October/November 2017 - Vol. 94
Christians praying together
Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017


Chapter 5
Called to Common Commemoration

Baptism: The basis for unity and common commemoration

219. The church is the body of Christ. As there is only one Christ, so also he has only one body. Through baptism, human beings are made members of this body.

220. The Second Vatican Council teaches that people who are baptized and believe in Christ but do not belong to the Roman Catholic church “have been justified by faith in Baptism [and] are members of Christ’s body and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” (UR 1.3).(84) Lutheran Christians say the same of their Catholic fellow Christians.

221. Since Catholics and Lutherans are bound to one another in the body of Christ as members of it, then it is true of them what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” What affects one member of the body also affects all the others. For this reason, when Lutheran Christians remember the events that led to the particular formation of their churches, they do not wish to do so without their Catholic fellow Christians. In remembering with each other the beginning of the Reformation, they are taking their baptism seriously.

222. Because they believe that they belong to the one body of Christ, Lutherans emphasize that their church did not originate with the Reformation or come into existence only 500 years ago. Rather, they are convinced that the Lutheran churches have their origin in the Pentecost event and the proclamation of the apostles. Their churches obtained their particular form, however, through the teaching and efforts of the reformers. The reformers had no desire to found a new church, and according to their own understanding, they did not do so. They wanted to reform the church, and they managed to do so within their field of influence, albeit with errors and missteps.

Preparing for commemoration

223. As members of one body, Catholics and Lutherans remember together the events of the Reformation that led to the reality that thereafter they lived in divided communities even though they still belonged to one body. That is an impossible possibility and the source of great pain. Because they belong to one body, Catholics and Lutherans struggle in the face of their division toward the full catholicity of the church. This struggle has two sides: the recognition of what is common and joins them together, and the recognition of what divides. The first is reason for gratitude and joy; the second is reason for pain and lament.

224. In 2017, when Lutheran Christians celebrate the anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, they are not thereby celebrating the division of the Western church. No one who is theologically responsible can celebrate the division of Christians from one another.

Shared joy in the gospel

225. Lutherans are thankful in their hearts for what Luther and the other reformers made accessible to them: the understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and faith in him; the insight into the mystery of the Triune God who gives Godself to us human beings out of grace and who can be received only in full trust in the divine promise; in the freedom and certainty that the gospel creates; in the love that comes from and is awakened by faith, and in the hope in life and death that faith brings with it; and in the living contact with the Holy Scripture, the catechisms, and hymns that draw faith into life. Remembrance and present commemoration will add additional reasons to be thankful to this list. This gratitude is what makes Lutheran Christians want to celebrate in 2017.

 226. Lutherans also realize that what they are thanking God for is not a gift that they can claim only for themselves. They want to share this gift with all other Christians. For this reason they invite all Christians to celebrate with them. As the previous chapter has shown, Catholics and Lutherans have so much of the faith in common that they can—and in fact should—be thankful together, especially on the day of commemoration of the Reformation.

227. This takes up an impulse that the Second Vatican Council expressed: “Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise” (UR 1.4).

Reasons to regret and lament

228. As the commemoration in 2017 brings joy and gratitude to expression, so must it also allow room for both Lutherans and Catholics to experience the pain over failures and trespasses, guilt and sin in the persons and events that are being remembered.

229. On this occasion, Lutherans will also remember the vicious and degrading statements that Martin Luther made against the Jews. They are ashamed of them and deeply deplore them. Lutherans have come to recognize with a deep sense of regret the persecution of Anabaptists by Lutheran authorities and the fact that Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon theologically supported this persecution. They deplore Luther’s violent attacks against the peasants during the Peasants’ War. The awareness of the dark sides of Luther and the Reformation has prompted a critical and self-critical attitude of Lutheran theologians towards Luther and the Wittenberg Reformation. Even though they agree in part with Luther’s criticism of the papacy, nevertheless Lutherans today reject Luther’s identification of the pope with the Antichrist.

Prayer for unity

230. Because Jesus Christ before his death prayed to the Father “that they may be one,” it is clear that a division of the body of Christ is opposed to the will of the Lord. It contradicts also the express apostolic admonition that we hear in Ephesians 4:3-6: be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” The division of the body of Christ is opposed to the will of God.

 Evaluating the past

231. When Catholics and Lutherans remember together the theological controversies and the events of the sixteenth century from this perspective, they must consider the circumstances of the sixteenth century. Lutherans and Catholics cannot be blamed for everything that transpired since some events in the sixteenth century were beyond their control. In the sixteenth century, theological convictions and power politics were frequently interwoven with one another. Many politicians often used genuine theological ideas to attain their ends, while many theologians promoted their theological judgments by political means. In this complex arena of numerous factors, it is difficult to ascribe responsibility for the effects of specific actions to individual persons and to name them as the guilty parties.

