Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Pope in Sweden

The Pope is in Sweden. (Photo: Pope Francis with Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Siliva.) The occasion for the Pope's current visit was to participate in a joint Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical event in the 11th-century cathedral of Lund on the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther's "95 Theses," the event that set off the Protestant Reformation in Wittenberg, Germany, on All Saints' Eve 1517, from which it spread, shattering the unity of Latin Christianity. (He will also celebrate a Catholic Mass for the growing Scandinavian Catholic community today)

While Luther's reformation was a predominantly German affair, Protestantism quickly came to the Scandinavian kingdoms when various Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian kings took advantage of the opportunity to establish State Churches of their own. As in Germany and England, the religious Reformation in Scandinavia was always dependent on the more decisive political Reformation. Given the predominantly political rather than religious character of the Swedish Reformation, the Church of Sweden - like the Church of England - has maintained an episcopal structure and a "high" (but Protestant) liturgy.

Until relatively recently, everyone in Sweden was considered a member of the Lutheran Church of Sweden, which is now among the most politically and socially liberal Christian Churches, while the country itself has become increasingly secular in terms of its citizens' actual relationship to religion.

Presumably, the Pope's presence is intended to celebrate not the tragedy of the destruction of Western Church unity by Martin Luther and others, but the modern rapprochement between the Catholic Church and her "separated brethren," in particular the half-century of ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. Thus, at Lund's cathedral, Pope Francis spoke of our "common journey of reconciliation" and of "the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another."

To do this, the Pope challenged us all to "look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge. We ought to recognize with the same honesty and love that our division distanced us from the primordial intuition of God’s people, who naturally yearn to be one, and that it was perpetuated historically by the powerful of this world rather than the faithful people, which always and everywhere needs to be guided surely and lovingly by its Good Shepherd. Certainly, there was a sincere will on the part of both sides to profess and uphold the true faith, but at the same time we realize that we closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language."

The Reformation resulted in a branch of Christianity without the Church, a highly individualized Christianity in which the individual stood alone before God bereft of the mediation of intercession. This in turn fostered a political individualism which - in clear contrast to the biblical and classical conceptions of solidarity that have been and remain at the heart of Catholic social teaching - has tended to take the individual as the starting point for discussion. and so led to the economic and moral libertarian individualism of our postmodern (and increasingly globalized) era. In this increasingly privatized, individualistic culture, the very basis for and the extent of shared social bonds and moral obligations to one another society have become increasingly problematic to many. 

The theological terrain on which the Reformation was fought has changed. It is possible to overcome at least some of those theological conflicts and mutual misunderstandings - in part because so few in today's world really care as much as our ancestors did about issues of salvation. Remedying the political, social, economic, and cultural consequences of the Reformation's turn to the individual will, however, prove far more difficult, for that turn remains very current and has become increasingly central to our modern and post-modern world's self-understanding.

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