2017 has seen Pope Francis visit Sweden to mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation. He both traced the positive aspects to Martin Luther’s religious thought and personality, praising him as a great Reformer, as well as warning Catholics of the present day of the dangers five centuries ago that contributed to the split, and that threaten the peace and future reconciliation in the present time: worldliness, corruption, greed, lust for power in the Church rather than the Church’s life of grace, the simplicity of “faith alone” in the power of God, and absolute hope and trust in the love of Christ for sinners, his forgiveness and our redemption.
Since all these virtues can be recognised in the lives of spiritual Catholics we know, and saints we venerate, and all the vices likewise penetrate all sides of humanity’s condition in the world, not just one Church or another, the large unanswered question is: why was it necessary to divide the Church in order to pursue the good and drive out the bad? What conviction, what principle is so inviolable that it stands above the Church’s unity in faith?
Advocates of the benefits of the Reformation have in recent years said that the breach was the result of a misunderstanding. At our events ten years ago to commemorate the martyrs on both sides, seeing that they were faithful unto death and paradoxically reached union with Christ in His sacrifice as they indicated the concrete possibility of our reconciliation in the world, one Anglican speaker remarked that Thomas Bilney, the first to lose his life under Henry VIII for Reformation ideas -and a heroic figure to the Protestants who came after him - would not have turned a hair at Vatican II, with his suggestions of reading the Bible in Church in English and the correction of abuses in spiritual matters (for unimpeachably Catholic reasons). Recently, the Catholic journalist Peter Stanford wrote a book that imagines how Martin Luther would have looked to us if he had emerged today. The case he proposes is that the perspective of today’s Catholic Church would have been able to address his concerns and embrace him through dialogue within the Church, welcome the spiritual renewal Luther wanted, correct Church governance and sponsor other good developments in the Church’s life. It would also re-balance his more extreme views, without disruption to communion. What if? Vatican II indeed called for the People of God to discover the Scriptures for themselves, expanding the amount read in the Liturgy, and permitting their proclamation in the vernacular. Under Pope St John Paul an agreement was reached between Catholics and Lutherans (since assented to by Methodists and Anglicans) on our justification by faith: that it is on account of the gift from God of faith in Christ that we are made righteous, not by good works - these are the essential fruits of faith and righteousness, for goodness in thought, word and deed are indispensable if our faith is real, thorough-going and authentic. The future Pope Benedict oversaw this agreement to overcome the great argument that stirred the Reformation movement; he later turned on a group of Protestant theologians from Germany and said, “If you had been truly Lutheran, we would have been one by now.”
Yet Luther went further than the desire for spiritual renewal, reform to governance, and better participation of the people in worship and sacrament to their daily conversion. He re-cast the Eucharist so that it appeared the same way as before, but concealed the loss of the Roman Canon (which was never heard by the people), and so removed the Eucharistic sacrifice and the core purpose of priesthood. There is an echo in England among Catholic recusants who still say, “Protestants think that our forebears died for the Pope; we know they died for the Mass.” Luther rejected not only the activities of the papacy of its day, but the need for a universal pastor cementing, ensuring and providing for the Church’s unity altogether. He envisaged the universal Church on earth to be an association of local churches, differently reformed and reshaped with a united confession of faith, rather than as a visible, organic whole. Yet his common confession could not be agreed. Identifying Catholic bishops as temporal lords, he viewed the episcopate as not essential for apostolic succession, but merely beneficial for pastoral organisation and the better preaching of the Gospel. He also found that, because his Reformation movement relied on protection and nurture from princes who used it to flex their independent muscles from the authority of the Catholic Emperor, he needed to back Philip of Hesse, and emboldened him to marry again, even though his wife yet lived. The Reformers Bucer and Melanchthon concurred. The assault on the bond of matrimony was famously emulated in England by Cranmer and directly led to the martyrdoms of the Carthusians and Thomas More.
To summarise: even if there were great misunderstandings on points of belief and the interpretation of the Scriptures, there was a deliberate intention to alter the fundamental faith and order of the one Church across time and place; and this translated into practice and thus into division with pain and suffering on all sides.
