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Christoph Böttigheimer

Europe as an Ecumenical Challenge?


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 8/2009, P. 557-567
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After the negative outcome of the referenda in France, the Netherlands and Ireland the elaboration of a future EU constitution is suffering a crisis. CHRISTOPH BÖTTIGHEIMER, professor of fundamental theology at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, asks about the ecumenical contribution of Christianity to the development of the European Union.


Since the signing of the Treaties of Rome (1957) the European unification process is on the one hand constantly making progress, but on the other hand the growing together of Europe is also marked with some problems. In addition to economic challenges, political responsibilities, the interplay between national and European rules, national and European awareness, etc., the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe signed in Rome on October 29, 2004 by the Heads of State and Government of the EU turns out to be a special difficulty.

Within the 25 EU member states it was partly discussed highly controversially and there was by no means always a clear endorsement with the votes. In 2005, both in France and the Netherlands the draft of the EU Constitutional Treaty was even rejected in the plebiscites. After a period of reflection, in 2007 the Heads of State and Government of the EU decided to suspend the constitutional project and, instead, by the Treaty of Lisbon to incorporate essential contents of the Constitutional Treaty in the basic treaties of the EU. With regard to the Lisbon Treaty the ratification by a plebiscite was only needed in Ireland; however, in 2008 it turned out to be negative.

The set-backs in the preparation of a future EU constitution reflect the disparate views, positions and interests between the EU Member States. Even the Preamble of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, in which the self-understanding of the EU should be documented, has been controversial. The question was hotly debated, of what importance the Christian tradition is for the European identity. Of what importance is religion at all for a future, modern Europe? Such unresolved issues have not only a negative impact on the preparation of the EU constitution, but also cast their shadows on pending membership negotiations, especially on those with Turkey.

Differently to the demand of Poland, Italy, Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church, the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany as well as of various parties oriented towards Christianity, the preamble contained no explicit reference to God, nor were the Christian origins of Europe explicitly mentioned. Only in the passage "in the certainty that the peoples of Europe ... are resolved to ... continue the process of creating an ever closer union ... jointly arranging their destiny" is referred to the "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe". The discussion about the "worldliness" of a future European Constitution resp. about the reference to God in the preamble made it clear that Europe has still to find its internal unity and orientation.



Europe is admittedly widely regarded as a separate continent, geographically seen, however, it is a subcontinent: Together with Asia it is the Eurasian continent. Against this background it is clear that Europe's boundaries cannot only be determined geographically, on the contrary, the question about its internal unity, i.e. about its religio-cultural, economic, social, political identity has to be put. Europe cannot see itself only as an economic project, as a domestic market, but is to regard itself as a community of values, though the inner values and common sense are still waiting for a discursive development.

The fundamental synthesis of biblical and Greek thought starting in the countries of the Orthodox Christians is certainly part of the cultural heritage of Europe. The Greek culture together with the knowledge of Aristotelian philosophy has spread by the Arab-Islamic presence in Europe and has lastingly moulded the culture and the self-understanding of Europe: "It is clear for everyone who takes a look at the matter that Europe's cultural background is not the culture of the Germans or Slavs, from whom we have our genes, but Jerusalem, Athens and Rome." {1}

Because of this cultural and religious tradition the Christian churches are obliged to co-operate in establishing Europe's unification resp. Europe's identity:

"The cultivation of the awareness of a common historical experience seems to be of considerable importance for the process of growing together into a political entity. This is the point at which in the case of the emerging unity of Europe the churches can make a special contribution to the development of our common awareness as Europeans." {2}

In this sense there can be no doubt that the title of this contribution: "Europe as an Ecumenical Challenge?" is a rhetorical question. The European search for identity and the arrangement as regards content of the European community of values cannot succeed without the help of the Christian churches, but only with it. But what can Christianity's ecumenical contribution to the development of the European Union be?


