Europe no longer knows its roots, says Vatican’s top ecumenical officer

Cardinal Kurt Koch discusses Christian unity and the Christian roots of Europe, religious persecution, and future prospects for Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Rome (, December 19, 2015). Synodality, ecumenism, intercommunion, and “the new minority in the Church and the world” are just a few of the topics in an extensive conversation that Armin Schwibach of was able to have with the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, on the occasion of the forthcoming celebration of Christmas and the end of the special year 2015.

Armin Schwibach: On November 15, 2015, Pope Francis visited the Evangelical Lutheran church in Rome. In response to a question from a Lutheran woman who is in a mixed marriage with a Roman Catholic about what could be done in order to achieve fellowship at the “Lord’s Supper,” the Pope gave a long, impromptu answer that caused a sensation worldwide. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung even ran a headline: “Pope encourages Christians to take communion together.”

Francis emphasized the significance of our one baptism: “What can I do, together with my husband, so that the Lord’s Supper might accompany me on my way? It is a problem that everyone has to answer.  But a [Protestant] pastor friend of mine told me: ‘We believe that the Lord is present there. He is present. You believe that the Lord is present. And what is the difference?’—‘Well, there are the explanations, the interpretations…’ Life is greater than [i.e., more than just] explanations and interpretations. Always refer to baptism: ‘One faith, one baptism, one Lord,’ Paul tells us, and from that draw the consequences. I will never dare to give this permission because it is not my competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Speak with the Lord and move on. I do not dare say any more.” [Translated from the original Italian.]

Can you put these remarks of the Pope in the proper perspective? What can this “moving on” consist of? Isn’t the doctrine unambiguous, and doesn’t it take priority over subjective circumstances?

Cardinal Kurt Koch: I think that the Pope wanted to emphasize two sides of the situation. On the one hand, when he says that he could never give permission because it is not his competence, then he is referring to the current regulation, that is, to the current rules of the Church, which he abides by. On the other hand he emphasizes that one should speak with the Lord, which means that the decisive criterion is a very personal, intimate relationship with Christ. From that, however, he derives no general rules, but he does, I think, give a pastoral answer to this particular woman. The Pope thus moves in the same direction that Saint John Paul II formulated in [the Encyclical] Ecclesia de Eucharistia (2003), where he says that [interdenominational] fellowship at the Table of the Lord is not possible, but under certain well-defined circumstances there can be exceptions: if, for example, there is a spiritual need.  John Paul II wrote: “While it is never legitimate to concelebrate in the absence of full communion, the same is not true with respect to the administration of the Eucharist under special circumstances, to individual persons belonging to Churches or Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church. In this case, in fact, the intention is to meet a grave spiritual need for the eternal salvation of an individual believer, not to bring about an intercommunion which remains impossible until the visible bonds of ecclesial communion are fully re-established” (no. 45).

These statements are based on the twofold view of the Second Vatican Council, which emphasized that participation in the Eucharist always entails two dimensions: It has an ecclesial and a personal dimension. The ecclesial dimension means that Eucharistic fellowship, as a sign of the unity of the Church, is not yet possible today. The sacraments, however, are also means of grace for human beings who have this spiritual need. We have to pay attention to this distinction. I think that Pope Francis’ answer is along these lines too. In that sense it actually contains nothing new, but follows the lines of what the Church’s Magisterium has expressed until now.

As for the exaggerated statements in certain media outlets, it must be emphasized that we should not read more into the Pope’s answer than what he himself—hesitantly—put into words. Indeed, the Pope chose his formulations very carefully when he stressed, as I already said, that he has no competence to give any permission, and then added in conclusion: “I do not dare say any more.” It was a pastoral answer and not a change in Church teaching.

Schwibach: The official “Ambassador for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation 2017,” Margot Kässmann, described Pope Francis appreciatively on December 5, 2015 as a man who is “brilliant” at “enabling us to experience the creative power of denominational difference” by means of “symbols,” whereby she was probably referring also to the Pope’s gift of a chalice to the Evangelical-Lutheran congregation. However if you look more closely at the “visible progress” in ecumenism with the Protestant ecclesial communities, you can quickly tell that it does not exist—not even after almost three years of his pontificate.

