zum Benedikt Anliegen

Click here

for Benedict’s cause

Ecumenism: a priority in Benedict XVI’s papacy

In his first major address at an Ecumenical Meeting, the Pope – who hails from the motherland of the Reformation – revealed the fundamental perspectives of his engagement with ecumenism.


by Cardinal Kurt Koch

Portrait Kardinal Kurt Koch, Präsident des Päpstlichen Rates zur Förderung der Einheit der Christen, am 2. März 2018 im Vatikan.

The speech given by Pope Benedict XVI at the Ecumenical Meeting on the occasion of the XX World Youth Day in Cologne in August 2005 was his first major address on ecumenical matters in the first year of his papacy. It reveals the fundamental perspectives that have informed his engagement with ecumenism.

The truth of faith, not political compromise

For Benedict XVI, ecumenical endeavours are about restoring the unity of the Church as the community that lives in accordance with the Gospel and Apostolic faith. The unity of the Church which is to be restored deeply affects the truth of faith and must not be misunderstood as a political problem that could be solved through compromise. Instead, the unity of the Church must be a unity of Apostolic faith, which is passed on and entrusted to every Christian upon Baptism. Baptism and its mutual recognition are therefore the foundation of all ecumenical endeavours.

Resulting from this, we also have the elementary conviction that we, as humans, do not bring about the unity of the Church ourselves and also cannot command the form this unity takes or the time at which it is achieved. A unity brought about by humanity could be nothing more than a human unity.

Ökumenisches Treffen am Rande des Weltjugendtages in Köln. Die Ansprache Benedikts XVI. ließ aufhorchen.

The unity of the Church cannot be brought about. The unity sought by ecumenism is a gift of grace

The unity sought by ecumenism is, however, a gift of grace for which we can only turn to God, just as Jesus Himself prayed for the unity of his disciples the evening before his suffering. At its very heart, therefore, Christian ecumenism shares in Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer. Only when we allow ourselves to be subsumed into this prayer can we also become one among ourselves.

Pope Benedict XVI vividly expressed this conviction on another occasion: “The ship of ecumenism would never have put out to sea had she not been lifted by this broad current of prayer and wafted by the breath of the Holy Spirit.” From the outset, the ecumenical movement was a movement of prayer, and only as such will it continue to live. The prayer for unity is the spiritual heart of all ecumenical endeavour.

Ecumenism of truth and life

In this fundamental spiritual position, Pope Benedict XVI has also always promoted ecumenism of truth, namely theological accounting for those factors that have in the past led to divisions in the Church. It is of great concern to him that theological problems be tackled from their very core. He does not want to see superficial fighting over Church institutions such as ministry in the Church.

For him, the real theological question is much more “the presence of the Word in the world”, that is the combination of God`s  Word and personal witness. Or, to put it simply, “the best form of ecumenism consists in living in accordance with the Gospel.”

Papst Benedikt XVI Betonte in seiner Rede die dringende Notwenigkeit, in bioethischen Fragen mit einer gemeinsamen christlichen Stimme zu sprechen: Papst Benedikt XVI.

Marriage, family, sexuality, gender: the great ethical issues take urgent priority

Thus, for Benedict XVI, ecumenical dialogue is the way forward. This is not simply about exchanging thoughts and convictions, but about “an exchange of gifts” in which the various Christian communities contribute the spiritual riches they have received from the Holy Spirit. While taking this extremely positive attitude, however, Benedict XVI also openly addressed those problems that are yet to be solved in the current ecumenical situation, of which I shall mention only the two most important:

For Pope Benedict XVI, the great ethical issues take urgent priority in ecumenical dialogue. Over the last decades, grave tensions and differences have emerged in ecumenical discussions in the ethical realm, in particular in relation to bioethical issues and the ethical problems surrounding marriage, family, sexuality and gender. This presents a great challenge.

If churches do not speak with one voice, the Christian voice will become ever weaker in secular society

If Christians and churches cannot speak with one voice on the great ethical issues of human life and social interaction, the Christian voice will become ever weaker in today’s secular society. Christian ecumenism must therefore also focus on these ethical issues.

The even more fundamental challenge in today’s ecumenical situation is that we are yet to find a common goal for ecumenism. There are many models of unity, but still no consensus on what the actual focus should be in restoring the unity of the Church. We agree “that” unity is required, but not on “what” unity should look like. However, we need a common goal in order to initiate further steps.

Joachim Kardinal Meisner, Papst Benedikt XVI., Staatssekretär Angelo Kardinal Sodano, Walter Kardinal Kasper (v.l.) hören die Ansprache von Bischof Wolfgang Huber, Vorsitzender des Rates der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland.

Full and visible unity is the goal

As defined by the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI sees the goal of ecumenism not just as recognising the various denominational understandings of the Church and achieving peaceful coexistence, but in the full and visible unity of the Church and thus in that unity which, by its nature, is visible in the community through faith, the sacraments and the Church´s ministries.

Benedict XVI has concentrated all his ecumenical endeavours on this goal. I experienced this for myself when he asked me to accept my appointment as President of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. Back then, he explained that I had been chosen because he wished for a bishop who knew the various churches not just from books, but from his own pastoral experience, and that ecumenism with the communities that grew out of the Reformation is just as important to him as ecumenism with the Orthodox Churches.

“Dialogue between we three”: including Orthodox Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches

As a Pope who hails from a country significant to the Reformation, he has therefore paid particular attention to ensuring that Orthodox Christians and Oriental Orthodox Christians are included in ecumenical discussions and are made partners in the ecumenical dialogue.

This explains why Benedict XVI, in his first message after being chosen as Pope, declared that his papacy would have as its particular priority “to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty”.

Placing Christ at the centre

He has always rooted in the Christian faith the ecumenical task of striving for the visible unity of the Church. His engagement with ecumenism is truly ecumenical in that he is Christocentric. In that his ecumenical endeavours and all of his preachings place Jesus Christ at their centre, he will be remembered as a significant ecumenist of modern times and will thus remain prolific. The speech delivered by Pope Benedict XVI in Cologne, and briefly introduced here, proves this with authenticity.

Portrait Kardinal Kurt Koch, Präsident des Päpstlichen Rates zur Förderung der Einheit der Christen, am 2. März 2018 im Vatikan.

The author, Cardinal Kurt Koch, is Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity. Pope Benedict XVI admitted him to the College of Cardinals in 2010.