10/04/2011 04:30 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2011

The Lutheran Pope

Pope Benedict XVI has during his visit to Germany rejected the idea that the Church must have worldly power. What matters are not one's worldly actions but one's faith before God. The pope's mission is the complete separation of church and state.

Pundits expected it, and the protestant church expected it as well. But it never came: The vocal commitment to ecumenical Christianity. Yet it should have been clear that the pope himself personified that commitment. As a theologian who hails from the country of Martin Luther, Joseph Ratzinger is not immune to the influence that his 16th century colleague had on Christianity.

He frequently draws on Luther's dissident thoughts in his sermons and during the speech he gave in Freiburg in Southern Germany. Only through honest faith can we experience God, Luther said. One's actions are less important than one's beliefs. Benedict XVI agrees: Ecclesiastical assemblies, charity work, reflections on the world and on man are useless if the Church fails to put Jesus Christ in the center of its mission.

Luther desired to know "what driveth Christ," and he sought to make that drive the cornerstone of Christian life. The pope thinks similarly: The Church must give up its worldly privileges. Benedict XVI has repeatedly criticized the German church tax that diminishes membership in the community of Christ to a monthly payment. It must de-materialize itself. The consequence, according to the pope, would be an increased commitment to its true mission, uncorrupted by power struggles.

Seen in that light, the rhetoric of Benedict reminds us of Francis of Assisi. The mendicant monk saved the medieval Church -- and the papacy, which was at the time mainly preoccupied with indulgence, whores and intrigue -- with his reforms. Francis reformed the church, just as Luther did. But he also managed to maintain unity with Rome.

Unity is the ultimate glue of the Christian church, and it has since gone missing. The call of dissident organizations like "We Are The Church" are misguided, for they call on Christians around the world to risk breaking off relations with Rome. It must be resisted. The Church is global, its community is upheld by the bishops, who constitute God's people along with all their christened believers. The pope is their primus inter pares. Together with the bishops, he guides the Church forward.

Benedict XVI not only wants to make the Catholic Church less worldly, he also wants to remove it from politics. In that regard he differs significantly from his predecessor John Paul II. Politics and religion, church and state are separate for him. It is no coincidence that he explicitly stressed the separation of church and state as one of the landmark achievements of European history during his speech before the German parliament.

Whether the rescue mission is to be driven by liberal or conservative forces, the pope does not say. Time will tell, and a careful listen to God and his words. The ability to listen (that the pope demanded from members of parliament) is the foundation for ecumenical Christianity. Politics and religion are similar in that regard. But unlike coalition governments, unity between different confessions is not easily achieved.

The Bishop of Rome has defended his Church against accusations from the German president, the president of the German parliament, and the prime minister of Thuringia. Neither the judicial branch nor politicians should intervene in the internal affairs of the Church, as Benedict pointed out during a speech in the monastery in Erfurt in which Luther lived when he still was a monk. The phrase is separation of church and state, not separation of the church from the state. The rules that apply to one party apply to the other party as well. Indeed, Catholics and Protestants alike should defend themselves against such interference.

Which, finally, suggests that the commitment to ecumenical Christianity was more visible than most people think. Representatives of both churches exchanged views, and the pope put the protestant church on eye level during those discussions. Both confessions face the challenge of connecting with their parishes. A theologian from Bonn (Benedict XVI) and a theologian from Wittenberg (Martin Luther) stand side by side. Faith, they both argue, is a question of reason. The opposite of honest faith -- sola fide -- is not rationality, but worldly and commercial enterprise of the Church. The idea that "much helps much" leads the Church astray, Benedict argued. And that, in the best sense of the word, is a classical expression of protestant faith.