By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
At the conclusion of an annual week of prayer devoted to overcoming divisions in Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI has warned that hard political choices over “the family, marriage and sexuality” cannot be played down for the sake of preserving good relations among the various Christian denominations.
Such issues form the heart of the contemporary culture wars, and Benedict called for a united front among Christians on these debates, “which cannot be minimized or avoided simply to avoid endangering the agreement we’ve already achieved.”
The pontiff’s remarks came in an audience this morning with a delegation from the Lutheran Church in Germany, to mark the end of the Jan. 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Noting that since 2009 the Catholic bishops of Germany and leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church have had a bilateral dialogue commission on “God and Human Dignity," Benedict expressed the hope that “no new confessional differences” will erupt on the pro-life questions.
That dialogue has at times been contentious, given that many Lutheran churches in Germany accept openly gay clergy and view homosexuality as morally acceptable, and some also bless same-sex unions.
Benedict’s warning that ecumenical good manners cannot blunt the church’s pro-life message comes at a time when disagreements over gay rights and gender roles are already producing new fault lines in Christianity, perhaps especially with the Anglican Communion.
Over the weekend, seven priests of the Church and England and roughly 300 parishioners in the United Kingdom announced their intention to join the Catholic church under a new structure approved by Benedict XVI in November 2009 called a “Personal Ordinariate.” They join three former Church of England bishops who have already affiliated with the new Ordinariate.
Most of these new Catholics are drawn from the traditionalist wing of the Church of England, which is unhappy with recent liberalizing trends in Anglicanism including the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of openly gay bishops, as well as the ordination of female priests and bishops.
Publicly most Anglican leaders say they wish those leaving well, but the Vatican’s decision to welcome traditionalist defectors has also generated resentment. In a recent ecumenical service at London’s Westminster Cathedral, Anglican Canon Giles Fraser compared Benedict’s decision to a corporate “takeover bid … in some broader power play of church politics.”
“If Anglicans do feel a little like this, I wonder if things really are all that rosy in the ecumenical garden,” Fraser said.
In a similar vein, Anglican Bishop Christopher Hill called the decision an “insensitive act.”
In his remarks to the Lutherans this morning, Benedict XVI stressed that efforts towards Christian unity are not a “communications strategy in a changing world,” but a “basic obligation of the church.”
Benedict acknowledged the difficulties in ecumenical dialogue, saying that sometimes “the conversation partners bring completely difference conceptions of church unity” into the conversation, which further delays the aim of full visible communion and a common celebration of the Eucharist.
Noting that 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous ninety-five theses, commonly held to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Benedict called for Lutherans and Catholics to foster a “common ecumenical commemoration,” including common prayer and the “purification of conscience.”
That commemoration, Benedict said, must be rooted in “common obedience to our Lord and his Word.”