At a Loss for Words

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...

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About the Author

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