A Catholic Bishop’s reflection on The Reformation

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A talk given at Trinity Lutheran Church, Elkhart on October 23, 2017

I wish to begin this talk entitled “A Catholic Bishop’s Reflection on the Reformation” with a word of deep thanks to Pastor Spencer Mielke, Senior Pastor Robert Schallhorn, and Associate Pastor Christopher Davis, for the invitation to speak to you this evening. I wish to express to you my joy and gratitude also for the growing friendship in Christ between the Trinity Lutheran Church congregation and Saint Pius X Parish in Granger. I am very happy to see this friendship, a local expression of the holy quest for Christian unity that marks our commitment as Catholics and Lutherans to the restoration of full communion between us. Together we believe that Christ calls all His disciples to unity. We know that this is a great challenge, especially after 500 years of separation. It is a difficult path in many ways, yet we can give thanks to God for the progress that has been made in this journey the past fifty years. As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation will be commemorated next week, I think it is a good time not only to reflect on what happened 500 years ago, but also to recognize and celebrate the ecumenical progress of the past 50 years. We know that there are still doctrinal differences that need to be resolved, yet great strides have been made, especially in overcoming misunderstandings and prejudices from the past. Together in ecumenical dialogue, Catholics and Lutherans have reexamined our painful past. There has been mutual acknowledgment of mistakes and faults on both sides. This continues to take place today. It requires humility and a truthful vision of things.

As we move forward together, we also recognize that continual progress needs to be made and that no progress can be made without the grace of the Holy Spirit. We believe in the power of the Lord as we long for that day when we can gather together at the table of the Lord in the Eucharist. The commitment to ecumenism is not an optional element of our Christian faith. It is an essential element because our belief in Christ is a belief also in Christian unity as His will. On the eve of His sacrifice on the cross, Our Lord prayed to the Father for His disciples that “they might be one.” Our division contradicts the will of Our Lord. The Second Vatican Council stated that our division “openly contradicts the will of Christ, provides a stumbling block to the world, and inflicts damage on the most holy cause of proclaiming the Good News to every creature” (UR 1).

I have been asked to share with you my reflections as a Catholic bishop on the Reformation. This is quite a daunting task because I am not a historian of the Reformation. Of course, as a seminarian, I studied Church history, including the history of the Protestant Reformation. As a seminarian, I also took a course on Martin Luther taught by Professor Jared Wicks at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Still, I am no expert on Martin Luther or the Reformation. As part of my experience as a bishop, I have been involved in the ecumenical movement. Most significantly, I was appointed by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as the Catholic Co-Chair of the International Catholic – Reformed Theological Dialogue, a position in which I served for six years. During those years, our discussions helped pave the way for the Reformed Communion’s initial acceptance of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, the historic declaration by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church.

I must also mention my own personal experience that I bring with me in these reflections. My father was Lutheran and came from a strong Lutheran family. His marriage to my mother, a Catholic from a strong Catholic family, was not readily accepted by either family. There were prejudices on both sides. So I grew up seeing the differences, but I also saw a growing respect and love between the families. Added to this was the fact that my mother’s mother, an Irish Catholic, was married to a Greek Orthodox man. My maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Greece. So my extended family encompassed the three major strands of Christianity: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. So, though I speak from the perspective of a Catholic bishop, I am a Christian with a living and personal family ecumenical experience. One thing I have learned from this experience is that what we hold in common, what we believe in common, is far greater than our differences. Too often, we focus on the differences and disagreements which can cloud this truth.

I think it is important as I share with you my reflections on the Reformation, and this is very important in ecumenical relations, that we keep in mind the beliefs we share. They are core beliefs. Ecumenical dialogues have helped us be aware of the elements of faith which we have in common. There is a communion among us which already exists, though it is imperfect. In the Catholic Church, we speak of a hierarchy of truths. There is an order of the truths in Catholic doctrine, insofar as they vary in their relation to the central mystery and foundation of Christian faith. The central mystery of Christian faith and life is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. We share this Trinitarian faith. We share faith in the Incarnate Son of God, in Jesus as Our Lord and Redeemer. We both honor Sacred Scripture as the inspired Word of God. We share faith in all the articles of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The common faith that we already share should not be taken for granted nor considered unimportant, especially given the increasingly post-Christian society in which we live at this time. We must always remember, as Pope Saint John XXIII observed, that “what unites us is much greater than what divides us.” In speaking thus, I do not mean to suggest that the doctrinal differences are unimportant, don’t matter, or don’t need attention. But we should not look at these differences apart from the broader context of the important truths that we hold in common. Otherwise, we will tend to approach each other more as adversaries, rather than as brothers and sisters in Christ. And that is what we are because of our common Baptism.