The Necessity of Ecumenical Commitment

Insofar as the Christian churches of Europe are divided and separated, they can only partly display their creative strength for Europe's unity and identity. The scandal of the separation is without doubt an obstacle that must not be underestimated.



During the Western schism in the 16 century the churches not only threatened the social peace, on the contrary, they were from then on incapable of securing the basis of society's unity. Since religion was no longer able to guarantee the political peace of the modern pluralistic democratic state, and since it had lost its integrating function, society had to look for a new, obligatory basic, which was valid "etsi Deus non daretur" {3} (even if God did not exist). The new basis of unity was now reason that was binding for all human beings, resp. the natural rules that had turned out to be rational.

The ideas of the modern era such as human rights, freedom and tolerance come admittedly from the Christian faith, they come particularly from the view that man is God's image, but the European culture nevertheless does not owe them to an ecclesiastical authority or doctrine: "The transition to modernity was not the process of a simple development of Christian ideas." {4} The ideas of the modern era are rather the result of criticism of and protest against the Christian churches. That's why they were not substantiated in a theonomous but in an autonomous way. Today the Western secular states offer a respectable room for individual self-determination. Article 1 11-70 of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, e.g. grants the right "to freedom of thought, conscience and religion"; "this right includes the freedom to change one's religion or world-view, and the freedom publicly or privately either individually or together with others to confess one's religion or world-view." {5}

Although in the 16/17 century the human rights developed also against the church authority, they ultimately nevertheless go back to the Christian faith and its view of man's dignity. In this respect the Christian churches of Europe have a special responsibility for the substantiation, communication and specification as regards the contents of the human rights. However, the Christian churches of Europe can only make an integrative contribution to the project of a united, human rights-based European society if they jointly emphasize the importance of the Christian tradition for the history and identity of Europe and for it self-critically reappraise their culpable and disastrous denominational conflict history resp. overcome their theological controversies in mutual reconciliation: "Ecumenical unity is the key requirement for a new credibility of Christian testimony in the public of the European culture." {6}

The Christian churches of Europe are challenged to stand up ecumenically for a European order of values and peace. In view of the future, reconciled Europe the importance of ecumenism can hardly be overestimated. The Christian share in Europe's cultural heritage can only be made fruitful for the future if the churches, in spite of all confessional pluralism and diversity, find back to a "visible unity" {7},



accept each other as churches of Jesus Christ and in the centre of their religious practice, the Eucharist, grant each other unconditional hospitality. For such a visible unity in diversity in the Western church important pre-conditions have meanwhile been created; not only in the doctrine of justification but also in the theology of the Eucharist {8} and in the theological understanding of the church office the doctrinal differences dividing the churches can be regarded as settled {9}:

"Official discussions between theologians of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in the U.S. and at global level resulted in substantial issues in the consensus on Office, Ordination and Succession, in other issues in convergences. Apart from the doctrine on the Petrine ministry - on which a further dialog is to take place - the interlocutors state that there are no longer opposites separating the churches with regard to the understanding of the office (including ordination and succession)." {10}

However, the church issue, especially the question of the importance of the Church's external, visible form for the communication of salvation is still an unsolved problem, including the question of the relationship between Holy Scripture and church tradition and the necessity of the papacy as a service to the community and unity of the church. It is the responsibility of the Christian churches of Europe to continue working on the open ecumenical issues, because only a regained Christian unity can preserve Europe's religious roots for the future and point out the importance of the Christian faith for the European history and identity.

Europe's Christian dimension must not simply be ignored while building the European house. A future common European house does not manage without a growing awareness of cultural unity, and thus not without the common Christian heritage of Europe. How much Christianity is part of Europe's intellectual and moral heritage and equally includes the traditions of the Western and Eastern Church Pope John Paul II has aptly summed up in his speech on occasion of the conclusion of the pre-synodal symposium of European scientists in the Vatican on October 31, 1991, when he expressed the wish that Europe was anew to learn Christianity as its mother tongue and to breathe with two lungs, the Western and Eastern {11}. As you can live well only with both lungs, also Europe needs the Byzantine-Slavic-Orthodox, as well as the Latin-Western and the Reformation's tradition. In the Christian West one was not always as clearly aware of that as today. Today just the Orthodox Eastern Churches united with Rome could help the East to understand the West and vice-versa, and thus inspire the European integration process of the Churches.



