, and become modern by watering down the faith? Naturally faith today has to be thought out afresh, and above all lived afresh, so that it is suited to the present day. Yet it is not by watering the faith down, but by living it today in its fullness that we achieve this. This is a key ecumenical task.
There are, in essence, two paths for Protestant denominations to pursue today. The first is the path of capitulation, which has been embraced by a growing number of mainline Protestant groups, who are increasingly as faddish as they are irrelevant, as obsessed with being politically-correct as they are apparently blind to their own denominational deaths. The second is the path of catholicism, which involves a renewed (or completely new) interest in Church history, tradition and Tradition, liturgy, patristics, ancient devotions, and the historical witness of the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
An obvious example of both can be seen in the Anglican communion. Some Anglicans are (knowingly?) intent on sinking the ship as quickly as possible with the picks of sexual perversion and the axes of anti-doctrinal self-indulgence. But others are looking to Rome and realizing that the Holy Father and the bark of Peter have provided a safe harbor and a means not just of escape from a flailing faith but the fulfillment of a faith seeking communion.
Benedict said, "A self-made faith is worthless. Faith is not something we work out intellectually and negotiate between us. It is the foundation for our lives. Unity grows not by the weighing of benefits and drawbacks but only by entering ever more deeply into the faith in our thoughts and in our lives." One thing that continually impresses me about the Holy Father is his ability to avoid two temptations: the temptation to live in the past to the detriment of truly living today, and the temptation to live as if the past has no true meaning for us today. This has, in fact, always been the case. It is readly evident in a 1984 interview, "Luther and the Unity of the Churches" (Communio; Fall 1984. Available as a PDF file.; it is included in the book, Church, Ecumenism, & Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology), in which Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger made a number of important remarks and observations about Martin Luther; in fact, I think it is key reading for anyone who wants some essential background to Benedict's statements in Germany.
In that interview, Ratzinger talked about the complexity of Luther, and distinguished between Luther the catechist, hymnist, and liturgical reformer, and Luther the radical and revolutionary polemicist against Rome. "It would be desirable," he said, "to keep in mind Luther's piety when reading his polemical works and the revolutionary background when dealing with issues concerning the Church." In other words, Ratzinger has always been interested in the whole Luther, not just one dimension or aspect of his huge and difficult personality. Then there is this fascinating question and answer, which I quote at length, that makes reference to Blessed John Paul II's trip to Germany in 1980:
Question: Would it be realistic for the Catholic Church to lift Luther's excommunication on the basis of the results of more recent scholarship?
Cardinal Ratzinger: In order to do full justice to this question one must differentiate between excommunication as a judicial measure on the part of the legal community of the Church against a certain person, and the factual reasons which led to such a step. Since the Church's jurisdiction naturally only extends to the living, the excommunication of a person ends with his death. Consequently, any questions dealing with the lifting of Luther's excommunication become moot: Luther's excommunication terminated with his death because judgment after death is reserved to God alone. Luther's excommunication does not have to be lifted; it has long since ceased to exist.
However, it is an entirely different matter when we ask if Luther's proposed teachings still separate the churches and thus preclude joint communion. Our ecumenical discussions center on this question. The inter-faith commission instituted following the Pope's visit to Germany will specifically direct its attention to the problem of the exclusions in the sixteenth century and their continued validity, that is, the possibility of moving beyond them. To be sure, one must keep in mind that there exist not only Catholic anathemas against Luther's teachings but also Luther's own definitive rejections of Catholic articles of faith which culminate in Luther's verdict that we will remain eternally separate. It is not necessary to borrow Luther's angry response to the Council of Trent in order to prove the definiteness of his rejection of anything Catholic: ". . . we should take him-the pope, the cardinals, and whatever riffraff belongs to His Idolatrous and Papal Holiness-and (as blasphemers) tear out their tongues from the back, and nail them on the gallows . . . . Then one could allow them to hold a council, or as many as they wanted, on the gallows, or in hell among all the devils." After his final break with the Church, Luther not only categorically rejected the papacy but he also deemed the Catholic teachings about the eucharist (mass) as idolatry because he interpreted the mass as a relapse into the Law and, thus, a denial of the Gospel. To explain all these contradictions as misunderstandings seems to me like a form of rationalistic arrogance which cannot do any justice to the impassioned struggle of those men as well as the importance of the realities in question. The real issue can only lie in how far we are today able to go beyond the positions of those days and how we can arrive at insights which will overcome the past. To put it differently: unity demands new steps. It cannot be achieved by means of interpretative tricks. If separation occurred as a result of contrary religious insights which could locate no space within the traditional teachings of the Church, it will not be possible to create a unity by means of doctrine and discussion alone, but only with the help of religious strength. Indifference appears only on the surface to be a unifying link.