In reflecting on the Reformation and the events that took place 500 years ago, as a Catholic bishop I feel a sense of deep sadness and regret at the loss of unity in the Western Church. I think most Catholics, when we think about the Reformation, think about the division of the Church. That is why we would never think of October 31st as a day of celebration. I imagine that many Lutherans may look at October 31st differently, perhaps as a day to celebrate a rediscovery of the Gospel, a day to celebrate reform. This year, it is significant that, for the first time, Catholics and Lutherans are commemorating together the Reformation. I highly recommend for your reading the joint document entitled “From Conflict to Communion” regarding the Commemoration of the Reformation by Catholics and Lutherans this year. It is really unprecedented to have an ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation and shared reflections on Martin Luther and the Reformation as well as on the beginnings of the Reformation movement and the Catholic response. Of course, this was possible because of the past 50 years of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and especially because of the basic consensus reached in the Joint Declaration on Justification.

In reflecting on the Reformation from my perspective as a Catholic bishop, the figure of Martin Luther, of course, comes to mind. On one extreme, I’ve had people say to me, “Bishop, do you think that the Catholic Church will canonize Luther a saint some day?” On the other hand, I’ve had people say to me, “do you believe Luther is in hell?” Growing up, I, probably like most Catholics, had a very negative view of Luther, an ex-monk and ex-priest who married an ex-nun, a heretic who caused a great division in the Church. In seminary and through the years, I came to learn much more about Martin Luther, his life, and his teachings. The primary and very important discovery for me was that Luther’s intention was to reform, not to divide, the Church. What happened 500 years ago next week was not a declaration of separation from the Catholic Church. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther sent his 95 theses to the Archbishop of Mainz. In that letter with the 95 theses, Luther expressed his serious concerns about the preaching and the practice of indulgences. His desire was to have an academic discussion, a disputation, on this issue. Luther felt that the practice of indulgences was damaging to Christian spirituality.

Luther’s 95 Theses created quite a sensation and spread very quickly throughout Germany. Unfortunately, encounters with Catholic officials like Cardinal Cajetan and Johannes Eck did not produce an agreement. Both sides seemed to misunderstand the other. What happened next was that Rome became concerned that Luther’s teaching undermined the doctrine of the Church and the authority of the pope. As you know, this eventually led to Luther’s excommunication. I’m not getting into many details here since it would take too long not only to discuss the theological positions and issues, but also the historical and political situation at the time which influenced the eventual separation. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if the pope and bishops at the time had been more open to Luther’s call to reform, rather than react as they did. Or if Martin Luther had been more patient in his reform efforts or appreciated more the positive aspects of late medieval theology and piety. Could the split have been averted if both sides acted more in conformity with the charity of Christ? There was certainly corruption in the Church that needed to be rooted out. The Church had in the preceding years attempted reform but was unsuccessful. More vigorous efforts were needed. There were certainly abuses with the sale of indulgences and many immoral clergy. I think Martin Luther’s visit to Rome as a young monk in 1510 shocked him. He was appalled by the immorality. The Catholic Church is not without blame for the eventual fracturing of the Church. The Church was in need of reform. At the same time, I don’t think Luther or his followers were without blame. There were angry polemics and even violence on both sides. Attempts at reconciliation failed, including the Augsburg Confession in 1530. And the Council of Trent, which began ten years later, though successful in many ways at reforming the Church, did not bring healing of the confessional split. By the time of the Council of Trent, there was such a polemical environment between Protestants and Catholics that the bishops focused on what they perceived to be Protestant errors, as the Lutherans similarly did in various confessional writings. Both sides were defining themselves over and against the other side. The charged polemical atmosphere only really changed with the Second Vatican Council and the ecumenical movement.

Back to Martin Luther. You may remember the historic visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the ancient Augustinian convent in Erfurt, Germany on September 23, 2011. It was in that convent that Luther had studied theology and where he celebrated his first Mass. On that occasion, Pope Benedict said the following: “What constantly exercised Luther was the question of God, the deep passion and driving force of his whole life’s journey. ‘How do I receive the grace of God?’: this question struck him in the heart and lay at the foundation of all his theological searching and inner struggle. For Luther, theology was no mere academic pursuit, but the struggle for oneself, which in turn was a struggle for and with God.” Pope Benedict said that the fact that this question (“how do I receive the grace of God?”) was the driving force of Luther’s whole life never ceased to make a deep impression on him. This is quite a statement by a pope at the Augustinian convent where Luther studied. Pope Benedict spoke about how important this question is. “What does the question of God mean in our lives?” The pope lamented “who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians?” Pope Benedict said that “Luther’s burning question must once more, doubtless in a new form, become our question too, not an academic question, but a real one. In my view,” the Pope said, “this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.”

