Question to the Pope: Seeing that you will go in I believe four months to Lund for the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation, I think perhaps this is also the right moment for us not only to remember the wounds on both sides but also to recognize the gifts of the reformation. Perhaps also – this is a heretical question – perhaps to annul or withdraw the excommunication of Martin Luther or of some sort of rehabilitation. Thank you.
Pope Francis: I think that the intentions of Martin
Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were
not correct. But in that time, if we read the story of the Pastor, a
German Lutheran who then converted when he saw reality – he became
Catholic – in that time, the Church was not exactly a model to imitate.
There was corruption in the Church, there was worldliness, attachment to
money, to power...and this he protested. Then he was intelligent and
took some steps forward justifying, and because he did this. And today
Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of
justification. On this point, which is very important, he did not err.
He made a medicine for the Church, but then this medicine consolidated
into a state of things, into a state of a discipline, into a way of
believing, into a way of doing, into a liturgical way and he wasn’t
alone; there was Zwingli, there was Calvin, each one of them different,
and behind them were who? Principals! We must put ourselves in the story
of that time. It’s a story that’s not easy to understand, not easy.
Then things went forward, and today the dialogue is very good. That
document of justification I think is one of the richest ecumenical
documents in the world, one in most agreement. But there are divisions,
and these also depend on the Churches. In Buenos Aires there were two
Lutheran churches, and one thought in one way and the other...even in
the same Lutheran church there was no unity; but they respected each
other, they loved each other, and the difference is perhaps what hurt
all of us so badly and today we seek to take up the path of encountering
each other after 500 years. I think that we have to pray together,
pray. Prayer is important for this. Second, to work together for the
poor, for the persecuted, for many people, for refugees, for the many
who suffer; to work together and pray together and the theologians who
study together try...but this is a long path, very long. One time
jokingly I said: I know when full unity will happen. - “when?” - “the
day after the Son of Man comes,” because we don’t know...the Holy Spirit
will give the grace, but in the meantime, praying, loving each other
and working together. Above all for the poor, for the people who suffer
and for peace and many things...against the exploitation of people and
many things in which they are jointly working together.
As with any off the cuff remarks from Pope Francis, there is some good, some bad, some confusion, and some outright mistakes. I have read some blogs from conservative Roman Catholics who took the remarks as an affront against what they consider to be the open and unacceptable errors of Lutheranism. I have also read comments from Lutherans who stuck out their chests and insisted they did not need the Pope to tell them about justification or to get their Lutheran house united and in order.
That said, I think there are some hopeful words in the Pope's pastoral meanderings (?!). On the one hand it is clear from Luther himself and from the Lutheran Confessions that the Reformation was begun with precisely the goal of reforming the Church, recalling the Church from error to the truth of Scripture and the consistent catholic doctrine of the fathers. No matter that this was the intention, the events did not pan out this way. Luther's theological heirs only reluctantly set up parallel church structures for the sake of the people who were not being served and a communion that resisted even the discussion of reformation. It is also clear that the many who claimed kinship with Luther and the Sixteenth Century Reformation in Germany were not kissing cousins but opponents and opposites -- rejecting the liturgy, the sacraments, and all the church usages and ceremonies the Lutheran's affirmed. That they went where Lutherans refused to go and ended up chastising Luther and his cohorts for failing to go far enough, only underscores the distinction between the Conservative Reformation and the Radical Reformation.
But to blame Luther for those who rejected catholic doctrine and practice is to miss the reason for the Reformation in the first place. To quote Pope Francis: There was corruption in the Church, there was worldliness, attachment to
money, to power... This is the reason why schism took place and this is the only lens by which the Reformation may be legitimately understood. The backdrop of it all was not Luther's rebellious attitude or willful rejection of truth but the errors, worldliness, greed, and jealous concern for temporal power that provided the catalyst for the foment that gave birth to the Reformation. Here Francis is spot on.
Now with respect to the grand ecumenical consensus on justification between Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, and all points in between, I only wish it were so. The JDDJ document does allow a great amount of wiggle room (as do most ecumenical declarations) and does not do justice to the nuance and difference that can shade the meaning of it all to a great degree. I am happy for the conversation but it is clear the talking has a long way to go before Francis' declaration of unanimity is true.
No, we do not need the Pope to tell us Lutherans we are a mess, but it is kind of him to be concerned for us. We should not take any comfort from the fact that most theological houses are a mess (even and especially Rome's) but neither should we let this mess prevent us from dialoging for the truth of the Gospel, for the primacy of the Word, and for the cause of genuine and authentic unity.
Catholicity and Biblical faithfulness are not some mountains to be climbed but fights that must be fought with vigilance and diligence to turn away heresy, clarify confusion, witness to the world, and catechize the faithful. We are always but a generation away from losing the faith either to error or to indifference. Only by remembering, reaffirming, and reforming the Church through the means of grace (Word and Sacrament) can we be sure that gates of hell will not prevail. Until the day when Jesus does come again in His glory, the gates of hell will come very close to us and must be fought off without fail or Jesus will not find faith on earth.