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How Protestant is the Pope?

Interview with Thomas Schirrmacher, 27-10-2017

Laughing like Luther

Thomas Schirrmacher (57) travels even more than the Pope. A theologian and religious sociologist from Bonn, he teaches as a professor in Romania and India. He is Deputy General Secretary and Chief Theologian of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), which represents 600 million Protestants and which is headquartered in New York. The WEA is an evangelical trend within Protestantism, which claims to have about two million people in Germany. As the theological head of this worldwide network, Schirrmacher has been frequenting the Vatican for a long time. For some years Pope Francis has been his closest dialogue partner.


Question: As head Theologian of the World Evangelical Alliance you have a direct line to the Vatican. What is your relationship with Pope Francis?

Thomas Schirrmacher: We are friends. In December, just before his 81st birthday, I'll be back for a private visit with him. We're quite familiar with each other. That may sound strange, but frankly it's nothing special.

Question: How so?

Schirrmacher: Most of the world's top church leaders have long had a trusting relationship with each other. With the pope that never used to be the case. Even cardinals had to go through the rigmarole if they wanted something from their boss. Francis has, so to speak, restored things back to normal. The most important church representatives today have a hot line to the pope.

Question: How should we picture this in practice?

Schirrmacher: If the phone rings in the morning at 8 o'clock and the caller is anonymous, it may well be that the pope is on the phone. He calls spontaneously, after the morning Mass. But we see each other personally more often. He then asks, "What's up?"

Question: And what do you say then?

Schirrmacher: I was with a colleague with him once, our briefcases were full of prepared documents. Francis said: Please give the files to my co-workers and tell me what's on your mind. Francis loves to set the agenda aside and talk about what seems important at the moment. This is not just small talk, but very intense.

Question: Is Francis a gift to Protestants?

Schirrmacher: I think so. This is a unique opportunity. In ecumenism, one doesn't have to laboriously work one's way up anymore as in a princely court, but one has direct access. And internally, Francis doesn't do things any differently. If he wants to know something about Buddhism, he calls the competent expert in the Vatican directly, to the detriment [bypassing] of the supervising Cardinal. This directness is a key to ecumenism and to the relationship between religions.

Question: Because there is an eye to eye dialogue?

Schirrmacher: That's right. On top of that, the Pope simply eliminates the power factor that used to be so prominent in the past. Francis, for example, bowed to the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I and established equality with a single gesture. That is admirable.

Question: May a Protestant admire the head of Catholics?

Schirrmacher: I admire Francis because he is trying something that really can't work. He described the Curia as the most sinful and corrupt place in the world, using almost the exact same words as Martin Luther 500 years ago. Francis has thrown the Curia the gauntlet, and I admire this courage. Of course, I distinguish between his character, the magisterial positions of the Catholic Church and his positions.

Question: In what way does the pope's view contrast with the official position of his church?

Schirrmacher: I think about the question of whether we Protestants are judged by the Catholic side as real churches or just as ecclesial communities. The official documents refer to us as ecclesial communities. Francis sees this very casually, he treated us quite naturally as churches. In everyday life, such questions are ticked off. If they were to be poured into a church document, it would probably look quite different.

Question: The Pope has problems with his own church, but apparently gets on quite well with the Protestants? Is Francis in the wrong church?

Schirrmacher: He has made huge enemies in the Vatican and takes a big risk. Loud voices in his church already deny him the papacy. Like in politics, there is this reproach: someone who has made a lot of changes, was probably in the wrong party to start with. I like to call Francis the Mikhail Gorbachev of the Catholic Church. My catholic friends don't like hearing that ...

Question: ... because the Soviet Union finally dissolved. Does the Catholic Church under Francis face the same fate?

Schirrmacher: I know from the Pope that he has this concern. At the family synod two years ago, when I was invited as a guest, she was at times already on the brink of a schism. Nevertheless, he also has very broad support at all levels to prevent such a thing.

Question: You mean the letter of the twelve conservative cardinals at the Synod?

Schirrmacher: Yes, the letter was already public before the Pope got to read it. These important men more or less threatened Francis with the fact that the Catholic Church is no longer the Catholic Church if the Pope does not slow down the dynamics of change. Last year, four cardinals, including the late Joachim Meisner, published doubts on the Magisterium of Francis. It is openly debated today what possibilities there are to oppose the Pope. For a Protestant, that does not seem very Catholic anymore. The Vatican is still acting as if it were a small minority that it is confronting. But it is no longer a minority.

Question: Francis shows himself fallible. His many interviews and statements on worldly matters reinforce this impression. Is this propensity for fallibility an engine for ecumenism?

Schirrmacher: Yes, of course. I have discussed with Francis the church unity with regards to the different speeds. He is open to stepping back from the Orthodox Churches and being in unity with them only as Bishop of Rome, a kind of moderator among equals. This is practically settled between Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The Russian Orthodox Church torpedoed this development for competitive reasons to Bartholomew, so this is not implemented. But one sees that Francis has no problems abandoning the claim of infallibility.

Question: As the pillars of Catholicism waver ...

Schirrmacher: Pope Francis once said in a discussion: also Benedict XVI and John Paul II had never been infallible and had never claimed infallibility. Bergoglio has no use for the dogma of infallibility. He is really prepared to go to the extreme limits of his church. At the anniversary of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden, a year ago, the Pope gave a sermon, saying that that was his express wish. In my view, Francis interpreted Luther's thoughts better than most Lutheran bishops.

Question: The Pope as an authentic interpreter and heir of Luther?

Schirrmacher: When he came to office, Francis was clueless about the Reformation. He had many personal contacts with Protestants, evangelicals and representatives of other religions in Argentina. But Francis is above all a man of the Bible. He opens it and reads the message straight from the text. Bible criticism, as we know it, is not his thing. He has a very direct access. That makes him a true heir of Luther. And so he naturally comes into conflict with the traditional positions. This can be seen in the area of marriage, divorce and access to the sacraments, the main themes of the synods on the family and in his post-synodal writing Amoris laetitia.

Question: Will the changes in the Catholic Church stand and fall with Francis, or will there be continuity beyond his pontificate?

Schirrmacher: The Pope has changed a lot more in the College of Cardinals than in the Vatican itself. The people appointed by him and eligible to vote in the next conclave are all modest shepherds who are really interested in their churches and ecumenical or interreligious dialogue. Many of them are unknown in this country, because they come from distant lands. I know almost all of the newly appointed Cardinals. But not because I have such a deep knowledge of the universal Church, but because these people are in dialogue with us. And we may add: Benedict XVI indirectly did Francis a favor because he appointed many old cardinals who have since passed the age limit of 80 years, the age limit of entitlement to participate in the conclave.

Question: That is how Pope Francis was able to appoint 40 percent of the cardinals who are eligible to vote.

Schirrmacher: At the last consistory in June there were only six cardinals. Such a small-scale appointment is most unusual. I thought, oh God, now he'll be turning back tomorrow! Francis knows that he will not be in office forever, living in the awareness of having received from God a certain amount of time that he wants to use as much as possible. He builds for the day that comes to an end. His daily routine is enormous for his age. Sometimes he works himself to the max.

Question: Are you worried about his successor?

Schirrmacher: At the last conclave, the number of my preferred candidates was, quite frankly, very small. At the top of my wishlist stood the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who came second to Joseph Ratzinger at the 2005 Conclave and who was finally elected in 2013. Bergoglio's excellent relations with the other churches were well known. Today, I would say that a quarter of the electorate are good people in our opinion and have a genuine interest in cooperation. I hope that the course of ecumenical openness will be pursued.