What, in your view, is the Pope’s power to renew ecumenical relations? Isn’t it true that the Pope is much less concerned about an “ecumenism of denominations” than about an “ecumenism of profession [i.e. professing the faith]”?

Cardinal Koch: First of all, it should be noted that what the ambassador for the commemoration of the Reformation says is the typical [Lutheran-]Evangelical notion of the goal of ecumenism, which she plainly views as the only thing capable of unifying Christians. She wants fellowship in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but no unity of the Church in the sense in which the Catholic Church sees it. She wants only the mutual recognition of the existing difference, which she then characterizes as “productive.” This statement shows how important and imperative it is to clarify further what is understood more precisely by “Church unity” as the goal of ecumenism. The reason why we have been able to achieve next to no really remarkable progress in the Catholic-Protestant dialogues in recent years lies in the fact that to a great extent we no longer have a common idea of the goal of ecumenism.

As for the second part of the question, I think that Pope Francis is very intent that ecumenism should be at the service of our common proclamation of the Gospel. This is entirely in keeping with Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in chapter 17 of the Gospel of John: Jesus prays that the disciples “may be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” This means that unity is not an end in itself, but rather serves the credible proclamation of the Gospel.

Pope Francis considers it very important for us to profess our faith together. His understanding of ecumenism is very closely connected with his fundamental concern that the Church must be missionary. Here too we find the reason why he seeks encounters with Evangelical and Pentecostal communities. For he sees a good chance of bringing the Gospel into the world and proclaiming it together with them. Also important to Pope Francis is what we can call “practical ecumenism”: working together for the purpose of coping with the major problems in today’s world.

Certainly, with Pope Francis there are specific emphases in his ecumenical engagement. But first of all we must note a fundamental continuity with his predecessors in the papacy. He stressed this himself in his homily during Evening Prayer on January 25, 2014, when for the first time he presided at the liturgy in St. Paul Outside the Walls at the conclusion of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He pointed out what the popes before him had done, and from this concluded that the papacy has increasingly acquired an ecumenical dimension. Pope Francis continues to carry out this task, of course while accentuating specific aspects.

Schwibach: On October 17, Pope Francis explained in his address at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Roman Synod of Bishops that “synodality” is an essential dimension of the Church and offers “the most suitable interpretive framework for an understanding of hierarchical ministry itself.” What does this “synodality” consist of?

Since 2014 and 2015 were entirely defined by a “synodal process,” which no doubt also brought confusion with it, how should we picture a “synodal Church” of the future? Does this amount to leaving “competencies” up to the local bishops’ conferences?

Cardinal Koch: It is a fundamental conviction of the Catholic Church that the Church’s constitution is at the same time hierarchical and synodal. The decisive question is: How do hierarchy and synodality go together and how is synodality to be understood? For not everything that is described nowadays as “synodal” can be characterized as synodal in the theological sense. The “confusion” that you mentioned is perhaps instead a sign that the deeper meaning of synodality has not yet been grasped.

There is above all an essential difference between synodality and democracy. Democracy is the procedure for establishing majorities, which then make decisions. Synodality, in contrast, is the effort to grapple together until unanimity has been found and no one can maintain any more that there is something here contrary to the faith. This kind of synodality is laborious, and compared with it, democracy is really quite simple. In clarifying what synodality in the Church means, there is, I think, still a certain need for clarification along these lines.

Synodality can never be in opposition to hierarchy. Hierarchy is rather the prerequisite for the success of synodality. As I see it, this became visible in the recent Synod of Bishops, too: if the Synod Fathers had been able to make decisions, then that may have caused even greater tensions and possibly even the formation of factions, which would then have tried to make their own viewpoints prevail. Synodality, however, means that the Synod Fathers grapple with each other until they can present a good result to the Pope, so that he can make a sensible decision; then the Synod itself demonstrates the necessity of the papal office and the fact that synodality and hierarchy belong together.