The contribution of the Western Christianity to the European process of understanding goes back to the middle of the last century: the "Conference of European Churches (CEC) {12}, to which the European Commission gives full attention {12}, was in 1959 established in the consciousness that not one Christian Church alone was able to solve the problems of a united Europe, but the relations between the Churches at the European level had to be promoted and improved. On this multilateral level the European churches have for decades been taking their responsibility for the European unification process and make their specific contribution to European culture.

The Roman Catholic Church {14}, which as "sole church ... has a systematically formulated strategy in term of European politics" {15}, is not a member of the Conference of European Churches. Its form of organization at the European level is the "Council of European Bishops' Conferences "(CCEE - Consilium Conferentiarum Episcoporum Europae) {16}, which in 1971 was founded after the Second Vatican Council and closely co-operates with the Conference of European Churches {17}. The Protestant counterpart is on the one hand the "European Ecumenical Commission for Church and Society" (EECCS), which was founded in 1973 and today as "Church and Society Commission (CSC) is an integral part of the Conference of European Churches, and on the other hand the "Community of Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE) - formerly" Leuenberger Kirchengemeinschaft" (LKG).

The various religious associations at European level, the Brussels representatives of various national churches and religious communities, and the European Ecumenical Assemblies {18} show that the Christians, beyond all denominational boundaries, are very well aware of their responsibility for the European course, which to a large extent is positively appreciated by the European Institutions {19}.


The Charta Oecumenica

Apart from the classical antiquity Christianity, too, as moulding religious force is part of the European history and culture. For good reasons both the Conference of European Churches and the Council of European Bishops' Conferences take their political responsibility for a unifying Europe seriously. Among other things they worked out at the beginning of the 3rd millennium a guideline for growing cooperation among the churches in Europe, the so-called Charta Oecumenica (ChOe) {20}. It was signed at the European Ecumenical Assembly 2001 in Strasbourg by the Presidents of the "European Ecumenical Assemblies" in Basel (1989) and Graz (1997), Metropolitan Jeremie and Cardinal Miloslav Vlk.

In the preface the Christian Churches of Europe manifest their will, "in Europe that - from the Atlantic to the Urals, from the North Cape to the Mediterranean - is today more pluralist in culture than ever before. With the Gospel, we want to stand up for the dignity of the human person created in God's image and, as churches together, contribute towards reconciling peoples and cultures {21}.



The Christian European churches "are convinced that the spiritual heritage of Christianity constitutes an empowering source of inspiration and enrichment for Europe" (ChOe 7). They also regard it as their task to support the integration of different ethnic, cultural, religious and confessional groups in the European community of values, to contribute to a healing and reconciling community of people of different cultures, religions and lifestyles, to promote mutual respect and tolerance, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to carry out "the service of reconciliation also among the peoples and cultures" (ChOe 4). In this way an important contribution to pan-European understanding is to be made.

Since "the ecumenical obligation to unity in truth ... (can) only be realised dialogically at the level of freedom and mutual respect for each other" {22}, the Western churches in the Charta Oecumenica commit themselves to promote the "unification of the European continent" by standing up "for a human and social Europe in which human rights and fundamental values of peace, justice, freedom, tolerance, participation and solidarity are effective" (ChOe 3). They expressly want to "defend the basic values against all interventions..." (ChOe 4) and in this way to make their contribution to Europe as a community of values for which the religions are naturally of great importance.