It is sad to reflect that this division could have been avoided because reformation was already a vital movement of spiritual renewal within the Catholic Church. The popular Devotio Moderna, the Imitation of Christ, the piety concerning the passion of Christ and His redemption, the reform of the Carmelite Order with St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, the emergence of St Ignatius Loyala and the Society of Jesus all bear witness. They rest on earlier renewal movements in the Church which are still potent to this day as well: the Franciscan and Dominican preaching friars. And it is often claimed in English history perspective that the Reformation took hold here to correct corruption and abuse, and recover the Church’s pristine purity. Yet those who were at the forefront of pastoral, spiritual, and theological renewal in the life and mission of English Church people in the1530s, well aware of the breach that had arisen in Germany and now the Low Countries and France, were the Carthusians, the Brigettines and the Franciscans who were among the first to lose their lives under Henry VIII. He shut down a Catholic renewal because a reinvigorated Church, articulate with its own Catholic mind, could challenge dependency on royal power and policy. When the Carthusians in London met in chapter to weigh the consequences of their decision to oppose Henry’s marriage outside the law of Christ, the account describes what can only be described as a charismatic renewal as the Holy Spirit came upon them. They knew they faced their deaths. One wonders what might have happened to England and its Church had the renewal been allowed to proceed. Eamon Duffy, in his book Fires of Faith, describes how, under Henry’s daughter, Mary I, England becomes the laboratory for implementing the reforms emerging from the Council of Trent. The lessons of the Protestant Reformation had been observed, and here was to be a proper reform in continuity with the common faith of the Church, clarified, freshly re-proclaimed, with integrity. No turning the clock back, but a fully Catholic reformation of the Church, its preaching and teaching, the celebration of the sacraments and the presentation above all of the Mass. But the rupture had already happened, and with Mary’s death her popular movement died too.
The instinct against rupture and recovering a lost continuity within the one Church of Christ – one flock under one shepherd – was what caused the League’s founders to draw attention to the scandal and violence of schism and its consequences: in England, two provinces of the Latin Church were detached, and every evangelistic, sacramental and pastoral effort was needed to repair the breach. This was not only to reveal once more the essential unity of the Body of Christ in the world, but also to give a convincing account of the hope the lies within us. The gospel of reconciliation in Christ is hardly compelling when Christians themselves are unreconciled. Yet it looks more and more difficult to imagine how the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church, nowadays with more pronounced differences on faith and order, can find the path of reunion. But we now call that “instinct against rupture” ecumenism, and we press on, because this is integral to Catholicity.
Thus Lund in Sweden was chosen for the meeting between the Pope and the leaders of the Lutheran and other reformation Churches for two reasons. First, it was in 1952 at Lund that the Faith & Order Conference of the World Council of Churches adopted the principle that Churches should act together in all matters, except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately. Subsequently, the Catholic Church has supported this at the local level and with the encouragement of the successors of Peter. Secondly, Sweden is a country in which Catholics faced civil restrictions on work and freedom of religion into the 1970s; so it is a country where rapprochement and reconciliation – the dialogue of love – has been hard won in very recent memory. It encourages us not to dwell on the failures of the past that we have been formed by, or to believe that the cause of Christian unity has become futile. Still less does it permit us to become further estranged from other Christians, seeing that the events of so long ago seem to explain why we still walk on divergent pathways. Instead, as Swedish Lutherans and Catholics found, the Spirit continues to come upon us, and surprise us with his power to bring us closer in Christ. The great Metropolitan Kallistos Ware often says that unity when it comes can only be achieved by a miracle; but that does not mean we are to be passive – ours is the task is to take down what barriers we can, because these are usually ones that we have erected. The miracle will come when we have faithfully done this good work by God’s grace.
So, marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation is a time to face honestly what happened, to thank God for any good and saving gift that emerged, to lament the divisions and the harm they have visited upon the Church and the world, but above all to love and long for the unity of Christ’s people, “that they may be one”, as indivisibly as the Father and the Son are one. As Catholics, our instinct is not to add to division and polarisation, but always to work for healing and reconciliation. MW