This was the third pastoral visit of John Paul II to Germany. When he first came in 1980, the ecumenical question moved to a place of prominence, and continues there today. A little background may be helpful. In 1980 the Pope met at Mainz with a number of Protestant bishops—including the leading bishop of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), Eduard Lohse—who pressed him on the urgency of alleviating ecumenical tensions in the land where the Reformation began and where the population is now almost evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics. Lohse specifically urged ecumenical worship on Sundays, shared pastoral care for people in confessionally mixed marriages, and joint hospitality at the eucharist. Because of the number of people involved in mixed marriages, the second issue was then and is now particularly important.
The Pope agreed to the creation of a commission, composed of bishops from both confessions, to study ways toward such ecumenical progress. In its first meeting, the commission concluded that a precondition for further ecumenical convergence is the removal of the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century. A group of Catholic and Protestant theologians was asked to examine the extent to which those condemnations are still applicable. (The results of that five-year study are found in The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide?, edited by Karl Lehmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg, Fortress Press-Eds.)
When in 1987 the Pope visited Germany for the second time, the results of that study had been submitted to the joint bishops commission, and the commission recommended that the churches act on the study's conclusion that the remaining doctrinal differences no longer justify mutual condemnation. In an important speech at Augsburg, the site of the evangelical confession of 1530 that took its name from that city, John Paul declared that the churches must take concrete steps on the basis of the study's conclusion. Leaving Germany in 1987, he said ecumenical progress should be faster—although not too fast.
Whatever complaints there may be about this pope on other questions, there is no doubt that he has demonstrated a deep and unprecedented commitment to Christian unity. He has relentlessly pressed for the restoration of ecclesial communion with the Orthodox Church, indicating his hope that that may be achieved in his pontificate, or at least that the course toward restoration will be irreversibly set. He has also assiduously nurtured dialogue with Protestants, notably with Anglicans (although he has made no secret of his disappointment with their unilateral decision to ordain women to the priesthood). And he has supported the steps toward removing the mutual condemnations of the sixteenth century. Yet it has not escaped the attention of Protestants that in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint John Paul emphasized reconciliation with the Orthodox East and seemed to downplay ecumenical progress made with Protestants since Vatican Council II. The encyclical did not encourage high ecumenical expectations among Germans awaiting his third visit.
Hopes for the visit were also dampened by other factors. In recent years, many Roman Catholics in Germany have expressed increasing unhappiness with a number of papal actions. Widespread admiration for the Pope has been reduced by the way he appointed a number of bishops in apparent disregard of the feelings of local clergy and laity. This was most dramatically the case in Cologne, fueling the sense that papal authority was exercised in a heavy-handed manner. As elsewhere, there is in Germany continuing unrest with the Church's positions on birth control and aspects of sexual morality. In addition, the recent and unequivocal exclusion of the possibility of ordaining women has not been well received. More important to this general climate of discontent, however, is the continued exclusion of divorced persons from the sacraments, and this pontificate's adamant insistence on celibacy for priests, even as the number of candidates for priesthood declines.
Nonetheless, when the Pope arrived on June 21, he was received with respect and admiration by the great majority of Germans, Protestant and Catholic. Commentators remarked on his personal presence that bespeaks a complete devotion to the service of Christ and challenges the presuppositions of a secular world. At Paderborn, the first city of the visit, Catholic dissenters had prepared an ambitious program of protest, but their efforts were entirely eclipsed by the presence of the Pope.
It was different in Berlin, but mainly for reasons quite accidental. It happened that the Pope's visit coincided with a huge lesbian and homosexual festival that had attracted participants from all over. These revelers, joined by the activists of the sundry leftisms centered in Berlin, booed, hissed, and engaged in general persiflage during the Pope's visit, in the company of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, to the Brandenburg Gate. Some paraded in the nude, and a few managed to get close enough to splatter the “popemobile” with red paint.
The protest, unfortunately, dominated much of the international press attention to the Pope's visit. In no way, however, was this isolated event a reflection of the German response to the Pope. In fact, the Catholic archbishop of Berlin indicated his pleased surprise that the protest was much smaller than many had expected. Also in Berlin, the great celebration at the Olympic Stadium that witnessed the beatification of Karl Leisner and Bernhard Lichtenberg came off splendidly. And even at the Brandenburg Gate, the protest did not diminish the power of John Paul's Christian witness as he declared, “Freedom has a name: Jesus Christ!”
At Paderborn the Pope participated in an ecumenical service at which both he and the leading Lutheran bishop, Horst Hirschler, preached. Noting that this is the 450th anniversary of Martin Luther's death, the Pope said that today Luther is better understood and the Catholic Church can do him more justice than it did in his day. Acknowledging Luther's sometime violent temper, John Paul deplored the fact that Rome had not appreciated what was legitimate in his intentions, and noted that his predecessor Hadrian VI (1522-23) had said as much. “We all became guilty,” the Pope declared.
Nonetheless, some Protestants complained that he did not formally revoke the excommunication of Luther. There had been rumors before the visit that he wanted to do that but had been dissuaded by his advisors. In response to this question on other occasions, John Paul has noted that an excommunication holds only during a person's lifetime, and Luther's case has long since been submitted to a higher tribunal, the final judgment of God. In any event, the logically prior ecumenical step is the removal of the Council of Trent's condemnations of Reformation doctrine.
The Pope repeatedly addressed that issue. In the Paderborn sermon he called the overcoming of divisions among the churches one of the “pastoral priorities” of his pontificate, and underscored the importance of Christian unity to the great task of reevangelizing society. He referred appreciatively to the study on the sixteenth-century condemnations, and emphasized that its results have significance far beyond the German situation. Meeting with Protestant leaders in Paderborn, he strongly affirmed the “fundamental agreement” that has been reached on the doctrine of justification, traditionally understood to be the doctrinal keystone of the Reformation.
I believe that, at this point, one cannot reasonably have expected the Pope to go further than he did, especially in view of the fact that in 1994 the German Lutheran synod gave only a lukewarm response to the results of the condemnations study. At Paderborn, however, the presiding bishop of the EKD, Klaus Engelhardt, told the Pope that the Protestant churches no longer hold to the sixteenth-century condemnations of Rome, and he unambiguously declared his support for the 1994 request of the German Catholic bishops conference that Rome declare the condemnations of Reformation doctrine to be obsolete.
The visit of John Paul to Germany did not, then, produce an official declaration on the question of the condemnations. One may reasonably believe, however, that it helped clear the way toward that end. In the context of the ongoing ecumenical task, the Pope's visit must be declared a success. Moreover, a pastoral visit by the Pope is about more than ecumenism, as important as that is. In the public culture, the visit left a still resounding sense of the power of Christian witness in a society that thinks of itself as increasingly secular but is also marked by a confused yearning for the truth that has a name: Jesus Christ.
Wolfhart Pannenberg, who recently retired as Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Munich, is the founding director of the Institute of Ecumenical Theology.