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Schirrmacher: ‘Debating Catholic leaders with a Bible in your hand is much easier nowadays'

“Catholic theology is the largest faith system and the largest Christian faith system in the world, so we need to invest a lot of energy to research it, understand it, interact with it”, argues WEA's Thomas Schirrmacher.

AUTOR 7/Joel_Forster,5/Evangelical_Focus BERLIN 10 DE JUNIO DE 2015 18:30 h
Pope, rain, artistic Image of Pope Francis greeting in Saint Peter's Square, last year. / The Guardian

Pope Francis’ new approach to evangelical Christians has opened many debates in recent months. While some national Protestant churches have shown openness to ecumenism, Evangelical churches have generally defended clear doctrinal red lines.

But what does the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) think about how evangelicals should approach Catholicism and Pope Francis?


Thomas Schirrmacher.

Dr Thomas Schirrmacher, chair of the Theological commission of the WEA gave his opinion regarding some of the hot issues being debated in Europe, in an interview with Evangelical Focus.


Question. How do you see Francis’ papacy so far?

Answer. Somehow one can compare Pope Francis to Mikhail Gorbachev, even though their worldviews are worlds apart. With Gorbachev it was not clear if he wanted to reform communism into something totally new or if he just wanted a communism with a nicer face.

I think that Francis started a new era of relationships to all kinds of people, including Pentecostals and Evangelicals, and that he gives a totally different picture of what a Pope is than did Pope John Paul II. According to Francis, Popes make mistakes, Popes do not always know the answer, Popes have a private life and can even retire. Whether, at the end, he will be just an unexpected personality in Rome followed by the next John Paul III, or whether he will be able to change things beyond handling the Vatican bank and the abuse of minors by priests and bishops, only time can tell.

He also has already had one positive effect on the Evangelical and Pentecostal world. His simple life style and his speaking up for the poor are putting a lot of pressure on health-and-wealth-gospel preachers and very rich Pentecostal pastors, who from my perspective distort the Evangelical claim to follow the Bible. Their own people start to ask why they need a Gulf Stream jet if the Pope does not have one.


Q. Do you see a danger of Evangelicals converting to Catholicism because of the positive image Pope Francis?

A. I do not see a major problem in the evangelical movement worldwide of Evangelicals becoming Catholics or the danger of a major move by Evangelicals into the Roman Catholic Church.

Millions of Catholics become Evangelicals each year, but only a handful of people go the opposite direction. The number of Evangelicals becoming Catholics is, from a sociological point of view, incredibly low, since we are talking about the largest religious community in the world that automatically attracts a lot of people. And many Protestants entering the RCC do this because of liberalism – especially in questions of ethics – in the Protestant mainline churches from which they departed. Already Pope Benedict followed the new line of welcoming Evangelicals, and the result was surely not that a massive number of Evangelicals entered the RCC. If Francis really wanted to win Evangelicals over he would bring up topics that really make a difference for Evangelicals, such as Mary, the veneration of saints, indulgences or the understanding of the mass.


Q. We understand that Catholicism is different in different countries, and even in its hierarchical structure there is room for internal diversity. How can we understand all these different “faces” of Catholicism inside Europe?

A. Though the Catholic Church is commonly supposed to be a unity with its head in Rome, in reality it contains an enormous number of wings and theological parties. The major wings experts describe are the traditionalists, the liberals and the “evangelical” Catholics.

The first are not only against any change in theology, but also very fond of the veneration of Mary and saints, pilgrimages, folk Catholicism, etc. This wing is stable in numbers, neither growing nor declining. The liberal wing is mostly as liberal as Protestant liberalism but not as outspoken. Their numbers are in decline worldwide.

The “evangelical” wing is not evangelical in theology, as we use the term, but it is mainly newly converted Christians or Christians with some charismatic experience, all with a deeply personal faith, an emphasis on personal conviction and witness, on Bible study, and on charismatic gifts. This wing does not speak against central Catholic dogmas such as Mariology, indulgences, saints, etc., but it puts them on a secondary level, below cooperation with non-Catholic Christians. This wing is growing, on the one side through the growing charismatic movement in the Catholic Church, on the other side through the large number of conversions in Africa and Asia as a result of the private witness of Catholics.

