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    Pope Benedict XVI: No Diplomatic Maneuvers, but Jesus

    The late Pope Benedict XVI on the search for reconciliation by Anabaptists and Catholics

    By Pope Benedict XVI

    December 31, 2022

    Available languages: Deutsch

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    • Martin Bohley

      “If asked whether we are the one true church, we reply, “No” - we are merely objects of God’s mercy like everybody else.” From Foundations of our Faith & Calling section 9 paragraph 2

    In June 1995, the Bruderhof’s elder, Johann Christoph Arnold, met with Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, for a conversation with a group of German Catholics. The meeting began by reading aloud the accounts of the martyrdom of two Anabaptists, Georg Wagner and Klaus Felbinger, at the hands of Catholic authorities in the 1500s.

    Cardinal Ratzinger: What is truly moving in these stories is the depth of faith [of these men], their being deeply anchored in our Lord Jesus Christ, and their joy in this fact, a joy that is stronger than death. We are distressed, of course, by the fact that the church was so closely linked with the powers of the world that she was able to deliver other Christians to be executed because of their beliefs. This should be a deep challenge to us, how much we all need to repent again and again, and how much the church must renounce worldly principles and standards in order to accept the truth as the only standard, to look to Christ, not to torture others but to go the way of witnessing ourselves, a way that the world will always oppose, a way that will always lead to some form of martyrdom. I believe it is very important for us not to adopt worldly standards but to be ready to take upon ourselves the opposition of the world and to learn that his truth is expressed above all in love and forgiveness, and that this is truth’s most trustworthy sign. I believe this is the point at which we all have to learn anew, the only point through which he can truly lead us together.

    I think, too, that it is important [to realize] that we cannot bring about unity in the church by diplomatic maneuvers. The result would only be a diplomatic structure based on human principles. Instead, we must open ourselves more and more to him. The unity he brings about is alone true unity. Anything else is a political construction, which is as transitory as all political constructions are. This is the more difficult way, for in political maneuvers people themselves are active and believe they can achieve something. We must wait on the Lord, that he will give us unity, and of course we must go to meet him by cleansing our hearts.

    For me, Saul is an example of this false impatience: he offers the sacrifice because Samuel is not coming. He feels, well, if God does not do it, then I have to do it myself. Also the night when he summons the witch of Endor because no other visions are granted him. I think we all are prone to the temptation of saying, we ourselves have to do something. And in this impatience, which makes us act on our own, we close our hearts to the Lord, the One who truly acts.

    This is how I would see such a gathering, that we don’t try to negotiate how [Catholics and Anabaptists] can unite in the Catholic Church, but that together we allow the Lord to cleanse us and learn the truth from him, the truth that is love, and that we let him work so that he brings us together.

    Christoph Arnold: That is just what I feel, exactly the same.

    Cardinal Ratzinger: It is shaking to realize that the confidence that faith in itself is a power is simply disappearing, and that the managers learn to rule the church from [other] viewpoints.

    When we no longer trust in the Lord but want to do it on our own, then we no longer see the church as his creation, as a living community, but as something we can manage. And then the church inevitably goes downhill, right? For if we make something out of it ourselves, the church has no longer any reason to exist. That is why in the church there have to be new awakenings again and again, given by the Holy Spirit, through which the spark under the ashes is rekindled.

    It would be interesting, if we could manage it in the course of our discussion, to take up the question of what these symbols of the leaven, the salt, and the light signify. They don’t mean that all the others are nothing; on the contrary, that is actually the service to the others. Because of the light, others can see. The light is not on the hill for its own sake but in order to shed light for others. That is why the Lord expressly tells us that one does not put the light under a bushel, where it would be by and for itself and would have lost its meaning. It is there for the others, for everybody. The same with the salt. It has to penetrate the dough. On the one hand the fact that not everybody can be, not everybody should be salt: If there were nothing but salt, the meaning of creation would be missed, the meaning of salvation would be missed. On the other hand, if the salt remains by itself, it cannot do its work. I think this relationship between the awaking that takes place in the individual, and the task for the whole, for the others and how they relate to each other; that is very important. In other words, the special service – salt, light, leaven – does not mean a rejection of the others but a task done for all, for the whole. And not all have this task, this service, but in some way they all live by this service. In this sense the question about universality, catholicity if you will, [on the one hand], and the special calling to live in brotherly community [on the other] – the two complement each other, they do not contradict each other. I believe that is an important point, which we learn from the parables of Jesus and should seek to understand more deeply still.

    Johann Christoph Arnold and Joseph Ratzinger

    Johann Christoph Arnold and Cardinal Ratzinger, Rome 1995

    Christoph Arnold: My grandfather, Eberhard Arnold, had a wonderful way of challenging each person he met, Catholic or Protestant. To a Catholic he would say: Be a more faithful Catholic. Try to understand what the Catholic Church is. If you become a more faithful Catholic and I become a more faithful Hutterite [Anabaptist], we will find each other deeply. We don’t need to say, you have to be a Hutterite, but: Do what you are doing and try to do it more deeply. He even said it to communists. Karl Marx did not believe in God, but there was something from God in him, if one reads his writings. …

    Traudl Wallbrecher: I also believe that God can make something new out of all the efforts. Throughout the whole history of the church it has been so that in every century something happened which helped to recognize what was new and positive. In Marxism, too, the attempt, the law of equality, freedom, and brotherhood is one we still have to respect. But without God it becomes a compulsory society. If I want to force these things – freedom, equality, brotherhood – then I have neither freedom nor equality nor brotherhood. These dangers are not abolished. Today, here in the west, the attempts to mold people without faith have not stopped; they are on the increase. Wherever you turn, there are efforts to help man to find salvation without God. …

    Cardinal Ratzinger: I am glad you picked that up; I wanted to come back to it too. As a Catholic one should wish that a Hutterite becomes a better Hutterite, and the other way around, a Hutterite can wish that a Catholic becomes a better Catholic, as long as one is convinced that in both cases it is the center that actually matters. To become fully Catholic means to enter fully into communion with Christ; if becoming fully Hutterite means the same thing, if it does not mean the canonization of relativism – each to his own – but on the contrary the deepest unity of truth, which is Christ himself. He is the source of the unity, and from this source it will go out into the world.

    There is a weariness of theology to be felt in many places, all the way to aversion, because among many believers there is a feeling – which is not quite unfounded – that theology destroys people’s faith. But on the other hand a faith that no longer pervades the whole person, a faith whose claim to be the truth no longer challenges our reason, is no longer an object of thought, and does not fulfill the greatness of real faith. Faith, if it is the truth, must implement knowledge. And to study theology – not one that indulges in a false academic impartiality and tries to justify itself somehow academically in this impartiality, but a theology that has the courage to take the adventure of faith very seriously and understands that faith must be embodied materially – that is very difficult, exposed [to criticism], but very much needed. And I think it is something we have to continue striving for together.


    This transcript of a meeting held on June 24, 1995, in Rome was translated from the original German by Hela Ehrlich. The meeting was initiated by Traudl Wallbrecher, leader of a German Catholic community. The text has been abridged to focus on Cardinal Ratzinger’s contributions, and edited for clarity and length.

    Contributed By Pope Benedict XVI Pope Benedict XVI

    Pope Benedict XVI (1927–2022), formerly Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, served as pope from 2005 until his resignation in 2013.

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