"The Ecumenical Council has tremendous reform potential, and every Protestant should be watching its proceedings with hope rather than suspicion," Heiko A. Oberman, associate professor of Church Divinity History in the Harvard Divinity School, said yesterday.
Oberman will leave Cambridge on Nov. 15 to become a non-voting Protestant delegate-observer at the meeting of the supreme deliberative body of the Catholic Church, officially termed Ecumenical Vatican II, which began last Thursday in Rome.
Harvard theologian said that he is primarily concerned with the hope offered by the council for improvement in relations between the Catholic Church and non-Catholic Christian denominations. He added, however, that only gradual change in this area can be expected.
"It would be romantic," Oberman remarked, "to believe that a break so profound as that caused by the Reformation, with a history of 400 years, will be healed in a short time. But for a long time we have been fighting phantoms on this issue we can try to break through the phantoms and deal with the real theological points that divide us."
But Oberman predicted that in the long run it will prove "disastrous" if the council moves too quickly toward
"Too Much Success Will Backfire"
"At the medieval councils of Constance and Pisa," he said, "the reformers were so successful that the conservative opposition was silenced. Yet within 30 years all work of these councils seemed to evaporate. Given the present conservation of the Italian, South American, and Spanish Churches, too much success too fast will only backfire."
He added that it is "not just cynicism," but rather his "hope as a church historian" that leads him to take this position.
Commenting on the Pope's dramatic call for world peace, made last Friday before diplomatic delegates assembled in the Sistine Chapel, Oberman said that the Pope's message is possibly "more significant than the usual Easter type of peace talk."
He noted that European Roman Catholics and Protestant Americans tend to identify Christianity with the West, and anti-Christ with the East. "The Pope's speech may indicate that he is willing to be influential in toning down this notion of a Crusade against Communism," Oberman suggested.