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“Luther: 500 years later” at the Vatican

April 29, 2017

The Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences organized at the Vatican from March 29 to 31, 2017, an international colloquium on the topic: “Luther: 500 years later. A reinterpretation of the Lutheran Reformation in its historical ecclesial context.”

With Catholic and Protestant researchers attending, “it is about arriving at a reinterpretation of the Lutheran Reformation by putting it back into its historical and ecclesial context,” said Father Bernard Ardura, President of the Pontifical Committee. “For centuries, Luther was perceived as the Devil incarnate because he had broken communion [with Rome].” Today this colloquium is not saying that Luther acted rightly, he continued, but rather it is trying to understand the reasons for this rupture. “Luther initially intended a reform from within; he did not want to cause a schism,” Fr. Ardura declared. Luther’s rebellion originated in a spiritual journey, but also in a psychological element that was manifested in some “pride,” he confided to the news agency I.Media.

This colloquium therefore intended “to study the conditions in which the Lutheran rupture occurred” by examining “the political circumstances—in particular the tensions between the German princes and the Emperor—or economic conditions—such as the consequences of the secularization of the ecclesiastical lands.” The Report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, entitled From Conflict to Communion (June 17, 2013), already maintained that “medievalist research has contributed much to changing our perception of the past in many ways.” We know that “current descriptions of the Reformation also take into account a large number of political, economic, social and cultural factors that are non-theological.”

Pope Francis Approves of the Colloquium

The participants in this colloquium were received at a papal audience on March 31, 2017. Pope Francis, saluting this “praiseworthy initiative of the Committee”, stressed that “not long ago a meeting like this would have been unthinkable,” and concluded that these are “the results of the working of the Holy Spirit.” He declared: “An attentive and rigorous study, free of prejudice and polemics, enables the churches discern ...all that was positive and legitimate in the Reformation.” This allows Protestants and Catholics today, the Pope maintains, “to engage in a purification of memory” so as “to tell that history differently.”

Opposing Points of View

On that occasion Nicolas Senèze cited in the daily newspaper La Croix a contrary view excerpted from an article by Archbishop Luigi Negri, Archbishop Emeritus of Ferrara-Comacchio, which appeared in the Italian journal Studi cattolici 673 (March 2017):

We cannot, contrary to the decisions of the Council of Trent and the best tradition in historiography—and not just that of the Church—affirm that Luther was a reformer. Luther was the source of all the degradations of modernity, including rationalism, including fideism, but above all including the major totalitarian ideologies that have impoverished the life of the West.”

“Did Luther found a new religion? Did he modify the traditional concept that people had of relations between man and God? We must answer unhesitatingly: yes,” Msgr. Léon Cristiani (1879-1971) wrote in his book Du luthéranisme au protestantisme [Editor's note: From Lutheranism to Protestantism, there is no English edition of Msgr. Cristiani’s book], which was recently reprinted by Parthenon. In his conclusion he shows the close connection between Lutheran “private judgment” and the multiplication of Protestant sects:

He [Luther] was doomed to collide with this Church that regards itself as the infallible depositary of revealed truth. Hence he superimposed a doctrine about the Church on his doctrine about justification. He no longer acknowledged it as a teaching authority, a living Magisterium, the immortal apostle of Christ, but rather as an invisible assembly of souls directly enlightened by the Holy Spirit.

“Unfortunately, an invisible Church could not possibly form a social body. Luther very quickly learned at his own expense that religious unity cannot be established around an abstract doctrine, any more than it can around a dead book. Left to themselves in front of the Bible, other minds hastened to read in it something quite different from what Luther had read in it. Hence there were doctrinal divisions, internal quarrels among the first Lutherans. Private judgment had the effects of a centrifugal force. It proved to be a principle of scattering and of discord” (p. 604).

Sources: / imedia / vatican / la croix / parthenon – April 28, 2017