The Sueddeutsche Zeitung is generally regarded as one of the two best newspapers in Germany. I don’t normally read it, but a German colleague sent me the issue of December 7, 2012, thinking that it might interest me. It did. A story, filed by a reporter named Renate Meinhof, covered a breakfast meeting on the day before between two Germans of advanced age—Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and Joachim Gauck, formerly a Lutheran pastor in East Germany and currently President of the Federal Republic of Germany. December 6 is the feast day of St. Nikolaus (the ancestor of the American Santa Claus), when good German children get small presents (the big ones have to wait until Christmas) and naughty children get smacked by a small devil who is the rather odd companion of the saint. The Pope’s private secretary (another German) confided to the reporter that the breakfast table had been set up in the traditional manner—with gingerbread (Lebkuchen), a little replica of St. Nikolaus made out of chocolate, nuts, mistletoe branches and an Advent wreath with lit candles. That is, the event took place in a distinctively German setting. The secretary also confided that the Pope had looked forward to the meeting with joyful anticipation; the reporter recounted that the President had expressed similar sentiments to the reporters who accompanied him on the flight to Rome.
The Pope greeted his visitor with “A hearty welcome, Herr Bundespraesident”. The latter responded: “Holy Father, this is a great joy for me. I come as Federal President to greet a compatriot. But above all I come as a human being and as a Christian”. The response strikes a diplomatic balance between the official and the personal meanings of the event, carefully avoiding mention of the President’s past role as a Protestant clergyman. Of course this meeting in Rome was a newsworthy event in Germany. It is also newsworthy that the very first foreign trip of the President was to Poland, with whose anti-Communist resistance he had deep ties. The second trip was to Israel, where he spoke of the horrors of the Holocaust and of the moral duty of Germany to help make sure that nothing like it ever recurred (in this connection he mentioned the threat from Iran). We don’t know what happened at the private conversation between the two men at the papal breakfast, where there were no witnesses. The President later said that they spoke of many things, also about God (“as theologians are in the habit of doing when they meet”). He also said that he did not bring up the differences between them, but rather spoke on what unites them as Christians. In this connection I find it interesting that, despite my scurrying around in the Internet, I could find no information on Gauck’s past or present theological views (perhaps my googling skills are too limited). In any case, the media do not seem to be interested in this (they report at length on his political views).
I think that the age difference between the two men is important: Joseph Ratzinger was born in 1927, Joachim Gauck in 1940. The political views of both were shaped by their revulsion against totalitarian terror. But Ratzinger consciously experienced both the Nazi and the Communist one, Gauck only the second. Quite apart from that, their careers were very different indeed. Their roots are in almost opposite ends of Germany, geographically as well as culturally—Ratzinger’s in deeply Catholic, as it were baroque, Bavaria (whose accent still colors his speech), Gauck’s in a soberly Protestant region on the eastern border of the country.
Ratzinger’s formation was strongly intellectual. He spent many years teaching theology at a number of universities, until in 1977 he was made Cardinal Archbishop of Munich. In 1981 he became head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the sanitized successor of the Holy Office, previously known as the Inquisition). In that capacity, despite the liberal tendency of his earlier years, he acted as a fierce watchdog of conservative theology. In 2005 he became Pope Benedict XVI. Since then he has continued to be theologically conservative, but at the same time he has acted as a vigorous defender of human rights and democratic liberties. Outside observers (including Ms. Meinhof of the Sueddeutsche) find this mix of religious traditionalism and political liberalism hard to understand. It makes them seasick.
