There’s no question that the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue matters greatly to Pope Benedict XVI.
In discussions of Fides et Ratio, he extended the invitation to Protestants to read the works of “the Catholic Luther” — his works written prior to the Reformation, which he himself claimed to have read in their entirety prior to entering university.
John Allen Jr. tells the tale of how reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans in the form of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was realized through the intervention of an unlikely source: the head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (“Ratzinger credited with saving Lutheran pact” National Catholic Reporter 9/10/99).
On September 23, Pope Benedict addressed representatives of the Protestant EKD (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland), a federation of 22 Lutheran, Unified and Reformed Protestant regional church bodies in Germany, headed by Council Chair Nikolaus Schneider. The encounter took place in the former Augustinian Convent in Erfurt, which was once the home of Martin Luther.
According to Zenit, the deliberately ecumenical dimension to the Pope’s visit to Germany was in anticipation of an upcoming Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Reformation, in view of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.
The rumor of the Church’s “rehabilitation of Martin Luther” was first instigated by the British journalist Richard Owen in 2008, on news that Luther would be the topic of the Pope’s annual theological seminar (“Ratzinger Schülerkreis”) at Castel Gandolfo. Predictably, the Pope’s visit to the Lutheran congregation in 2011 reinvigorated Lutheran hopes — Kartrin Gorin-Eckardt, President of the Lutheran synod, asserted that “the reappraisal had already taken place” because the Pope has actually spoken about “the entire trajectory” of Luther’s life (Is the Catholic Church moving to rehabilitate Martin Luther?” “Vatican Insider” La Stampa 9/23/11).
However, As David Jones observes, the more logical conclusion is that the Pope’s primary objective is not a “Catholic rehabilitation of Martin Luther” (to which there are substantial theological obstacles, as we will see)
but rather to identify avenues of religious and cultural solidarity — as he does with the Islamic community — against the greater threat of secularism.
A published interview with Ratzinger, ‘Luther and the Unity of the Churches’ (Communio Vol. 11, 1984) provides helpful background reading for those seeking insight into the Holy Father’s ecumenical intentions as well as his comprehension of Martin Luther himself. He remarks on current trends in “Catholic Luther scholarship”, the move towards a “historically truthful and theologically adequate image of Luther” and the question of Luther’s excommunication. He rightly points out that, while “Luther’s excommunication terminated with his death because judgement after his death is reserved for God alone”, the rehabilitation of Luther — the question of whether or not Luther’s proposed teachings separate the churches — is an entirely different matter:
To be sure, one must keep in mind that there exist not only Catholic anathemas against Luther’s teachings but also Luther’s own definitive rejections of Catholic articles of faith which culminate in Luther’s verdict that we will remain eternally separate. … After his final break with the Church, Luther not only categorically rejected the papacy but he also deemed the Catholic teachings about the eucharist (mass) as idolatry because he interpreted the mass as a relapse into the Law, and, thus, a denial of the Gospel. To explain all these contradictions as misunderstandings seems to me like a form of rationalistic arrogance which cannot do any justice to the impassioned struggle of those men as well as the importance of the realities in question. The real issue can only lie in how far we are today to go beyond the positions of those days and how we can arrive at insights that will overcome the past.
It must be said that Ratzinger himself is skeptical — or realistic — about attempts to bridge the theological gulf (“the skillfull approach leading to unity as suggested by H. Fries and K. Rahner in their theses remains an artificial exploit of theological acrobatics which, unfortunately, does not live up to reality”).