Starting from the dignity of every human being, which is based on his/her being God's image, one agrees one standing up for the absolute equality of all people and on "recognizing that every person can freely choose his or her religious and church affiliation as a matter of conscience, which means not inducing anyone to convert through moral pressure or material incentive, but also not hindering anyone from entering into conversion of his or her own free will." (ChOe 2). The European churches commit themselves to "recognize the freedom of religion and conscience of people and communities and to stand up for them, so that they are allowed individually and collectively, privately and publicly to practise their religion or world-view in accordance with the law as it now stands" (ChOe 5).

Apart from the commitment to the recognition of human dignity and human rights the socio-ethical commitment is part of the Christian religion's responsibility. In the Charta Oecumenica the Christian churches of Europe promise to agree on the "contents and goals" of their "social responsibility and as much as possible jointly to present the concerns and visions of the churches to the secular European institutions" (ChOe 4). In future the two European Ecumenical Assemblies want jointly to assess and to solve in the spirit of the Gospel political and social issues.



The European process of democratization is to be supported and an "order of peace based on non-violent conflict resolution" and social justice are to be pursued. In addition the commitment to the preservation of creation is part of the ethical commitment of the European Churches, that's why church environmental organizations and ecumenical networks are to be supported. But the fact that denominational differences become increasingly visible just in individual socio-ethical issues (blessing of homosexual relationships, biomedicine, stem cell research, etc.) makes the commitment to socio-ethical concerns more difficult.

In a Europe of different religions, cultures and ideologies a growing religious pluralism emerges, which causes consequences for daily life and calls upon Christians together with people of different religious and cultural traditions constructively to settle tensions and conflicts, and to co-operate with them for the success of a European community in justice and peace. The interreligious dialogue is inevitable and theologically uncontroversial between the European churches. In concrete terms they declare themselves in favour of the Christian-Jewish dialogue (ChOe 4 et sequ.) and oppose every form of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. There is also openness to the Christian-Islamic dialogue and the intention to intensify it by discussing "the belief in one God" and clarifying "the understanding of human rights" (ChOe 5). Since 1986 an ecumenical committee (CRME) connects the Council of European Bishops' Conferences and the Conference of European Churches. Its goal is to support the European Churches in the encounter with Islam and to develop the co-operation with Muslim communities, organizations and partners in Europe.

The "World Council of Churches' (WCC), too, has time and again taken up the question of the theological understanding of religious pluralism and on that occasion emphasized the necessity to respect other religious traditions, to recognize their uniqueness and identity, and to commit oneself together with them to justice and peace in the world:

"All religious traditions are therefore faced with the challenge to make their contribution to establishing a global community the members of which live in mutual respect and peace. At stake is here the credibility of religious traditions as forces which are able to bring justice, peace and healing to a broken world." {23}


Evangelization of Europe

Ecumenism is not an end in itself but is devoted to a credible proclamation of the Gospel (Jn 17.21). The evangelization as the actual task of the Church can only be done ecumenically, and it is of utmost importance for the construction of the European house.



For today the original rootedness of the evangelical message in the Western culture is heavily endangered. Since the beginning of the modern era the spiritual-cultural situation of Europe has changed in such a grave way that a disturbance of communication between church and European culture is conspicuous, and for that reason a new evangelization of Europe is necessary. More than 30 years ago Pope Paul VI formulated, "The break between the Gospel and culture is without any doubt the drama of our era." {24} Against this background new evangelization means above all to open anew the dialogue between gospel and culture. The Christian churches are not only to take note of the modern basic trends such as emancipation, secularization, pluralization, etc. but positively to respond to them, and to provide proof of their own cultural, socio-political effectiveness.