By contrast, Gauck’s formation was much more practical—in the praxis of a Christian in an anti-Christian state. Born in the seaport of Rostock, he was the son of a sea captain, who was arrested by the Soviet occupation forces and spent years in the Gulag. For young Gauck the persecution of his father made him into a committed anti-Communist. He was barred from university studies because of his tainted family background and his own political views (which were well known to the Stasi, the state security agency). Instead he trained as a Lutheran theologian and became pastor of a congregation in provincial Mecklenburg, far to the east. The Protestant church was one of the very few institutions that retained a tightly controlled but nevertheless real autonomy within the Communist society. In this milieu Gauck became an important figure in the cautious resistance movement, which some have called a “Protestant revolution” and which greatly helped the collapse of the Communist regime. (For a short time after that Protestant leaders played an important role in the transition. Then, disappointingly, the Protestant church lost most of its influence and the territory of the former German Democratic Republic returned to its former secularized culture.) Gauck became active in the Social Democratic Party and from 1990 to 2000 he headed the archive of the Stasi, where citizens had access to secret files about themselves (which frequently led to distressing discoveries of betrayal by family members and friends). Gauck published books and articles about the crimes of Communism. He also wrote in praise of freedom and democracy. In March 2012 he became President, after his predecessor was forced to resign under a cloud. In this new role (as some German secular media observed with a bit of irritation) he continued to be a preacher—though about the virtues of freedom rather than about the Protestant faith. One might also note that his private life is not very Protestant either: Separated but not divorced from his wife since 1991, he lives with what progressive Germans call a “life partner”, the journalist Daniela Schadt, who acts quite openly as a first lady. (No one seems to mind, proving that Germans are now as liberated as the French, whose president has a similar arrangement. However, Ms. Schadt did not come along on the trip to Rome, presumably so as not to embarass the Pope.)
The meeting on December 6 is significant in three contexts. In the German context, it is a sort of summit ratifying the new unity between the East and the West of the nation. As Gauck himself observed (apparently to the journalists who went with him to Rome), he wanted to reassure German Catholics who have become a minority in the country as a result of reunification. Not only do they now have a Protestant ex-pastor as President and the daughter of a Protestant pastor as Federal Chancellor, but a state secretary in the presidential office is also the son of an East-German pastor (on top of all that, a leader of the Green party is a woman who, believe it or not, is a theologian from the East). After going over this list, Gauck is supposed to have imagined what Catholics must be thinking: “Good heavens ! Where does this leave us?” One might also imagine what some West Germans of either faith might think: “We thought that we took them over. It now looks as if they took us over!” Conversely, some East Germans may look at the same facts and conclude that their resentments at being “colonized” by the West could now be put aside. In any case, Gauck wanted to signal that he wants to be President of all Germans—East and West, Protestant and Catholic.
In the context of ecumenical relations, the event is yet another reaffirmation that the common identity of being Christian is more important than the differences between Catholics and Protestants. The climate between these two branches of Western Christendom has been good for a long time, at least in Europe (with the exception of Northern Ireland). This is certainly a happy development, in contrast to events as recent as the Kulturkampf in the late 19th century, when Bismarck tried to subject the Catholic Church to control from the Protestant government in Berlin (not to mention the ghastly wars of religion, which decimated the population of Europe in the Thirty Years War, and later events such as the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the rebellion of the Netherlands against Spanish rule). But one expectation will surely be disappointed: that the ecumenical rapprochement would lead to ecclesiastical unity, with full intercommunion and reciprocal recognition of ministry (such as now exists between Lutherans and Calvinists in the EKID, the Protestant Church in Germany). There is no conceivable development this side of the coming of the Kingdom of God that would induce Rome to give up the authority of Pope and Magisterium, or that would persuade more than a handful of Protestants to submit to this authority. Opinions will differ whether one looks upon this intractable division as a refusal to obey Jesus’ alleged commandment of unity, as an obstacle to Christian faith, or as a perfectly acceptable manifestation of religious pluralism.
Finally, there is the context of European secularism. By any criterion, Europe is the most secularized region on the planet. Paul Zulehner, an Austrian sociologist of religion, said that Estonia, the Czech Republic and the territory of the former German Democratic Republic are countries in which atheism has become the established religion. Be this as it may (and leaving aside here the question of why this should be), Benedict XVI is well aware of the phenomenon of Eurosecularity. This is why he has put the re-evangelization of Europe high on his agenda. Collaboration with Protestants makes sense in this context. Secularism, which may be defined as the ideological embrace of secularity, has become more aggressive of late, and allies in the fight against it would be welcome. (Incidentally, the Moscow Patriarchate has made similar noises, and there have been voices suggesting that Islam in its more moderate versions could eventually be an ally too.) Whether such conspiracies of believers could change the European situation is debatable. In the short term, I would be rather surprised. But stranger things have happened.