Until now Pope Francis has remarked, very much as a matter of principle, that the Church needs more synodality. But he has not yet said in concrete terms exactly what he means by that. I have noticed that the general public often concludes from the Pope’s statements that he wants to strengthen the national bishops’ conferences. My impression, though, is that Pope Francis is thinking instead in terms of his previous experience with the continental bishops’ conferences and their major gatherings in Puebla, Medellin, and Aparecida.

In my view, synodality must not be fixated on the national conferences of bishops, but must go beyond them, because the nation-state is really not an ecclesial term. Moreover we must inquire more precisely into what could be settled in a synodal manner at the regional levels. This certainly does not affect questions of faith or questions of ordained ministry in the Church. In this regard we must learn from history, too: the Second Vatican Council, for example, decided only that the permanent diaconate should be reintroduced. This new ministry has been developed differently, however, by various local Churches and bishops’ conferences. Thus, for instance, this ministry has developed in a completely different way in Germany and in Switzerland, so that it is scarcely interchangeable any more beyond national their boundaries. This demonstrates a lack of catholicity, which must not be the result of synodality.

The Pope’s statement about synodality is therefore not yet an answer to the problem, but rather formulates a task that still must be studied in-depth, as the Pope himself has said. After that, there must be an inquiry into precisely what “decentralization” means and what can be decided in a decentralized manner. Above all, synodality cannot be in opposition to the hierarchical principle in the Church. My experience in the ecumenical dialogues shows me, rather, that strong synodality needs a strong primacy, too! 

Schwibach: On October 12, 2015, during the Synod of Bishops, the archbishop of New York, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, recalled in an essay on his blog that now there is a “new minority” in the world, indeed, even in the Church. By this he means those who are striving in their marriages and families to be virtuous and faithful, while trusting in God’s grace and mercy:

Couples who—given the fact that, at least in North America, only half of our people even enter the sacrament of matrimony—approach the Church for the sacrament; couples who, inspired by the Church’s teaching that marriage is forever, have persevered through trials; couples who welcome God’s gifts of many babies; a young man and woman who have chosen not to live together until marriage; a gay man or woman who wants to be chaste; a couple who have decided that the wife would sacrifice a promising professional career to stay at home and raise their children—these wonderful people today often feel themselves a minority, certainly in culture, but even, at times in the Church! I believe there are many more of them than we think, but, given today’s pressure, they often feel excluded.

This problem of the “new minority” described by Dolan is also perceptible in German-speaking areas: the problem of being somewhat abandoned by their shepherds (bishops, priests), of all people. What would you say to these Catholics?

Cardinal Koch: I agree with Cardinal Dolan and share his observation. Catholics who in every way live according to Church teaching and their faith convictions deserve special appreciation and also gratitude for their living witness. If they feel like a minority even in the Church, they must not give up. They do rely, however, on the support of other members of the Church and particularly of their shepherds. Naturally it is part of the pastoral care of the bishops to look after people who are in difficult living situations, some of whom are also living in ways contrary to Church teaching. That is simply their pastoral duty. In doing so, however, they must not neglect those people who are loyal to the faith convictions of the Church, but must encourage them to continue on their way, and they must also give them pastoral assistance to show them how they can walk along that way.

Maybe there is a “problem” also in the fact that the faithful who steadfastly uphold Church doctrine and live it out conduct themselves rather quietly, and they give their faith testimony through their lives rather than through words, whereas other groups make themselves heard at the top of their voices in public. This intensifies once more, of course, their minority situation. Therefore they must also be encouraged to voice more clearly to the priests and bishops their concerns and the support that they would like to have.

Schwibach: Under the heading of “Persecuted Christians and the ecumenism of the martyrs”: in a thought-provoking lecture on November 17, you dealt with this topic and, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, described the martyrs as “the archives of truth written in letters of blood.”

Is there also an ecumenism of Christian advocacy for persecuted Christians, in a time when—as Pope Francis emphasizes again and again—Christians persecuted on account of their faith are more numerous than in the first centuries?

Cardinal Koch: Ecumenical advocacy for persecuted Christians is the logical consequence that follows from the ecumenism of the martyrs. For the observation that 80 percent of all people in the world today being persecuted on account of their faith are Christian should awaken solidarity among all Christians, so that they will stand up for persecuted Christians worldwide.

