The Pope, Martin Luther, and Our Time

“Martin Luther” is not a popular figure in most Catholic circles. Understandably so. Most Catholics who think about Luther at all, hold him responsible for the dividing of Christendom and the problem of ongoing Christian disunity. What’s more, the pesky Fundamentalist missionary at the door, who attacks the Catholic Church as the“whore of Babylon”, is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a direct spiritual descendant of the former German Augustinian monk.

But now here comes Pope Benedict XVI, a fellow German, visiting his homeland and speaking to German Evangelical Christians, i.e. Lutherans, as we call them here. The Holy Father seems comfortable talking about Luther with Lutherans, even talking with obvious regard and sympathy for Luther. Shocking?

Not to those who have followed the nuances of Catholic teaching on non-Catholic Christians as it has developed, especially as expressed in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and in papal teaching since then. Not to those who are dissatisfied with a spiritual cold war among western Christians or who don’t need to refight the battles of the 16th century in order confidently and placidly to affirm their Catholic faith. And not to those familiar with Benedict XVI, theologian and pastor.

What stands out about Pope Benedict’s comments is how nonchalantly he talks positively about Luther, without betraying the slightest hint of a compromise regarding the fundamental issues dividing Catholics and Protestants. Someone might think, “Well, Pope Benedict knows this is not the 16th century. He knows that we should not treat Protestants today as if they were the original Protestants who broke with the Catholic Church.”

True enough. But Luther was the original Protestant. Pope Benedict shows how a Catholic can have a certain sympathetic reading of Luther, notwithstanding the same Catholic’s rejection of Luther’s repudiation of the Catholic Church. In this way, a Catholic can see what is most important when it comes to assessing Luther—not denying the problems with him but also not overlooking what Luther got right or demonizing him.

This is quintessential Benedict XVI. And it is, in fact, quintessential Vatican II, which represents on this matter a line of theological development that required a deep, Spirit-guided re-reading of the Church’s tradition and a penetrating and balanced assessment of the situation of divided Christianity following the emergence of Protestantism in the 16th century. Such a re-reading and assessment was willing to let go of polemics and to pursue a purification of mind and heart. (Two helpful works in this regard are Christopher Dawson’s The Dividing of Christendom and Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism.)

In his address Benedict makes a number of key points regarding Luther. First, there is Luther’s “burning question”, as Benedict puts it: “what is God’s position towards me, where do I stand before God?” This remains the central question of life today, even though many people don’t realize it.

Second, there is Luther’s Christ-centered spirituality. For Luther, “This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ – who is both true God and true man,” explains Pope Benedict. According to Luther, Christ is the interpretative center of the Bible, notes Benedict, which presupposes “that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.”

Benedict clearly thinks on both of these points Luther is right and that calling attention to this fact is important for all Christians today. Of course the fact that, in this particular address, Pope Benedict doesn’t critique Luther on other points hardly amounts to an endorsement of Luther’s overall approach to Christianity, anymore than the fact that German’s Lutheran leadership invited the German Pope to address them means they are ready to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Having made his points, Benedict turns to the wider question of ecumenical relations in the present moment. In this he gives a model for ecumenical cooperation without theological compromise.

When it comes to ecumenism, the most important point for Benedict is that we keep in view our common ground as Christians: “It was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common in terms of the great deposit of sacred Scripture and the early Christian creeds. For me, the great ecumenical step forward of recent decades is that we have become aware of all this common ground, that we acknowledge it as we pray and sing together, as we make our joint commitment to the Christian ethos in our dealings with the world, as we bear common witness to the God of Jesus Christ in this world as our inalienable, shared foundation.”

He goes on to make two additional points. The first concerns the spread of new forms of Christianity—with little mainstream denominational or institutional affiliation. Here the Pope probably refers to certain kinds of fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christianity. These challenge Catholic Christianity but also established Protestant denominations. Benedict thinks the rise of this new form of Christianity requires traditional Christians to ask “what is this new form of Christianity saying to us, for better and for worse?” “In any event,” he concludes, “it raises afresh the question about what has enduring validity and what can or must be changed – the question of our fundamental faith choice.”

The second point concerns Christianity in the secular world. Pope Benedict challenges Catholics and Protestants alike not to “water down” the faith as they carry out the necessary task of presenting and living Christianity in the way suited to the present age. Here faith is the key—a theme, no doubt, intended to stir an audience of pastors who affirm “justification by faith alone”, though Pope Benedict certainly does not endorse that expression in his exhortation to faith.

“As the martyrs of the Nazi era brought us together and prompted that great initial ecumenical opening,” Benedict concludes, “so today, faith that is lived from deep within amid a secularized world is the most powerful ecumenical force that brings us together, guiding us towards unity in the one Lord. And we pray to him, asking that we may learn to live the faith anew, and that in this way we may then become one.”

For those who think themselves more Catholic than the Pope, Benedict’s approach to Luther and to ecumenical action in general may displease. But for the rest of us, it was inspiring to see a German pope, addressing a group of German Lutherans and, without compromise to Catholicism, quoting Martin Luther. If full Christian unity in the west is ever to be restored this side of the Eschaton, it surely will come along the path trod by Pope Benedict: not watering down our specifically Catholic commitments but likewise not backtracking our steps in order to rejoin the road of recrimination and Christian apartheid.

Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.

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About Mark Brumley 66 Articles
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.