Hovering over Rome: The Ghost of Martin Luther

Rome has found a name for a new Square in the heart of the city, an open space in the middle of a leafy garden park in a choice area near the Coliseum: Martin Luther Square.

Almost 500 years after Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg, Swabia (October 1517), and 494 years after the bull of excommunication issued by Pope Leo X (“Decet Romanum Pontificem”, January 1521), the city of Rome has honored the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, a movement premised on what Luther condemned in that very city, the headquarters of the Catholic Church.

The nameplate “Martin Luther – German Theologian (1483-1546)” is assigned to an area laden with history: nearby are Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea and the boulevard named after the Greek-Egyptian goddess Serapide. The square was officially inaugurated on Wednesday, September 16 of last year.

The decision came six years after an official request was advanced by the Union of Seventh Day Adventist Churches and the Union of the Lutheran Evangelical Churches in Italy.

While no official comment was issued by the Vatican, Lutheran circles have understandably been all abuzz. “I’m very pleased that our request has come true before the anniversary of the Reform in 2017,” said Pastor Heiner Bludau, senior pastor of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in Italy:

When we researched [in 2010] the meaning of Martin Luther’s visit to Rome … we saw that his stay was clearly a part of the history of the Reformation and therefore of the history of Europe. So to dedicate a square in Rome to the great reformer is a highly symbolic and momentous step; in the light of world history it is a step that reflects the level reached by the process of European unification. On both counts I am extremely grateful.

The news, however, barely registered on the press radar, not only because Italy is grappling with engrossing social and economic troubles, but also because the revival of the memory and cult of Martin Luther has become almost normal fare now, both in secular and ecclesiastical circles.

In secular circles it has been powered in part by Germany’s effort to unify the separate cultures which were shaped in the formerly partitioned East and West sides of the country, quietly renewing pride in a common national history so as to get over the country’s guilt complex for the World Wars and the Holocaust, so often mentioned in post-war German education.

The endeavor to get past the memories of the twentieth century, not to mention the economic morass inherited from East Germany in the 1990s, has been so successful that Germany today enjoys a hegemony over the European Union. (Germany trails only the U.S. and the U.K. on the “Elcano Global Presence Report 2015”.) This is the case not just from an economic point of view but also a renewed admiration for the country’s apparent efficiency, moral rigor and hard work.

The process can be illustrated by the success among children and families of the plastic toy Luthers recently marketed by Playmobil, which is the fastest-selling Playmobil figure in the company’s history. Related toy replicas have also been popular, including one of Wittenberg Cathedral, one of the castle of Warburg, and one of Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, the ex-Cistercian nun he married in 1525, which are sold as specially numbered collector’s items.

Gemany’s Catholic authorities also had a part in the revival and unprecedented universality of respect for the father of Protestant Christianity. In January 2015, the Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Reinhard Marx—President of the German Bishops’ Conference and coordinator of Pope Francis’s Board of Economic Advisors—summed up Martin Luther’s long march through the institutions of ecumenism in Politik & Kultur: “Now having completed fifty years of dialogue, a Catholic Christian, too, may respectfully read the texts penned by Luther and benefit from his ideas.” The same acceptance has been variously expressed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, German Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, and Fr. Hans Kung. In his 2008 publication “Night-time Conversations in Jerusalem”, written in German, Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini praised Luther as having somehow inspired the changes that came after Vatican Council II, thereby effectively recasting as the greatest of reformers he who had previously been seen as the prototypical excommunicated heretic.

Last November, Pope Francis caused a stir when, in the words of Vatican reporter Edward Pentin, he appeared “to suggest that a Lutheran wife of a Catholic husband could receive holy Communion based on the fact that she is baptized and in accordance with her conscience.” Pentin reported a month later that Pastor Jens Kruse of Rome’s Evangelical Lutheran Church “said he believes Pope Francis ‘opened the door’ to intercommunion when the Holy Father spoke to his church last month, and that his parishioners generally have the same opinion.” When asked if he interpreted the Pope’s remarks as “allowing Lutherans to receive holy Communion, leaving it up to their conscience?”, Kruse replied in the affirmative:

The Pope said that’s a question each person has to decide for himself. I think it’s typical for Pope Francis to open doors, and now we, as churches, have the duty to find ways to fill this open door with more of a life of ecumenism, of unity. The image of an open door is, I think, a very good one because we are in front of this door at this moment and now we have to find ways to go through this open door.

