The ecumenical future

The Evangelical Church in Germany is a theological muddle, being a federation of Lutheran, Prussian Union, and Reformed (or Calvinist) Protestant communities. Still, it must have been a moving moment when the council of this federation met with Pope Benedict XVI last month in the chapter hall of the former Augustinian priory at Erfurt: the place where Martin Luther had studied theology, had been ordained a priest, and had, as the pope put it, thought with “deep passion” about one great question: “How do I receive the grace of God?” As Benedict, himself one of the great theologians of this or any other era, put it in his winsome way, “For Luther, theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which was in turn a struggle for and with God.”

One hopes the Catholic Theological Society of America was listening.

Benedict then went on to note that, in bringing Luther’s question to life again in the 21st century, there were new realities to be confronted. One, which is killing Europe, is spiritual boredom, a kind of ennui about the wonder of being itself. Moreover, in trying to preach the Gospel today, what Benedict called the “mainstream Christian denominations” themselves face a new situation. For the “geography of Christianity” had “changed dramatically in recent times, and is in the process of changing further still.” There is a “new form of Christianity, which is spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism, sometimes in frightening ways … a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.”

By which, I think we can assume, the pope meant the explosion of evangelical (in the American sense of the term), Pentecostalist, and fundamentalist Christianity throughout the Third World. “What is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse,” the pope asked his mainline German Protestant audience. Perhaps I might venture an answer to that question.

The first thing that is being said is that preaching Jesus Christ crucified and the transforming power of personal friendship with the Risen Lord is going to win out, every time, over enticing men and women into a religious trade union or cultural club. Surely Benedict XVI, whose pontificate has been characterized by the theme of intimate friendship with the Lord, knows that. One hopes he is saying it, firmly, to the “bishops from all over the world” who are “constantly” complaining to him about evangelical inroads into their flocks.

Take, for example, Latin America. The Catholic Church has been active in Latin America for over half a millennium. If it has poorly catechized that vast expanse of territory, such that the Church cannot retain the loyalty of traditionally Catholic peoples, it should look first to its own incapacities and failures, rather than blaming well-funded American evangelical and Pentecostalist missions for its problems.  As scholars like David Martin and Amy Sherman have demonstrated, it is the power of these missions to change self-destructive patterns of behavior through radical conversion to Christ that has given them their purchase in areas where 500 years of Catholicism have failed to build a culture of responsibility—especially male responsibility. More recognition of that, and less complaining to the pope, would seem the appropriate Christian response from Catholic bishops in the world’s most densely Christian continent.

The second thing this “new form of Christianity “ is saying is that the old ecumenism—the bilateral dialogues between Catholicism and mainline Protestantism—is over. Throughout the world, mainline liberal Protestantism is dying from its own theological implausibility.  The serious ecumenical dialogue of the 21st century is with these “new forms of Christianity.” They may well lack “dogmatic content.” Some may be unscrupulous proselytizers. But at least some among them are searching for a deeper, richer theology—and they are finding it in serious conversation with Catholics, as the theological dialogue fellowship called Evangelicals and Catholics Together has demonstrated in the United States.

The times are indeed “a-changin’.”  What remains unchanged is the power of the Gospel. Preach it, and they will come.

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”