THIS MONTH sees the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. At the end of October 1517 the German Augustinian monk and professor Martin Luther published his Ninety Five Theses (allegedly also nailing them to the door of a church in Wittenberg) which began his attack on the doctrines and practices of Catholic Christianity. The most notorious thing he attacked – the sale of indulgences to help pay for (amongst other things) the building of St Peter’s basilica in Rome – was indeed an abuse of Catholic teaching, and the practice of taking money for indulgences (or indeed any other ministrations of the Church) was later condemned by the Church. But Luther moved quickly to challenge the whole of the Church’s authority and the practice of the sacraments, and was excommunicated in 1520 by the Medici Pope Leo X.
Our picture shows Leo’s successor, Pope Francis, greeting world Lutheran leaders a year ago in Sweden to join in the beginning of a year of celebrations marking the anniversary of Luther’s action. The Holy Father, predictably, has been criticised by some Catholics (many of whom criticise him whenever they can) for doing this, claiming that he undermines Catholic teaching which still differs from that of Luther and his followers. It is true, of course, that, particularly for those of us who are converts, there will be a feeling that when we became Catholics we perhaps consciously moved away from churches and beliefs which we no longer held were true towards the Catholic Church, which we believe professes the fullness of Christian truth. It is difficult for Catholics to take a positive view of the Reformation which so divided Christianity in Europe – for this country it was a 16th century ‘Brexit’, motivated by the same forces. Sheer loss of life alone in Europe as a result of wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries would make one doubt that it was all God’s will. The sufferings of Catholics in Britain and Ireland have certainly given us strength, which is why the persecutions of penal times are important for us to remember, but we should not forget that by the second half of the 18th century, the time of Bishop Richard Challoner, the Catholic community numerically was in steep decline, a process only reversed by immigration.
But our uneasiness about the Reformation is also the reason why what the Holy Father did was so important. We are uneasy because we believe that it is God’s will for his people that ‘they should be one’, in the words Jesus uses at the Last Supper. Since the Second Vatican Council just over fifty years ago, the Catholic Church has renewed its understanding of how the divisions among Christians should be repaired and part of this process is a changed atmosphere of respect and love, a willingness to learn about other Christians, and an acceptance that the Church needs to acknowledge its sinfulness and failings in relation to other Christians.
St John Paul II explicitly and publicly asked God’s forgiveness for the sins Catholics had committed in history against other Christians. Catholics who refuse to accept this, looking down on other Christians and criticising the Holy Father, are not loyal to the Church.
But that’s not all. The Church is also committed to theological dialogue with other Christians to try and overcome doctrinal differences. We may well know that this has been going on with Anglicans since the late 1960s (the work of ‘ARCIC’) but worldwide dialogue with the World Lutheran Federation has also been important, and in 1999 this bore fruit in a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (click to read) which showed that Catholics and Lutherans were not as far apart as had been supposed.
In his homily at the celebrations in Sweden the Holy Father acknowledged some of the good which emerged from what Luther did:
‘Jesus reminds us: “Apart from me, you can do nothing”. He is the one who sustains us and spurs us on to find ways to make our unity ever more visible. Certainly, our separation has been an immense source of suffering and misunderstanding, yet it has also led us to recognize honestly that without him we can do nothing; in this way it has enabled us to understand better some aspects of our faith. With gratitude we acknowledge the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the Church’s life. Through shared hearing of the word of God in the Scriptures, important steps forward have been taken in the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation… Let us ask the Lord that his word may keep us united, for it is a source of nourishment and life; without its inspiration we can do nothing.’
Let the pope’s words inspire us as we pray for the unity of Christians and for our Protestant brothers and sisters at this time.