The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation: A Year of Unparalleled Opportunity

by Thomas Ryan, CSP

In his new book on Martin Luther: An Ecumenical Perspective, Cardinal Walter Kasper notes that our ideas about Martin Luther have undergone transformations in a number of ways over the past 500 years. Historically, for Catholics, Luther was the church father of Protestantism, the heretic to blame for the division of the Western Church.

But in the 20th century, Catholic scholars made a notable shift in their research on Luther. They recognized his genuine religious concerns and came to a more balanced judgment with regard to his responsibility for dividing the church. Even recent popes have adopted this new perspective.

Luther’s concern was the gospel of the glory of God’s grace. While he was a reform-minded person, it was not his intention to become the founder of a separate Reform church. His goal was the renewal of the Catholic Church from the perspective of the gospel.

A Complex and Conflicted Era

The 14th and 15th centuries, the period known as the Late Middle Ages, was a period marked by major crises which led to radical changes in all areas of society: Demographic collapse due to a series of famines and plagues. Popular revolts leading to civil wars within countries as well as international conflicts between countries such as France and England in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). And religious upheavals with three church leaders simultaneously claiming to be the true pope (the Western Schism 1378-1417).

Reform was needed. The Church held great political power in addition to ecclesiastical power. The pope was also a king (of the papal state). The bishops were also princes and secular rulers. It was a financial boom to become a bishop because it brought with it lots of land and money. And princes were allowed to elect the emperor. Church and State functioned in a symbiotic relationship. So it’s not surprising that in the view of contemporary scholars, the Reformation period was marked by a complex series of interdependent religious, social, and political movements. And Luther’s call for reform was not heard by pope or bishops. He was answered with polemic and condemnation. 

His posting in 1517 of the 95 theses titled “Disputation on the Efficacy and Power of Indulgences” was intended as an invitation to an academic discussion. But it never happened. And today, notes Cardinal Kasper, “Rome bears its fill of complicity in the fact that a church-dividing Reformation developed out of the reform of the church.” 

Seeing One Another in a New Light

Common historical studies now enable us to recognize Luther as a teacher of the gospel. Many aspects of Catholic life now find better expression because the Second Vatican Council responded at last to many of Luther’s appeals for reforms. Examples: The priority of grace over works. The centrality of Scripture. An ecclesiology based on the Church as the people of God. The priesthood of the faithful. A vernacular liturgy. Communion under both species. A renewed emphasis on preaching. An active participation of the laity in worship (hymnody). An understanding of ministry as service. The principle of religious freedom. Need of continual reform in the Church.

And as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification co-signed in 1999 by officials of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation indicates, there is now a consensus on a truth central to Christian faith: “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” (par. 15).

The Joint Declaration was a decisive step forward in overcoming division within the Church. The experience of speaking the truth of the gospel together is helping us to see one another in a new light. The last fifty years of dialogue enable us to see history anew and to heal our common memory. We share the same DNA.

A New Era of Unparalleled Opportunity

In the Fall of 2016, the North American Academy of Ecumenists met at the Candler School of Theology in Georgia under the theme of “Commemorating the Reformation: Churches Looking Together Toward 2017 and Beyond”. One of the speakers, Dr. Catherine Clifford, a Catholic theologian from St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, Ontario, noted that this anniversary is an unparalleled opportunity to enter into the process of healing and reconciliation. It’s an occasion that can have profound implications for our future together if we approach it in the right spirit.

“We welcome the opportunity,” said Dr. Clifford, “to comemorate, to remember together. Each act of remembering together is an anamnesis—an act of remembering together what we share in Christ."

“We need to make ‘new memories’ together,” she said. “This anniversary is an occasion to receive the fruits of our dialogue—fruits of the last 50 years together. To see our relationships with one another in a new light. To discern the presence and action of God’s Spirit in each other’s communities. The healing of memories is an essential and necessary step on the way to full and mutual recognition.”

Dr. Clifford reflected how, in hindsight, memories run deep. They shape our defining narratives. The temptation is to see the differences on both sides as irreconcilable. Catholics and Lutherans not only misunderstood but misrepresented the “other” to make each other look bad. Oppositions were constructed and handed down to the next generation.

We need to hand down, said Clifford, a new narrative to future generations of Lutherans and Catholics. 50 years of dialogue have enabled us to come to a more honest and objective view of the events of the Reformation. To better appreciate the richness of one another’s traditions and insights, and to discover profound agreement on the basic truths of the gospel.

“This must extend to every Christian in our communities,” said Dr. Clifford. “We must move once and for all beyond the conflictual dynamics of the Reformation era. For the first time we will commemorate the anniversary of the Reformation together. By making these new memories together we’re making a commonly held geneology. The Holy Spirit is able to banish from us the painful memories of separation."

The time has come for a purification and healing of memories, and for the restoration of Christian unity in accord with the gospel.

April 27, 2017

Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Boston, MA.