Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Martin Luther rehabilitated?

A guest blogger writes:

So, The Times is reporting that Pope Benedict XVI is planning to rehabilitate Martin Luther. A Times beat-up, at first sight, with the only person quoted directly being Cardinal Kasper, and even then without it being clear in exactly what context the good German cardinal was pronouncing these words. The Vatican meanwhile has issued a denial of the story. At least though it has got the blogosphere going.
(PS: Philip Pullella on the Reuters FaithWorld blog has explained the genesis of the Times piece, which then went round the world.)

And yet, it is less than ten years to the 500th anniversary of Luther's 95 theses being nailed, so the story goes, to the door of the Wittenberg Schlosskirche. Back in 1983, at the celebrations in Leipzig of the 500th anniversary of the birth of Luther, the then president of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, Cardinal Willebrands, said the following:
... notwithstanding the contrasts that separate us, it is worthwhile to enter into an open and factual dialogue with Martin Luther. This is a difficult road, but a necessary one. We have to follow it, firstly in an endeavour to obtain a better insight into truth, and also out of love for those of our brothers and sisters who today seek to shape their Christian life in accordance with Luther's fundamental theological insights and convictions of faith; lastly and above all we have to follow it for the sake of the one holy Gospel of Jesus Christ and for the sake of His coming Kingdom. We have to proclaim Christ in all the untimeliness of this world, and we have to do this trusting in all the embracing force of the Holy Spirit and to the greater glory of God.
In 1985, when asked if the Catholic Church would lift the excommunication on Luther, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) responded, "Luther's excommunication terminated with his death because judgement after death is reserved to God alone. Luther's excommunication does not have to be lifted; it has long ceased to exist." He added, however, "it is an entirely different matter when we ask if Luther's teachings still separate the churches and thus preclude joint communion." Ratzinger himself has in the past shown himself to be interested in a serious, if critical, dialogue with the thought of the Protestant Reformer, and has been credited with rescuing the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, one of the central and contentious issues of Lutheran theology, in which the two sides declared that the condemnations of the past did not apply to the teaching on justification as set down in the document. In his "Principles of Catholic Theology", Ratzinger referred to research that concluded that the fundamental Lutheran confessional text, the Confessio Augustana, "was understood with inner conviction as a search for evangelical Catholicity--an effort to filter the seething discontent of the early reform movement in a way that would make it a Catholic reform".

Yet, looking towards the 2017 anniversary as a Lutheran-Catholic event is perhaps casting the net too narrowly. Luther was not, of course, the first or the last reformer, yet the events of 1517 are symbolic not only of the founding of a denomination but mark a massive break not only in Western Christianity but also in Western culture as a whole: literature, language, politics. economy. Yet it also extended beyond the West, and in the 16th century there were contacts between the Protestant reformation of the West and the Orthodox Church of the East, which was coming to terms with the sack of Constantinople 40 years before the birth of Luther (there was even a translation of the Confessio Augustana into Greek). The Reformers felt a certain kinship with the Orthodox since Rome considered both the Christian East and the Reformers to be heretics.

On the other hand, various anabaptist movements were themselves persecuted by Lutherans, while Lutherans and Calvinists pronounced mutual condemnations that were overcome formally only in 1973 in Europe with the Leuenberg Agreement. Walter Altmann, a Brazilian Lutheran who is moderator of the World Council of Churches, has recently spoken of the anniversary of 1517 serving as an ecumenical opportunity (translated press release here). The German political authorities have already started preparing for 2017, yet the churches worldwide seem not to have caught up (the Evangelical Church in Germany has nominated a "Beauftragter" ). Still, it's not too late for someone to take the initiative to start a process to use the 2017 anniversary for a new look at the Reformation from a genuinely ecumenical perspective - the legacy of the Reformation is too important to be left to Lutherans and Catholics alone!