RELIGION

Embracing Luther’s Catholicism

Susan Riley November 21 1983
RELIGION

Embracing Luther’s Catholicism

Susan Riley November 21 1983

Embracing Luther’s Catholicism

RELIGION

Susan Riley

When Lutherans across Canada joined in special prayer services, banquets and festivals last week, they celebrated more than the 500th anniversary of the birth of their founder. They were also acknowledging a historic rapprochement. From pulpits in Saskatoon, Winnipeg and Toronto they heard Roman Catholic priests praise Martin Luther—the man who dealt the first and most severe blow to Catholic political and religious supremacy. Other celebrations took place in major Lutheran communities across Canada and elsewhere, and in tiny Wynyard, Sask. (population 2,300), Rev. Keith Heiberg of St. Mary’s Catholic Church invited the entire 80-member congregation of the neighboring Grace Lutheran church to dinner. Said Heiberg: “There has been too much ignorance for too long. This is a chance to draw our communities together.”

In Canada the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue is less advanced than in the United States, where there are proportionately more Lutherans. Besides, Canada’s 310,000 Lutherans, the country’s third-largest Protestant denomination, remain divided among themselves into three major groups and several smaller ones. Still, since the Second

Vatican Council, held from 1962 to 1965, which belatedly introduced many of the reforms that Luther had agitated for almost five centuries before, Catholic theologians in Canada and elsewhere have come to see Luther not as a heretic but as a “father in the faith.” They point out that Luther never left the Catholic Church—instead, he tried to reform it. Said Rev. Daniel Donovan, a Catholic theologian at St. Michael’s College in Toronto: “Luther made a call to an authentic Catholic tradition, against a corrupted Catholic tradition.” Added Luther scholar Rev. Oscar Sommerfeld, executive director of communications for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada in Saskatoon: “Luther would have been in the stands applauding at Vatican II.”

The high point in the revisionist view of Luther will take place on Sunday, Dec. 11, when Pope John Paul II joins in an ecumenical service in a Lutheran church in Rome—the first time he has participated in a Protestant service in his own diocese. It is unlikely that the Vatican will ever embrace all of Luther’s teachings, particularly his scathing denunciations of papal authority. But John Paul has referred to Luther recently as a “reformer,” a radical departure from the traditional Catholic notion that portrayed him, in Dono-

van’s words, “as an immoral person.”

Luther earned Rome’s enmity in 1517 when, as a devout and intelligent young theology professor and Augustinian friar in Wittenberg, Germany, he protested the widespread practice of issuing pardons for sins—a system known as “indulgences.” At the time, unscrupulous clergy who needed money to secure their own political power convinced large numbers of people literally to buy their way to salvation. Luther expressed his disgust at the practice and at other clerical excesses in his famous 95 theses, which his supporters circulated widely throughout Europe. His criticisms led directly to the Protestant Reformation and the first major split in Western Christianity. The church and the German state responded by sentencing Luther to death, but a friendly nobleman intervened, sheltered him and kept him alive for another 25 years until he died at 63. During that time he married a former nun, fathered six children and wrote ceaselessly, particularly on the evils of the papacy. Luther was a spiritual revolutionary but he was also politically conservative. He was appalled when the peasants, whom he had inspired, attempted a bloody revolt.

Still, few scholars now dispute his genius. He remains one of the towering

figures of Christian intellectual history. So prodigious and uneven was his output that over the centuries many different political movements have claimed him for their own. Liberal academics in 19th-century Europe considered him to be a father of free thought, despite his authoritarian bent. Later, during Bismarck’s era in the 19th century, he became a nationalistic figure, and in the 20th century the Nazis appropriated him, citing his anti-Semitic works as divine justification for their own racial hatred. All of those characterizations contain some truth, but none is complete. As Luther himself wrote, “They try to make me a fixed star, but I am an irregular planet.”

To the modern mind the most odious aspect of his personality is his antiSemitism. In a 1543 work, On the Jews and Their Lies, he advocated the destruction of synagogues, Jewish homes and schools and the confiscation of Jewish prayer books. Those views are a matter of deep embarrassment to most Lutherans now, and church authorities in Europe and North America have repudiated them. “It is one of the most unfortunate things he ever did,” said Roger Nostbakken, professor of theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon.

On the positive side, Luther’s theory of “justification by faith” still commands respect. It is a key element of Protestant belief, and an international Lutheran-Catholic commission endorsed it in 1980. The doctrine rejects the widespread belief of Luther’s time that a person could earn salvation through good works and instead states that faith alone is necessary for salvation. Last month a Catholic-Lutheran commission in Milwaukee, Wis., affirmed Luther’s view (with careful hedging by the Catholics) and, as a result, removed a major barrier to union.

As the rediscovery of Luther continues in the jubilee year, yet another image is forming—one that emphasizes his adherence to Catholicism. Said Sommerfeld: “He is not so much the founder of a denomination as of a movement within the Christian church.” In fact, Catholic and Lutheran services are now almost becoming indistinguishable. The new Catholic mass, with its use of English, communion of bread and wine and more democratic format, is almost undiluted Lutheranism. Still, important differences remain, notably over the papacy and priestly celibacy.

But the next generation of Catholics and Lutherans will probably be taught to regard Luther as a unifying force rather than a divisive one. That is a transformation that the venerable Augustinian’s reputation will no doubt survive as easily as it has all the others.