On Friday, September 23, 2011, during his first Apostolic Journey to Germany, Pope Benedict XVI met with the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, an umbrella group of Lutheran churches. I discussed one minor element of that speech in "Pope Benedict in Germany: Nature and Reason Form the Basis of Law," but the Holy Father's main theme deserves examination on its own.
It has long been known that Joseph Ratzinger has a deep respect for the person of Martin Luther (if not for his actions), a fact that many Lutherans find almost as discomforting as most Catholic traditionalists do. But in this short address (a little over 1,300 words), Pope Benedict explores and explains his own "encounter with Martin Luther," in a way that does not minimize the differences between the Catholic and Lutheran understandings of justification, but reminds us of the way any Christian who is serious about his faith must approach God.
The meeting with Lutheran leaders took place in the Augustinian convent in Erfurt, Germany, where Luther studied theology and was ordained a priest. Pope Benedict uses that context to begin to examine the heart of Martin Luther's struggle—a struggle he shares with all true Christians:
Against his father’s wishes, he did not continue the study of Law, but instead he studied theology and set off on the path towards priesthood in the Order of Saint Augustine. And on this path, he was not simply concerned with this or that. What constantly exercised him was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey. “How do I receive the grace of God?”: this question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For Luther theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.
"How do I receive the grace of God?" That question is not only not heard today; it's a question most Christians, who confine their faith to Sunday worship, would never think to ask. Yet, as the Holy Father reminds us, it should be at the heart of our lives, as it was at the heart of Luther's:
The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep 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. And insofar as people 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. The question no longer troubles us.
But it should trouble us, because even if God's mercy will cover our failings, conforming ourselves to His Will and living our lives in cooperation with His grace would change the world:
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? – Luther’s burning question must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too, not an academic question, but a real one.
Luther speaks to Christians in another way as well: through his emphasis on the Incarnation, which too many Christians, even those in sacramental traditions, have lost:
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.
And now the Holy Father comes to the crux of the matter, because ecumenical dialogue has too often focused on finding academic solutions to our differences. But by starting with what divides us, can we ever hope to be reunited?
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. For me, the great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground, 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 inalienable, shared foundation.
Yet whatever advances have been made in ecumenism in recent decades are threatened by the rise of
a new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways . . . a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.
And the advances are also threatened by
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.
In the end, if ecumenism amounts to anything, it will be because it leads to a "deeper and livelier faith." Some interpreters of Pope Benedict's ecumenical moves over the six years of his pontificate—including, at times, myself—have taken note of his emphasis on what unites Christians rather than divides them, and have referred to his "strategy" of cooperation with fellow Christians on cultural matters, while continuing dialogue on theological differences. But that interpretation of his actions is too shallow, as the Holy Father makes clear in the final lines of his address:
It is not strategy that saves us and saves Christianity, but faith – thought out and lived afresh; through such faith, Christ enters this world of ours, and with him, the living God. As the martyrs of the Nazi era brought us together and prompted that great initial ecumenical opening, so today, faith that is lived from deep within amid a secularized world is the most powerful ecumenical force that brings us together, guiding us towards unity in the one Lord. And we pray to him, asking that we may learn to live the faith anew, and that in this way we may then become one.
In the end, if there is any hope for Christian unity, it lies in this: By living our faith, we draw closer to one another. Christ is not many, but one; as our faith in Christ deepens, as we live it more and more in our daily lives, it cannot pull us apart but must draw us together.