In Erfurt, Germany, there are 70 stairs that separate the cathedral from the Church of St. Severe. Erfurt was the place were Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk before his ‘reformation’ and schism. And these 70 stairs were often used as a symbol of the distance between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran communion. This is why the distance between the stairs were shortened or widened according to historical situation. Will it be so after Pope Francis’s trip to Sweden? The Pope leaves today for Lund on a trip with something historical and something problematic in view. One can object that all papal trips are so. However, this case bears with it deeper issues to be tackled.
Pope Francis’s trip to Sweden was initially conceived as a mere one-day-trip to commemorate the Protestant Reformation – the Pope himself admitted it in a recent interview to the Jesuit-run Swedish magazine Signum. Lund, in Sweden, was chosen as the destination of the trip because it was there, in 1947, that the Lutheran World Federation was born. The LWF includes 144 Lutheran denominations spread across the world. Lund was chosen as the papal destination because the papal trip organizers would have encountered fewer logistical and doctrinal problems there than they would have had to tackle in Germany where the Reformation actually began. In the end, the choice created a breach within the Lutheran world.
At least it did so in the Swedish Lutheran world, as Swedish Lutherans consider themselves an established national church, different from the other Lutheran denominations. So much is it “established” that Scandinavian Freemasons accept new recruits only if they are baptized and that it also baptize Muslims. But the breach was strongly felt among German Lutherans too. The German Lutherans invited the Pope to take part to the 500th anniversary of the reformation back in 2011, during Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Germany. And German Lutherans are the big losers in terms of a celebration that – many complain – was planned and organized in Geneva, at the headquarters of Lutheran World Federation.
One should look back to Benedict XVI’s trip to Germany in 2011 to understand how the commemoration could have taken place if Benedict had not resigned and Pope Francis had not been elected. In Erfurt, following the ecumenical meeting on 23 September 2011, a press conference was convened by Nikolaus Scheneider, President of the Council of the Evangelical Church of Germany, and Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. During the ecumenical celebration, Pope Benedict focused on the Luther’s big question: “How can I have a merciful God?”
The Pope’s speech constituted a great ecumenical opening, but it also stuck very close to the point. Benedict rejected the notion of an “ecumenical gift” (the revocation of the excommunication of Luther was expected) because this notion – he explained – “reflects a political misreading of faith and of ecumenism.” He stressed that “the faith of Christians does not rest on such a weighing of benefits and drawbacks. 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.”
Pastor Schneider tried to turn Benedict’s words upside down, emphasizing that the Pope had “almost rehabilitated Luther,” and, based on this assumption, he asked for further clarifications, especially on the issue of the mixed marriages, because “there are many couples that have been wishing for so long to receive Communion together.”
Cardinal Koch replied that “before this there are theological issues to tackle, starting from ethical issues concerning life”, and that “those issues are also urgent.” And Schneider responded in turn: “Theological issue might be even important, but families’ wishes and concrete life are more important than theories.”
Among the issues at stake, there were the life issues, for which the Lutheran Church in Germany provided great challenges: in-vitro fertilization, the possibility of using condoms, the drafting of “biological testaments” respectful of the main biblical indications about the dignity and uniqueness of human life – that is a gift from God.
It is not that these issues are not important now. But Pope Francis seems to have decided to leave them aside, because – according to the principle he outlined in “Evangelii Gaudium” – “realities are more important than ideas.” So, he think it to leave the theological disputes behind, focusing on the encounter and possible common collaboration.
This is the reason why Pope Francis’s trip to Sweden coincides with the launch of an initiative for refugees designed by Caritas Internationalis with the Swedish Lutheran charity. It is a concrete sign, one of those Pope Francis loves so much. In the end, he lives ecumenism in a pragmatic way.
Pope Francis thus made a definitive switch from spiritual ecumenism to pragmatic ecumenism, from an ecumenism comprised of common prayer to God – a common prayer that was not supposed to put in discussion the truth of the faith – to a pragmatic ecumenism, the one that Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Kirill always preferred – and not by chance the Patriarch’s dialogue with Rome was initially based on the application of the social teaching of the Church.
Even the notion of “ecumenism of blood” can be considered part of pragmatic ecumenism. Ecumenism of blood is true – Christian are killed, despite their confession – but it also goes beyond doctrinal differences that are huge. While spiritual ecumenism leaves differences alive, and does not supersede dialogue among theologians, the ecumenism of blood trumps any theological debate.
How much this new approach will bear fruit cannot be assessed now. Certainly, Pope Francis is making a historical trip, unthinkable even three years ago. Unthinkable for the same Pope, that on Protestant reformation wrote very strong words back in the 80s. But also unthinkable for Cardinal Walter Kasper, who was a main character in both periods.
As President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and after that as relator of Ratzinger Schulerkreis – the circle of Ratzinger’s former students – Kasper supported the notion of a spiritual ecumenism, under St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s guidance. With Pope Francis, he undertook a Copernican revolution, and promoted a different path, more aimed at Protestantism than Catholicism.
The earlier Kasper can be glimpsed at in the book “Harvesting the Fruits,” which the Cardinal published at the end of his mandate as President of the Vatican dicastery for ecumenism. The later Kasper can be understood through the book “Martin Luther – an Ecumenical Perspective,” recently published.
The rationale behind this last book is that Luther was right, that Luther “is already a common Father of the Church to some Catholics,” that Luther was unwillingly a reformer, and that he did so because he was not listened to; and that Luther’s appeal to repentance was not welcomed by the Church of Rome.