Because of its universal preaching mission, i.e. to make known the unconditional word of God to all people, and because of its mission [Heilsauftrag] to co-operate in building the kingdom of God, Christianity is neither allowed to isolate itself within the European developed countries nor does it need to fear the competition of pluralistic social orientations and value systems. Instead, it has in the selfless service of the kingdom of God to look for the dialogue with the secular society and with all people of good will, especially where fruits of enlightenment become visible, which are also fruits of the Holy Spirit are:

Indeed, the search for freedom, truth and community is the highest, oldest and most lasting desire of the European humanism, which continues to work also in the present time." {25}

Evangelization in the sense of proclamation and realization of the kingdom of God is never completed, just as the reality of people's life is always changing. The inculturation of the Gospel is, similarly to culture, a dynamically open process, and cultural upheavals help that the Christian faith at best becomes temporarily the self-evident common property of an intellectual-cultural identity, and so evangelization is a constant task of all Christians. The new evangelization of Europe means in concrete terms that the Christian churches are to see themselves as a tool and symbol of the kingdom of God and are to serve people without a priori subjecting them to certain criteria or standards.

A pastoral care that is moulded by the idea of evangelization is not determined to "cover more and more areas or more and more ethnic groups by preaching the Gospel" but is aimed at "changing through the power of the Gospel those criteria of judgment, those decisive values ... and those ways of life of humanity which oppose the word of God and the plan of salvation." {26} - to be precise, starting from the centre of the gospel, that is, carried by God's unconditional grace and His unlimited readiness for reconciliation in Jesus Christ.



To the extent to which the European Christian churches advocate for the people, learn about their cultural and socio-economic context and thoroughly investigate, transform and evangelize the reality of life in the light of the Gospel, they not only time and again understand anew their own nature but become also indispensable for justifying and internalizing societal values (freedom, truth, unity, human dignity, justice, peace, preservation of creation, etc.). The chance it thus offered to the churches of Europe to put again their cultural efficiency in endowing life with meaning to the proof, to make themselves irreplaceable for the process of the inner-European approach in general and especially for the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights, and to secure their public, social function. Whether this succeeds depends not least also on the overcoming of the schism and the recovery of religious credibility connected with it.


Churches - Initiation Engines for a Vibrant Living Together

The Christian roots of Europe's culture are indispensable for a united Europe of values and rights. The Christian churches have therefore a lasting responsibility for the European community of values and the obligation to make their contribution to the European political dialogue. Their credibility then much depends on to what extent they are able to settle their controversies and to set an example for a reconciled Europe.

The ecumenical process is by no means completed. In the present difficult phase, in which what has been achieved up to now is re-submitted for discussion and new challenges, as e.g. differences in determining the goals of ecumenism emerge, the awareness can motivate that the Christian churches, compared with previous violent conflicts, theological confrontations and demarcations, have since then ecumenically made great progress. Theological convergences and ecumenical co-operation are now no longer the exception but the rule. The church authorities are therefore called upon "to consider the necessary steps for restoring a form of church unity" (27), not only for the sake of their own credibility but also because of their responsibility for the European unification process.

Successful intercultural and inter-religious encounters are a prerequisite for a peaceful, reconciled living together, for convivence in a modern Europe.



Especially in view of European unity, the Christian churches can be the initiation engine, if they do not only react to the construction of the European house but more than up to now actively form and initiate it by recognizing in it a challenge embracing the denominations: to co-operate in ethical issues, to speak with one voice, to argue together, and to make clear by their mutual recognition what tolerance and unity in diversity means. It can only be demonstrated by credibly and radiantly preaching the Gospel that the Christian heritage of Europe is important and indispensable for the modern Europe. In this sense, the continuation and intensification of the integration process of European Churches and the evangelization of Europe are urgently needed. The Christians of Europe must not excuse themselves from this important task, not only for the sake of their own identity but even more for the sake of societal consensus and a practised ethos, without which a human European living together cannot succeed.



{1} R. Schröder, Abschaffung der Religion? Wissenschaftlicher Fanatismus u. die Folgen (Freiburg 2008)31.

{2} W. Pannenberg, Die Kirchen u. die entstehende Einheit Europas, in: the same, Beiträge zur Ethik (Göttingen 2004) 223-235, 226.