Following the November 2015 event, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, told Aleteia.org, “Intercommunion is not permitted between Catholics and non-Catholics. You must confess the Catholic Faith. A non-Catholic cannot receive Communion. That is very, very clear. It’s not a matter of following your conscience.” In order to receive Holy Communion, Cardinal Sarah emphasized, “I need to be in the state of grace, without sin, and have the faith of the Catholic Church. … It’s not a personal desire or a personal dialogue with Jesus that determines if I can receive Communion in the Catholic Church.”

Prior to his pontficate, Josef Cardinal Ratzinger invited the faithful to reflect “very seriously” on Luther’s message and “save the great things in his theology”. But he did so without blurring the lines that define the radical change that Luther brought about in “the relationship between the Church and the individual, between the Church and the Bible”, which to this day prevents Catholics and Protestants from sharing “the certainty that recognizes in the Church a common conscience which is greater than private intelligence and interpretations”.

On his trip to Germany, less than a year and a half before abdicating, Pope Benedict XVI stopped at Erfurt, where Luther studied theology and celebrated his first Mass. In the talk given on that occasion, Benedict dwelled on the importance attributed by Luther to the issue of sin, a particularly significant facet of Luther’s teaching in the light of the current emphasis on mercy that often seems to downplay the reality of sin and the real possibility of judgment. Benedict stated:

“How do I receive the grace of God?” The fact that this question was the driving force of his whole life never ceases to make a deep impression on me. For who is actually concerned about this today – even among Christians? What does the question of God mean in our lives? In our preaching? Most people today, even Christians, set out from the presupposition that God is not fundamentally interested in our sins and virtues. He knows that we are all mere flesh. And insofar as people believe in an afterlife and a divine judgement at all, nearly everyone presumes for all practical purposes that God is bound to be magnanimous and that ultimately he mercifully overlooks our small failings. The question no longer troubles us.

But are they really so small, our failings? Is not the world laid waste through the corruption of the great, but also of the small, who think only of their own advantage? Is it not laid waste through the power of drugs, which thrives on the one hand on greed and avarice, and on the other hand on the craving for pleasure of those who become addicted? Is the world not threatened by the growing readiness to use violence, frequently masking itself with claims to religious motivation? Could hunger and poverty so devastate parts of the world if love for God and godly love of neighbour – of his creatures, of men and women – were more alive in us? I could go on. No, evil is no small matter. 

In January, it was announced that Francis plans to travel to Sweden in October of this year “for a joint ecumenical commemoration of the start of the Reformation, together with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation and representatives of other Christian Churches.” The event will be the start of events marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation; it will also “highlight the important ecumenical developments that have taken place during the past 50 years of dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans.”

I hope, however, that the warmth to Luther’s ideas will not go even further and fashion the formerly excommunicated heretic into a hero and a saint, whitewashing history until even actual events lose all meaning. For the former Augustinian monk was as much a man of the flesh and of turbulent spirits as Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), whose sins we are in no danger of being allowed to forget.

If there is a reciprocal owning up of mistakes all around, on the part of the Protestants this might include, for example, a formal disowning of Luther’s most virulent invectives, such as the ones against the Jews, contained in Luther’s 1543 book On the Jews and Their Lies, and the ones in his “Admonition to Peace”. In the latter, with regard to “The Twelve Articles of the Christian Union of Upper Swabia” (April 1525), Luther pleaded with the German nobility to suppress all the “murderous and thieving hordes of peasants” in the following terms:

What reason be there for leniency with the peasants? If there be any innocents among them, God will know how to best defend and rescue them. If God doesn’t rescue them, then that means they are criminals. I think it’s best for God to kill farmers rather than princes and judges, as the peasants have no Divine authority on which to base their wielding of the sword. No mercy, no patience towards the peasants, only wrath and indignation, from God and from man. This moment is so exceptional that a prince can earn heaven through bloodshed. Therefore, dear gentlemen, go ahead and exterminate, slay, strangle, and may whoever has power, use it.

Ironically, it was reported that at the September 2015 event in Rome, Michael Kretschmer, representative of the Bundestag (the national Parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany), “remembered the sensitivity of the father of the Reformation for the last (of the world). ‘If he were here today, he would tell us to take care of the poor,’ he said.” Meanwhile, the mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, stated: “Today’s gesture means that Rome has to respect every religion and faith. It is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice, Einstein said. And here we have broken some prejudices.” By all means, let’s welcome the ridding of wrong prejudices, but let’s not reject a truth because some deem it a prejudice.

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About Alessandra Nucci 29 Articles
Alessandra Nucci is an Italian author and journalist.