Germans pushed church ecumenical commitment

By  Gregory Baum, Catholic Register Special
  • November 20, 2006
 "Because He Was a German!": Cardinal Bea and the Origin of Roman Catholic Engagement in the Ecumenical Movement, by Jerome-Michael Verab, C.P. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 332 pages, hardcover, $29.03 at

This book tells part of the story of how Pope John XXIII came to create the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the church regarded the Orthodox Churches as schismatic and the Protestant Churches as heretical, and thought it was those churches' duty to return to the one true church and be obedient to the Pope. Through the new unity secretariat, the Catholic Church now committed itself to work with other churches for the unity willed by Christ. The person who persuaded John XXIII to take this bold step was a German Jesuit — Cardinal Augustine Bea.

Fr. Jerome-Michael Verab recognizes the turn to ecumenism was the result of several currents in the Catholic Church. He mentions the initiative of Patriarch Maximos IV Saigh of Lebanon. Of greater theological significance was the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions, founded in 1949, one year after the foundation of the World Council of Churches, which brought into conversation Catholic theologians interested in the ecumenical movement.

Vereb focuses more especially on the contribution of German Catholics to the church's ecumenical commitment. He argues that a long history prepared German Catholics for this mission.

Already in the 19th century the Tübingen school of theology, following the inspiration of Johann Adam Möhler, had moved beyond the then current institutional understanding of the church by returning to the teaching of the Church Fathers and their emphasis on the Holy Spirit. This school declined when the papacy at the end of the 19th century made scholasticism the church's official theology.

After the First World War and the collapse of the Protestant monarchy in Germany, Protestants and Catholics engaged in new theological reflection. Having lost their position as ecclesiastical establishment under the Kaiser, Protestant theologians returned to Luther and thought anew about their church's vocation. German Catholics, who were now no longer second-class citizens, turned with much confidence to historical and theological research. Adolf Hertel recognized that the Catholic image of Luther was based on the caricatures of a 16th-century Catholic polemicist. Joseph Lortz produced a respectful history of the Reformation from a Catholic perspective. Theologian Karl Adam revived the ecclesiological approach of the Tübingen school.

These 20th-century authors longed for the reconciliation of the two German churches and, with it, the arrival of a truly united Germany. In the 1930s, their passion persuaded them to believe in Hitler's promises and become active Nazis, over which they lost their professorship after the war. Another group of Germans became involved in ecumenism with an international vision, in particular the Protestant Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Catholic Max Metzger, both of whom were later executed by the Nazi government. After the Second World War, ecumenical contacts were promoted by Protestants and Catholics who had become friends while inside German prisons.

Archbishop Lorenz Jaeger of Paderborn (later to become Cardinal) was profoundly affected by this ecumenical current. He worked with Josef Hoefer, a priest at the German Embassy at the Vatican, and Bea, who had recently become cardinal, to persuade John XXIII to create an ecumenical secretariat at the Holy See.

One Vatican observer remarked that Cardinal Bea was able to promote ecumenism with so much passion "because he was a German," i.e. because he was moved by the long standing German desire for Christian unity. The extensive original research of Verab's book traces the steps of this ecclesiastical story, relying on episcopal archives, Vatican documents and correspondence between Jaeger and Bea.

Verab is engaged in precision-guided history. He introduces his project with these words: "In the course of this study, I have attempted to research a confined historical era in order to target the significance of the dates March 11-13, 1960, and the letter of Cardinal Jaeger to Pope John XXIII on March 4 of the same year." March 11-13, 1960, were the dates during which John XXIII decided to create the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

It is engaging reading for church historians. Ordinary readers are more interested in the various trends in the church which the author mentions. They may find the author's original research of the ecclesiastical texts excessively detailed. I read the book with great attention since, as a peritus at the Unity Secretariat before and during the Second Vatican Council, I worked under the direction of Cardinal Bea and became acquainted with Archbishop Jaeger and Josef Hoefer. I am grateful to Vereb for having told the story of their remarkable achievement.

When Germans speak of ecumenism, they tend to think of the reconciliation between the two German churches. French theologians open to ecumenism prior to Vatican II had a more universal concern, and were perhaps more audacious and freewheeling than the German theologians. The emphasis of the present book on the German contribution to Catholic ecumenism should be balanced by a careful study of the Catholic Conference for Ecumenical Questions, whose work and activities affected Catholics in all of Western Europe.

(Baum is professor emeritus at the Faculty of Religious Studies of McGill University. He is also on the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism's Ecumenical Advisory Board.)

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