Notice how the Pope left all polemics aside. He didn’t go to Erfurt to condemn Luther, but he seemed to hold Luther up to us as a disciple who asked a fundamental question that is important for all of us to ask. Pope Benedict, whose own theology is so thoroughly Christo-centric, spoke of how “Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality was thoroughly Christocentric.” He said: “’What promotes Christ’s cause was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for Him, living in communion with Him, is what guides our life.” Notice how Pope Benedict, with these observations, was pointing the way for us in our ecumenical journey. He teaches us to keep in view how much we have in common when he points out these things about Martin Luther. He reminds us that we should always keep in view “everything that makes us Christian in the first place and continues to be our gift and our task.”

Pope Benedict said at Erfurt: “It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds.” I mentioned this earlier. We must look at things with new eyes. I learned from Pope Benedict that I should look at Luther with new eyes. That is what is happening in the Lutheran-Catholic dialogues: looking at our doctrinal differences with new eyes and striving for consensus and agreement, as happened with the Joint Declaration. It doesn’t mean that we ignore our differences. We have to continue to work hard at resolving and trying to come to consensus on other important matters of our faith, on issues besides justification, issues of Church authority, the sacraments, ministry, Mary and the saints, and the interrelated topics of penance, indulgences, and purgatory. We need new eyes to see and understand our different perspectives. Maybe we can arrive at a consensus, a differentiated consensus, like we did regarding the doctrine of justification.

Several months ago, Bishop Robert Barron wrote a column in Word on Fire entitled, “Looking at Luther with Fresh Eyes.” I like the column and was quite surprised to read a lot of negative attacks from mostly far-right Catholics and also a few negative attacks from some Lutherans. What angered the Catholics was some positive things Bishop Barron said about Luther, though Bishop Barron noted that he disagreed with a lot of Luther’s ideas. This is what he wrote: “At the core of Luther’s life and theology was an overwhelming experience of grace. After years of trying in vain to please God through heroic moral and spiritual effort, Luther realized that, despite his unworthiness, he was loved by a God who had died to save him. In the famous Turmerlebnis (Tower Experience) in the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, Luther felt justified through the sheer mercy of God.” Bishop Barron was struck by this in reading the new book by Alec Ryrie, “Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World,” in which the author wrote that Luther’s passion “had a reckless extravagance that set it apart and which has echoed down Protestant history.” Bishop Barron wrote that these insights of Ryrie caused him to look at Luther in a new light, not just as the theologian of the word or as the preacher, but as “a mystic of grace, someone who had fallen completely in love.” By the way, these words of Bishop Barron are what infuriated some Catholic critics. But Bishop Barron went on to say that “people in love do and say extravagant things. So overwhelmed by the experience of the beloved that they are given to words such as ‘only’ and ‘never’ and ‘forever’…. After a lifetime of scrupulosity and interior struggle, Luther senses the breakthrough of the divine grace through the mediation of the Bible. Hence, are we surprised that he would express his ecstasy in exaggerated, over the top language: “By grace alone! By faith alone! By the Scriptures alone!” Now this part of Bishop Barron’s column annoyed some Lutherans. In conclusion, Bishop Barron wrote that Ryrie’s characterization of Luther has helped him to see “how the great Solas of the Reformation can be both celebrated and legitimately criticized.” He then asked some questions that I think are good to ponder on this 500th anniversary. He asks: “Was Luther right to express his ecstatic experience of the divine love in just this distinctive way? And was, say, the Council of Trent right in offering a sharp theological corrective to Luther’s manner of formulating the relationship between faith and works and between the Bible and reason?” “I realize,” Bishop Barron wrote, “that it might annoy both my Catholic and Protestant friends even to pose the issue this way, but would answering ‘yes’ to both those questions perhaps show a way forward in the ecumenical conversation?” This is what I was saying earlier when I spoke of seeing things with new eyes: Catholics looking at Luther with fresh eyes and Lutherans looking at Trent with new eyes. I think this is happening in our ecumenical dialogues.

