Saturday, May 18, 2013

Luther and the Catholic Church

In the comments responding to my post on "Evangelical Catholic" Lutheranism, there was some discussion pertaining to Luther's relationship to the Catholic Church. I started to write a response in the comments, but thought it might be better to have a separate post on the subject.

To begin, instead of debating whether Luther was "kicked out" of the Catholic Church or not, I think we should simply use the proper term for what happened - he was excommunicated when he did not recant within the sixty day time period set forth in the papal bull Exsurge Domine (1520). 

Whether or not he should have been excommunicated is a subject of sometimes interesting, sometimes banal, debates between religious historians and apologists for both sides.  What I personally find more helpful is the attitude of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, who in their public addresses regarding Luther have acknowledged his genuine zeal for the Gospel, the historical complexity of the Reformation, and the fact that the actions of both sides caused the rift. For example, see the address of Benedict XVI to a group of Lutherans at the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt where Luther was a monk, which can be read here:

In doing so, John Paul II and Benedict XVI honored the way of St. Benedict by seeing Christ in another.

Sometimes when I am scanning through radio stations, I stop and listen to EWTN, and when I periodically hear the apologists there castigate Luther (contrary to the spirit of what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said), I get a feeling of regret  - specifically, that they are missing an opportunity to enlist Luther as an ally.  Luther's adamant belief in the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, devotion to Mary and the saints, support of infant baptism, etc., are all examples of his defense of the Catholic faith against more radical reformers.

Of course, there were very real disputes which should not be ignored. But, since Vatican II, the Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical dialogues have meticulously analyzed the beliefs of our respective communions, and have found agreement in many areas where it was previously believed there was division. In the spirit of St. Benedict, I hope that we continue to pray together and see Christ in each other.


  1. I think the new Pope may be a game-changer in the dialog. Some articles having do do with this:

  2. Pope Francis has certainly shaken things up within the Vatican - we'll have to wait and see if he does anything which has an impact on ecumenical relationships.

  3. Let me say in response to the comments that I hope you do not think Pope Francis can change anything substantial. The Pope does not have that power. Since Vatican II -- in my lifetime -- no Doctrines of the Church have been changed -- only clarified. The last doctrinal development was in 1950, when the Assumption was confirmed. The Pope can only set the tone for relations with other religions.

    I very much agree that Catholics should "enlist Luther as an ally." You wrote: "...there were very real disputes...." Yes, there were -- many, many years ago... hundreds of years ago. Now, it seems to me, there is only lingering division. Theologians have resolved the differences about Faith, Grace and Works. (This always seemed to me a kind of "which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg" dispute.) The Popes you mentioned are speaking from the "high view," but we all must work together for one holy church. How difficult it is to evangelize with so much division! I am sure you have seen how confusing and discouraging it is to non-Christians.

    We all must always see Christ in each other, as did Benedict and all the Saints -- but we also must look to repair the rift. 500 years is long enough. The world has greatly changed, and the concerns of the 16th century are no longer relevant. The Catholic Church has become what Luther originally envisioned it to be at the beginning of his reformation.

    Of course there is blame for the split on both sides, but you and I were not there, and it is truly impossible to discuss or resolve the issue of who is to blame since we can only piece together the facts from historical accounts. Does it really matter now? Lutherans should be proud and happy to see how Luther's reforms have been integrated into Catholic life -- especially since Vatican II.

    EWTN has an excellent program, "The Journey Home." It presents testimony from Protestants who have simply examined the history and the facts, and have come to realize that (almost) everything Luther wanted to accomplish (at least the important things) has already been done. I have been listening to EWTN regularly since the 1980s, and I have never heard anyone "castigate" Luther. This is a misunderstanding.

    I would like to ask you about the Rule of St Benedict. For example, it requires that the monks confess their sins to the abbot -- auricular, private confession, very early in the Church. Why do Lutherans not follow this today? Why -- with so many psychological problems, depression, suicide -- why in heaven's name have you eliminated private confession?

