Catholic News Service
Pope Benedict is surrounded by aides and security personnel as he concludes his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Nov. 14.
Catholic News Service
Pope Benedict is surrounded by aides and security personnel as he concludes his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Nov. 14.
VATICAN CITY—Sharing an obligation to spread the good news of salvation in Christ, all Christian communities are challenged by the fact that many people today do not think they need God, Pope Benedict XVI said.

"The spiritual poverty of many of our contemporaries, who no longer perceive the absence of God in their lives as a privation, represents a challenge for all Christians," the pope said Nov. 15 in a meeting with members of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Pope Benedict said authentic ecumenical prayer, dialogue and cooperation cannot ignore "the crisis of faith that vast regions of the planet are experiencing," nor can Christians ignore signs that many modern people still feel a need for some kind of spirituality.

Efforts to reunite all Christians are an essential part of the new evangelization, the pope said. Responding to the obligation to share the Gospel and to heal a divided Christianity, he said, every Christian must "return to the essential, to the heart of our faith, giving the world a witness of the living God, that is, a God who knows us and loves us and in whose gaze we live; a God who awaits the response of our love in our everyday lives."

Pope Benedict said the theological dialogues the Catholic Church is engaged in with other churches and Christian communities are important means of keeping the ecumenical focus on finding unity in the faith and not simply on trying to find ways to get along better.

"Even when one cannot see in the immediate future a possibility for the re-establishment of full communion," he said, the dialogues "allow us to become aware not only of resistance and obstacles, but also of the richness of experiences, spirituality and theological reflections that can become a stimulus for an ever deeper witness."

The pope said Jesus' prayer that his disciples be one so the world would believe means that Christians cannot accept dividing differences as something normal. "It is full communion in faith, sacraments and ministry that will make the present and active power of God concretely visible in the world," he said.

Opening the council's plenary meeting, Cardinal Kurt Koch, council president, told members that the division within Christianity "damages its credibility in proclaiming the Gospel."

What is at stake, he said, is the credibility of Christianity as a whole and its ability to speak to modern men and women and to influence the way they live and act.

"The ecumenical process of overcoming the division of the church cannot help but have a consequence on the relationship modern secular culture has with religion in general and with Christianity in particular," Cardinal Koch said.

Unfortunately, today, new Christian divisions are arising on the basis of differing approaches to moral and ethical questions, particularly regarding the safeguarding of human life from conception to death, he said.

The new differences are leading to a "profound change" in the ecumenical landscape where Christians see how much unites them doctrinally while they witness deepening divisions in the area of ethics.

"If the churches and Christian communities are not able to speak with one voice in the face of the great ethical problems of our age, that will harm Christian ecumenism and the credibility of the new evangelization," he said.

At the same time, Cardinal Koch said, the loss of Christian credibility in the social sphere means that one of the major voices proclaiming and defending human dignity is becoming easier and easier to silence, which places all human beings at risk.

"Where God is eliminated from social life, there is also a strong risk that human dignity will be trampled," he said, pointing to the example of the "mass exterminations" carried out by the Nazis and the Soviets.

"The symptoms of this danger are tangible in our societies," Cardinal Koch said. "In particular, one sees a strong loss of respect for life, both at the end and the beginning of its existence, directly tied to the disappearance of an awareness of God in the public sphere."

The cardinal cited an Austrian theologian who wrote that in modern Europe, laws give greater protection to objects than to human beings and that one should wish for the good fortune of "coming into the world as a car."

Ukrainian Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, a member of the council, told Catholic News Service that under Soviet control, most of the churches in Ukraine had no public voice and no way publicly to defend human dignity, which was under attack by the Soviet authorities.

With the independence of Ukraine 20 years ago, he said, the churches "could manifest our Christian identity in a social and public way."

As the Soviet Union was falling apart, he said, Ukrainians turned to the churches for guidance and hope. Unfortunately, he said, the divisions within Christianity -- particularly within Ukraine's Orthodox community -- were deepening at the same time and "undermined their credibility."

Today in Ukraine, he said, the leaders of all the Christian churches join forces frequently to comment on issues of concern to the nation as a whole; "when they make their statements together, their voice is very strong."

While the churches are not united structurally or sacramentally, "we are united in action, especially on moral values, on family, defending the dignity of human life," he said.

Archbishop Shevchuk called for the "rediscovery of the religious roots of morality," a task that has an ecumenical dimension because it begins with professing the belief that each human being was created in God's image and that the dignity of human life was fully revealed in Christ's becoming human.

The archbishop said while secularization places challenges before the church, the real danger is "the secularization of the church" itself, which begins very concretely with church members living and acting as if they aren't church members.