For the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, the motivations that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation were met and are no longer tenable outside of the Roman Catholic Church.
Ecumenism is one of those words which can mean different things to different people.
When used by the Roman Catholic Church, it refers to a body of magisterial teachings as they are interpreted and embodied by the various sectors of the Church (e.g. Popes, Vatican curia, bishops, ecclesial movements). Apart from the primary reference points that can be found in the dedicated document of Vatican II (the decree Ad Gentes, 1965), the encyclical by John Paul II (Ut Unum Sint, 1995), and the Directory for the application of the principles and norms of ecumenism (1993), one source for coming to terms with the Roman Catholic understanding of ecumenism is the activity of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, in general, and the writings and initiatives of its President, in particular.
Since 2010, this position has been occupied by the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch. Considered a disciple of Joseph Ratzinger – Benedict XVI, Koch has written several contributions that shed light on his interpretation of what Rome means by being committed to the ecumenical vision . The latest opportunity to evaluate his theology of unity is given in his recent book Erneuerung und Einheit. Ein Plädoyer für mehr Ökumene (2018), which I have read in its Italian edition: Rinnovamento e unità. Perché serve più ecumenismo (Brescia: Queriniana, 2023).
The book is a collection of 9 papers presented at various conferences, all of them held around the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
It is not only a window into present-day trends in Roman Catholic ecumenism, but it also provides an even more interesting case study for Protestants because of its special reference to the Reformation and its legacy. The contents of the book cover such important topics as the understanding of the terms “reform”/“reformation,” the contribution of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to the dialogue with Lutherans, the relevance of Luther’s religious quest, the role of the Word of God in the life of the church, the issue of apostolic succession, the prospect of the papacy in an ecumenical context, the controversy over indulgences then and now, a Roman Catholic reading of the “Heidelberg Catechism,” and the interpretation of the Council of Trent as a council of Catholic reform rather than the launching-pad of the “counter-reformation.”
These issues are classical topics at the center of Roman Catholic-Protestant dialogue. Overall, the reading of Cardinal Koch acknowledges the importance of some spiritual concerns raised by Luther and the Reformation, i.e. the personal element of the faith and the need for renewal in the church. He argues that the Council of Trent (1545-1563) had already responded to them, but it was at Vatican II (1962-1965) that Luther finally “found the Council he had invoked for” (p. 35).
According to the Cardinal, Vatican II stressed the importance of the laity and the freedom to read the Bible in the vernacular languages, thus doing exactly what the German Reformer had advocated for. Overall, the motivations that gave rise to the Protestant Reformation were met and are no longer tenable outside of the Roman Catholic Church.
In Koch’s interpretation, while some Protestant concerns for renewal were valid, although being too radical and lacking patience, the outcome of the Reformation was utterly negative. He insists that the Reformation broke from “the basic structure of the sacramental-eucharistic and episcopal church” (p. 41). The Reformation is charged of having “broken,” “fractured,” and “divided” the church (e.g. pp. 48-49). Moreover, in separating from Rome, the Reformation is seen as having “changed the nature of the Church” (p. 49). Siding with the view of critical Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, Koch agrees that the Reformation was not a “success” but a “failure” in that it resulted in many churches having split with Rome .
Other criticisms of the Reformation include that of Benedict XVI according to whom Luther absolutized his personal approach, thus “radicalizing the personalization of the act of faith” (p. 79) and discarding the church as an institution by reducing it to a “community” of people receiving the word (p. 82). For Benedict too, that of Luther was a “revolutionary rupture” (p. 83) where both terms are given extremely negative meanings.
In this bleak interpretation of the Reformation, Koch puts the blame on the “Scripture alone” principle (sola Scriptura). Again, citing Benedict as a theological authority, Koch argues that because the Word of God is more than Holy Scripture, “it precedes it, it is reflected in it, but it is not simply identifiable with it” (p. 127). “Scripture alone” is therefore a “foreign concept” to Roman Catholic theology (p. 132).
It is true that Cardinal Koch says that the Roman Catholic commitment to ecumenism is a journey of no return. It is also true that he welcomes the results of Lutheran-Catholic dialogues and hopes for future and better outcomes.
However, as the President of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, he is theologically honest when he maintains a severely negative assessment of the Reformation and its core principles, especially the “Scripture alone” one. In his view, how the Reformation was partly correct has already been integrated by Roman Catholicism at Trent and Vatican II. The rest of the Reformation legacy needs to be rejected because it undermines the heart of Roman Catholicism. According to this view, Rome can renew itself from within, having already experienced some renewal in the past, but it needs to stand firm on its sacramental-eucharistic and episcopal nature which the Reformation has questioned on biblical grounds.
Thinking of the 5th centenary of the Reformation, because of these standing and unresolved important issues, it is no surprise that Koch explains that Rome could not “celebrate” it, but only “commemorate” it as a historical event. He calls for “more ecumenism.” For him, however, ecumenism is a way to overcome the Reformation, not a journey to embrace its evangelical principles.
Cardinal Koch’s book is a valuable contribution to understanding present-day Roman Catholic attitudes towards ecumenism. Since it originates from the head of the Vatican department whose task is the promotion of Christian unity, it reflects the official Roman Catholic stance towards the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and today’s evangelical churches. While acknowledging some value to certain concerns expressed five centuries ago, Koch maintains that the overall impact of the Reformation has been negative and should be considered as overcome by what Rome went through at the Council of Trent and Vatican II.
According to Koch, the Roman Catholic Church is able to renew itself from within. What is at stake is the question: is the Reformation over? For Cardinal Koch the answer is yes. Do evangelical Protestants agree?
Leonardo De Chirico, evangelical pastor in Rome (Italy). He is a theologian and an expert in Roman Catholicism. He blogs at VaticanFiles.com.
1. E.g. “Ecumenism is like a flight. Cardinal Koch and the current state of ecumenism” (Vatican Files n. 27, Dec 19, 2011) and “How visible should Christian unity be? John 17, Cardinal Kurt Koch and Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Trialogue” (Vatican Files n. 49, Dec 12, 2012).
2. W. Pannenberg, “Reformation und Einheit der Kirche” in Id., Ethik und Ekklesiologie. Gesammelte Aufsätze (Göttingen, 1977) p. 255.