It was Oct. 31, 1517 when Augustinian Friar Martin Luther allegedly posted the 95 statements/theses which he wanted to debate with anyone interested in serious and rigorous theological discussion. Church doors in the famous medieval German university town of Augsburg seemed as good a place as any to extend the invitation and initiate the conversation.
There were indeed serious abuses in the church of his day, as well as initiatives for substantial Catholic reform in every country in Europe.
In Rome, the majestic structure of the great St. Peter’s Basilica was slowly rising from its foundations, but at the cost of more than mere silver and gold. No one could ever have dreamed in those days of the tragic consequences of Luther’s initial challenge which eventually divided Europe and changed the history of the Christian Catholic Church … producing over 400 years of bitter hostility which ripped the fabric of the Body of Christ in ways no one could ever have imagined … and in ways no one ever wanted, at least not at the beginning.
Stinging mutual condemnations slowly became the rhetoric of the day … and of the centuries which followed.
Slightly over a year from now, namely on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017, Catholics and Lutherans throughout the entire Christian world will pause to acknowledge the 500th anniversary of Friar Martin Luther’s historic challenge. The terrible rending of the church at that time is hardly something one should “celebrate.”
It might be commemorated with sadness and suitable penance on all sides, even after all these years, but not “celebrated.”
At the same time, the Reformation initiated by Friar Martin brought new life and spiritual vitality to countless people in German lands and beyond. The renewed joy of the Gospel’s grace and peace can be celebrated with gratitude wherever and whenever it occurs. A half millennium of renewed Christian life has been a genuine gift from God.
Slowly over the past century the original theological issues have been carefully restudied. The deep desire of St. Pope John XXIII for renewed unity among our churches had offered public notice of God’s subtle grace for reconciliation, and since the early 1960s official national and international delegations have repeatedly convened to ponder the questions.
With cooler minds, less passion, careful theological precision and gradual renewal within the Lutheran and the Catholic communities, it became clear the diverse language used in each of the faith traditions did not — and should not — in fact necessarily signal church-dividing convictions.
Again and again the dialogue participants on both sides of the table slowly said, “Well, if that’s what you mean by those words, we believe that too!”
On Oct. 31, 1999 officials of the Holy See representing St. Pope John Paul II together with official delegates from the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva met in Augsburg and finally signed the historic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. While some finer points of theological debate remained, the fundamental questions had been scrutinized and declared non-church dividing.
I was privileged to serve as the U.S. national Catholic co-chair for the 11th official round of that dialogue (2005-2010). After giving the issues yet another scrutiny, the official delegates from the two churches, namely the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (plus active participants from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod), published the results of our study under the title of The Hope of Eternal Life (2011).
All the ancient neuralgic questions were again examined, namely death, judgment, purgation after death, indulgences and prayers for the dead. We concluded that, although our technical languages may differ, we Catholics and Lutherans have truly shared the same basic faith as received from the Lord and the Gospel he preached. The teachings of the Apostle Paul in these matters have in fact been welcomed, treasured and preserved in both traditions.
As our two churches move closer to next year’s October target date for the anniversary, we are all called again to be attentive to the fundamental questions of human sin, God’s grace and the gift of justification.
Knowing the history of the questions and our common efforts toward full and final reconciliation will enable us to truly celebrate the reunion, partial though it may still be, which we have achieved by God’s grace.
There are some new extraordinarily helpful resources for that effort. For clergy and lay leadership alike, in particular I recommend the following two resources:
From Conflict to Communion. Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 (Leipzig: Bonifatius Press, 2013) 93 pages. This doctrinal summary and historical overview comes with a separate Study Guide of 40 pages prepared by a committee of people representing the Catholic Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Greensburg, the Byzantine Catholic Archexarchy of Pittsburgh and the Southeast Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
This Guide could be most useful for contemporary groups of Catholics and Lutherans seeking to understand the questions anew and join prayerful efforts toward full reunion.
* Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2015) 122 pages. This small volume offers a brief recap of the achievements of the past 50 years of international and regional Lutheran/Catholic dialogues.
Over the centuries each church has made its own contribution to our human understanding of the great mystery of salvation in Christ. Nothing of that double heritage should be lost or lightly cast aside in the interest of false ecumenism. Thoughtful study can be a great blessing.
Above all, however, we need to pray humbly and ardently for the gift of full and final reconciliation of our churches. We recite the same creed each Sunday in our churches and congregations. As St. Pope John XXIII insisted, “The things that unite us are greater than those which divide us.”