{3} H. Grotius, De iure belli ac pacis, Prolegomena 11 (edited by P. C. Molhuysen, Lugduni Batavorum 1919) 7.

{4} Pannenberg (note 2) 231.

{5} Quoted from M. H. Weninger, Europa ohne Gott? Die Europäische Union u. der Dialog mit den Religionen, Kirchen u. Weltanschauungsgemeinschaften (Baden-Baden 2007) 354.

{6} Pannenberg (note 2) 229.

{7} Satzung des Ökumenischen Rates der Kirchen 111,1, in: Bericht aus Nairobi 1975. Offizieller Bericht der 5. Vollversammlung des Ökumenischen Rates der Kirchen, edited by H. Krüger and W. Müller-Römheld (Frankfurt 1976) 327.

{8} Ch. Böttigheimer, Jahr der Eucharistie - Bewährungsprobe für die Ökumene? Annäherungen in der Eucharistielehre u. mögliche pastorale Konsequenzen, in: epd. No. 24, 14.6.2005, Thema der Woche 1-12.

{9} The same, Ungelöste Amtsfrage? Seit nunmehr 30 Jahren ökumenische Gespräche um das geistliche Amt, in: KNA - ÖKI Nr. 45, 11.11.2003, Thema der Woche 1-7.

{10} H. Schütte, Amt - Ordination - Sukzession im Verständnis evangelischer u. katholischer Exegeten u. Dogmatiker der Gegenwart sowie in Dokumenten ökumenischer Gespräche (Düsseldorf 1974) 428.

{11} Johannes Paul II., Ansprache zum Abschluß des vorsynodalen Symposions europäischer Wissenschaften im Vatikan (31. Oktober 1991), in: Osservatore Romano (D) No. 46 (1991) 7.

{12} 126 European churches and 43 associated organisations belong today to the KEK. All Autocephalous Orthodox Church in Europe meanwhile belong to them. However, in the autumn of 2008 the Russian Orthodox Church has suspended its membership in the CEC, due to a failed decision on the CEC membership of the Moscow Patriarchate's part of the Estonian Orthodox Church.



{13} The program for Human Rights, prepared by the CEC, was placed in the framework of the final communiqué of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE, now OSCE).

{14} H. Schneider, Die Europäische Einigung als Thema der Katholischen Kirche, in: Kirchen u. Religionsgemeinschaften in der Europäischen Union, edited by P.-Ch. Müller-Graf and H. Schneider (Baden-Baden 2003) 73 ff.

{15} Weninger (note 5) 189.

{16} 33 bishops' conferences of Europe belong to the CCEE.

{17} The CCEE has often meetings with the CEC.

{18} The European Ecumenical Assemblies are organized by the variouis European churches and denominations in order to promote the ecumenical unity and cooperation of the churches in Europe.

{19} Weninger (note 5) 117.

{20} Charta Oecumenica. Leitlinien für die wachsende Zusammenarbeit unter den Kirchen in Europa (Ch0e): see

{21} See also ChOe 2: "The most important task of the churches in Europe is the common proclamation of the Gospel, in both word and deed, for the salvation of all."

{22} W. Thönissen, Ökumene u. Religionsfreiheit, in: Politik u. Theologie in Europa. Perspektiven ökumenischer Sozialethik, edited by I. Gabriel (Mainz 2008) 104-120, 119.

{23} See the study document of the "Commission for Faith and Order, which in 2006 in Porto Alegre was presented for discussion to the general meeting: see

{24} Paul VI, Apostolisches Schreiben "Evangelii nuntiandi". Über die Evangelisierung in der Welt von heute, of 8 Dezember 1975 (VApSt 2, Bonn 1975) No. 20.

{25} Die katholische Kirche u. das neue Europa, volume 2, edited by J. Schwarz (Mainz 1996) 671.

{26} Paul VI (note 24) No. 19.

{27} Pannenberg (note 2) 234.


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