Ratzinger is “convinced that the question of final union of all Christians remains unanswerable” (reminding us that this is also tied into the question of the unification of Israel). Nonetheless, he does broach the question of concrete ecumenical goals in the here and now. There’s a lot to unpack here but I found it to be a helpful window into what he is doing in his pontificate:
The actual goal of all ecumenical endeavors must naturally be to convert the plurality of the separate denominational churches into the plurality of local churches which, in reality, form one church espite their many and varied characteristics. However, it seems to me that in a given situation it will be necessary to establish realistic intermediate goals; for, otherwise, ecumenical enthusiasm could turn into resignation or, worse, revert to a new embitterment that would place the blam for the breakdown of the great goal on the others. Thus the final days would be worse than the first. These intermediate goals will be different depending on how far individual dialogues would have progressed. The testimony of love (charitable, social works) always ought to be given together, or at least in tune with each other whenever separate organizations appear to be more effective for technical reasons. One should equally try to witness together to the great moral questions of our time. And, finally, a joint fundamental testimony of faith ought to be given before a world which is torn by doubts and shaken by fears. The broader the testimony the better. However, if this can only be done on a relatively small scale, one ought to state the possible jointly. All this would have to lead to a point where the common features of Christian living are recognized and loved desite the separations, where separation serves no longer as a reason for the contradiction, but rather as a challenge to an inner understanding and acceptance of the othew hich will amount to more than mere tolerance: a belonging together in the loyalty and faithfulness which we show for Jesus Christ. Perhaps it will be possible for such an attitude to develop which does not lose sight of final things but, meanwhile, does the closest thing by undergoing a deeper maturity toward total unity, rather than making a frantic scramble for unity which will remain superficial and at times rather ficticious.
Now, there is the question of the Holy Father’s personal understanding of Martin Luther, and what the world (and perhaps we as Catholics) might learn from him today. In Pages 218-220 of his interview, Ratzinger presents his understanding of Luther and the key question which compelled him:
It seems to me that the basic feature is the fear of God by which Luther’s very existence was struck down, torn between God’s calling and the realization of his own sinfulness, so much so that God apears to him sub contrario, as the opposite of Himself, i.e., as the Devil who wants to destroy man. To break free of this fear of God becomes the real issues of redemtpion. Redemption is realized the moment faith appears as the rescue from the demands of self-justification, that is, as a personal certainty of salvation. This “axis” of the concept of faith is explained very clearly in Luther’s Little Catechism: “I believe that God created me. . . . I believe that Jesus Chris . . . is my Lord who saved me . . . in order that I may be His . . . and serve him forever in justice and innocence forever.” Faith assures, above all, the certainty of one’s salvation. The personal certainty of redemption becomes the center of Luther’s ideas. Without it, there would be no salvation.
Ratzinger explains how Luther’s understanding thus alters the traditional theological Catholic perspective – the refashioning of the theological landscape:
Thus, the importance of the three divine virtues, faith, hope, and love, to a Christian formula of existence undergoes a signficant change: the certainties of hope and faith, though hitherto essentially different, become identical. To the Catholic, the certainty of faith refers to that which God worked and which the church witnesses. The certainty of hope refers to the salvation of individuals and, among them, of one’s self. Yet to Luther the latter represented the crux without which nothing else really mattered. That is why love, which lies at the center of the Catholic faith, is dropped from the concept of faith, all the way to the polemic formulations of the large commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galations: maledicta sit caritas, down with love! Luther’s insistence on “by faith alone” clearly and exactly excludes love from the question of salvation. Love belongs to a realm of “works” and thus becomes “profane.”
Ratzinger revisits Luther’s spiritual dilemma in his Address to the Evangelical Church of Germany on September 23, 2011 (Former Augustinian Convent, Erfurt). As the Holy Father points out, circumstances have changed dramatically in our day and age. Whereas Luther was preoccupied with the question of his own sinfulness, his guilt before God, and the certainty of his own redemption through Christ — humanity in this age — secularized, deChristianized — is by and large ambivalent about such matters:
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?” [better translated, according to David Schütz, as Luther’s search for a gracious 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.
“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us. But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. Were we truly to place God at the centre of our lives, it could not be so powerful. The question: what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God? – 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, this is the first summons we should attend to in our encounter with Martin Luther.
- “No Small Matter”: Fr. Schall on what the Pope said in Germany, by Fr. James V. Schall. Ignatius Insight October 26, 2011
- Properly translating the Pope on Luther, by David Schütz. (Sentire Cum Ecclesia)
- The Pope, Martin Luther, and Our Time, by Mark Brumley. Catholic World Report September 25, 2011.