After Five Centuries of Division, Catholics and Lutherans Consider Their Common Heritage

A new joint document has been released in advance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Belgian artist Ferdinand Pauwels' depiction of Martin Luther nailing his 'Ninety-Five Theses' to the door of a church in Wittemburg on Oct. 31, 1517.
Belgian artist Ferdinand Pauwels' depiction of Martin Luther nailing his 'Ninety-Five Theses' to the door of a church in Wittemburg on Oct. 31, 1517. (photo: Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON — Although Martin Luther likely simply sent his Ninety-Five Theses — his harsh critique of contemporary Catholicism — to the local archbishop instead of dramatically nailing them to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, the event is commonly regarded as marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

A new document, “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017,” has been released to pave the way for joint observances of Luther’s action by both Lutherans and Catholics, a development that certainly could not have been foreseen in previous centuries.

Signed by Catholic Bishop Karlheinz Diez, auxiliary bishop of Fulda, Germany, acting on behalf of the Catholic co-chairman of the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, and Lutheran co-chairman Bishop Eero Huovinen, the bishop emeritus of Helsinki, Finland, “From Conflict to Communion” is the latest fruit of the dialogue between Lutheran and Catholic scholars that has been taking place since shortly after the Second Vatican Council, which put a new emphasis on ecumenism. The report was released in June.

Since the report was signed, Bishop William Kenney, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Birmingham, England, has been appointed to lead the Catholic side of the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity. The commission is meeting this month in Japan to take up the matter of “baptism and growing church communion.”

“From Conflict to Communion” does not gloss over the tragic nature of the 16th-century division of Christianity. “The fact that the struggle for this truth in the 16th century led to the loss of unity in Western Christendom belongs to the dark pages of church history,” it states. “In 2017, we must confess openly that we have been guilty before Christ of damaging the unity of the church.”

The document takes note of new scholarship and presents Martin Luther as a man whose “struggle with God drove and defined his whole life. The question, ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ plagued him constantly.”

The document notes that this will be the first observance of the anniversary of the Reformation in the ecumenical age and also the first in the age of globalization. Thus, the authors of the document state, commemorations must take into consideration the concerns of Christians from all over the world.


Commemoration, Not Celebration

“From Conflict to Communion” makes it clear that the tone of these commemorations should be sober and appropriate rather than celebratory.

“You’ll note that it never uses the word 'celebrate.' That’s intentional. We can engage in repentance and give thanks in certain ways and commemorate together, but the text avoids the word 'celebrate.' And that’s intentional,” said Michael Root, a professor at The Catholic University of America, who specializes in ecumenical theology and eschatology.

Root has a compelling perspective on Catholic-Lutheran dialogue: In 2009, he was appointed a Lutheran scholar on the international commission that produced “From Conflict to Communion,” but, in 2010, he became a Catholic. He is now a Catholic scholar on the national-level dialogue conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Root hailed “From Conflict to Communion” as “an important step that shows the commitment of both the Lutheran Church and the Catholic Church at the international level to making the 500th anniversary of the Reformation an ecumenically positive event.”

Catholic-Lutheran commemorations of the Reformation would have been unthinkable in earlier times. “We can now tell the story of the Reformation in a way both sides will recognize as accurate,” Root said. “If you look at the celebrations in 1917, 1817 and 1717, they were anti-ecumenical events, with Lutherans often celebrating it as light after darkness.”

Root noted that the inscription on the famous Reformation monument in Geneva, a hub of for Protestant theologians, is “Post Tenebras Lux” (Light After Darkness).

“This is an attempt to make the 500th anniversary of the Reformation a positive event. And the beginning of that is that we tell the story in a way that both sides recognize as true. That is why most of the text is taken up with telling the story.”  


Lutheran Perspective

Rev. Lowell Almen, a former secretary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who has also participated in the USCCB Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, struck a similarly sober tone.

