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A Protestant Theologian’s View of the Pope

November 14, 2017
Thomas Schirrmacher.

In German weekly Die Zeit, German journalist Julius Müller-Meiningen published on October 27, 2017, an interview with Thomas Schirrmacher, president of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance, one of many strains of Protestantism in existence, which can claim two million faithful in Germany alone.

Here are the most significant answers of this evangelical theologian, an intimate friend of Pope Francis—so much so that they use the informal second person (no longer used in English) in conversation, he tells us at the beginning of the interview.

Die Zeit: Is Francis a gift for Protestantism?
I certainly think so. This is a unique opportunity. In ecumenical dialogue, it is no longer necessary to work from the bottom of the hierarchy up to the top, as if in the presence of a royal court; on the contrary, we have direct access. Francis, at home, does nothing else. When he wants to understand something about Buddhism, he calls the people in the Vatican who are competent in the area, while the cardinal in charge (of the matter related to Buddhism) is left out. This direct method of communication is the key of ecumenical dialogue and mutual relations between religions.

Die Zeit: Is this because the discussion is one-on-one?
Absolutely. What is more, the Pope has lessened the element of power that was strongly present in the past. For instance, he bowed to the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I, and with this simple gesture set up a situation of equality. This is worthy of admiration.

Die Zeit: Can a Protestant admire the head of Catholicism?
I admire Francis, because he is trying to do something that maybe can never work. He has defined the (Roman) Curia as one of the most corrupt and sinful places in the world, and in doing so he chose to use almost exactly the same words as Martin Luther 500 years ago. Francis has thrown down the gauntlet before the Curia: I admire his courage. But I am also capable of distinguishing between his personality, his magisterial role within the Catholic Church and his duties.

Die Zeit: How are the Pope’s point of view and the official positions of his Church opposed?
I am thinking of the issue of whether we Protestants are considered by Catholics to be a true Church or simply an ecclesial community. In the official documents (of the Catholic Church) we are described as an ecclesial community. Francis, on the other hand, sees this point in a very serene way, and of course he treats us in every way as if we were a Church. In daily life these issues are set aside. But if they were to be treated by an official document of the Church, it would most likely be different.

Die Zeit: The Pope has problems with his own Church, but is he in perfect agreement with Protestants?
Is Francis in the wrong Church? In the Vatican, he has made powerful enemies and taken some major risks. There are already loud voices within his Church, denying that he is Pope. In politics, too, he has been reproached for that kind of thing: when someone makes a lot of changes, he is accused of being in the wrong party. I like to call Francis the Mikhaïl Gorbatchev of the Catholic Church. And my Catholic friends don’t like to hear that very much.

Die Zeit: …because he ended up dissolving the Soviet Union. Is the Catholic Church under Francis threated by the same fate?
I know by the Pope’s voice that he has this concern. At the Synod on the Family two years ago, where I was present as a guest, the borderline of a schism was occasionally reached. However, he did whatever was possible, with his intervention, to avoid it.

Die Zeit: Are you thinking of the letter of the twelve conservative cardinals at the Synod?
Yes, the letter became public before the Pope had even read it. By doing this, these high-profile personages threatened Francis, (claiming) that the Catholic Church would no longer be the Catholic Church if the Pope did not slow down his drive for change. Last year, four cardinals, including the late Joachim Meisner, publicly shared their doubts (Dubia) on Francis’ magisterium. Today, the possibilities for resisting the Pope are openly debated. To a Protestant, all this does not seem very Catholic. The Vatican is still acting as if it is merely a small minority seeking confrontation. But it is no longer a minority.

Die Zeit: Francis gives an impression of fallibility. His many interviews and his comments on world affairs reinforce this impression. Can this tendency to fallibility be a driving force for ecumenical dialogue?
Yes, of course. I spoke with Francis about the different speeds of the process of the unification of the Church. He is openly ready to take a step back with the Orthodox Churches, and in union with them, to simply be the Bishop of Rome, a sort of mediator among equals. This is in reality the line laid down between Pope Francis and the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew I. The Russian Orthodox Church, together with Bartholomew I, torpedoed this potential development, so nothing will change. In any case, it is obvious that Francis has no problem with setting aside pretensions of infallibility. (sic)

Die Zeit: It is in this way that the pillars of Catholicism begin tottering…
Pope Francis, in a discussion, said one day that Benedict XVI and John Paul II were not infallible either, and for all we know, they have never exercised their prerogative (of infallibility). With the dogma of infallibility, Bergoglio cannot begin anything. He is really ready to reach the edge of the impossible in his Church. On the occasion of the Jubilee of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, the Pope preached according to his explicit wishes. From my point of view, on this occasion, Francis interpreted Luther’s thought better than the majority of Lutheran bishops.

The Pope, the authentic interpreter of Luther’s heritage?
When he began his mandate, Francis had no knowledge of the (Lutheran) Reformation. Already in Argentina, he had made many personal contacts among Protestants, Evangelicals and representatives of other religions. But Francis is above all a man of the Bible. He opens it and reads the News directly in the text. Biblical criticism, as we know it, is not something that belongs to him. He has a very direct approach to the Biblical text. This makes him a true heir of Luther. It is therefore natural that he should enter into conflict with traditional positions. Many things can be seen in this way, on the theme of marriage, divorce and access to the Sacraments, the central theme of the synod on the family, and his post-synodal work Amoris Laetitia.