The book also reveals ecumenism according to Kasper. “For ecumenism we mean all the inhabited terrestrial globe, which means universality rather than particularity. We can even say: unlike Catholicism and Protestantism, limited in their confessional aspect, ecumenism means the rediscovery of the original catholicity, not restricted to a confessional point of view.”
Angela Pellicciari, an Italian historian who treated Martin Luther through detailed research and a must-read book, deduces from these words that “since Catholicism and Protestantism exist aside one another, neither of them is universal. To achieve universality, they must leave behind confessionalism, that is the particularity of Churches, and conquer ecumenicity, that is, the new way to indicate the universal character of the Christian message.”
Are the two churches then to be put on the same level, as they are both confessional? Can it be really so? No, because there is – for instance – a profound difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy. There cannot be an ecumenical dialogue that fits everyone, because – beyond the encounter – there are theological roots that need to be tackled and overcome.
It is even more necessary to overcome them with Lutheranism. If the main issue open with Orthodoxy is the Petrine primacy – even given that St. John Paul II in his encyclical “Ut Unum Sint” back in 1997 looked for a new form to exercise the Petrine primacy – there are deeper issues at stake with Protestantism.
In his encyclical “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict XVI asks: “How could the idea have developed that Jesus’ message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?”
Angela Pellicciari responds in her book “Martin Luther”: “It did so because Luther has misinterpreted as slavery to Rome the universal charism of Peter and his function in defense of the whole Church. As a consequence, “the body has been abandoned”, it seems “in favor of souls, that is, of the most interior part of each of us, which corresponds to our conscience. It is as if soul and body are set one against the other, and each of them goes on its own. As if obedience to conscience is a substitute to obedience to Peter.”
Reading Angela Pellicciari’s “Martin Luther,” it is clear that Luther did not merely question the doctrine of indulgences, he undertook a Copernican revolution: with his “sola scriptura” principle he took every authority from the Church – that Pope Francis often calls the “Holy Hierarchical Mother.”
Thus, unchaining the faithful from the authority of the Church, Luther gave to princes, the secular power, a fundamental role. He even claimed the authority of the secular power against the Pope, should the Pope make mistakes. But the Pope’s authority, his sovereignty, is justified by the need for independence from secular power. Only this way – St. Leo the Great explained – can the Church be credible and really free.
When Luther breaks the Church’s unity with arguments, and obfuscates much of the Church’s history, he creates a fertile ground wherein anti-Catholic hatred can ferment. The theme of the “free exam” is taken up by Freemasonry which – in the name of Reason – launched the strongest attack against Catholic Church teachings, undermining, in the first place, the Church’s authority.
Rather than centuries of misunderstanding, we are talking about 500 years of hidden struggle between Catholicism and Lutheranism. This struggle was fought between princes and the Church, between secular and religious power. Secular power could not dislike Martin Luther’s reformation.
The reason is that Luther generates a solitary and lonely man, unable to live in community, lost in front of his sins and aware that he cannot do anything to change them. It generates a human being bound to individual success, and not dedicated to the creation of the common good. Everything works perfectly, but everything works despite the human being.
Protestant reform gave birth to modern society. Once Msgr. Livio Melina, who until recently was President of the Pontifical Institute John Paul II for the Studies on Family and Marriage, explained that this society “gives to the human being the hedonistic pleasure of sex, but deprives man of the possibility to be bound to love.” In fact, in an individualistic society, procreation does not come from a relationship, but is performed in vitro, and sex is only for fun, while children are made only when “ordered.”
There is no need to go far away to understand this. In the Sweden that Pope Francis will visit, conscientious objection is not preserved by national law, but only received there as a consequence of EU legislation. The State rules everything, and the Swedish model of welfare, known all over the world for his effectiveness, in fact brings with it the highest suicide and depression rates in the world. The Welfare State also replaces parents; there is a huge wealth, but no one can have different opinions, and the case of Ellinor Grimmark – the midwife fired by three hospitals because she refused to assist in abortion performances – is revealing of that.
The same situation can be experienced in many other countries, with different nuances. This is exactly the reason why back in 2011 ethical issues were at the center of an ecumenical dialogue that could go on at the spiritual level, and could also involve common humanitarian actions, but that still needed to be developed from a theological point of view.
None of these issues is popular, and it is not an easy task to discuss them. So much so, that the German Catholic Church, which suffers competition from Lutheranism over the Church tax that make the Catholic Church wealthy, accepted in the name of “non exclusion” many of Luther’s ideas, with the conviction that opening in this way is the only guarantee to survive. This was one of the main issues at stake even during the Synods of Bishops – a debate that was opened by Cardinal Kasper’s report at the Extraordinary Consistory in February 2014, and lived with the fear of the “pragmatic schism” that Cardinal Kasper himself talked about. In the end, the issue of conscience was used to eradicate all the resistance to the “Church of mercy” model. And Pope Francis, though really traditional in his stances on the issues, accepted the notion that Christian ideal has been presented in too difficult a way, in an almost idealized way.
This is the reason he proposed a change of paradigms and people. He started with the reform of the bishops’ profile, now he is changing the profile of those who study these issues in the Church, thinking about new experts and officials in the Pontifical Academy for Life and in the Pontifical Institute John Paul II.
These are fundamental issues, but this trip of Pope Francis puts them aside. It is mostly conceived as “outward bound,” in order to overcome centuries of “misunderstanding” through an encounter. In doing it at all costs, there is a risk of some superficiality, as, for example, in the document “From Conflict to Communion” – jointly drafted by Catholics and Lutherans – where it is written that the Reformation “caused the division of the Church.” The Church has never been divided. Christians separated among each other.