The Catholic hierarchy can belong to all wings. It can be very liberal, such as in Germany, where recently a Catholic bishop publically called for acceptance of same-sex marriage, or very conservative such as in Poland or in the USA. We have areas, where the Catholic Church is incredibly wealthy with a budget of tens of billions of euros, such as in West Germany or in Poland, and areas where the Catholic Church has a hard time to pay its priests, such as in the former Communist Eastern Germany! We have regions where Catholicism is mainly a folk Catholicism venerating Mary and the saints– even in localized forms like a black Madonna - and very secularized regions, where Catholics rarely go to church and do not feel bound by any of the moral commands of their Church.


Q. How can Evangelicals find a balance in the way they approach Catholicism, bearing in mind both the diverse reality of Catholic faith and its centralised leadership which dictates the Catholic Catechism?

A. On the personal level it is important that we interact with whatever a specific Catholic friend actually believes, which could be a very liberal or a very conservative form of the Catholic faith, but it could also be secularism, astrology, or whatever is really the center of his thinking. We want to witness to concrete persons, not to systems.

At the same time the system of Catholic theology is the largest faith system and the largest Christian faith system in the world, so we need to invest a lot of energy to research it, understand it, interact with it, and, whenever we think that it is wrong, we need to offer not only negative statements; we also need to offer thought through and well argued better alternatives.


Q. When looking at the role that Scripture has for Catholics and for Evangelicals, what similarities and differences can we find?

A. For a long time Catholic theology put the magisterium, the Pope’s teaching authority, above the Bible and, at the same time, took over higher criticism of all kinds from liberal Protestants. This killed the authority of the Bible from two sides. But an opposing trend also emerged: just reading the Bible, often and together, which Catholics are urged to do since Vatican II, has again and again initiated revival. Then Pope Benedict XVI protested against higher criticism and his way of doing exegesis in his Jesus book series has opened the way for much more Bible reading in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis has pressed forward in this direction, so that now most priests live with their Bibles, and therefore they offer mostly pure preaching. In itself this does not change any dogma, but only in trusting and reading the Bible on both sides do we have a chance and hope for improvements. My experience is that it is much easier nowadays to argue with Catholic leaders with a Bible in your hand than it was 20 years ago.


Q. In which areas should Catholics and Evangelicals cooperate?

A. A. We can cooperate with Catholics in every area, where we can cooperate with all people of good will, to build up a just and peaceful society!

B. We can cooperate in political and social issues, where we are usually in agreement about basic values and convictions. Nowadays this often means that Catholics and Evangelicals stand together against Protestant Liberals, for example in matters of life (abortion, euthanasia) and sexuality. We also agree with Catholics about human trafficking and forced prostitution. We also should realize, that the Catholic Church as a state (“Holy See”) often defends vital such moral positions in the United Nations and other supranational organisations.

C. We should stand together in the face of discrimination and persecution of Christians, both over against the persecutors and over against the states, both kind of states, those who do not protect us (such as Iraq or India), as well as those that are willing to speak on behalf of religious liberty (such as South Africa and Germany).

D. This cooperation can vary from country to country.

E. An important area where we still have no way to cooperate is in the area of worship. But since a joint celebration of the Lord’s Supper/Mass is forbidden on the Catholic side anyway and, since, in the Catholic Church, a joint mass/Lord’s supper is the end and high point of communion, I do not see much reason for worry here. Our Evangelical approach is quite different from Protestant Liberals, who make the joint celebration of the Lord’s Supper a starting point for cooperation with the Catholic Church.

One thing I would like to add:  There are three global Christian bodies, the Roman Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). If one does not include WEA into the international picture, one has not listened to whole of World Christianity. But the other side of the coin is true, too: this brings a lot of responsibility. I am convinced that we Evangelicals cannot live in a private corner of the world and act as if the other two Christian world bodies do not exist. We should cooperate where possible, speak to governments together as far as possible, and assure that we are heard together with the others. We meet the other two in everyday life and everywhere in the international arena; we should not seek a hidden place where we are alone, but we should speak up about our convictions wherever possible.