“In regard to the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation of the 16th century,” Almen said, “I have some folks speak of ‘celebrating’ that anniversary. That is the wrong verb. Division in the church should never be seen as cause for celebration.”

“We may observe that anniversary and commemorate the insights that emerged from the historic development. Under the guidance of God’s Spirit in the life of the whole church, we can pray that we may learn from the insights of that period but also hope for healing of memories of division and hostility,” said Almen.

“Crucial for understanding the current state of dialogue in the U.S. and internationally,” Almen continued, “is the historic official reception into the lives of our churches of the 'Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.' That document was signed by representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation on Oct. 31, 1999. It represents the official reception in the lives of our churches of the fruit of dialogue on that particular contended doctrine in the 16th century and beyond.”

Almen emphasized, “I hope that pastors and other leaders throughout the congregations and parishes of our churches will discover the document, ‘From Conflict to Communion.’ I also hope that they will use it for study and discussion ecumenically as we look toward constructive reflection leading to various observances in 2017.”


Msgr. Swetland

Msgr. Stuart Swetland, vice president for Catholic identity at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., also praised “From Conflict to Communion.”

“It’s an amazing document — perhaps 'amazing' is too sensational a term, but it’s a substantial document that deserves close study and reflection,” said Msgr. Swetland, who grew up in a Lutheran family and became a Catholic while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in England. “This idea that we are going to do a common commemoration of the Reformation is, I think, a huge step towards Christian unity.”

“I find the document to be both historically accurate in trying to explain what happened, but also very positive in the areas where we can move forward and very honest about the areas where we have a lot more work to do,” said Msgr. Swetland. “There is a sobriety to this document and a humility to this document, but there’s also a recognition of the progress we’ve made and a deepening understanding of the mysteries of faith over the years.”

Among the theological issues that remain most difficult for Lutherans and Catholics in dialogue, according to scholars interviewed for this story, are the nature of the church and leadership and authority in the church. The 1999 “Joint Declaration on Justification” is regarded as a landmark in ecumenical dialogue. Justification — or salvation — is generally seen as being at the heart of the dispute between Rome and Luther, but the "Declaration" identified some common ground in this contentious and contested theological point.


Contemporary Problems

While Catholic and Lutheran scholars are talking together about the 16th-century questions that split Christianity, it appears that new 21st-century matters are making things more difficult.

“We’ve had people put sand in the spokes in the bicycle” is how Jesuit Father Jared Wicks, prominent in the USCCB’s Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, puts it. Father Wicks was referring to issues of sexual morality, including homosexuality.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a dialogue partner in USCCB ecumenical discussions and belongs to the Lutheran World Federation, which represents the Lutheran side in international dialogue with the Catholic Church. The ELCA in 2009 voted to open its ministry to homosexuals in monogamous relationships.

“It is going to be harder and harder for the Roman Catholic Church to find appropriate Lutheran dialogue partners,” said Lutheran scholar Robert Benne, Jordan Trexler professor emeritus and research associate at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.  Benne belongs to the more traditional North American Lutheran Church (NALC), which was established in 2010.

Msgr. Swetland said that these issues have not yet been part of the dialogue.

“As a moral theologian,” he said, “I’d say that the document is not talking that much about morality. It deals with systematic theology, both doctrinal and sacramental.” But he suggested that, when these issues are finally addressed, the discussions will “flow” from systemic theology.


Would Luther Approve?

An interesting question might be whether Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk who started the Reformation, would approve of “From Contention to Communion.”

That would depend, said Michael Root, on when it was shown to Luther. The Luther of 1517 might have seen it as proof that his work had led to reform of the Catholic Church, but the later Luther, who was excommunicated in 1521 and embittered by events, might have seen it in a quite different light.

“I think Luther would be delighted by ‘From Conflict to Communion,’” Root said. “If at a crucial early moment Luther could have been shown this text, then the Reformation might have taken a different direction, one that might not have divided Western Christendom. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since 1517, and new issues have been arisen, but that we have come this far is an encouragement to keep the discussion going.”

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.