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.