Besides this: The underlying argument against talking together often seems to be: The only reason to dialogue with someone is to declare that you are like minded. I grew up with this “doctrine of guilt by association” in a very conservative evangelical home, and I used this argument myself for too long. But where do you find it in the Bible, that shaking someone’s hand and talking with him, makes you an advertisement for his world view or theology? Did Jesus follow it? Did Paul? Did not Paul talk to all kinds of leaders and groups? In Rome he even met with the Jewish leaders to tell them that Jewish leaders from Jerusalem would show up and say a lot of wrong things (Acts 28:17-25). Paul’s intention with those non-Christians was just to assure that they do not have a distorted view of his ministry and the Christian church and that they should not believe their fellow non-Christians from Jerusalem.


Q. In the past there have been some documents between particular evangelical denominations and Catholics, especially regarding justification by faith. What can be said about these documents nowadays?

A. The only document that really brought progress was the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the non-Evangelical Lutheran World Federation. The definition of justification itself in this document is acceptable to Evangelicals, whose spectrum is of course much broader than just Lutheran theology. Yet the then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, immediately watered the document down, not by saying that the wording is wrong, but by saying that the agreement could not mean that anything in the Council of Trent could be questioned. That distorted the whole process and left the legal value of the document up in the air. Pope Francis told us, as well as the Lutherans, that he likes the definitions in the document very much and has some ideas about embracing them together, but we will have to wait to see what that means. Of course it is good if a Pope is willing to move here, even in his private thinking, but for anything official, more will have to happen.

By the way: The centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith is not under attack among Evangelicals because of the existence of Catholic theology or because of what the present Pope says. If justification by faith in the classical understanding gets lost in evangelical circles it is for other reasons:  1) because of the influence of the ideas of theogians like N. T. Wright, or through the emerging church movement (the matter is too complex for one sentence, but I want to mention the topic here.); 2) because of the decrease of interest in Biblical theology and dogmatics in the evangelical movement altogether; 3) because of the health-and-wealth-gospel, which is not interested in these topics since its proponents have a weak view of human sin and do not teach the extent to which believers are still sinners.

At the same time one has to add that Reformational soteriology is on a rise within Evangelicalism nowadays, much more than in the twentieth century. Especially in the Pentecostal movement, large parts are taking over traditional Evangelical or even Reformed soteriology. Especially the rising number of theological seminaries and top-level-theologians are improving systematic theology in the Pentecostal movement.


Q. The Catholic Church and Evangelicals have a very different view of what is the Church. How does this affect the dialogue?

It affects the dialogue both by content and in practical questions: 1) by content, the Catholic Church believes itself to be indispensable for attaining salvation, so this has to be a central topic in dialogue, which always somehow is present; 2) by procedure, the Catholic Church is strictly hierarchical and thus in the end it always matters whether or not the Pope agrees (as he did with “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World”), while on our side we have a very flat structure and represent our 600 million church members only if we grasp what they stand for, not because of external legal authority. Thus if I or our WEA commission would agree to something that Evangelicals in the main see otherwise, they would simply not accept it and I would probably be out of my position soon. But we have to see that this is also a strength on the Evangelical side: We speak up for what our people really think and do, while the Pope or the Vatican often defends things which many Catholics see and especially practice otherwise. Consider the high number of abortions in Catholic countries.


Q. Do you think the stance of national Evangelical alliances from countries where Catholicism is a social majority should be heard with special care inside the WEA, when topics like dialogue with Catholicism or Ecumenism are being discussed?

Yes, of course. Three of the five theologians of our group working with five Catholic theologians of the PCPCU in a dialogue on Scripture and related themes are from Catholic majority countries, including one each from Italy and Spain. Before we signed “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World” together with the Vatican and World Council of Churches, I spent much time with the leaders of a dozen of national alliances from Catholic majority countries.

But let me add two remarks here. 1) It would be wrong to think that all those alliances think alike. The Evangelical Alliances – to limit myself to Europe – in Spain, Poland, and Austria have quite diverging viewpoints on how to deal with the Vatican and Catholic leadership. 2) Other Alliances have to deal with Catholic theology and practice as well. Germany has more than 30 million Catholic citizens, and I personally live in the Cologne-Bonn area, historic heartlands of the Catholic Church. My flat is directly beside the Jesuit College in Bonn in which the Counter Reformation was invented, shortly after they had driven out Martin Bucer. This is one of the reasons why I write books against indulgences, on the apocrypha, and on Catholic Church law. Also other German Evangelical theologians, such as Rolf Hille, are among the best equipped to present our faith to Catholic dialogue partners.




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