Even today, of course, the awareness of the ecumenism of martyrs seems to me to be too weak, although it has a long history. It goes back to Pope Saint John Paul II, who personally testified that he had experienced two dictatorships, namely of the “brownshirts” and of the “reds,” and saw that dictators make no distinction between Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics; from this he learned that we Christians belong together. In my view this is the deepest root of the great ecumenical commitment of Pope John Paul II. In a way altogether in continuity with this, Pope Francis speaks today about the “ecumenism of blood.” Nevertheless, I do not get the impression that this important form of ecumenism has been sufficiently appreciated by Christians yet. An awareness of it is of course the unconditional prerequisite for practicing ecumenical advocacy and solidarity with persecuted Christians.

I have the impression that the public perception is still dominated by the “scandal story” of Christianity, more precisely by the warlike history that has existed in Christianity too. Certainly this must not be covered up. When we see today that the conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis are one root of much violence in Islam, we Christians are automatically reminded of the fact that there were horrible military conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, too, especially in the bloody wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries and in the Thirty Years War, that turned Europe into a bloodbath. Certainly we must not repress this terrible history, in view also of the upcoming commemoration of the Reformation. On the other hand, though, the memory of history must in no way prevent us from taking a strong public stand against the persecution of Christians today and declaring our solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering persecution. This too we should learn from history.

I am not convinced that European politics sufficiently notices the reality and extent of the persecution of Christians. This shortcoming most probably is connected with the fact that Europe to a great extent no longer knows or even represses its Christian roots and thereby has ended up in a profound identity crisis. One consequence of this is its insufficient willingness to defend persecuted Christians in today’s world. In this respect, reflection on the Christian roots of Europe is an important prerequisite for strengthening advocacy for persecuted Christians.

Schwibach: On December 10 the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, part of your dicastery, published a new document. It is entitled “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable (Rom 11:29): Reflections on theological question about Catholic-Jewish relations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate.”

What new or renewed characteristic themes does the document spell out for relations between Christianity and Judaism?

Cardinal Koch: The document has two fundamental concerns. First, it means to look back at the past 50 years of dialogue between Catholics and Jews and, so to speak, gratefully bring in the harvest of this effort. Second, the document intends to stimulate future dialogues, and here it is most importantly a matter of examining theological questions in greater depth. The most fundamental theological question is how the faith conviction of the Jews, which is shared by us Christians, that the covenant that God made with Israel has never been revoked but is still valid today can be reconciled with the fundamental conviction of Christians, that with Jesus Christ something new was brought into the world—in such a way that Jews and Christians will not feel offended in their faith convictions. I do not think that we have already found a truly productive answer to this difficult and sensitive question.

It seems to me therefore that the time is ripe for us to examine in greater depth many theological questions that arise in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. The urgent necessity of doing this became clear to me especially in light of the reactions to the new formulation of the Good Friday petition for the Jews proposed by Pope Benedict XVI in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. At that time Benedict translated Paul’s faith statement in his Letter to the Romans into the language of prayer and formulated it as a request for God’s eschatological action at the end of time. This very profound Good Friday intercession, however, was misunderstood publicly to a large extent as a call to engage in a historical mission to the Jews. Instead of looking carefully at what the Pope really said, the Good Friday petition met mainly with rejection on the basis of misunderstandings and incorrect interpretations. This example made it especially clear to me that such sensitive and difficult questions must be discussed first in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, in “camera caritatis,” so to speak, [i.e., privately and in charity,] so that they can debated frankly and objectively in a wider public forum.

I am glad that today there are more and more rabbis, too, who are of the opinion that an in-depth discussion of theological questions important, as a very positive and encouraging position paper by over 20 Orthodox rabbis concerning the Jewish-Christian dialogue recently showed. The new Vatican document therefore does not stand at the end of a journey but rather is the beginning of a new stretch of road. As such, though, it is not a document of the Church’s Magisterium, but rather a study document of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, for the purpose of deepening the dialogue between Catholics and Jews about their faith convictions. 

Translated by Michael J. Miller

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