recent German book, written from a Christian ecumenical perspective about the ethical issues surrounding the beginnings of human life, quotes the view—commonplace in religiously-divided Germany—that even where Catholics and Protestants were split over matters of faith, they shared common ground on matters of morals. “Social policy and ethics were for a long time deemed to be fields of ecumenical unity, whereas differences in dogmatic teaching and practical questions of Christian piety and liturgical life were concerns of both Christian churches,” writes Eberhard Schockenhoff, a priest moral theologian in Freiburg (whose brother, Andreas, was a Christian Democratic politician in Germany). 

The authors contributing to this book, including bishops, ask whether that supposed unity in morals exists and admit it no longer does. Three bishops—a Catholic, an Orthodox and a Protestant—admit “we lack ecumenical agreement over the ethical questions that developments in modern medicine pose.” Debates connected with the beginnings of life—contraception, artificial reproduction, abortion—are as divisive today as perhaps discussions over more dogmatic issues like sola gratia, sola fidei and sola Scriptura once were.

As a Catholic theologian living in the United States, I admit that those differences do not surprise me. The Protestants of the Anglophone world long ago parted company from the consensus of the Christian tradition on these issues: as John Noonan pointed out, the decision of the 1930 Anglican Lambeth Conference to permit contraception, at least in some circumstances, broke with the received Christian tradition, a process that has snowballed to the extent that the Methodist Church in the United States has been one of the strongest proponents of abortion. Richard Neuhaus observed that the “Protestant Mainline,” which once spoke with a more-or-less American Christian consensus on matters moral, long ago dissolved and was sidelined.

But Germans, who have been living for almost 500 years in a country religiously divided 50/50 between Catholics and Protestants, still seem shocked by that enduring rupture and—rightly—invest at least some regularly effort to surmount it. Trying to find ecumenical common ground is a strong imperative in the Catholic Church in Germany. Regardless of what one thinks of Walter Kasper’s position on admitting adulterers to the Eucharist, one can admit that, at least in part, his effort is driven by a pastoral aim of helping Christians in mixed “remarriages.” That unity in morals seems to be going the way of unity in doctrine scandalizes at least some German Catholics, even if their solutions are problematic. 

There’s something to this. St. John Paul II spoke often of “practical ecumenism,” whereby divided Christians could bear witness to their unity in love through action, especially on issues connected with the culture of life. Preferential love of at least the partial unity in charity that such joint action could witness would help realize the Lord’s prayer “that they may be one” (John 17:21), something to which we should cling even if it proves hard or elusive, even if some wrongly brand it “political Manicheanism.” (What is especially disheartening about the latter comment is that it was lobbed at Catholic-American Evangelical cooperation in “practical ecumenism” that did find common ground and is working). 

But I must ask whether the German faith in moral unity, while perhaps practical for many years, was misplaced.

Faith and morals may be conceptually distinct, but they are hardly separable. Catholic morality is not, after all, an arbitrary imposition of divine commands and prohibitions imposed on man, but an act of God’s reason and desire for human good, leading us to love. Morality—how we live our lives—is inseparably tied to what we believe about God and us and how we should go about living in that light. Shifts in doctrine will inevitably lead to shifts in morals, even if the process is slow and the ancien régime manages to keep running on the fumes of the old faith for a few centuries.

The distinctive characteristic of the papacy of St. John Paul II was the question of man. Who is man, and who is he in relation to God? For over a quarter century, St. John Paul II sought to trace out an integral Christian humanism in which the conclusions “what should I do?” flowed from “who am I?” Pace the Marxist critique, man becomes more fully himself the more he follows God. God is not the alienation of man. Human authenticity and his relation to God stand in direct, not inverse proportion. Alienation is not when man gives himself—his will—to God; it is when he does not. 

But a Christian understanding of man has grown ever more confused over time, even within Christianity. A certain gnostic dualism that marginalizes the body infects large swaths of Christian (including Catholic) thinking. Beneath the contemporary hedonistic indulgence to the body lies paradoxically a denial of its significance: the body is treated as a “tool” or “instrument” of the “person” (scil., “consciousness”), so that what one does to or with the body is thought to be somehow separable from what I think and am and have made myself to be as a person. Without weighing individual culpability for this flawed consciousness, we can at least understand how such disembodied “Christians” think they are doing good. 

When one connects this flawed anthropology to the already flawed foundations of classical Protestantism, the question should then not be “why has the moral consensus broken down?” but rather “what took it so long?” German Lutheranism, after all, owes much to nominalism. Nominalism asserted that right and wrong are not necessarily acts of God’s reason — “God forbids X because it is wrong” — but of God’s all-powerful will: “X is wrong because God forbids it.” Because He is omnipotent, God could have made the Ten Commandments the polar opposite of what they are. Because He is God, you’re stuck, bound to obey the Ten Commandments that you got. 

Returning to my running on vapors comment: nominalism worked as long as people believed in an active, involved and omnipotent God. When religious faith began to wane and God turned into the Real Absence of Deism, a morality based on mere labels collapsed—or, more precisely, it was man who took over God’s role in applying the labels. (The only problem is that man, unlike God, is not omniscient). That — through various sinuous routes, is how you get to five old judges deciding in 2015, after millennia of tradition to the contrary, to relabel what we call “marriage.” 

Sola Scriptura didn’t help, either. Yes, they deemed the Bible the canon of morality, but subject to personal interpretation, which became the fission principle, the Uranium-238 of Protestantism. Couple that with some of the extremes of Scriptural “deconstruction,” “criticism,” and selective “exegesis” and you can torture the Bible to say pretty much whatever you need to construct a sexual ethics to your liking. 

“Say it ain’t so” might be the reply of lots of German academic theologians, Catholic and Protestant. Alas, it is, and that is why the ecumenical consensus about even morality is dissolving, even when it affects something as important as “what you do to the least of my brothers” (Matthew 25:40) at the start of life. 

The future Pope John Paul II told his predecessor, in a 1976 Lenten retreat, that the Church’s fight over the culture of life drove home “the fact that we are in the front line of a lively battle for the dignity of man.” That battle, and none longing for a unity amidst division that was tenuous at best, seems to be today’s Catholic theologian’s job number one.