    Certainly we are at an historical crossroads in American Christianity, and I see an opportunity to revisit the issues that divide us and to look for reconciliation.

  4. Kathy - thank you for your comments.

    I understand the limitations on the Pope's authority. Here are three things (perhaps among others) that a Pope could do that would be within the scope of his authority which would aid reconciliation with Lutherans:

    (1) A Pope could continue broadening the scope of ordination of married men to the priesthood. As you know, this is a matter of discipline and not dogma. I have read that the Anglican Ordinariate allows for married convert priests, but has been interpreted as not allowing for further married priests after the first generation of converts. If that remains the case, I suspect that will inhibit growth of the Ordinariate as well be a negative factor in discussions with Lutherans (as well as Anglicans and Orthodox).

    (2) The Pope could assist in further defining the provisions of Pastor Aeturnus (Vatican I's decree regarding infallibility and supremacy of the Pope). Vatican II perhaps took a step away from ultramontanism and toward conciliarity, but further refinement would be helpful in the Catholic Church's talks with Lutheranism, and of course, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. Regarding papal infallibility, Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote extensively about the different interpretations of Pastor Aeturnus, and argued for a moderate infallibility, which would perhaps be more palatable to other "high church" traditions. Regarding papal supremacy, it would be within the Pope's authority to reform canon law regarding the selection of bishops, and return to the ancient practice (described in Hippolytus' "On the Apostolic Tradition") of allowing local churches to select their own bishops, instead of having the Vatican appoint bishops.

    (3) A Pope could resume discussions related to the recognition of the Augsburg Confession as a legitimate statement of the Catholic faith. There was a significant movement in the 1970s among Catholic scholars who argued that such a recognition should occur - including none other than then-Archbishop Ratzinger. Ratzinger wrote several pages about this proposal in his book "Principles of Catholic Theology" - there are some important nuances, of course, to such a recognition, but the fact that such a discussion occurred at all at such high levels reveals that it could happen.

    Regarding EWTN, we are talking about different things. I have watched episodes of "The Journey Home" and also find it interesting, and the former Lutherans that have appeared have been gracious toward Luther and Lutheranism in general. What I was referring to was statements by apologists I periodically hear on call-in shows on EWTN radio. I won't name names, but two specific examples are an apologist who misrepresents the issue of how Lutherans dealt with the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books of the Old Testament (Luther did not take them completely out of the Bible- other Protestants did that much later, and his opinion on the canonical status of those books was similar to that of Cardinal Cajetan, the person sent by Rome to deal with Luther). Another apologist takes Luther's famous "sin boldly" comment completely out of context and insinuates that Luther was giving his followers to sin all they want. These radio apologists tend to be former American Evangelicals who were never Lutheran.


  5. Compared to other Lutheran pastors, I'm not Luther's biggest fan by any stretch of the imagination. I wish he had done many things differently. But, I do expect that those outside of our tradition be fair and accurate in their criticism of him.

    And lastly, I understand why you think that Lutherans have done away with private confession since it isn't talked about much. However, it is there, and I am one of the Lutheran pastors who does it. There is a rite for private confession in Luther's Small Catechism, and the Augsburg Confession recognizes the worthiness of private confession. The two hymnals I have worked with have an order for private confession. I have offered confession and absolution during pastoral counseling, and some take me up on the offer. So, Lutherans have not eliminated private confession - far from it.

    So, part of the reconciliation process between Catholics and Lutherans is getting people to understand that things thought to be "Catholic" are Lutheran, too, such as private confession.

  6. Wow! Great comments! I am now more optimistic than ever. You are digging down, which needs to be done -- and you know a lot! I lived the first part of my life as a Lutheran (LCA), and now I am a Catholic, so in my own "person" I can "feel" the situation. It truly is a misunderstanding, but the solution is obvious: The Catholic Church must recognize the good that Luther did (he was a true Catholic!) -- and -- Lutherans must return to Mama Church.