Healing the Reformation’s wounds

Archbishop Aquila

Five-hundred years have passed since the Reformation rippled through the Church, causing painful division and spurring changes. Sadly, even more divisions have occurred in that period. But the ecclesial and cultural landscape today is much different than it was then, and we must respond to Christ’s prayer that “we may all be one” (Jn 17:21) by speaking together about our faith, inspired by his Word and the Holy Spirit.

This necessity reminds me of Pope Francis’ passage in Evangelii Gaudium, where he observes that the “credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize ‘the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’” (EG, 244).

Pope Benedict XVI also remarked in a March 2007 message to the Lutheran Worldwide Federation on the need to pursue Christian unity. He said, “(W)e are called in common witness to proclaim the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world suffering distress and seeking orientation at so many points. After all, ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’” (Rom 5:2b).

With this in mind, on March 19, I will be joining Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Jim Gonia for a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver. It will be an occasion for us to recognize that despite our differences, we are fellow pilgrims who are seeking the face of God.

We also recognize that overcoming historic divisions and healing wounds is difficult. It requires the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew this, which is why he prayed that his followers “may all be one,” just as he and the Father are one (Cf. Jn 17:21).

The noted spiritual writer, the late Carmelite Father Wilfrid Stinissen, described the Holy Spirit as “the great ecumenist.” He says this is because if we let the Holy Spirit “live in and through us, we grow in unity, whether we will it or not. It is his ‘charism to make all things one. He makes the Father and Son one God. He wants to make all denominations into one holy Church and all people into one body” (The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love, pages 10-11).

The reality is that there is much that Lutherans and Catholics have in common. Over the past 50 years our two churches have engaged in a theological dialogue that has found 32 points of agreement between us. Among the key areas of agreement are an acknowledgement of the apostolic nature of the Church, recognition of the divine origin of the ordained ministry and its necessity for the church, and a shared understanding of the Eucharistic presence.

Despite the prevailing cultural winds that would have us discard our belief in the truth and merely search for agreements that allow us to work together, our ongoing dialogue must continue to be grounded in our faith. It must be what Pope Benedict XVI called “a dynamic inspired by the Word of God, by the divine Truth who speaks to us in this word.”

It is my hope that as this dialogue continues, Catholics and Lutherans are able to set aside our suspicions and seek the face of God together. I also ask you to join me in praying for the full unity of all Christians and to seek out opportunities to carry out works of mercy together, building up the body of Christ.

The Commemoration Ceremony will be held at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver on March 19, 2017 at 3 p.m.

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.