Ecumenism is falling apart as Protestants even more ready than Catholics to adopt morally dubious positions

What is the current state of ecumenism in Germany in view of the visible differences between the Protestant and Catholic churches on issues of the protection of life? In an interview, Kassel's former Protestant Bishop Martin Hein gives a pessimistic assessment.

Euthanasia, abortion, surrogate motherhood - shortly before the parliamentary summer recess, ecumenical differences were revealed on the issues of the protection of life. The Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) pulled out of the ecumenical "Week for Life", which caused irritation in the German Bishops' Conference. An interview with the former Bishop of Kassel, Martin Hein, on the state of ecumenism.

Question: Former Bishop Hein, are the Protestant and Catholic Churches drifting apart on ethical issues?

Hein: There is still a whole series of fields where there is a great deal of overlap or congruence. But there are clear differences at certain socially explosive points. In the past, it was always said: we believe differently, but we act together. In the meantime, different ethical consequences are sometimes drawn from different theological views.

Question: Is the ethical position of the churches on euthanasia, abortion and surrogacy still relevant to the public?

Hein: In view of the cases of abuse, a major acceptance problem has arisen in Western European countries, including Germany. Anyone who currently speaks out in a high moral tone is relatively quickly pointed to their own past mistakes. The pitfall for the churches is high - especially for the Catholic Church, which has always ventured quite far ahead in moral questions. On the Protestant side, I have the impression that there is a certain movement away from the Church. People don't want to be constantly mixed up with the problems of the Catholic Church. All in all, I believe that much of what is currently being said is not being heard by the public or by politicians, as was perhaps the case 10 or 20 years ago.

Question: Why is it important for the Protestant and Catholic Churches to seek a common position on ethical issues?

Hein: There have been ecumenically tense times before, for example when the EKD emphasised an "ecumenism of profiles". What was meant was that each of the two major denominations would bring its own to public discussions. This was seen as unfriendly by the Catholic side. In principle, I think it is necessary for the Protestant Church to develop its own positions. However, in a public that is critical of the church as a whole and is experiencing a frightening surge in secularisation, the churches must not only strengthen their own profile. At the same time, they must ask where common positions can be presented. For those who are not interested in the church are not particularly interested in the internal differentiations. In the public eye, the distinction between Roman Catholic and Protestant is very much levelled, although it does of course exist.

Question: In the reform of the abortion paragraph 218 in the penal code and the question of the possibility of egg donation and surrogacy, no representatives of the church as an institution sit on the commission that is to submit reform proposals. Does that also speak for the loss of relevance?

Hein: Yes, I see it that way. Politicians started out with the prejudice that they already knew what the churches had to say about it. But I think that the tendencies that can be seen in the question of surrogate motherhood are at least ethically questionable.

Question: What do you see as the causes for the current situation of ecumenism?

Hein: The ecumenism factor does not play a major role within the Catholic Church at present. Nothing is happening in the area of Eucharistic hospitality. The working paper "Together at the Lord's Table" is lying in some drawer in Rome. The Catholic Church is preoccupied with itself. In view of the demands of the Synodal Way reform process, only familiar answers are currently being repeated to particularly controversial ethical questions.

Question: And at the EKD?

Hein: The Protestant Church is facing the fact that a painful loss of significance goes hand in hand with the rapid departures. Now the question is: Does one react to this process rather with inner isolation, or does one adapt to the secularisation tendencies in the sense of greater plurality? The Protestant Church is busy re-positioning itself in this situation. At present, a rather wide range of Protestant positions is becoming visible. For those who insist on more unambiguity, this leaves the impression of arbitrariness.

Question: What do you see as the subject areas where there is still overlap in ethical evaluation?

Hein: The whole topic of care, dealing with people in old age, also the question of financing hospitals - the churches are a very strong factor in the area of care, old age, illness. They always have been.

"As churches, we have to be careful that we do not become an NGO among many others and thus become confusable. Our very first mission remains to proclaim the gospel of God's grace to the world."

- Quote: Former Bishop Martin Hein

Question: What about the climate issue?

Hein: The climate crisis is undeniably coming into focus. There are hardly any differences between the two churches. But in my estimation, the driving forces of the climate movements are no longer the churches - as they were in the 1980s with the "conciliar process". In the meantime, they are Greenpeace, "Fridays for Future" and the "Last Generation".

Question: What do you think of the EKD forming alliances with civil organisations, for example on the issue of climate protection or migration?

Hein: As churches, we have to be careful that we do not become one NGO among many others and thus become confusable. Our very first mission remains to proclaim the Gospel of God's grace to the world. It is a matter of emphasis. And where our commitment is required, alliances are also conceivable.

Question: What is your future perspective for ecumenism?

Hein: Unfortunately, ecumenism is currently a hanging game. The Vatican is critical of the reform tendencies of the German Catholics. Now we have to see how the World Synod goes from October. I have the impression that the ecumenical orientation of the Catholic Church is turning more towards the Orthodox Churches. There one discovers kindred sisters and brothers, while we Protestants are the separated sisters and brothers.

Question: Will the political lobbying of the churches be impaired if there is no common position?

Hein: Yes, but it is not just a matter of presenting common ground; one must also be convinced that this position is capable of discourse and of convincing others. That, at least, is my experience from four years of working on the German Ethics Council. It is not enough to refer only to familiar ecclesiastical language patterns. Today, we can only be heard in ethical discussions if we succeed in formulating our convictions derived from the Christian faith in such a way that they can be understood by people who not only do not share our presuppositions, but even dispute them. This may be laborious, but it is worth all the effort.

Martin Hein was Bishop of the Evangelical Church of Kurhessen-Waldeck from 2000 to 2019. Set March 2020, he will head the newly convened Climate Protection Council of the city of Kassel as its chairman.


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