Looking at the Reformation in general, too many histories of the Reformation are one-sided. I have learned through the years to try to understand better how my Protestant brothers and sisters look at the Reformation, rather than begin with a defensive position. In the search for a common understanding, we need to look at what happened 500 years ago with respect and affection for one another today. I think of the way Pope Francis spoke about the Reformation when he was in Lund, Sweden last October. It wasn’t very common these past 500 years for Catholics to say anything positive about the Protestant Reformation, but Pope Francis said something quite positive in the Ecumenical Prayer service at the Lutheran Cathedral in Lund. He said: “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life.” And, like Pope Benedict, he brought up Luther’s great question which he worded this way: “how can I get a propitious God?” Pope Francis said that “the question of a just relationship with God is the decisive question for our lives. As we know,” Pope Francis said, “Luther encountered that propitious God in the Good News of Jesus, incarnate, dead and risen. With the concept ‘by grace alone’, Luther reminds us that God always takes the initiative, prior to any human response, even as he seeks to awaken that response. The doctrine of justification thus expresses the essence of human existence before God.”

I think it is important for Catholics, in looking at the Reformation, to follow the lead of Popes Benedict and Francis, considering more deeply the positive elements, and not just seeking to assign blame. As I said earlier, we must honestly admit that there was blame on both sides, as the Second Vatican Council clearly stated (UR 3). The way to move forward is to see things with new eyes, trying to understand better what happened in the past, rejecting the harsh polemics of the past, and moving forward with mutual respect, trust, and charity. Unlike so many at the time of the Reformation, we must not see ourselves as adversaries and competitors, but as brothers and sisters in faith.

In the joint Catholic-Lutheran statement in Sweden last year, the Pope and the general secretary of the World Lutheran Federation, Rev. Dr. Martin Junge said: “While we are profoundly thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation, we also confess and lament before Christ that Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church. Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalized for political ends.” In my own reflections as a Catholic bishop, I must confess that when I have thought about the Reformation, it has mostly been with lament, sadness at the wounds to the Church’s unity. I have learned from Pope Benedict and from Pope Francis and the Lutheran-Catholic dialogues to be thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation, including the effective reforms brought about by the Council of Trent and eventually at the Second Vatican Council. I think many Lutherans, as a result of our dialogues, perhaps are more inclined today not just to celebrate October 31st, but also to be sorrowful on October 31st for the division in Christ’s Church as a result of the Reformation.

Just as I and other Catholics have come to look at Luther and the Reformation in a new light, so many Lutherans have come to look at the Catholic Church in the late Middle Ages and at medieval theology in a new light and not as total darkness. These are important developments. And we both, through historical research, have learned much more about the non-theological factors that influenced the events of the Reformation – political, economic, social, and cultural. We both have also become more self-critical, which is a good thing. In the past, we tended to look at the Reformation in one-sided ways that tended to be either anti-Catholic or anti-Lutheran. People often looked at the events of the Reformation with a hermeneutics that was anti-Protestant or anti-Catholic. Thanks be to God, even though we have different points of view, we are striving to find a common way of remembering these past events. We shouldn’t be afraid to look at the history through the eyes of the other. And we should have the humility to admit the mistakes and faults of our own communities 500 years ago. It is great to see how so many Lutherans and Catholics are no longer defining themselves in opposition to each other, but in communion with each other, even though that communion is not yet perfect.

We can’t change the past. History is history. But we can move forward learning from the past. Together, we reject the hatred and violence of the Reformation period. We must set aside conflict as we strive for the restoration of our full communion. It is important that we renew our commitment to theological dialogue and not give up on the hope of reunion, of one day receiving the Eucharist together. There are continuing differences in aspects of our faith as Lutherans and Catholics and also what I think are growing differences regarding some important moral issues (though not with Missouri Synod Lutherans) that are big challenges to our unity. We must persevere, with fervent prayer, to try to overcome these obstacles with the help of the Holy Spirit. Visiting a Lutheran church in Warsaw (Poland, not Indiana) in 1991, Pope John Paul II said the following: “However much we dedicate ourselves to work for unity, it always remains a gift of the Holy Spirit. We will be available to receive this gift to the extent that we open our minds and hearts to Him through the Christian life and above all through prayer.” Returning to that same Lutheran church in 2006, Pope Benedict said: “We can only obtain unity as a gift of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, our ecumenical aspirations must be steeped in prayer, in mutual forgiveness and in the holiness of life of each of us.” I end with these words, encouraging all to approach this 500th anniversary of the Reformation with this spirit. Unity among us will be a gift of God. We must pray for it and move forward with mutual trust and love for one another. Only then will the wounds of our division be healed and full communion reestablished. May God bless you!