Pope warns Lutherans of new Christian challengers to mainline churches
Pope Benedict, visiting the German monastery where Martin Luther lived before launching the Reformation, warned his Lutheran hosts on Friday that what he called “a new form of Christianity” posed a challenge to mainline Protestants and Catholics alike. While not naming them, it was clear that the pope, whose visit to this small city south of Berlin was sparsely attended, was referring to the evangelical and Pentecostal churches which have been attracting converts from more established churches, especially in Third World countries.
“Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss,” the pope said on the second day of his third trip to his homeland as pontiff. “This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability. This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?”
Benedict appealed for unity between Roman Catholics and Protestants, who began their split from the church in the 16th century with the posting by Luther, who lived in Erfurt as a Catholic monk, of his 95 Theses in 1517.
At the same time, he deflected appeals from Protestants for a relaxation of rules barring them from participating in Catholic communion.
Here’s our news report on his comments in Erfurt — Pope warns Lutherans of Christian challenges. In a later story, we have an evangelical reaction:
Geoff Tunnicliffe, Vancouver-based secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, told Reuters his organisation had recently issued a code of conduct for responsible missionary work with the Vatican and World Council of Churches. “I don’t see this as a blanket statement on evangelicals, which includes Pentecostals,” he said. The three groups that signed the pioneering code of conduct in June, after five years of work, claim to represent over 90 percent of Christianity.
Benedict’s quote on this new challenge came at a point in his speech after he said that Catholics and Protestants had come much closer in recent decades but “the risk of losing this, sadly, is not unreal.” He then elaborated:
“The geography of Christianity has changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further. Faced with a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways, the mainstream Christian denominations often seem at a loss. This is a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.
“This worldwide phenomenon poses a question to us all: what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse? In any event, it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.”
In the days and weeks preceding Pope Benedict’s meeting with the German Protestant leaders, several of them publicly urged the Bavarian-born pontiff to show some movement on issues that still split the churches. One central request was for joint eucharistic services, something the Protestants accept but Catholic refuse because of a different definition of the eucharist. Another is for permission for Protestants married to Catholics to receive communion at Catholic Mass with their spouses. Benedict made it clear in a short television address at the weekend that the Protestants shouldn’t expect any surprises.
His indirect reference to these requests came in his speech in the church at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where Martin Luther was ordained and lived before he posted his 95 Theses in Wittemberg that signalled the start of the 16th century Reformation. “Prior to the pope’s visit, there was some talk of an ‘ecumenical gift’ which was expected from this visit,” he said. “There is no need for me to specify the gifts mentioned in this context. Here I would only say that this reflects a political misreading of faith and communion. ” Heads of state exchange gifts when they visit each other to work out a treaty or trade agreement. “But the faith of Christians does not rest on such a weighing of benefits and drawbacks. ”
Asked about dashed hopes the Pope would lift a ban on Protestant spouses of Catholics receiving the Eucharist at Catholic mass, Bishop Nikolaus Schneider, head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD — the association of Protestant churches here), said: “In view of our shared values, this question is particularly pressing for families that jointly live their faith in their respective churches or communities. How can we strengthen that common faith? We said that within foreseeable future, it should be possible for a freer choice of community, Eucharistic community should be possible, that is something I put out to him in those terms.”
“This is a topic we have been dealing with for quite some time and I have to admit that sometimes it is a bit of a nuisance as well and given that it is such a pressing issue I had to raise it,” Schneider said.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, head of the Catholic bishops conference in Germany, said that while the pope did not say anything concrete about this issue, he did discuss the issue with Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and recognised it was a “very sailiant pressing issue”.