Looking Toward Luther 2017

By Massimo Faggioli

This year’s meeting of the Ratzinger Schülerkreis (student circle), which met Aug. 30 through Sept. 3 at Pope Benedict XVI’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, focused on ecumenical relations among Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans. Meeting Aug. 30 through Sept. 3 at Castel Gandolfo, Pope Benedict XVI and his former students engaged in discussions led by Ulrich Wilckens, a retired German Lutheran bishop, and Charles Morerod, Bishop of Geneva, Lausanne, and Fribourg.

Ratzinger’s Schülerkreis has always been ecumenical in its network of contacts and interests. The circle formed after Joseph Ratzinger was elevated to Archbishop of Munich in 1977, but such a group existed informally even before. The pope’s biographers narrate that as a young professor Ratzinger took his students in 1967 to Basel (Switzerland) to visit Karl Barth. At that time Barth was studying the document of the Second Vatican Council on Revelation, the constitution Dei Verbum, for his important book Ad Limina Apostolorum: An Appraisal of Vatican II (1968). In 1975 the group met with Wolfhart Pannenberg to discuss christological issues. In 1978 Ratzinger’s Schülerkreis met with Heinrich Schlier, a former Lutheran who had converted to Catholicism in 1953.

The Rev. Stephan Horn, president of the Ratzinger Schülerkreis, has hinted about possible Roman Catholic preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (1517-2017). Some have even said that Rome might be willing to prepare a common mea culpa with Lutherans for 2017, in an attempt to reconcile and build a shared memory of past interconfessional relations. Such a development would mark a noteable change in Pope Benedict’s understanding of ecumenism, which in the first seven years of his pontificate has looked much more ad orientem (to Eastern Orthodoxy) than to the Reformation.

On the other hand, nothing seems to be moving much in ecumenical relations between Rome and the churches of the Reformation, at least at the official bilateral level. More realistically, the ecumenical focus of the 2012 meeting of the Ratzinger Schülerkreis can help us cast a light on this present moment of ecumenism in the Roman Curia. It is not an accident that the 2012 meeting of the Ratzinger Schülerkreis was largely based on Walter Cardinal Kasper’s very important Harvesting the Fruits: Basic Aspects of Christian Faith in Ecumenical Dialogue (Continuum, 2009).

The choice of this book by the Ratzinger Schülerkreis means, among other things, acknowledging the work of Kasper, probably the most important theological “opponent” of Cardinal Ratzinger, especially in the famous debate on ecclesiology in the years 1999-2001. After Cardinal Kasper’s long and successful tenure as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (1999-2010), the leadership of his successor, the Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, has been so far difficult to evaluate.

One remarkable fact of Benedict XVI’s pontificate has been the desire to maintain the academic stature he acquired in the 1960s and to “apply” it to his teaching as a pope. In this sense, on many issues — ecumenism in 2012, new evangelization in 2011, interpretation of the Second Vatican Council in 2010 — Ratzinger’s Schülerkreis has offered the pope and his inner circle a kind of “personal think tank,” an alternative to what the Roman Curia is already supposed to do (but is not always able or allowed to do). The Schülerkreis seems in this way to be not only the formalization of occasions of informal consultations that every pope has with experts, but also another example of the complex relationship between Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia.

The work of the pope with the Curia has huge consequences for the future of ecumenical and interconfessional relations. In the history of ecumenical relations, John Paul II will be remembered especially for the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (1999) with the Lutheran World Federation, probably the most important bilateral ecumenical agreement involving the Roman Catholic Church in the last 50 years.

Thus far, the pontificate of Benedict XVI has signaled a shift in the ecumenical policy of Rome with the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (Nov. 4, 2009). The reception of Anglicanorum Coetibus in ecumenical milieus has been far from uncontroversial. It will be interesting to see whether the Schülerkreis of 2012 will open Benedict XVI’s pontificate towards a new path of ecumenical relations.

Massimo Faggioli is assistant professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His most recent books are Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning (Paulist, 2012) and True Reform: Liturgy and Ecclesiology in Sacrosanctum Concilium (Liturgical Press, 2012).

Photo: Pope Benedict XVI with the Rev. Nikolaus Schneider, praeses of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, during Benedict’s apostolic journey to Germany, September 2011


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