The Evangelical Church in Germany is a theological muddle, being a federation of Lutheran, Prussian Union, and Reformed (or Calvinist) Protestant communities. Still, it must have been a moving moment when the Council of this federation met with Pope Benedict XVI last month in the chapter hall of the former Augustinian priory at Erfurt: the place where Martin Luther had studied theology, had been ordained a priest, and had, as the pope put it, thought with “deep passion” about one great question: “How do I receive the grace of God?” As Benedict, himself one of the great theologians of this or any other era, put it in his winsome way, “For Luther, theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which was in turn a struggle for and with God.”
One hopes the Catholic Theological Society of America was listening.
Benedict then went on to note that, in bringing Luther’s question to life again in the 21st century, there were new realities to be confronted. One, which is killing Europe, is spiritual boredom, a kind of ennui about the wonder of being itself. Moreover, in trying to preach the Gospel today, what Benedict called the “mainstream Christian denominations” themselves face a new situation. For the “geography of Christianity” had “changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further still.” There is 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.”
By which, I think we can assume, the pope meant the explosion of evangelical (in the American sense of the term), Pentecostalist, and fundamentalist Christianity throughout the Third World. “What is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?”, the pope asked his mainline German Protestant audience. Perhaps I might venture an answer to that question.
The first thing that is being said is that preaching Jesus Christ crucified and the transforming power of personal friendship with the Risen Lord is going to win out, every time, over enticing men and women into a religious trade union or cultural club. Surely Benedict XVI, whose pontificate has been characterized by the theme of intimate friendship with the Lord, knows that. One hopes he is saying it, firmly, to the “bishops from all over the world” who are “constantly” complaining to him about evangelical inroads into their flocks.
Take, for example, Latin America. The Catholic Church has been active in Latin America for over half a millennium. If it has poorly catechized that vast expanse of territory, such that the Church cannot retain the loyalty of traditionally Catholic peoples, it should look first to its own incapacities and failures, rather than blaming well-funded American evangelical and Pentecostalist missions for its problems. As scholars like David Martin and Amy Sherman have demonstrated, it is the power of these missions to change self-destructive patterns of behavior through radical conversion to Christ that has given them their purchase in areas where five hundred years of Catholicism have failed to build a culture of responsibility — especially male responsibility. More recognition of that, and less complaining to the pope, would seem the appropriate Christian response from Catholic bishops in the world’s most densely Christian continent.
The second thing this “new form of Christianity “is saying is that the old ecumenism — the bilateral dialogues between Catholicism and mainline Protestantism — is over. Throughout the world, mainline liberal Protestantism is dying from its own theological implausibility. The serious ecumenical dialogue of the 21st century is with these “new forms of Christianity.” They may well lack “dogmatic content.” Some may be unscrupulous proselytizers. But at least some among them are searching for a deeper, richer theology — and they are finding it in serious conversation with Catholics, as the theological dialogue fellowship called Evangelicals and Catholics Together has demonstrated in the United States.
The times are indeed “a-changin’.” What remains unchanged is the power of the Gospel. Preach it, and they will come.
George Weigel’s column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Image: Reuters / Norbert Neetz / Pool