Pope Benedict XVI has put ecumenism high on his agenda. Right from the start of his papacy, he has reached out to other churches and stressed the unity of all Christians. Yet despite good intentions, fault lines in his approach are beginning to show. Recently, German Catholics and Protestants have fallen out over a common Bible edition they have been using for twenty-five years. The dispute is symptomatic of other problems in the pope’s homeland, where more than words are being lost in translation.

Ecumenism is part of daily life for churches in Germany, where the balance between Catholics and Protestants is roughly equal and mixed marriages are common. Since 1980, Protestants and Catholics have used the so-called Unity Translation in joint prayer services and Bible study. In early September, only weeks after meeting Benedict at the World Youth Day in Cologne, the country’s Protestants announced they were ending their support for the joint translation. Bishop Wolfgang Huber, chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), an association that represents most German Protestants, said the Catholics were trying to impose a Vatican order to make the translation hew closer to Latin texts.

This storm in a theological teacup speaks volumes about the state of relations between Catholics and Protestants—especially Lutherans—in Germany. A former German theology professor, Benedict knows Martin Luther’s writings so well that he guided the negotiations on the 1999 agreement on justification that helped resolve some of the disputes that led to the Reformation. The Lutherans should be the natural partners in his ecumenical agenda, especially since the Anglicans are now bogged down in intracommunion disputes over gay rights. But five years ago, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared in Dominus Iesus that Protestant churches are not churches “in the proper sense,” and as pope he has continued to refer to them as “ecclesial communities.”

Benedict has also made clear his preference for working with the Orthodox churches, which are both closer to Roman Catholicism and more open to dialogue with a Vatican no longer run by a Pole. He underlined this in Cologne by calling them churches. He received Huber, the Lutheran bishop of Berlin and one of the country’s best-known clerics, in a delegation including German-based Orthodox prelates hardly known outside their own congregations. The Protestants felt they were being politely sidelined and that the time had come to reply.

The Bible problem arose two years ago when the Catholics proposed revising the common edition according to the 2001 Vatican directive Liturgiam authenticam. That directive, which in the English-speaking world rules out inclusive language and promotes more formal wording for prayers, reflected the prevailing conservative trend in the Vatican toward more traditional liturgy. Benedict has strongly supported this, arguing that modern translations were partly to blame for the drop in Mass attendance in recent decades. The directive’s benchmark is the Nova Vulgata, an updated version of St. Jerome’s fifth-century Latin translation, rather than the original Hebrew and Greek texts. It encourages translators to “avoid a wording or style that the Catholic faithful would confuse with the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities or of other religions.” [Editor’s Note: In Commonweal’s December 2 issue, John Wilkins, former editor of the Tablet, will write about the Vatican’s efforts to wrest control of translations from the bishops’ International Commission on English in the Liturgy.]

This put off the Lutherans, whose roots go back to Luther’s pioneering German translation of the Bible. For a church built on the principle of sola Scriptura, the Vatican directive presented a fundamental challenge. “Anyone who reads Liturgiam authenticam has to stumble over the passages that say the liturgical tradition and its effect on the translation take priority over the original texts,” Bishop Huber told me in Berlin. “Anyone who reads that has to know it is unacceptable to the Protestant side.”

Huber also cited the Vatican against itself. “In our talks, Liturgiam authenticam was placed above the guidelines of Dei verbum,” he said, referring to the Vatican II constitution on divine revelation. “That constitution says the original text is the standard for translation and explicitly welcomes joint translation projects with other denominations.” For Huber, this amounted to a nonnegotiable demand. “The Catholic side said they were bound by Liturgiam authenticam and that Rome would have to approve the final text,” he said. “They even have to submit a list of the participants—both from the Catholic and Protestant sides—and Rome will decide if they were actually qualified to take part in the translation.” Furthermore, the Catholics insisted that disagreements over translations be settled by a majority vote among the translators, instead of by consensus as before. The Protestants are a minority in the project.

The upshot was an unusually public blame game. Accusing the Catholics, the EKD said it had “undertaken every imaginable effort to avoid this result.” Cardinal Karl Lehmann, head of the German bishops’ conference, said any changes would have been minimal and blamed the Protestants’ “fundamental mistrust” for this “considerable strain” on ecumenical relations. The Catholic weekly Rheinischer Merkur saw Germany’s Christians drifting apart after decades of coming closer and said: “This especially hurts those who tried their best to see it wouldn’t come this far.”

So the plan to update the translation together never got off the ground and the Catholics will now proceed alone. Lehmann said translators would “consider the ecumenical dimension.” But even slight shades of meaning can open a doctrinal gulf between churches. It is hard to see how an updated edition can play the same bridging role that the present one did.

Both sides say they must continue moving ahead along the ecumenical path. Still, it appears that they will need long theological discussions before they can even consider reforms many lay people on both sides support, such as sharing Communion. Asked how long that could take, Huber saw nothing coming soon. He said he was looking for progress by the next Ecumenical Congress in Germany and the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation—in 2010 and 2017 respectively.


Funding for this article was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Related: "Lost in Translation" by John Wilkins

Tom Heneghan is the Paris-based religion editor for Reuters. He is the author of Unchained Eagle: Germany after the Wall (Pearson Education).

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