LUTHERANS & CATHOLICS HEAL 482 YEAR RIFT
Last Sunday, exactly 482 years
after Martin Luther nailed his ''95 Theses'' to a church door, touching off
the Protestant Reformation, leaders of the Lutheran World Federation and the
Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Unity signed a ''Joint
Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,'' dealing with what Pope John
Paul II called ''one of the principal arguments which set Catholics and
Lutherans against one another.''
What angered Luther, a Catholic
monk in 1517, was that the Vatican was selling indulgences, supposed
reductions of the time one would have to spend in Purgatory, in order to
raise money to build St. Peter's in Rome. A monk named Johann Tetzel told
people at the time:
As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.
Luther wrote,. Christ's ''merits
are freely available without the keys of the pope. Therefore I claim the
pope has no jurisdiction over purgatory...If the pope does have the power to
release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish
purgatory by letting everyone out?'' he asked in his 95 Theses.
''Indulgences are most pernicious
because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. Those persons
are damned who think that letters of indulgence make them certain of
salvation. God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in
the very moment when he is on the point of being saved....When a man
believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the
word of Christ through faith. He who does not have this is lost even though
he be absolved a million times by the pope.''
Luther, a teacher of theology,
posted his 95 Theses in Latin, hoping to spark debate among theologians. But
they were quickly translated into German, and with the new printing press,
spread, resonating with average Germans, especially lines like these: ''The
revenues of all Christendom are being sucked into this insatiable
basilica....We Germans cannot attend St. Peter's. Better that it
should never be built than our parochial churches should be despoiled.''
Luther's criticism did spark
Catholic reforms. The sale of indulgences stopped. But Lutherans emphasized
the ''priority of grace, without denying good works, while Catholics
emphasized the fruit of grace, good works, without denying the priority of
grace,'' as Brother Jeffrey Gros of the National Conference of Catholic
Bishops said this week.
Put that way, it seems obvious and
natural that Lutherans and Catholics could agree on that justification comes
through faith alone, but that good works are an essential sign of true
faith. However, the two great religions condemned one another for
nearly five centuries over the issue. Even after the Second Vatican
Council, it took 33 years for church scholars and hierarchy to thrash out
the agreement that was signed in Augsburg on Sunday.
Nor is assent unanimous. The 2.5
million member Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod is not part of the
agreement. Lutheran Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World
Federation, said: ''Trust and hope have increased, and we have learned that
which binds us together is stronger than what distinguishes or separates us
from one another.''
Catholic bishops acknowledged,
implicitly, that Luther was right to put the Mass into German, as Vatican II
allowed the Mass to be said in local languages. Luther also personally
translated the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into German, making
Scripture available to average people for the first time.
Another major contribution made by
Luther, who married a former nun, was to elevate the importance of marriage
to ''the highest religious order on earth.'' Catholics believed that taking
vows of chastity, as a priest, monk or nun, was spiritually superior to the
wedded life. ''About a third of adult European Christians at the time lived
in religious communities where vows of chastity were the rule,'' writes
Allan Carlson. Luther noted that some bishops and priests kept concubines, a
case for married clergy. Luther saw Genesis 1:28. ''Be fruitful and
multiply,'' as a divine ordinance. He and his wife had six children. He
opposed both contraception and abortion.
Ironically, Lutherans now
endorse both while Catholics follow Luther's pro-life lead.
For an appreciation of
Luther's extraordinary contribution, I devoured Roland Bainton's classic
biography, ''Here I Stand.'' After reading it, I can agree with Catholic
University Professor Joseph Komonchak, who says the signing of the Joint
Declaration on Justification by Catholics and Lutherans ''is one of the
great ecumenical moments of the century.''
Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.