232. Sixteenth-century divisions were rooted in different understandings of the truth of the Christian faith and were particularly contentious since salvation was seen to be at stake. On both sides, persons held theological convictions that they could not abandon. One must not blame someone for following his or her conscience when it is formed by the Word of God and has reached its judgments after serious deliberation with others.

233. How theologians presented their theological convictions in the battle for public opinion is quite another matter. In the sixteenth century, Catholics and Lutherans frequently not only misunderstood but also exaggerated and caricatured their opponents in order to make them look ridiculous. They repeatedly violated the eighth commandment, which prohibits bearing false witness against one’s neighbor. Even if the opponents were sometimes intellectually fair to one another, their willingness to hear the other and to take his concerns seriously was insufficient. The controversialists wanted to refute and overcome their opponents, often deliberately exacerbating conflicts rather than seeking solutions by looking for what they held in common. Prejudices and misunderstandings played a great role in the characterization of the other side. Oppositions were constructed and handed down to the next generation. Here both sides have every reason to regret and lament the way in which they conducted their debates. Both Lutherans and Catholics bear the guilt that needs to be openly confessed in the remembrance of the events of 500 years ago.

Catholic confession of sins against unity

234. Already in his message to the imperial diet in Nuremberg on 25 November 1522, Pope Hadrian VI complained of abuses and trespasses, sins and errors insofar as church authorities had committed them. Much later, during the last century, Pope Paul VI, in his opening speech at the second session of the Second Vatican Council, asked pardon from God and the divided “brethren” of the East. This gesture of the pope found expression in the Council itself, above all in the Decree on Ecumenism85 and in the Declaration on Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Acetate).(86)

235. In a Lenten sermon, “Day of Pardon,” Pope John Paul II similarly acknowledged guilt and offered prayers for forgiveness as part of the observance of the 2000 Holy Year.(87) He was the first not simply to repeat the regret of his predecessors Paul VI and the council fathers regarding the painful memories, but actually to do something about it. He also related the request for forgiveness to the office of bishop of Rome. In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, he alludes to his visit to the World Council of Churches in Geneva on 12 June 1984, admitting, “the Catholic conviction that in the ministry of the bishop of Rome she has preserved in fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition and faith of the Fathers, the visible sign and guarantor of unity constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians, whose memory is marked by certain painful recollections.” He then added, “As far as we are responsible for these, I join with my predecessor Paul VI in asking forgiveness.”(88)

Lutheran confession of sins against unity

236. At its fifth Assembly in Evian in 1970, the Lutheran World Federation declared in response to a deeply moving presentation by Jan Cardinal Willebrands “that we as Lutheran Christians and congregations [are] prepared to acknowledge that the judgment of the Reformers upon the Roman Catholic Church and its theology was not entirely free of polemical distortions, which in part have been perpetuated to the present day. We are truly sorry for the offense and misunderstanding which these polemic elements have caused our Roman Catholic brethren. We remember with gratitude the statement of Pope Paul VI to the Second Vatican Council in which he communicates his plea for forgiveness for any offense caused by the Roman Catholic Church. As we together with all Christians pray for forgiveness in the prayer our Lord has taught us, let us strive for clear, honest, and charitable language in all our conversations.” (89)

237. Lutherans also confessed their wrongdoings with respect to other Christian traditions. At its eleventh Assembly in Stuttgart in 2010, the Lutheran World Federation declared that Lutherans “are filled with a deep sense of regret and pain over the persecution of Anabaptists by Lutheran authorities and especially over the fact that Lutheran reformers theologically supported this persecution. Thus, the Lutheran World Federation… wishes to express publicly its deep regret and sorrow. Trusting in God who in Jesus Christ was reconciling the world to himself, we ask for forgiveness—from God and from our Mennonite sisters and brothers—for the harm that our forbears in the sixteenth century committed to Anabaptists, for forgetting or ignoring this persecution in the intervening centuries, and for all inappropriate, misleading and hurtful portraits of Anabaptists and Mennonites made by Lutheran authors, in both popular and scholarly forms, to the present day.”(90)

See next > Five Ecumenical Imperatives

Full text of  the report, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, can be downloaded from the following links:

Links to Articles on Reformation Spirituality and 500th Anniversary

From the February / March 2017 Issue of Living Bulwark:

An Introduction to the Age of the Reformation, by Timothy George
Roots that Refresh: The Vitality of Reformation Spirituality, by Alister McGrath
Reading Scripture with the Early Reformers
Your Word is Truth: Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together

From the April / May 2017 Issue of Living Bulwark:

A Spiritual Orientation to 500th Reformation Anniversary, by Raniero Cantalemessa
Justification: A Summary of Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and Joint Agreement
Faith is not Opposed to Love: A Clarification on “By Faith Alone” by Benedict XVI
 Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Joint Statement on the Gift of Salvation

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