Healing History? The Reformation 500 years on

By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.


[1]  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-37827736; https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/pope-francis-to-help-launch-500th-commemoration-of-protestant-reformation.
[2] http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/10/28/499587801/pope-francis-reaches-out-to-honor-the-man-who-splintered-christianity?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=2054
[3] 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.
[4] Elisabeth G. Gleason, Gasparo Contarini: Venice, Rome and Reform (Oxford, 1993).
[5] 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).
[6] http://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/bishop-schneider-reiterates-church-teaching

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

1 thought on “Healing History? The Reformation 500 years on

  1. In 2008, following the selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope John Paul II’s replacement, rumours started to circulate on the Internet that the (then) new Pope was contemplating lifting the excommunication from the Catholic Church of none other than Martin Luther. Luther’s break with Rome, nearly five hundred years ago – as every schoolchild used to know – has historically been viewed as the start point of the Reformation, symbolised by his theses nailed to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.

    In fact it is not within the powers of even a Pope to lift an excommunication order on anyone who is not actually alive. According to the Catholic Church, for the dead, God is deemed to have judged that person for better or for worse already. However, the rumour was certainly more than mere tittle-tattle and had been taken by The Times daily newspaper in London which suggested that an announcement on the matter might be due that autumn. Furthermore, Ratzinger was no stranger to the issue, having held strong opinions on Luther for decades and being considered an expert on the relationship between the Reformed Churches and Catholicism. As far back as 1984 he had been interviewed by the International Catholic Review, Communio , on the matter. In fact in that article Ratzinger had already put the speculators straight on the matter. He had outlined ‘recent’ (i.e. twentieth century) scholarship from both the Catholic and Protestant side and he dealt with the issue of Luther’s excommunication as follows: ‘Luther’s excommunication does not have to be lifted; it has long ceased to exist.’

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