Healing History? The Reformation 500 years on
By Fred Smith | @
On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther (supposedly) nailed 95 criticisms of the Catholic Church to the door of a Wittenburg church. His actions, alongside those of many other ‘reformers’, helped catalyse events which would ultimately splinter Catholic Christendom into a myriad of diverse, often antagonistic, sects. Fast-forward 499 years, and there are signs that the wounds of the Reformation may, finally, be healing.
Last month, Pope Francis I travelled to Sweden in order to inaugurate a year-long programme of events commemorating 500 years since the Protestant Reformation. In the cathedral city of Lund, he took part in an ecumenical prayer service alongside Bishop Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation. The Pope implored the Catholics and Lutherans in attendance to ‘mend’ history, to recognise errors on both sides of the confessional divide, and to ask forgiveness. A subsequent joint-statement expressed the two Churches’ common goal one day to celebrate communion together.
Such an announcement reflects a gradual move, over the past 20 years, towards reconciliation between Catholics and Lutherans. In 1999, for example, the Catholic and Lutheran Churches issued a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification – an issue which was once seen as an insurmountable hurdle to Christian concord. More recently, Pope Francis has adopted an approach of ‘walking ecumenism’ with Lutherans, using the many beliefs shared by the two Churches as the foundation for a continuing dialogue.
But is a reconciliation between Lutheranism and Catholicism really possible? History certainly seems to suggest otherwise. Even during the sixteenth century Reformation itself, there were individuals who foresaw, and sought to avoid, the fracturing of the faith. Perhaps the best known is Philipp Melanchthon, a German reformer involved in a number of attempts to heal the growing rift between Catholics and ‘evangelicals’ throughout the 1530s and 40s. Similar ‘conciliators’ can be found throughout Reformation Europe. In Italy a Venetian nobleman, Gasparo Contarini, sought to avoid a definitive split between Catholics and their Lutheran brethren by redefining a number of contentious doctrines – a strategy which very nearly came to fruition in the 1542 Colloquy of Regensburg. One of his followers, the English Catholic exile Reginald Pole, pleaded the case for reconciliation in front of a General Council of the Catholic Church held at Trent in 1547. Addressing Catholic delegates drawn from all corners of Catholic Christendom, he beseeched them not to assume ‘Luther said it, therefore it is false’, but instead to treat all his ideas fairly and with reason.
However, despite recent attempts by historians to demonstrate the intellectual vitality and potential of these conciliators’ ideas, the ultimate failure of their efforts is undeniable. Cardinal Pole’s pleas fell on deaf ears, the Council of Trent ultimately condemning the ideas of Luther and all his followers; Melanchthon was derided by contemporaries as a spineless and vacillating temporiser. As subsequent events came to show, these individuals were on the losing side of history.
Of course, much has changed since the time of Melanchthon and Pole. Perhaps the upcoming commemoration of the Reformation will, as the events at Lund imply, finally provide the opportunity for reconciliation within the Christian Church. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that a commemoration centred upon the figure of Luther, renowned for his pugnacious polemical attacks against his religious opponents, hardly seems the obvious occasion with which to usher in a new era of Christian concord. Indeed, we can already see age-old antagonisms re-emerging. Criticising Pope Francis’s activities in Sweden in a recent interview, Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazahkhstan, expressed his firm belief that Luther and those who follow him are, and always will be, heretics.
This is, perhaps, where historians have a role to play. The way governments and religious institutions choose to remember the Reformation over the coming year matters. If, as the Pope has advocated, it is treated as an opportunity for sober reflection on the devastation wrought by the fracturing of Christian unity, perhaps it offers the chance to consolidate recent conciliatory advances. However, if it becomes instead a celebration of Luther himself, with the German reformer once again placed on a pedestal as the man who brought the gospel to the people, then the commemorations run the risk of stirring up the same mistrust and anger which proved so divisive 500 years ago. The future of Christian concord lies in the way we choose to represent its past.
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-37827736; https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pope-francis-to-help-launch-500th-commemoration-of-protestant-reformation.
 Euan Cameron, ‘The Possibilities and Limits of Conciliation: Philipp Melanchthon and Inter-Confessional Dialogue in the Sixteenth Century’, in Howard P. Louthan (ed.), Conciliation and Confession: The Struggle for Unity in the Age of Reform (Notre Dame, 2004), pp. 73-88.
 Elisabeth G. Gleason, Gasparo Contarini: Venice, Rome and Reform (Oxford, 1993).
 Thomas F. Mayer, “Heretics be not in all things heretics’: Cardinal Pole, His Circle, and the Potential for Toleration’, in J. C. Laursen & C. J. Nederman (eds.), Beyond the Persecuting Society, pp. 107-124 (Philadelphia, 1998).
Image: By Edgar Jiménez from Porto, Portugal (Papa rock star) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Pope_Francis_among_the_people_at_St._Peter%27s_Square_-_12_May_2013.jpg