Ratinzger mentions a point that is, it seems to me, one of the biggest bones of contention he has with Luther: the reformer's rejection of the Mass as sacrifice and, further, his belief that the Mass is idolatrous in nature. It's not surprising, needless to say, that this is upsetting to a Catholic. But it particularly galling to Ratzinger, I suggest, because his ecclesiology is so eucharistic-centered, a topic that he has taken up in several essays and books (for example, Called to Communion, The Feast of Faith, Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church As Communion, and The Spirit of the Liturgy). In a 2001 lecture, "Theology of the Liturgy", Ratzinger noted that even some Catholic theologians (he specifically mentions speak positively of Luther's "conclusions" that the sacrifice of the Mass is "the greatest and most appalling horror" and a "damnable impiety". He then stated, with a bit of an edge:
I certainly don't need to say that I am not one of the "numerous Catholics" who consider it the most appalling horror and damnable impiety to speak of the sacrifice of the Mass. It goes without saying that the writer did not mention my book on the spirit of the liturgy, which analyses the idea of sacrifice in detail. ... A sizable party of catholic liturgists seems to have practically arrived at the conclusion that Luther, rather than Trent, was substantially right in the sixteenth century debate; one can detect much the same position in the post conciliar discussions on the Priesthood.
And, a bit later, he connected the matter of the sacrifice of the Mass to the "principle presuppositions" about the authority of Scripture and how it is to be read, understood, and interpreted. Catholics read Scripture, said Ratzinger,
in the living community of the Church, and therefore on the basis of the fundamental decisions thanks to which it has become historically efficacious, namely, those which laid the foundations of the Church. One must not separate the text from this living context. In this sense, Scripture and Tradition form an inseparable whole, and it is this that Luther, at the dawn of the awakening of historical awareness, could not see. He believed that a text could only have one meaning, but such univocity does not exist, and modern historiography has long since abandoned the idea. That in the nascent Church, the Eucharist was, from the beginning, understood as a sacrifice, even in a text such as the Didache, which is so difficult and marginal vis-à-vis the great Tradition, is an interpretative key of primary importance.
Simply put, once the authority of the Church is jettisoned, or at least pushed to the side, the door is open for all sorts of errors, mistakes, and heresies. But Ratzinger doesn't believe that Luther set out to be rid of the authority of the Church; rather, Luther's eventual disregard for that authority came from his beliefs about the essential issues of faith and the nature of God. In the 1984 interview, Ratzinger said:
It seems to me that the basic feature is the fear of God by which Luther's very existence was struck down, torn between God's calling and the realization of his own sinfulness, so much so that God appears to him sub contrario, as the opposite of Himself, i.e., as the Devil who wants to destroy man. To break free of this fear of God becomes the real issue of redemption. Redemption is realized the moment faith appears as the rescue from the demands of self-justification, that is, as a personal certainty of salvation. This "axis" of the concept of faith is explained very clearly in Luther's Little Catechism: "I believe that God created me. . . . I believe that Jesus Christ . . . is my Lord who saved me . . . in order that I may be His . . . and serve Him forever in justice and innocence forever." Faith assures, above all, the certainty of one's own salvation. The personal certainty of redemption becomes the center of Luther's ideas. Without it, there would be no salvation. Thus, the importance of the three divine virtues, faith, hope, and love, to a Christian formula of existence undergoes a significant change: the certainties of hope and faith, though hitherto essentially different, become identical.
This, as he explained, is quite different from the Catholic understanding of faith, hope, and love. "Luther's insistence on 'by faith alone' clearly and exactly excludes love from the question of salvation. Love belongs to the realm of 'works' and, thus, becomes 'profane.'" Faith for Luther is not about the "commununal belief of the entire church"; it is radically interior and individualistic. The relationship between church and Scripture is skewed, and "Scripture becomes an independent measure of church and tradition. This in turn raises the question of the canonicity and the unity of Scripture."
My perception is that Benedict, in his two brief addresses today, was intent on focusing on the fact that Luther often asked the right questions about matters that are always relevant to all men, and, more implicitly, that while Luther rightly saw faith in Jesus Christ as the answer, that faith cannot be separated from the theological virtue of love, nor can it be separated from the Church, the Body of Christ, which is where full communion with God is found. Or, in Benedict's words, at today's first ecumenical gathering:
“What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.
And, from the second gathering: "The highest unity is not the solitude of a monad, but rather a unity born of love."
Finally, here is a passage from "Unitatis Redintegratio", Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism, that quite nicely sums up many of the themes touched upon above:
What has revealed the love of God among us is that the Father has sent into the world His only-begotten Son, so that, being made man, He might by His redemption give new life to the entire human race and unify it. Before offering Himself up as a spotless victim upon the altar, Christ prayed to His Father for all who believe in Him: "that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me". In His Church He instituted the wonderful sacrament of the Eucharist by which the unity of His Church is both signified and made a reality. He gave His followers a new commandment to love one another, and promised the Spirit, their Advocate, who, as Lord and life-giver, should remain with them forever.
On Ignatius Insight and Insight Scoop:
• Ratzinger on ecumenism: a reading list (Nov. 30, 2006)
• The Ecumenical Dream of Benedict XVI (July 2, 2008)
• Ratzinger on Luther (March 6, 2008)
• Further thoughts on Ratzinger and Luther, by Mark Brumley (March 10, 2008)
• Was The Joint Declaration Truly Justified? | An Interview with Dr. Christopher Malloy
• The Papacy and Ecumenism | Rev. Adriano Garuti, O.F.M.
• On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Peter and Succession | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• "Primacy in Love": The Chair Altar of Saint Peter's in Rome | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• Church Authority and the Petrine Element | Hans Urs von Balthasar
• Has The Reformation Ended? | An Interview with Dr. Mark Noll
• Why Catholicism Makes Protestantism Tick | Mark Brumley