In October of 2016, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the head of the German Bishops’ Conference, along with Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the head of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), together made an official visit to Israel. In spite of the fact that this visit was meant to be an ecumenical event, it turned out, in part, to be something very different.
That is to say, the two most prominent representatives of German Christendom – Catholic and Protestant alike – caused a national debate by hiding their own distinctively Christian symbol and Sacred Sign – the Pectoral Cross – while they were both visiting the Jewish Wailing Wall as well as the Muslim Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.
Kath.net, the Austrian Catholic news website, has amply reported on the developments after the release of these pictures showing the two Church representatives without their visible and publicly worn Christian symbols. Major national newspapers such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Welt, and the more populist tabloid Die Bild, have reported on this disturbing fact and have thus allowed further criticism of this obvious submission to the preferences of the two other world religions.
On 7 November, Peter Winnemöller, one of the regular contributors to Kath.net, commented on this incident with the words: “Certain pictures should not exist.” In a piercing way, the author recounts some of the responses to this unworthy public gesture. In the newspaper Bild am Sonntag the author Miriam Hollstein says that, after Jesus picked up His Cross 2,000 years ago in Jerusalem, the bishops now laid it down there. A symbolic gesture of infidelity or dishonorable obsequiousness.
Winnemöller himself calls this “ecumenical” episcopal gesture a “bowing down before a dishonest request.” He continues, as follows:
A good collaboration between the religions cannot only demand a yielding from one of the sides. Something more is needed here. However, one also needs to have a certain stamina which our “Church leaders” have lacked.
The author admits to having had a sense of shame and a feeling of shock, and “the urgent wish that, at best, nobody had even seen it.”
Even the liberal journal, Der Spiegel, published an article whose author admits to have been “speechless” in the face of such a pandering “docility” toward their Muslim and their Jewish hosts who apparently – according to the visiting German representatives – had both asked them to remove their sacred Christian symbols out of respect for the “tense situation.” Even for the secular journal Der Spiegel, this is “a denial of the Faith.” There are “many people in the history of Christianity who have died because they had exactly refused to do that,” and we are now being reminded of this loyal fact even by this atheistic journal. “Today, they [these earlier faithful witnesses] are being revered as saints and martyrs.” Persevering endurance is what especially impresses the faithful, “not capitulation toward alien powers.”
Die Bild, a more populist, and popular, newspaper, surprisingly published an article written by the well-known Jewish historian, Professor Michael Wolffsohn, who also criticized the Christian Church leaders, even in the very title of his article: “Cardinal and Bishop Eschewed the Cross.” Wolffsohn points out that “many Christian representatives have visited the Temple Mount. To wear the cross has never been a [contentious] topic.” For him, this recent ecclesiastical gesture “is hard to believe.” The Jewish author then concludes his candid article with these words:
The conduct of the cardinal and the bishop gives alarming hints at their understanding of tolerance. It is obvious that they think that tolerance means something like submission or self-denial.
While Wolffsohn stresses, especially, the fact that the German Church leaders submitted themselves to the inordinate demands of the Islamic representatives, both Church leaders still insist that the Jewish representatives had also asked them to remove their public Christian symbol. It is still contested, however, whether these claims are solid facts or not.
Petra Heldt, a female Protestant pastor and representative of the association “Ecumenical Fraternity” in Jerusalem, moreover, has offered some very clear words herself when asked to comment upon this recent craven incident involving Cardinal Marx and Bishop Bedford-Strohm. She said: “When you come to the [Temple] Mount in Luther’s garment or in an episcopal garment, you have to keep your Cross. Otherwise, when rebuked for it, you just leave.” She reminds the readers that “here in the East of many religious wars, Christians would rather die than deny the Cross.”
Finally, once again, on 14 November 2016, Michael Wolffsohn redoubles his earlier critique of the German Church leaders, Marx and Bedford-Strohm, in an open letter addressed to both of them by saying: “just as you are tolerant toward Muslims and Jews, you may expect vice versa such a tolerance from Muslims and Jews.” He now asks: “Where is the Courage to Witness for the [Christian] Faith of the German Church leaders?”
Indeed, it seems that there is no excuse for this recent Catholic and Protestant conduct and implicit gesture of an evasion or denial of Christ – at least not in the eyes of some secular and Jewish, as well as Protestant and Catholic, commentators in Germany.
It also seems to show the limits of any ostensibly ecumenical attempt that leads to a watering down of one’s own Christian Faith and one’s own public Christian witness. Instead, one is to foster and to strengthen that Faith and Witness, certainly as a Catholic prelate.
In Catholic terms, this incident is very troubling. Cardinal Marx is a member of the Council of Nine, and one of the closest collaborators of Pope Francis. Not long ago, Francis himself had shown a certain inclination to water down the Catholic Faith for the sake of ecumenism when he visited Sweden. Only upon strong request did he consent to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass while still in Sweden, but not without also stressing that “Proselytism is the most potent venom against the ecumenical journey.” And already earlier, in 2014, he came under criticism for seemingly hiding his own pectoral cross when meeting with a group rabbis in Jerusalem.
To what extent will these Church leaders receive God’s blessing when they show embarrassment about Christ and the Sacred Sign of their own Redemption, especially when they act in such an obviously disloyal way toward Christ? Do they – do we – even adequately now remember Christ’s own trenchant and warning words: “But he that shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33)?